Free Agents

How Evolution Gave Us Free Will

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(paid link)

I'm unsure why, but I've long been interested in the topic of free will. I made one of my rare suggestions that Portsmouth (NH) Public Library buy this book, and they acceded. As you can tell from the title, it's pro-free will. (But to be fair, I also have Robert Sapolsky's recent anti-free will book Determined on my "get" list.)

There's a blurb on the back from Steven Pinker:

Kevin Mitchell brings clear thinking and scientific rigor to a vital topic that leaves many people confused, caught between the preposterous alternatives that either humans are robots or that every time we make a decision, a miracle occurs.

That's a pretty good summary. Mitchell is a professor at Trinity College (Dublin) in the Genetics and Neuroscience department. Much of the book is devoted to exploring the long and tedious process by which evolution developed ever-increasingly complex neural systems for survival advantage. To be honest, my eyes glazed over in a number of spots. (Page 73: "We already saw transient multicellular behavior in the slugs and fruiting bodies formed by the aggregation of individual Dictyostelium amoebas. This kind of aggregative multicellularity is observed in many other species, across diverse groups of eukaryotes, and even in some bacteria called myxobacteria." OK, if you say so.)

I confess that pro-free will authors are pushing on an open door in my case. But Mitchell's argument here is careful and (seemingly) fair to the other side. He's even reluctant to provide his Official Definition of free will; I think the closest he gets is (page 282): "If free will is the capacity for conscious, rational, control of our actions, then I am happy in saying we have it." That works for me.

I believe Mitchell is making a strong science-justified claim roughly similar to the psychological argument made by Ken Sheldon in Freely Determined; there's a "hierarchy of human reality". At the lowest level, there's the physics and chemistry of interacting atoms and molecules; moving up, there's increasing complexity in cells, organs, and "systems". And it proceeds upward into relationships, society, and culture. Determinists only see causality working bottom-up: it's just those atoms bumping into each other that cause everything else. Mitchell and Sheldon say no: causality works top-down too. Specifically, your cognitive functions can work their will on the lower level too. And that means (ta-da) free will.

The usual disclaimer: ardent determinists and zealous free-willers (I'm pretty sure) are united in their beliefs having absolutely no effect in how they run their everyday lives. To use a common example: they pick out which shirt to wear in the morning, neither thinking too much about it, nor waiting until the molecules in their body do whatever they were predestined to do anyway.

Minor nit: Mitchell says (page 29) that the hydrogen nucleus "comprises a single proton and a single neutron." Ack, no: it's just a proton. (I assume he's right about everything else, though.)


Last Modified 2024-01-09 6:47 PM EST

Intelligence, Humor, and Artistic Talent Only Takes You So Far at the Washington Post

[Losing Hand]

We noted the craven takedown of Michael Ramirez's anti-Hamas cartoon at the WaPo the other day. (You can also see the cartoon itself there.)

Ramirez gave an interview to the Washington Free Beacon, relating the process by which (a) WaPo's editorial page editor, David Shipley, personally selected the cartoon to publish, only to (b) succumb to internal pressure to take it down. And Ramirez's cartoon above reflects his thoughts on the matter:

Still, Shipley's decision to remove Ramirez's cartoon reflects the power the Post's left-wing newsroom holds over its leaders. In a Wednesday night email to staffers, the paper's executive editor, Sally Buzbee, referenced her newsroom's "many deep concerns" over the cartoon, the Free Beacon reported.

Ramirez expressed his disappointment over his cartoon's removal, calling the move "a blow against … the freedom of speech."

"When the intellectually indolent try to defend the indefensible, they always seem to resort to playing the race card," Ramirez told the Free Beacon. "They're trying to claim that this caricature is a racial exercise, when in its specificity, it is Ghazi Hamad, who is a senior Hamas official, who went on Lebanese television praising the brutal Oct. 7 attack and systematic slaughter of women, children, and men and pledged to do it over and over again until the annihilation of Israel."

The WFB article provides confirmation that baseless accusations of "racism" are today's last refuge for scoundrels.

Also of note:

  • Because of course she did. Damien Fisher takes a look at the latest twitterings of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: UNH Professor Compares Hamas to Jewish Victims of Nazi Germany. And the current state of play at the University Near Here:

    Jewish students at the University of New Hampshire say they are feeling fearful as the anti-Israel slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is heard across the campus and swastikas appear on the walls. The chant was also heard at an anti-Israel rally in Manchester on Saturday, along with attacks on Israel as an “apartheid state.”

