Thursday, May 17, 2007

Free will:In fruit flies, yet?

Researchers at the Free University of Berlin think they have found evidence for free will in fruit flies:
Animals and especially insects are usually seen as complex robots which only respond to external stimuli," says senior author Björn Brembs from the Free University Berlin. They are assumed to be input-output devices. "When scientists observe animals responding differently even to the same external stimuli, they attribute this variability to random errors in a complex brain." Using a combination of automated behavior recording and sophisticated mathematical analyses, the international team of researchers showed for the first time that such variability cannot be due to simple random events but is generated spontaneously and non-randomly by the brain. These results caught computer scientist and lead author Alexander Maye from the University of Hamburg by surprise: "I would have never guessed that simple flies who otherwise keep bouncing off the same window have the capacity for nonrandom spontaneity if given the chance."

I wouldn't have guessed that either, and I suspect that the researchers and I might differ in what we mean by free will. I am surprised that anyone ever doubted that the fly is capable of spontaneous non-random behaviour. But the traditional idea of "free will" requires a considerable intellectual component as well.

Essentially, they have discovered that the fly is not a machine. It has, in its limited way, feelings and goals. If you are not a materialist, you will not find that hard to believe.

Labels: , ,

Just for fun: Here are my 17 favourites of the top 45 oxymorons

45. Act naturally
44. Found missing
41. Genuine imitation
37. Almost exactly
34. Alone together
30. Small crowd
24. New classic
21. "Now, then ..."
20. Synthetic natural gas
18. Taped live
17. Clearly misunderstood
12. Plastic glasses
8. Tight slacks
7. Definite maybe
5. Twelve ounce pound cake
3. Working vacation
2. Exact estimate

We get so used to using these phrases as cliches that it never occurs to us that they are contradictory. The rst are here.


Study: Kids from religious homes behave better?

According to sociologist John Bartkowski of Mississippi State University, comparing teachers' opinions of the behaviour of over 16000 students with parents' religiosity
children from religious homes are better behaved than kids who grow up in homes without religious influence. The study, conducted by sociologists at Mississippi State University, asked parents and teachers of more than 16,000 children to rate how much self-control the young people had and how often they exhibited poor behavior.

Now, that shouldn't be very surprising. The number of intellectual atheists in the United States (and specifically in Mississippi, for that matter) is fairly small. In that case, one suspects that children who grow up in homes without religious influence grow up in homes without much adult influence, period.

Of course, religious practice specifically introduces children to a community that expects constructive behavior - from adults as well as children. The child sees parents and friends modelling courtesy and self-control. So presumably, it doesn't all come as a huge shock when he hits school.

Yes, yes, it does take more than courtesy and self-control to win the big prizes. But many people get by surprisingly well with only the more humble virtues.

Labels: ,