Freedom regained

Scientia Salon

81lyH-va9ELby Julian Baggini

[This is an edited extract from Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will, University of Chicago Press. Not to be reproduced without permission of the publisher.]

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about how scientists — neuroscientists in particular — have “discovered” that actions in the body and thoughts in the mind can be traced back to events in the brain. In many ways it is puzzling why so many are worried by this. Given what we believe about the brain’s role in consciousness, wouldn’t it be more surprising if nothing was going on in your brain before you made a decision? As the scientist Colin Blakemore asks, “What else could it be that’s making our muscles move if it’s not our brains?” And what else could be making thoughts possible other than neurons firing? No one should pretend that we understand exactly how it…

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9 thoughts on “Freedom regained

  1. I realize this wasn’t the main point here, but the part about how reading can subconsciously affect behavior interests me. I remember an article about how the portrayal of chivalry in literature shaped culture in the Middle Ages, and the author suggested that there was more to it than conscious imitation. There was a similar article on how people who read romance novels tend to be more attentive lovers than those who don’t. And of course there’s the Oscar Wilde quote: “Life imitates art far more often than art imitates life.”


    1. Good point. I tend to see art as similar to awareness in the brain. Both expose the overall system to information that previously may have only existed in a subset of that system. Art exposes the overall culture to ideas that may only exist in a subset of the culture. (Marlon Brando’s look in ‘The Wild One’, which affected teenager styles for years afterward, is a good example.) Awareness exposes the overall brain to information that may have only previously existed in, say, the hearing centers. In both cases, this has causal influence on the system’s future actions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Funny bit of synchronicity here. I just bumped into Julian Baggini’s name yesterday when someone mentioned his book, The Pig that Wants to be Eaten (which, I’m certain, must be a reference to that bit in Hitchhiker’s Guide).

    The linked article was interesting!


    1. Wow, I’d never heard of that Baggini book. Thanks for mentioning it! Just sent a sample to my Kindle. (His free will book is not available on Kindle for some reason, except for in the UK.)


  3. “Brain and brain! What is BRAIN? It is Controller, is it not?”

    Kara, frustrated by the constant inquiries about Spock’s brain from ‘Spock’s Brain’, Star Trek (the original series).

    OK, this is it! I’m going to read a little about epiphenomenalism and then I’m moving on(for now, pretty sure I’ll return to this one, maybe even read the book some day if only to counter the Coynian incompatibalistic bias I seem to have picked up over the last few years).

    One of the more thought provoking comments I’ve read on free will:

    “The world is not flat. Before this truth was realized, people use to wonder what happened when you got to the end of the earth– did you fall off? Once we knew the earth was round, the new perspective, made us see how the old questions were silly. New questions also seem silly many times until a new perspective is accepted. I think we will get over the idea of free will and and accept we are a special kind of machine, one with a moral agency which comes from living in social groups. This perspective will make us ask new kinds of questions.” – Michael Gazzaniga (emphasis added)

    ‘Neuroscience Challenges Old Ideas about Free Will’

    Here’s a little more for the mix – I found this searching the phrase “myth of the autonomous rational mind” from Robert Burton’s ‘On Being Certain’:

    ‘2014: What Scientific Idea Is Ready for Retirement? – Thomas Metzinger: Cognitive agency’

    … based on:

    ‘The myth of cognitive agency: subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy’, Metzinger 2013

    … which when I finish I’ll definitely be over my limit of philosophy for the month 🙂


    1. Thanks amanimal. Wow, I haven’t thought about that Star Trek episode in years.

      “I think we will get over the idea of free will and and accept we are a special kind of machine, one with a moral agency which comes from living in social groups. ”
      What’s funny about this is that the “moral agency which comes from living in social groups” is pretty much what compatibilists mean by “free will.” The argument between compatibilists and incompatibilists is definitional, whether the phrase “free will” retains any social or legal utility. We could just replace it with “moral agency”, or perhaps “social agency”, although that would mean editing a lot of text.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I finally made it through Metzinger’s paper a couple of days ago(which was very interesting), but it was this bit from the Edge piece that brought your thought provoking phrase “data processing architecture” to mind:

        “If I am right, the default mode of the autobiographical self-modeling constructs a domain-general functional platform enabling long-term motivation and future planning.” – last sentence, next to last paragraph

        I’m not entirely sure what a “domain-general functional platform” is yet. I tried his ‘Being No One’ once, but didn’t get far(my mood, the material, the weather, whatever) – we’ll see.

        Regarding Gazzaniga’s prediction I’m less optimistic, but may be looking at it in too short a time-frame. It’s difficult for me to imagine the concept having much traction outside some segment of the academic/scientific community.

        Note: feel free to use Mark or mark – either are half as long as amanimal an probably more natural to type. I also respond to “hey you” and at least a dozen or two other less complimentary appellations.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Looking at Metzinger’s Edge piece, his writing seems pretty dense. (It’s even denser in the other paper you linked to.) But I tend to think he’s overly impressed with his findings. Just because we now have insight into how something is constructed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

          I don’t really have any insights into what he means by “domain-general functional platform.” My initial gut reaction is, he means a computer, in the sense of a general purpose information processor, but I suspect he means something more specific.

          My references to “data processing architecture” is that I think consciousness is a collection of algorithms and data, similar to an operating system, although far more sophisticated and complicated than any existing operating system. I usually use the phrase to distinguish from theories that hold that consciousness is a state of matter, or fundamentally involves some unknown form of physics, or something along those lines.

          No worries on name reference. I didn’t mind typing amanimal, but will be happy to use Mark moving forward. I usually don’t use people’s actual name in public forums unless I know they themselves are public with it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The connection I found interesting is that both metaphorically refer to consciousness as a physical thing – an architecture, a platform – à la Lakoff & Johnson 1999, ‘Philosophy in the Flesh’.

            It is a little confusing(to me at least) as Metzinger starts out equating cognitive agency and mental autonomy(2nd para), but ends differentiating the two, saying we can improve mental autonomy(last para).

            I don’t think he’s saying cognitive agency doesn’t exist. In the paper he uses the term to describe a type of mental action. More than anything, I get the impression he’s refuting Aristotle’s man as a rational animal, but to me his first two sentences seem contradictory. The first implies 100% of the time, while the second says “most of the time”.

            amanimal is fine – I know I reflexively type SAP – entirely your choice, whatever works 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

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