    Thus far, New Hampshire’s elected officials are largely standing with Israel. All four members of the state’s federal delegation have condemned the use of the “from the river to the sea” language, and Gov. Chris Sununu has declared the phrase “nothing short of requesting another Holocaust.”

    But New Hampshire’s far-left activists denouncing Israel are getting support from some members of the UNH faculty, including a nationally-known progressive academic who is using her large social media following to attack Israel as an “apartheid state” and to compare Hamas terrorists to the Polish Jews who fought Nazi SS troops during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

    Assistant Physics Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is paid close to $100,000 a year to teach physics and gender studies at UNH. In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel that claimed the lives of 1,400 people and injured another 3,400, Prescod-Weinstein has kept up a flurry of anti-Israel posts on the X social media site. Her feed, which has more than 115,000 followers, includes denunciations of what she calls Israel’s “setter colonialism” and defenses of antisemitic Rep. Rashid Tlaib (D-Mich.)

    Frankly, I don't think Jewish students have a lot to worry about at the University Near Here. (Unless they are unfortunate enough to be enrolled in one of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's courses.) It's not as if UNH is MIT, after all. But (these days) claiming that you're "feeling fearful" is probably the most effective method to get administrators to sit up and take notice of you. Otherwise…

    Fisher shares one of CPW's more bonkers tweets:

    You are invited to read the Wikipedia page about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and try to find any similarities between that and Hamas atrocities.

  • Some praise is due. Robert F. Graboyes provides Profiles in Courage from Left of Center.

    After the Hamas barbarities in Israel on October 7, the verdict is in: in America, antisemitism, tolerance of antisemitism, and cowering before antisemitism are primarily phenomena of the political Left, not of the Right. The evidence is stark, self-evident, and overwhelming, with few if any plausible arguments to the contrary. My recent column, Intellectual Tyrants Beget True Believers, explored the depraved enthusiasm of leftist academicians, students, and activists for last month’s live-streamed orgy of murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and beheading of innocents. I honestly do not envy the honorable Left’s urgent, painful task of liberating themselves from the large, perverse fifth column in their midst.

    An upcoming Bastiat’s Window essay will elaborate on why I say all of this, but today’s column celebrates those on the American Left who have already shown backbone and moral clarity and deserve loud and sincere thanks. There are too many to name, but I will highlight Representatives Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Ritchie Torres; 22 Democratic members of the House of Representatives (including Wasserman-Schultz and Torres); Senator John Fetterman; and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I especially recommend watching Clinton’s 8-minute tour de force discussion on TV’s The View.

    My own CongressCritter, Chris Pappas, was one of those 22 Democrats mentioned. Good for him. New Hampshire's other representative, Annie Kuster, meekly avoided the issue.

  • We need an Endangered Liberty Act. A very good Reason article, out from behind the paywall, and try not to fall asleep reading the title: The Endangered Species Act at 50. The author, Tate Watkins, shows how "unintended consequences" of a few stray lines in the legislation have actually worked against taking species out of danger.

    Fun (and interesting) fact:

    In the early 1800s, Lewis and Clark fascinated Americans with tales of a "verry large and a turrible looking animal, which we found verry hard to kill." The grizzly bear became easier to kill over subsequent decades, and state and federal bounties helped fuel efforts to get rid of it. The grizzly population in the Yellowstone region bottomed out at 136 bears in 1975, the same year that all lower 48 populations of the species were listed as threatened.

    Since then, it has largely rebounded. The Yellowstone grizzly now numbers an estimated 1,063, more than double its recovery target of 500. Yet efforts to delist the population in 2007 and then 2017 both failed due to litigation from environmental groups.

    "It's recovered under any metric we look at," Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation said after the last attempt to de-list the population. "We should consider it a great success." But WildEarth Guardians sued to challenge the delisting. Now, even as Yellowstone National Park touts that grizzlies "have made a remarkable recovery," the bears there remain listed and, technically, unrecovered.

    For the statist, "success" is maintaining and increasing government regulatory power.


Last Modified 2024-01-28 2:50 AM EST