Sunday, May 20, 2007

Free will and neuroscience: More on the flies that think

Recently, I reported on an experiement with fruit flies that showed that the flies are not robotic, but can engage in spontaneous behavior.

In a recent Daily Telegraph article, Roger Highfield explains:

"The point here is that the people claiming that free will doesn't exist say that one day we will be able to show exactly why a murderer must necessarily have acted the way he did by looking closely at his brain. We can show that you cannot even do this in fly brains, as a matter of principle."

That's the key, of course. It is a matter of principle (actually, fact) that flies do not behave like robots.
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."

Great fly graphics too.

I am not sure - as I said earlier - that the researchers have discovered in flies what humans mean by free will. They have discovered something that natural philosophers have always known: Life forms, even simple ones, are not like machines.

Life forms pursue goals generated from within themselves. The difference between your computer and the fly buzzing around your computer is not merely that the fly is vastly more complex than your computer.

A much more important difference is that the fly does not need you to tell it how to be a fly. Your computer, by contrast, has no internal motives or goals and will do nothing you don't ask for (or that someone somewhere in the software industry didn't ask for), except by accident.

The researchers had expected to find that flies behaved like computers (with natural selection presumably playing the role of the software engineer), but they did not.

Contrary to the hopes of the artificial intelligence (AI) crowd, making the computer more complex would probably not give it what the fly has naturally. The fly's autonomy (or spontanaeity, as the researchers called it) is an aspect of life, as opposed to mechanism, that we do not yet understand. I am sure it is understandable in principle, but continued adherence to materialism makes it unlikely that we will understand any time soon.

In that context, the articles I have seen on this subject so far close with the fond hope that this discovery will enable us to build robots that have an inner sense of purpose and provide a (mechanical) fix for people with mental problems that inhibit spontaneity. Sigh.

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Mother nature is a bitch files: Primate ancestor had SMALL brain

Many people, loosening their belt after a good dinner, can tell you the fine old materialist folk tale about how the primates were naturally selected for survival and increasing intelligence because they happened to have developed large brains, undoubtedly to control vision or something. According to a recent report in New Scientist , the earliest cat-size primate had a small brain:
This finding - based on a newly described fossil skull - means that large brains evolved independently in new- and old-world primates. It also suggests that evolutionary anthropologists may have to rethink some cherished theories about why such big, powerful brains evolved.

[ ... ]

... diurnality, acute vision and group living - have often been advanced as reasons why primates evolved their large brains. However, Aegyptopithecus, which has all three while still having a tiny brain, argues against these theories, says Simons.

Few, if any, will reflect on the significance of the fact that previous theory depended on the primate ancestor having a large brain - but it apparently didn't. They will simply announce a new theory according to which it had to have a small brain.

If you follow current science and society controversies, you will often hear people say that the Darwinian interpretation of evolution (Darwinism) - the interpretation on which the original primate story depended - is "massively confirmed". And therefore why dissenters from it are completely misguided.

This incident helps explain why Darwinism is massively confirmed - because no evidence ever counts against it.

After a significant disconfirmation, adherents simply regroup around a Darwinist interpretation that has not yet been disconfirmed. No one asks whether a better explanation might be found outside the paradigm.

For example, if the intelligent design theorists are right and evolution is guided, the development of advanced brains in primates would not require that the original primate happened to have a superior brain to its fellow creatures, only that it had a suitable platform on which such a brain could be built. And that suitable platform needn't be an accident either.

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Book reviews:Novak on Christopher Hitchens

In his thoughtful reflection on Hitchens' current book, God Is Not Great, Michael Novak explains:
If all we had to depend upon were science, empiricism, and our own inquiring minds, we might still have discovered the existence of God (but not the God of Judaism and Christianity) — as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. Reason might well have shown us — did, in fact, show us — that there is a living intelligence deep down in everything on earth and in the skies above. All earthly things are alive with reasons, connections, and also with oddities yet to become better understood, puzzles yet to be solved. We learn by experiment that if we apply our minds to trying to understand how things truly are, how they work, how they are best used, there seems always to be some intelligible light within things that yields up precious satisfactions to the hungry mind. Everything that is seems understandable — in principle, if not just yet.

Novak provides a most interesting reflection on the relationship between Christianity in Europe and the growth of the mindset required for the development of science - in particular the concept that not only is the universe the product of a divine mind but that one's own mind is a reflection of that divine mind. Therefore, at least in principle, it ought to be possible to discover the workings of nature.

One thing I found interesting while writing The Spiritual Brain was the sharp contrast with the materialist view. A number of materialists have recently announced that our brains have not evolved to understand materialism and that is why most people don't accept it.

With such lame-o excuses functioning as arguments, no wonder materialism is in trouble. If it is really true that "our brains haven't evolved" to understand materialism, the most likely explanation is that materialism is not a correct account of the universe in which we live. The Spiritual Brain surveys, among other things, the physical evidence against materialism.

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Secular fundamentalism: As big a threat as the other kind?

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish Muslim commentator, reflects on secular "fundamentalism." That sort of thing, typefied in North America by the recent spate of "anti-God" books, has been a particular scourge in Turkey:
It is no secret that Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to democracy, freedom and security in today's world, especially in the Middle East. Yet the same values can be threatened by secular fundamentalists, too. Turkey's self-styled laïcité, a much more radical version of the French secular system, is a case in point.

The American model of secularism guarantees individual religious liberty. The Turkish model, however, guarantees the state's right to dominate religion and suppress religious practice in any way it deems necessary.

One result has been a renewed interest on the part of many sincere Muslims in civil liberties:
Noting that Western democracies give their citizens the very religious freedoms Turkey has denied its own, Muslims of the AK party have rerouted their search for freedom. Rather than trying to Islamize the state, they have decided to liberalize it. That's why in today's Turkey the AK party is the main proponent of the effort to join the European Union, democratization, free markets and individual liberties.

It sounds like a very interesting religious and political situation, and no one explains it better than Akyol.
My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

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