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Scientific American

Free Won’t

published August 2012 | comments (32)
Volition as self-control exerts veto power over impulses
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AT A RESTAURANT RECENTLY I faced many temptations: a heavy stout beer, a buttery escargot appetizer, a marbled steak, cheesecake. The neural networks in my brain that have evolved to produce the emotion of hunger for sweet and fatty foods, which in our ancestral environment were both rare and sustaining, were firing away to get me to make those selections. In competition were signals from other neural networks that have evolved to make me care about my future health, in particular how I view my body image for status among males and appeal to females and how sluggish I feel after a rich meal and the amount of exercise I will need to counter it. In the end, I ordered a light beer, salmon and a salad with vinaigrette dressing and split a mildly rich chocolate cake with my companion.

Was I free to make these choices? According to neuroscientist Sam Harris in his luminous new book Free Will (Free Press, 2012), I was not. “Free will is an illusion,” Harris writes. “Our wills are simply not of our own making.” Every step in the causal chain above is fully determined by forces and conditions not of my choosing, from my evolved taste preferences to my learned social status concerns—causal pathways laid down by my ancestors and parents, culture and society, peer groups and friends, mentors and teachers, and historical contingencies going all the way back to my birth and before. (continue reading…)

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Aunt Millie’s Mind

published July 2012 | comments (14)
The death of the brain means subjective experiences
are neurochemistry
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“WHERE IS THE EXPERIENCE OF RED IN YOUR BRAIN?” The question was put to me by Deepak Chopra at his Sages and Scientists Symposium in Carlsbad, Calif., on March 3. A posse of presenters argued that the lack of a complete theory by neuroscientists regarding how neural activity translates into conscious experiences (such as “redness”) means that a physicalist approach is inadequate or wrong. “The idea that subjective experience is a result of electrochemical activity remains a hypothesis,” Chop ra elaborated in an e-mail. “It is as much of a speculation as the idea that consciousness is fundamental and that it causes brain activity and creates the properties and objects of the material world.” “Where is Aunt Millie’s mind when her brain dies of Alzheimer’s?” I countered to Chopra. “Aunt Millie was an impermanent pattern of behavior of the universe and returned to the potential she emerged from,” Chopra rejoined. “In the philosophic framework of Eastern traditions, ego identity is an illusion and the goal of enlightenment is to transcend to a more universal non local, nonmaterial identity.” (continue reading…)

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The Science of Righteousness

published June 2012 | comments (13)
Evolution helps to explain why parties
are so tribal and politics so divisive
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Which of these two narratives most closely matches your political perspective?

Once upon a time people lived in societies that were unequal and oppressive, where the rich got richer and the poor got exploited. Chattel slavery, child labor, economic inequality, racism, sexism and discriminations of all types abounded until the liberal tradition of fairness, justice, care and equality brought about a free and fair society. And now conservatives want to turn back the clock in the name of greed and God.

Once upon a time people lived in societies that embraced values and tradition, where people took personal responsibility, worked hard, enjoyed the fruits of their labor and through charity helped those in need. Marriage, family, faith, honor, loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority and the rule of law brought about a free and fair society. But then liberals came along and destroyed everything in the name of “progress” and utopian social engineering.

Although we may quibble over the details, political science research shows that the great majority of people fall on a left-right spectrum with these two grand narratives as bookends. And the story we tell about ourselves reflects the ancient tradition of “once upon a time things were bad, and now they’re good thanks to our party” or “once upon a time things were good, but now they’re bad thanks to the other party.” So consistent are we in our beliefs that if you hew to the first narrative, I predict you read the New York Times, listen to progressive talk radio, watch CNN, are pro-choice and anti-gun, adhere to separation of church and state, are in favor of universal health care, and vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich. If you lean toward the second narrative, I predict you read the Wall Street Journal, listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, are pro-life and anti–gun control, believe America is a Christian nation that should not ban religious expressions in the public sphere, are against universal health care, and vote against measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich. (continue reading…)

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Much Ado about Nothing

published May 2012 | comments (14)
Science closes in on why there is something
instead of nothing
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WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? This is one of those profound questions that is easy to ask but difficult to answer. For millennia humans simply said, “God did it”: a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence out of nothing. But this just begs the question of what created God—and if God does not need a creator, logic dictates that neither does the universe. Science deals with natural (not supernatural) causes and, as such, has several ways of exploring where the “something” came from.

