Friday 24 November 2023

Triumph of the Free Will

I'm not stupid, but I've definitely worked in places where I was not the smartest person in the room. In the early 90s, I was contributing to the birth of bioinformatics in Trinity College Dublin. Our lab acquired a final year project student who, on the side, used to devise crossword puzzles for the magazine his aunt edited and played contract bridge for Ireland. In contrast to me, in the same department 15 years earlier, he secured a First.  He went to America for his PhD and was peer-reviewed top-listed for one of the five first multi-million Big Biotech grants after the 2000AD foundation of Science Foundation Ireland SFI. That quango cravenly refused to cough up and start his proposal because he was too young. The country is lucky he's not now making waves at Stanford or Yale but is indeed back in TCD cutting edges at the interface of neuro and genetics.

Who dat? It's Kevin Mitchell, assoc prof of [neuro]genetics at TCD. We've met him before. In addition to teaching and research and raising a family, Kevin has also made time [like Luther he can do no other] to write books for Princeton UP. Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are (2018) and this year Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will (2023). I was at the launch of the most recent book [what's not to like when free canapés meet with free travel?] and shelled out a pony to bring a copy home. Pony? That's Buridan's Ass [L] unable to choose between two equally delectable choices.

Can't afford €25? Free Agents is in many Libraries. Can't make the time? Nigel Warburton hosts another debate about free will. 'Is Free Will An Illusion?', joined by psychologist Susan Blackmore and Kevin Mitchell -only 40 mins. Blackmore has acquired interesting baggage on the nature of reality by practicing Zen for 40 years as well as being a skeptic and free-thinker.

Free Agents reads easy, although the middle chapters have a lot of '$10 words' [like salient, instantiate, reify] not always with an appropriate gloss for those who missed out on a very expensive education. Each chapter is split into bite-sized chunks with a helpful contents label. Chapter 4 Life Gets Complicated, for example: The Energy Barrier - E pluribus unum - Big Hungry Beasts - La Familia - Coordinating Movement with Electricity - Neurons - Hail Hydra! - As the Worm Turns - Summary. As you see, a mix of informative with whimsical and assuming that everyone clocks the cultural references . . . and knows the rudiments of Latin. Thus p.75: "Like the Borg in Star Trek, these individuals get assimilated into a collective. It's not just that resistance is futile: it's pointless".  I've only a sketchy idea of what/who/where/when are the Borg [Χ]; resistance is futile is lifted from h2g2 [✓] but I doubt if pointless is referencing Richard Osman's gameshow [Χ]. Comms Fail w.r.t. to me = 2/3, so!

I hope it's a conscious, freely-chosen hat-tip to Robert Heinlein when Mitchell outlines the huge range of things a primate could do after breakfast. It could climb a tree, search for grubs, scratch itself, groom another monkey, look for a mate, go to sleep, bang some rocks together, jump up and down, poke itself in the eye, urinate, start a fight, wave its arms around, stick a pebbles up its nose, eat some dirt, screech . . . and not a lot different from a Man from the West as imagined by O'Grady and Pyke.

I have a lot of respeck for Kevin Mitchell. His book is an attempt to defuse the hot button topic of Free Will by dissing the  black and white  thinking and entrenchments which are normal in the field. Robert Sapolsky [bloboprev] is the latest big hitter to book-bat for No Free Will. Harris Hegel Hobbes and Hume have all had a go, and that's just the Hs! It takes confidence to go public in such august company.

Of course we all have baggage:

  • they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad
  • all of us have taken a tonk to the head at some stage
  • we were [not] bullied in school
  • we've had a couple of pints
  • or an argument at work.

Whatever life throws up [bloooargh!] we still get out of bed most mornings and make decisions. Some of those decisions are on autopilot: involving only a tad of conscious thought; but others are life changing for us or those around us. For Mitchell [and for me as I fire my fan-boy knickers on stage] choice, agency, decisions, Will are on a continuum of constraint: some lock-and-loaded by our autonomic nervous system; some almost a dice-throw; some the product of deep thought and rationalization. That this accords with our humble not-an-intellectual lived experience doesn't make it less true . . . whatever nifty neuro-psychological experiments may tell us.

It doesn't help that there has been A Lot of recent side-eye towards iconic experiments which purported to expose how the human mind thinks. Too many:

  • studies with fatuously small samples;
  • W.E.I.R.D. volunteer participants;
  • crappy stats;
  • shameful nod-through referees (this comes from Harvard: must be sound) of papers;
  • wishful thinking;
  • outright fudged data-sets

Mitchell and Sapolsky have their stalls compared on the pages of "Yes, We Have Free Will. No, We Absolutely Do Not". Here they biff it out toe-to-toe split-screen on Philosophical Trials.  I've bought Sapolsky's book - it seemed to demand parity of esteem with Mitchell's - which comes to the opposite conclusion about Free Will. I really don't think I have the energy to read it anytime soon. Although I got a lot out of his last book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Here's the thing, we all feel that we have free-will, we behave as if we do, our legal system and society itself are predicated on it. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and doesn't sink in water . . . then it's a duck we have free will. Clever Free Will is Bunk people are retreating from this common sense, common knowledge; redefining free-will, separating it from agency, and dickering about several incommensurate versions of determinism as they circle their waggons of certainty. Me, I'm 300 pages down on Free Will and right now frankly Scarlett about the whole debate. I'm outside that intellectual waggon corral, dancing with bison and freeeeeee.

For all you biological determinists out there, remember there is, even at this moment, a butterfly in Haiti stamping its foot saying "I refute it thus"!

Q? why oh why do we need to know that John "Inequalities"  Bell [no relation!] was born in Belfast and not be given parity of birth insight to John Nash, John von Neumann, Jean "Ass" Buridan or Hans Jonas?
A! because none of the other Johns wear the green jersey. By flag-wagging the sole Irish contributor to the book's bibliography, Ireland's collective deep thinking capacity is rather diminished than bigged up.

Lynn "Endosymbiosis" Sagan shd not be "née Margulis", she was née Alexander. Carl Sagan was her first husband, Thomas Margulis her second. Ask me how I know.

No comments:

Post a Comment