Further proof of what? Mammaryhead’s Dilemma

August 12, 2013 § 4 Comments

tumblr_mbf97fvArM1qbc8d3o1_500Cassowaries, say I have no knowledge how tasty their eggs are, and hear David Attenborough wax about it. Further, if I were to attend a gathering of some elite folk and when offered opt for the said egg‘s omelet, would this choice be a demonstration of determinism, in the sense it’s used to disprove free will?

A System encounters some information, and given its scope of processing and tendencies, it ‘eats the Cassowary egg omelet’.

The ‘bounded infinity’ of it’s scope is altered (I am unsure if this is a legitimate use of this term, here it’s meant that the scope is complex & unpredictable. Though there are decisions that it can never make, or things it cannot process, what it can select cannot be listed).

It’s able now, to desire more and expand the scope of its selection. But is the decision still the System’s?…Emanating from (it)?

Emanate comes from Latin ēmānāre, to flow out, from mānāre to flow.  And I thought to pose that question, would suggest an interesting view of our system as stand-alone mammaries. A giant pair, which responds by squirting varieties of flow, with semantic content. Our mammaries, after exposure to Sir David, produce a novel flow opting for other than they would have. The altered squirt is the change in behavior, which covers both the favorable response to the offer and the actual eating of the omelet.

That one’s memory-hence self-consciousness, can be seen as a giant pair, which may turn firm or squirt in response to stimuli, requires no reading of Philip Roth. It would suffice if one engages in a superficial reading of the so called reductionist approach as described by Eric Kandel in his 2000 Nobel lecture. The relatively simple system/organism mentioned there being the giant marine snail, Aplysia.

Aplysia doesn’t Kandel2really resemble a nipple or a whole breast. But it is made up of a small number of nerve cells; many are very large (even seen with naked eye) and uniquely identifiable. Further, it is possible to identify the specific contribution of individual neurons to the behavior in which they participate.

So, if a simple behavior exists that can be modified by learning which gives rise to memory storage, it can be traced by identifying the cells that make up the neural circuit of this simple behavior. Modifications caused by learning in critical neurons and interconnections of this circuit are in Kandel’s words the “stored memory”.

Let’s pause and place the earlier kinky metaphor next to what this lecture seeks to demonstrate for a Nobel audience.

Our hypothetical Mammaries Aplysia
Altered squirt/Turning firm = stored memory Changes in synaptic plasticity  = stored memory

The firmness of resolve (the omelet dare of our system) is ‘the memory of Sir David’s account’, while the changes in gill withdrawal reflex in Aplysia are the ‘memory of an earlier simulation of the siphon’.

These metaphors do not help in ascertaining guilt. That is, if our planet was ruled by a liberal vegan junta, out to get the cassowary egg eaters. Aplysia may get away but our system (the Mammaryhead) will surely get rounded up. It may
cry “Attenborough made me do it, how otherwise could such a squirt issue from me?” These utterances being two more spurts from our system, seen as determined, should mean nothing. If the pleas are attributable, so is the rest and the gallows would do. Therefore, as per the title of Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen’s paper, For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.

Past the omelet tribunal but relevant to its scope, there is a research by Vohs and Schooler titled “The Value of Believing in Free Will”. Two tests are tried to see if inducing participants to believe human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating.

Even before reading the outcome of the test, I was reminded of two earlier impressions on my system, which I hereby share (squirt). First of these was a debate between David Berlinski and the late Christopher Hitchens.


Near the end of the debate, Berlinski argued:

“Atheism, in so far as it removes from the human context a brute sense of obligation based on fear removes from the moral calculus a profound and powerful reason not to do evil,…there is no escaping this…to be honest I don’t live my life that way…but I recognize it as a fact”

A condescending tone, yet it casts a shadow on the second of the aforementioned impressions; a lecture delivered by sweet voiced Terry Eagleton on “Culture and Death of God”. In which Terry mockingly lists thinkers of past few centuries who subscribed to versions of this Berlinski argument.

He refers roughly to the same illustrious list and their opinions in a review he made of a book by Alain de botton. The passage in the review mentions:
“Such reluctant non-belief goes back a long way. Machiavelli thought religious ideas, however vacuous, were a useful way of terrorising the mob. Voltaire rejected the God of Christianity, but was anxious not to infect his servants with his own skepticism. Atheism was fine for the elite, but might breed dissent among the masses. The 18th-century Irish philosopher John Toland, who was rumored to be the bastard son of a prostitute and a spoilt priest, clung to a “rational” religion himself, but thought the rabble should stick with their superstitions….Diderot, a doyen of the French Enlightenment, wrote that the Christian gospel might have been a less gloomy affair if Jesus had fondled the breasts of the bridesmaids at Cana and caressed the buttocks of St John. Yet he, too, believed that religion was essential for social unity….”