Multiple universes. There are many multiverse hypotheses predicted from mathematics and physics that show how our universe may have been born from another universe. For example, our universe may be just one of many bubble universes with varying laws of nature. Those universes with laws similar to ours will produce stars, some of which collapse into black holes and singularities that give birth to new universes—in a manner similar to the singularity that physicists believe gave rise to the big bang.

M-theory. In his and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking embraces “M-theory” (an extension of string theory that includes 11 dimensions) as “the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite—and this has yet to be proved—it will be a model of a universe that creates itself.” (continue reading…)

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Climbing Mount Immortality

published April 2012 | comments (19)
How awareness of our mortality
may be a major driver of civilization
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IMAGINE YOURSELF DEAD. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case, you are still conscious and observing the scene. In reality, you can no more envision what it is like to be dead than you can visualize yourself before you were born. Death is cognitively nonexistent, and yet we know it is real because every one of the 100 billion people who lived before us is gone. As Christopher Hitchens told an audience I was in shortly before his death, “I’m dying, but so are all of you.” Reality check.

In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (Crown, 2012), British philosopher and Financial Times essayist Stephen Cave calls this the Mortality Paradox. “Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible,” Cave suggests. We see it all around us, and yet “it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.”

The attempt to resolve the paradox has led to four immortality narratives:

  1. Staying alive: “Like all living systems, we strive to avoid death. The dream of doing so forever—physically, in this world—is the most basic of immortality narratives.”
  2. Resurrection: “The belief that, although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life.”
  3. Soul: The “dream of surviving as some kind of spiritual entity.”
  4. Legacy: “More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future” such as glory, reputation, historical impact or children.

All four fail to deliver everlasting life. Science is nowhere near reengineering the body to stay alive beyond 120 years. Both religious and scientific forms of resurrecting your body succumb to the Transformation Problem (how could you be reassembled just as you were and yet this time be invulnerable to disease and death?) and the Duplication Problem (how would duplicates be different from twins?). “Even if DigiGod made a perfect copy of you at the end of time,” Case conjectures, “it would be exactly that: a copy, an entirely new person who just happened to have the same memories and beliefs as you.” The soul hypothesis has been slain by neuroscience showing that the mind (consciousness, memory and personality patterns representing “you”) cannot exist without the brain. When the brain dies of injury, stroke, dementia or Alzheimer’s, the mind dies with it. No brain, no mind; no body, no soul.

That leaves the legacy narrative, of which Woody Allen quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” Nevertheless, Cave argues that legacy is the driving force behind creative works of art, music, literature, science, culture, architecture and other artifacts of civilization. How? Because of something called Terror Management Theory. Awareness of one’s mortality focuses the mind to create and produce to avoid the terror that comes from confronting the mortality paradox that would otherwise, in the words of the theory’s proponents—psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski—reduce us to “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their immediate surroundings.”

Maybe, but human behavior is multivariate in causality, and fear of death is only one of many drivers of creativity and productivity. A baser evolutionary driver is sexual selection, in which organisms from bowerbirds to brainy bohemians engage in the creative production of magnificent works with the express purpose of attracting mates—from big blue bowerbird nests to big-brained orchestral music, epic poems, stirring literature and even scientific discoveries. As well argued by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in The Mating Mind (Anchor, 2001), those that do so most effectively leave behind more offspring and thus pass on their creative genes to future generations. As Hitchens once told me, mastering the pen and the podium means never having to dine or sleep alone.

Given the improbability of the first three immortality narratives, making a difference in the world in the form of a legacy that changes lives for the better is the highest we can climb up Mount Immortality, but on a clear day you can see forever.

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