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Free Won’t

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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Knowing & Not Knowing

The willing suspension of disbelief takes over Shermer’s brain

I confess — when it comes to writing a film review I’m not much of a skeptic. I wrote my first review about the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still for Scientific American, a film I really enjoyed … until all my science fiction friends and scientist colleagues told me that they thought the filmed sucked! Wow, how did I miss that? The answer: the willing suspension of disbelief.

When it comes to films and television movies, I suspend my skepticism in order to enjoy the experience. When I watch movies with my daughter she’s constantly pointing out scenery inconsistencies, plot anomalies, and the like, and I’m always telling her that I don’t want to know because it takes me out of the scene and plops me back into my living room, which tends to be a far less interesting place than being on the bridge of the Titanic, inside the pod trying to get HAL to open the pod bay doors, or face to face with Gort the robot, trying desperately to remember what it was I am suppose to tell him so that he doesn’t zap me with his lazar helmet. For the record, it’s “Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto,” which I translated as “Gort, Klaatu says don’t destroy Earth just yet … and come get me and bring me back to life, because these idiot humans shot me again.” (continue reading…)

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The Demon of Determinism

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A review of Daniel C. Dennett’s Freedom Evolves.

Next to the question of God’s existence there is arguably no greater conundrum in Western thought than the problem of free will and determinism, and the two are inextricably interdigitated. God’s omniscience and (continue reading…)

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