26 January 2008

There's freedom and then there's freedom

In response to my latest update of the philosophy section over at iPlant.eu my dad wrote me the following. Thought I'd share with the world.


Thanks for updating me on your philosophy. You claim that free will is:

"the ability to abstain from the base route of least resistance and pursue more challenging but ultimately richer lives."

"overcoming one’s limitations"

"the capacity for strength, courage, acting on foresight."

What I don’t quite understand is your basic view of the neural machinery of the brain. As far as I can gather, thinkers like Dennett and Crick advocate some form of metaphysical reductionism, i.e. the view that "all phenomena will eventually be explained in terms of the actions of material components, which are the only effective causes in the world." Here is a classic statement from Crick:

"The Astonishing Hypothesis is that "you", your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…"you’re nothing but a pack of neurons."

Other thinkers like Searle and Chalmers seem to be saying something quite different. The neural machinery of the brain is basic but it gives rise to something quite different, consciousness (whatever it is). Consciousness has "effective power" and some thinkers talk about "top-down" causation.

Where do you stand? Is free will ultimately the result of neurons action potential and the chemical contents flowing into the synaptic cleft? Does the neural machinery of the brain give rise to something radically different which possesses the capacity to "choose"? Kierkegaard and the whole existentialist movement argue in favour of a "higher" level of existence, whatever it is.

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