Edward Gibbon, Jurgen Habermas, Mathew Arnold and Auguste Comte are also mentioned by Eagleton as upholders of this “deeply disingenuous” tradition of “I don’t believe myself, but it is politically prudent that you should”.

Well now the belief In God and belief in free will are not the same. They denote beliefs, the behavioral consequences of which may or may not be similar. And in so far as a description of beliefs in ordinary language can be subject to investigation and comparison; a person’s description of his belief in God can be as similar to my lack of belief in “free will” as to another’s subscription to it.

One may stretch the Berlinski argument though, to establish instead a parallel between nihilism and, if not cheating, an alternative set of responses. This nihilism may be generated by lack of belief in God or free will.

If the Vohs and Schooler experiment is any indication of a possible universe, its result seems to justify the deceitfulness of Machiavelli and others.  It’s not the Christian gospel though, that seems essential for social unity and maintenance of moral discipline of the mob, but the myth of counter causal free will.

In Experiment 1 Vohs and Schooler divided 30 undergraduates randomly into two groups. One was assigned to read a chapter of Francis Crick’s book “Astonishing hypothesis” which states arguments refuting, free will. The other group read an unrelated chapter from the same book. After reading these, the participants completed FWD scale (Free Will and Determinism) and PANAS (Positive and Negative Affectivity Schedule), which apparently assess, if these earlier readings had an impact. The scores do show some impact “participants in the anti-free will condition reported weaker free beliefs”.

Then a computer based arithmetic task is given, where cheating is possible due to a programming glitch. The answer is displayed and the user ought to press the space bar so it would disappear. The dependent measure of cheating is the number of times the participants pressed the space bar (i.e. did not cheat). The control group which had not read the refutation cheated less. While some correlation is seen between part of FWD scale score and the cheating affirming the hypothesis, the PANAS score used to assess mood did not differ between groups.

This experiment as Vohs and Schooler observe does not so much show higher likelihood of cheating, rather an induced passivity. The failure to do the right thing is not deliberately unethical, it may pave the road to Auschwitz as Sir Ian Kershaw would put it but someone else has to build it. So a second experiment:

Here too the participants first completed a task supposed to induce mood states using Velten’s mood induction procedure. Tasks were aimed at creating three mood groups (neutral, free will believers and skeptics).

The groups then completed the FWD scale and the PANAS. For the actual test they were presented with 15 GRE problems. But they were told based on some orchestrated event to score their own replies and pay themselves 1 dollar for each
correct answer. Instruction was given to use the shredder to shred the answer sheets. So only average payment per participant could be calculated. To control further, two groups (one neutral and another given determinism statements) were
tested without opportunity to cheat. Average payments per group can then be compared.

Not surprising the participants who had read the determinism statements in the Velten based stage and who were allowed to pay themselves for correct answers, walked away with more money than others. The correlation is confirmed when considering the FWD scale score. The more participants endorsed statements of free will, the less they paid themselves on average.

Splendid, be it resolved then that if we agree with Berlinski and see support for it in Vohs and schooler’s test results, we’d have to censor Attenborough to avoid further omelet crimes. Alterations in the system’s neuronal propensity cannot interest the court. If the accused Mammaryhead can protest, its liable.



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§ 4 Responses to Further proof of what? Mammaryhead’s Dilemma

  • JazzMan says:

    My hunch is that the ultimate answer to the question of free will is likely to be provided by modern physics and not neuroscience. To test the hypothesis, one would need to build (or imagine/theorize) a time machine capable of rolling back in time.

    In the case that free will did exist, one would find a set of parallel universes starting from a single point in time (of Donny Darko fame) which are equivalent in all respects except for the free-willed individuals who will take different choices. Just an experiment I’d love to run if I had the necessary equipment 🙂

  • SB says:

    Not totally sold on the argument that belief in determinism is what lets us suspend our guilt – although knowledge of Darwin has probably led many a fine person astray from the path of monogamy (genes made me do it) – I have to admit that Berlinski’s argument does have some appeal – apart from the caricature-worthy machiavellian attitudes and the guilt-inducing moral calculus in our breast-fondling-impoverished gospels (no love for the Song of Solomon it seems) – I do believe there is a lack of purpose arising from the separation of what Eliade calls the sacred and the profane and the gains made by the latter at the expense of the former. In Eliade’s “eternal return”, as traditional man feel to be reliving “sacred events” – my reading is not of a debilitating fatalism – but rather a “raising of the stakes” – which forces one to play their best game – a state from which with all his free will modern man is increasingly locked out — to further confuse things and further prove his nihilism, one can also argue that whether “not cheating” or “walking away with the money” is the best game (as in the 2nd experiment) is also dependent on the context.

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