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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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What I Believe But Cannot Prove

I believe, but cannot prove, that reality exists independent of its human and social constructions. Science as a method, and naturalism as a philosophy, together create the best tool we have for understanding that reality. Because science is cumulative, building on itself in progressive fashion, we can achieve an ever-greater understanding of reality. Our knowledge of nature remains provisional because we can never know if we have final Truth. (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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