December 23, 2003

PRESS BUTTON "A" FOR GOD:

HARD-WIRED FOR GOD: Only something extraordinary could entice the Carmelite nuns of Montreal to break their vow of silence and venture out of the cloister. They have joined forces with science to look for a concrete sign from God -- inside the human brain (ANNE McILROY, Dec. 6, 2003, Globe & Mail)

When Dr. Beauregard and Mr. Paquette, his doctoral student, first approached Sister Diane about using three of the most powerful brain-imaging tools available to learn more about unio mystica, she was intrigued. She had heard about other experiments investigating the biological basis of religious experience.

The researchers were hoping the nuns would have a mystical experience right in the lab. Sister Diane told them that this would be impossible -- God can't be summoned at will. "You can't search for it. The harder you search, the longer you will wait," she says.

So the scientists came back with an alternative: Would the nuns be able to remember what it felt like? Dr. Beauregard is certain that when they recall such an intense experience, their brains will operate the same way as when the nuns actually felt God's physical presence.

He says there is plenty of evidence that this is likely. When we think about doing something physical, such as hitting a forehand in tennis, the same parts of the brain are active as when we are actually make the shot.

Similarly, he has conducted experiments with actors and found that dramatizing a sad experience causes intense activity in the parts of the brain that process emotion.

This approach pleased the nuns, and so far six have agreed to participate in the experiments, which will take two years to complete. [...]

Sister Diane says she is certain that Dr. Beauregard will discover a biological basis for the Carmelites' spiritual experience, one she says is shared by all human beings. God equipped people with the brains they need for a spiritual life, she insists. "Our body has a spiritual component. To be a human being is to be a spiritual being. I'm convinced this will show in the results."

Sister Teresa seems less sure. "It will be up to God," she says.


Dr. Beauregard's certainty would appear to presume that the experience is totally internal, a perfectly sound position rationally but hardly objective scientifically.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2003 7:43 AM
Comments

Actually, I have read that these types of experiments have been done numerous times for decades on Buddhist monks, TM meditators, Franciscan nuns (Poor Clares), and others with very interesting results. Apparently, there are indeed very significant changes to the brain when people are having a religious experience. If I have time, I'll look up the references.

Posted by: L. Rogers at December 23, 2003 8:37 AM

To the contrary, OJ, the presumption that religious experiences are entirely internal is the only possible scientific starting point. Science is based on the assumption that acts need actors and effects need causes. Until we can find the god particle (the godon?), the only possible scientific explanation is that gods are a creation of our brains, not vice versa. This is why materialists find, mostly to their horror, that rationality necessarily destroys free will. It is also why faith in G-d is necessary for faith in free will (to such an extent that the two are actually the same thing, although the materialists among us will never admit it): to believe in free will you must believe in the causeless effect.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 23, 2003 9:02 AM

David:

You mean science isn't totally open? It requires narrow presumptions?

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 9:12 AM

Now you're just mocking me, but yes, that's exactly what I mean.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 23, 2003 9:54 AM

I mock not you but them.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 10:12 AM

OJ:
You are precisely correct, science requires minimalist (narrow) presumptions. However, don't construe that as mockery.

Minimalist assumptions will far more likely highlight discordant information than would be the case if additional assumptions are added on.

Ironically, one excellent way to find a godon is to presume it doesn't exist.

David:
Rationality does not destroy free will. Certainly it doesn't come nearly as close as some religions do.

Make two minimalist assumptions: 1. Humans exist. 2. Humans are capable of making cost-benefit calculations.

Add one observation: Humans are distributed across time and space.

Make a prediction: Cost-benefit calculations vary from human to human based on time-space distribution.

Hence, free will. To the extent it exists, although the older I get, the more I think it overrated.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 23, 2003 12:12 PM

True of false: people are more than the sum of their genes and experiences.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 23, 2003 12:49 PM

David, all you need for free will are:

1. A will.

2. The ability to act on that will.

Was it your will to write the last post? Were you able to act on it?

Posted by: Robert D at December 23, 2003 12:53 PM

Robert:

Where did this free floating non-material will unbounded by Nature come from?

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 1:13 PM

That isn't the question, the question is, does it exist.

Free-floating, non-material, unbound by Nature are not necessary attributes.

Posted by: Robert D at December 23, 2003 1:17 PM

Robert:

By your rationalism it can not exist. It must just be something we imagine, an artifact of the material world. An evolutionary construct, so to speak.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 1:24 PM

No, I would say that what you are seeking in your definition of free will is an imaginary thing. I understand what my will is, it is a real thing, it is what I want. Nothing imaginary about it.

