My upcoming talk on free will at Williams

I’m headed to the lion’s den: Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to give a talk on free will (or rather the lack thereof) sponsored by the Biology Department, the Science and Technology Studies Program, and Phi Beta Kappa. It’s on October 3 at 7:30 p.m. and open to the public; the venue is the Wege Auditorium. On that same day I’m also talking to Dr. Luana Maroja’s class about evolution, as she’s teaching an evolution course that uses Why Evolution is True as a text.  You can see the more comprehensive announcement by clicking on the screenshot below:

13 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted September 22, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of free will, I found this latest findings. The US neuroscientist Aaron Schurger (https://www.chapman.edu/our-faculty/aaron-schurger) carried out new experiments that disprove the widely quoted experiments of the 1960s, according to which consciousness of an action follows (not precedes) the action (paper: https://www.eneuro.org/content/5/1/ENEURO.0302-17.2018.long).

    Based on the 1964 experiments on “Bereitschaftspotential” or readiness potential carried out in Germany by Hans-Helmut Kornhuber and his student Lueder Deecke, in 1965 the US physiologist Benjamin Libet hinted that we may become aware of our actions only “after the fact” (“Cortical Activation in Conscious and Unconscious Experience”, 1965).

    Libet’s finding has been used for 50 years by philosophers and psychologists to discuss free will. Schurger had already showed in 2012 that Libet’s experiment lends itself to an alternative explanation (“An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement”, 2012 https://www.pnas.org/content/109/42/E2904) and the new experiment reinforces this alternative explanation.

    We may have free will, after all 😉

    • Posted September 22, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I read the paper and the publicity, and it doesn’t really invalidate Libet’s studies in the way people think. More important, subsequent studies in which people don’t “choose” to do a mechanical act, and make a bifurcating decision (e.g., addition versus subtraction), show that you can predict these bifurcating mental decisions with substantial accuracy before they occur by scanning brains. That isn’t accounted for by Schurger’s study, and everyone who touts Schurger as “disproving determinism” doesn’t mention the later work.

      We don’t have libertarian free will–and won’t until someone shows that the laws of physics don’t work when it comes to our brain.

      • Mark
        Posted September 22, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Ok 🙂

    • Posted September 22, 2019 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      I saw an article in The Atlantic about the Aaron Schurger interpretation (here it is:https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/09/free-will-bereitschaftspotential/597736/). At least from the article it did not seem to me that it was a challenge on the lack of free will. Rather, the Bereitschaftspotential could be a period where various brain activities happen to align by coincidence, and the effect of that could trigger the subject to tap their finger (a finger tap was the “decision” that subjects were asked to make in the experiment). Being induced to act by an involuntary brain pattern does not come across as free will.

    • Posted September 22, 2019 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Libet’s results say anything about free will either before or after these latest results. If you assume that the brain is a machine, then it takes time to make a decision, for it to become conscious, and to take the resulting physical action. These experimental results are only interesting to those that assumed decisions are initiated by one’s consciousness as some sort of atomic act and that nothing leads up to it. IMHO, that’s just an unreasonable position.

      • Posted September 23, 2019 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        Despite the interpretation-counterinterpretation stuff, Dennett has pointed out for almost 30 years that the idea that the “and then one becomes conscious of it” (all at once) is a *crazy* assumption. I do not see much attempt to address that problem with using the experiment in any capacity beyond the “exploratory”.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 22, 2019 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m headed to the lion’s den: Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts …

    If I’m recalling the Book of Daniel correctly, the jaws of the lions remained shut because Daniel was blameless, and those who had conspired against him were cast into the lions’ pit in his stead.

    Godspeed, Perfesser. We’ll be expecting a report on your return that you bearded those Williams students in their own lair (to mash up the Book of Samuel into our biblical allusion). 🙂

  3. rickflick
    Posted September 22, 2019 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Looking forward to a report on student/faculty reaction to your point of view.

  4. Posted September 22, 2019 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Enjoy.
    Williams nice country in Fall you shouldn’t have pickets. I follow Zachary after his book on his years through Williams

  5. Posted September 22, 2019 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    FWIW, I think Williams would better have titled your talk “Do you have free will?” By Betteridge’s law the answer would be the same, but my title sounds less dogmatic since “free will” is not defined as dualistic free will.

  6. Posted September 22, 2019 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    You will “discuss the important implications that a purely naturalistic view of human behavior has for reforming society and our own behavior.”

    Toward a positive naturalism, yes!

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 22, 2019 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Let us hope someone gets the video of this and puts it on Youtube.

  8. Steve Gerrard
    Posted September 23, 2019 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    As long as you explain that this is your lived experience as an atheist jewish evolutionary biology professor trapped in an ivory tower bastion of white christian privilege, and therefore you are sticking it to the man, you should do fine. 🙂


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