Tuesday, January 25, 2011

You can so believe in free will, atheist says

In New Atlantis, Raymond Tallis tackles free will:
This essay is an attempt to persuade you of something that in practice you cannot really doubt: your belief that you have free will. It will try to reassure you that it is not naïve to feel that you are responsible, and indeed morally responsible, for your actions. And it will provide you with arguments that will help you answer those increasing numbers of people who say that our free will is an illusion, or that belief in it is an adaptive delusion implanted by evolution.

The case presented will not be a knock-down proof — indeed, it outlines an understanding of free will that is rather elusive. It is of course much easier to construct simple theoretical proofs purporting to show that we are not free than it is to see how, in practice, we really are. For this reason, the argument here will take you on something of a journey.

That journey will provide reasons for resisting the claim that a deterministic view of the material universe is incompatible with free will. Much of the apparent power of deterministic arguments comes from their focusing on isolated actions, or even components of actions, that have been excised from their context in the world of the self, so that they are more easily caught in the net of material causation.
I don't know that his theory works exactly, but it's interesting that an atheist is trying it.


Peer review: If no one else reforms it, could Twitter do the job?

In "Trial by Twitter",Apoorva Mandavilli for Nature (19 January 2011) tells us that "Blogs and tweets are ripping papers apart within days of publication, leaving researchers unsure how to react."
"Scientists discover keys to long life," proclaimed The Wall Street Journal headline on 1 July last year. "Who will live to be 100? Genetic test might tell," said National Public Radio a day later.

These and hundreds of similarly enthusiastic headlines were touting a paper in Science1 in which researchers claimed to have identified a set of genes that could predict human longevity with 77% accuracy — a finding with potentially huge implications for medicine, health policy and the economy.

[ ... ]

This resulting critical onslaught was striking — but not exceptional. Papers are increasingly being taken apart in blogs, on Twitter and on other social media within hours rather than years, and in public, rather than at small conferences or in private conversation.
Some, of course, are calling for "a new set of cultural norms."

Personally, I think the right lesson is this: The tweet beat means that researchers can't just float a trial balloon like "Evolution explains why men like dumb women"or "Religious people have embezzlement gene", and then run off to collect their tenure or whatever other reward, before anyone gets around to reading their stuff months later and shouting, "Rubbish! Compost! Anyone have a shovel handy?"