Free to be ourselves

As Terry Eagleton notes in his review of Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained, “Rarely has the idea of freedom been so popular in practice and so disdained in theory.” But we are neither completely autonomous nor completely determined. “What … if our beliefs and desires lead us to act in a way that feels inevitable? Can we still be free if we could not have acted otherwise? Baggini is surely right to claim that we can. In fact, most of the things that matter – being in love, composing a superb sonata, detesting Piers Morgan, feeling horrified by the slave trade – have a smack of inner necessity about them … . What define the self most deeply are the sort of commitments from which we could not walk away even if we tried. The point, however, is that we don’t want to. Freedom from such engagements would be no freedom at all. True liberty lies in being able to realise such a self, not shuck it off.”

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Philosophical implications of the urge to urinate

The state of our body affects how we think the world works. For example, belief in free will is negatively correlated with the desire to urinate. Daniel Yudkin explains some recent research leading to this conclusion. 

Two heads: Paul and Patricia Churchland

Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Paul and Patricia Churchland’s “marriage devoted to the mind-body problem.” “One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. ‘She said, “Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.” ’ ”

Does science prove we aren’t free?

Are we free? In his review of Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will by FSU philosopher Alfred Mele, Daniel Dennett agrees with Mele that neuroscience gives the wrong answer. “The mistakes are so obvious that one sometimes wonders how serious scientists could make them. What has lowered their threshold for careful analysis so catastrophically? Perhaps it is the temptation of glory. What a coup it would be if your neuroscience experiment brought about the collapse of several millennia of inconclusive philosophising about free will! A curious fact about these forays into philosophy is that almost invariably the scientists concentrate on the least scientifically informed, most simplistic conceptions of free will, as if to say they can’t be bothered considering the subtleties of alternative views worked out by mere philosophers.”

Both free and determined?

The more we understand about the world and especially our brains, the more it seems that our decisions are determined by forces — our genes, our neurons, our upbringing, for example — that are beyond our control. And yet we experience making choices. In “The Benefits of Binocularity,” Erik Parens explains the “better way to go about trying to understand what sorts of beings we are is to see ourselves as both free subjects and as determined objects, and to accept that we aren’t wired for seeing ourselves in both ways at once. Using either lens alone can lead to pernicious mistakes.”

Precognitive police

“Predictive policing could help prevent crime. But do we want a future where computer oracles and spies track us from birth?” Probably not, according to Henrick Karoliszyn. Consider this scenario: “I am walking down the street and a mobile brain scan looks at my brain along with a picture of a training camp in Afghanistan. If I’ve not been there, I’m sent happily on my way. But if I have, my brain lurches a certain way, I’m taken off the street and carted off to Guantánamo and detained indefinitely as a potential enemy combatant.” Would that be moral?