What you mean by free will is a will that is free of everything, including yourself. You imagine yourself to be something different than the atoms that compose your body and mind. That is the delusion.

What would your will desire if it were free of natural constraints? Do you even have a clue?

Posted by: Robert D at December 23, 2003 1:32 PM

No, the will is the self. It is free of natural constraints. Nature (Darwinism) tells my body it should struggle against everything and everyone--except the young it produces--in order to survive and make more young. The will tells the body to shut up and act civilized.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 1:38 PM

Robert -- You are trying to define the problem away. Materialism implies that if you had a good enough computer model of me (and I'm talking about the Platonic ideal of a computer model), you could predict with certainty my every action. Free will implies that you could not.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 23, 2003 2:05 PM

Well, there's your problem, Orrin. You think Nature tells our bodies to struggle against everything.

Nature doesn't tell our bodies to do anything. It just picks the winners and losers after we have done things.

Furthermore, and this is crucial, the action that results in survival under one set of circumstances may select against survival in changed circumstances.

Therefore, the ability of members of a species to be unpredictable as individuals (same as free will) will tend to ensure that some (but not all) of the species continues to reproduce.

Mayr: Natural selection acts on individuals to change species.

Obviously, natural selection will favor free will even among organisms with little or no consciousness.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 23, 2003 2:42 PM

Well then I'm down with Darwin. If all it says is some stuff survives and other stuff doesn't and the reasons are entirely random, though obviously humans have become the determining factor, then it's true on its face--it's survival of the survivors.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 4:27 PM

That is a long way from all it says, but it's a big part of it.

And, yes, fitness is defined after the fact. It is impossible to predict what characters will prove beneficial in the future, because we cannot predict any other part of the future either.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 23, 2003 4:49 PM

Right, but since the survival is random it's silly to think that mutation and adaptation would be particularly important, with nothing to select for or against them.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 5:09 PM

"Robert -- You are trying to define the problem away. Materialism implies that if you had a good enough computer model of me (and I'm talking about the Platonic ideal of a computer model), you could predict with certainty my every action. Free will implies that you could not."

Is predictability such a problem? People are predictable now, we don't need Ptato's computer. I predict that you will vote for George Bush in the 04 election. Am I close? Being predictable means you have a set identity. To be totally unpredictable, you would need to be a totally random entity. How human would you be?

Free will does not mean you are un-determined, it means that you are self-determined. If your self is a stable,non-random entity, then you will be to a certain extent predictable.

Posted by: Robert D at December 23, 2003 5:22 PM

Robert:

Yes, precisely, the rest of the Universe is physically determined, by physics, biology, etc., but humans are self-determined by our minds, imaginations, souls, wills, or whatever you want to call our non-material aspect.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 5:40 PM

"Some stuff survives and other stuff doesn't".

I am sure some of you are familiar with Hillaire Belloc's disdain for Darwin: It doesn't take a new theory to show that when there is a flood, cows drown and fish keep swimming (a weak paraphrase - but I can't find the quote).

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 23, 2003 6:06 PM

OJ,
It really doesn't matter what the self is made of.

Posted by: Robert D at December 23, 2003 6:27 PM

As long as you don't care about intellectual coherence. But if you do and you want to be a Darwinian/materialist/rationalist, you sort of need to account for its existence and independence the rest of creation.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 6:43 PM

Belloc was an uneducated nincompoop. He was probably less qualified to have an opinion about Darwinism than the man who picks up my garbage. At least the man who picks up the garbage isn't necessarily precommitted to cramming all the observations into a superstitious hodgepodge of arbitrary inventions.

Humans are not as self-determined as you might imagine, Orrin. Try standing in traffic for a while and see how independent you are.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 23, 2003 6:52 PM

Drive around NH and you'll see tons of dead deer, beer, moose, squirrels, etc. along the roads--rather few humans.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 7:04 PM

David:
Scientific determinism has been thoroughly debunked, if by nothing else than the Uncertainty Principle. That is reason enough--since it is quite insistent about the impossibility of building such a computer--right there to believe free will exists to some extent.

Chimps certainly have free will; as do most primates.

Siegfried and Roy's tiger had free will.

Difference in degree, even though large, is not a difference in kind.

"True of false: people are more than the sum of their genes and experiences."

True.

No, False.

How would you know the difference?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 23, 2003 7:23 PM

Robert -- Very well done. Now, go back to 1962. In Springfield, Massachusetts, two Jewish registered Democrats have a son. What will his politics be?

Jeff -- I think we've done this before, which makes it my favorite kind of discussion.

The uncertainty principle says that the more accurately we know a particle's position, the less accurately we know its velocity, and vice versa. That doesn't really imply much about either biological or digital computers, although it does mean that Scotty isn't going to be beaming us anywhere anytime soon.

Radioactive decay is more to the point: whether a particular atom will decay is unpredictable, but within a lump of radioactive material, decay will follow a predictable curve. But people are neither as unpredictable as single atom decay, nor as predictable as a group as radioactive material. Nor do I think that our brains are quantum computers.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 23, 2003 8:28 PM

David:
The Uncertainty Principle does in fact apply to biological computers. The brain's mental state at any given moment is dependent--in part--upon its phsyical state, which is impossible to know with certainty.

Then factor in Chaos Theory. Our brains are self organizing complex systems that inhabit the boundary between chaos and order. That means even a tiny difference between the brain state measured and the actual brain state will result in significant divergences between actual and predicted outcomes over time.

Therefore, such a computer might be able to predict your every action, but only for a period so brief as to be meaningless.

Kind of like the weather. Despite being a far simpler system than the human brain, no amount of computer power will ever yield an accurate weather forecast beyond about 72 hours.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 24, 2003 6:33 AM

Scotty may not be beaming us anywhere, in the sense of dissolving us and reconstituting us elsewhere, but eventually we may be able to simply communicate total information about ourselves to a remote site, and have a duplicate constructed from local materials.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 24, 2003 6:51 AM

In other words, Michael, we go into a booth, they scan us and then they kill us. Then they transmit the scan off planet. Maybe the information gets there, maybe it doesn't. Maybe they get around to reconstituting a copy with persistence of memory, maybe they don't. I don't really see much of market for leisure travel, though.

On the other hand, Jeff's point about uncertainty becomes a significant objection if our sense of self is in any way dependent upon our quantum state. (If it isn't, as I think, then the copy won't be human.)

Jeff -- The implication of your argument is that our brains are not Turing machines, and much of science fiction crashes and burns. I agree, but I think that if you trace back through your reasoning, you'll find that you're making a leap of faith larger than any leap I would attempt.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 24, 2003 11:12 AM

"As long as you don't care about intellectual coherence. But if you do and you want to be a Darwinian/materialist/rationalist, you sort of need to account for its existence and independence the rest of creation."

There is no logical reason that the self must be defined as an entity independent of the material universe. This is a values based restriction placed on the self by religious sentiment.

You are using a loaded definition of the term free will. What you are saying is that materialism is inconsistent with a will that is free of material influence. Fine, but why is that the only intellectually coherent way to define free will?

Posted by: Robert D at December 24, 2003 1:27 PM

Because a materially determined free will isn't free, it merely responds to material inputs and thinks itself free.

Posted by: oj at December 24, 2003 1:33 PM

"Kind of like the weather. Despite being a far simpler system than the human brain, no amount of computer power will ever yield an accurate weather forecast beyond about 72 hours. "

There is a short story by Borges about a cartographer who wanted to create a totally accurate map of the world. The map ended up being as big as the world.

The only computer powerful enough to predict every permutation of the universe would need to be as big as the universe. Basically, the universe is that computer. David, you are your own prediction.

Again, what is the problem with prediction? How does it make your will less free?

Posted by: Robert D at December 24, 2003 1:37 PM

OJ, the response to the inputs is your will.

Posted by: Robert D at December 24, 2003 1:41 PM

Robert:

As your computer example shows, free will would be illusory in such a system.

Posted by: oj at December 24, 2003 1:43 PM

OJ, what is it that you are trying to be free of? Do you want to be free to act upon what you want, or do you also want to be free to determine what you want to want? Do you even want to want? You should be free to want or not want. But then something has determined that you must want whether to want or not want, so you are not free. You should be able to freely decide whether you have to decide to want whether you will want or not want to act on what you want.

Wherever you start to exercise your will, something outside of yourself has determined that starting point. Something outside of yourself has set your being in motion with a certain spin that determines your entry point and your default wants. You have defined freedom in such a way that it is not logically possible to attain it. You do not want to be self-directed, you want to be self-created, which is an oxymoron.

Posted by: Robert D at December 24, 2003 2:10 PM

We must be free in the way that any children are eventually set free by their Father--created in a set physical way, formed in a certain moral way, but then on your own.

Posted by: oj at December 24, 2003 4:01 PM

Now y'all are all tangled up in the Maxwell's Demon problem. Except, to a materialist, it isn't a problem, because it sneaks in information without acknowledging that it's been done.

Heinz Pagels described the problem very clearly in "The Cosmic Code."

That we cannot predict an event could be for one of two reasons: 1. it is radically unpredictable, or 2. we don't have enough information beforehand.

The world we live in matches 2 and therefore the future is underdetermined and it appears to operate according to free will. There's no way to show that it does not.

Orrin's assertion that materialism requires determinism contradicts the observations of both physics and psychology.

It's kinda old-fashioned. Materialism hasn't been reductionist for almost a hundred years now. Ever since Einstein, if not since Planck.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 24, 2003 8:15 PM

I think what you guys don't get is that we agree with your description of a materialist world, but don't accept that it accurately describes this world or that people in such a world have free will. Free will is my ability to choose between acting in a way I know to be right and a way I know to be wrong, and to be morally responsible for the consequences.

Robert's computer metaphor is almost perfectly apposite. It is, in fact, my favorite techie metaphor for the relationship between people (the program) and G-d (the Programmer). We have no better ability to penetrate to the Truth or understand the point of the Program than my daughter's Sims do. But here is where the metaphor breaks down: we can choose our path and are responsible for it; the Sims, with all their "artificial intelligence" and built in randomness are not morally responsible for their actions. My daughter does not feel proud of them when they behave or angry when they misbehave, nor does she have any misgivings about shutting the program down.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 24, 2003 10:36 PM

Maxwell's Demon, Harry? I admit that the Second Law is the secret of life, but Maxwell's Demon is a little far afield.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 24, 2003 10:37 PM

The first Matrix film suggested that they were going to grapple with that, David. But from what I hear they dropped the ball.

Posted by: oj at December 24, 2003 11:48 PM

"Because a materially determined free will isn't free, it merely responds to material inputs and thinks itself free."

How would you know the difference between that and an immaterially determined free will?

Never mind the likelihood of overestimating the province over which "free will" reigns. Religiosity, for example, appears to be a heritable trait (see the Matt Ridley book that got some air time here recently, although the title vanished from my head the moment I started to type it).

OJ probably has no more choice over the degree of his religiosity, than I do. Or David, Tom, Peter, Michael, etc.

I don't mean to say free will exists; rather, it is probably far more constrained than any of us prefer to admit.

David:
The leap of faith I make isn't at all large. Many systems operate in a region between complete order and complete chaos (See "How the Leopard Changed its Spots," a book somewhat critical of Darwinism). Positing a computer that could, given sufficiently accurate measurement of some initial state, accurately model future occurences is fundamentally a straw man. It won't even work--ever--for something as simple as a three-body problem in Newtonian space.

So to assert material explanations are inadequate to explain free will is a conclusion from ignorance. There is no way to tell the difference between that and its opposite.

Harry and Robert D. put the case extremely well.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 25, 2003 4:41 PM

Jeff:

Entirely fitting that you stumble into the truth about your beliefs on Christmas Day--as you yourself make clear: your materialism is incompatible with morality because it so diminishes even the possibility of free will. If behavior is determined by the physical world rather than by a will "far more constrained than any of us prefer to admit", then you are right to oppose morality because it must be nonsense. The notion of moral choice requires a freedom undreamt of in your philosophy.

Posted by: oj at December 25, 2003 4:57 PM

OJ:
Your response makes an utter hash of what I was trying to say.

Free will is what it is, no matter how one thinks it got here. And because of that, there is absolutely no way to distinguish between your and a materialist's assertions of the basis of free will.

I don't oppose morality. I do oppose appeals to an objective morality that is really a chimera, and can be found equally on both sides of any contentious moral issue. I have no doubt a materialist morality can't be complete and consistent. I also have no doubt religiously based morality completely shares those shortcomings.

What is particularly ironic about your assertion is that moral choice requires a freedom I allegedly can't dream of, rather than the sort of freedom religion seeks to deny.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 27, 2003 8:17 AM

Being driven entirely by the material world is not freedom.

Posted by: oj at December 27, 2003 8:33 AM

How would you know the difference?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 27, 2003 7:55 PM

You wouldn't--we just choose which kind of people we would rather be--materialists, like you, who have no sense of morality because everything is driven by nature; or religionists, who choose to believe that Man must rise above his nature to be worthy.

Posted by: oj at December 27, 2003 9:46 PM

I have no sense of morality?

That is utter, complete, thoroughgoing nonsense.

Just because you don't agree with the basis I choose does not mean it doesn't exist.

But that wouldn't be the first time a religionist was morally blinkered.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 28, 2003 8:18 AM
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