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Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain, free will, forms of science, and related issues

Lots of interesting ideas floating around here. Like Doug, I think Cashmore's figure is indeed "simplistic" with regard to the brain and its interactions with the outside world, and will "leave people continuing to look further for "free will"."   Like Wil, I think part of the oversimplification is a failure to appreciate a sophisticated causal influence of consciousness (understood as activity in a particular module of the brain), and that an appreciation of the ability of that module to conceive "counterfactuals" (things that are consistent with but not uniquely required by information coming from the unconscious) will help to make better sense of "free will."  I suspect "anything's possible" (Anne) overstates the situation a bit but more is possible than might otherwise be. 

The meta-level issues raised by Alice and Anne seem to me not only interesting in their own right and, yes, highly relevant in educational contexts, but also importantly illustrative of the brain issues being talked about.  Why indeed must everything "reference the same givens, the same founding ideas/knowledge base/field?"  An interesting possibility is that the inclination to have it be so relates to social and cultural considerations, to an predisposition (unconscious or conscious) to believing that people will work together more efficiently/be less disruptive of each other if they have the same "givens."  Perhaps this underpins not only Cashmore's distaste for free will but also the Hindu insistence on a transcendent world.  And perhaps my preference for a not only free will but some significant randomness generates a "counter-factual," the suggestion that people might actually interact more successfully if they did so based on the value of differences for immediate common tasks rather than on fixed and transcendent givens (cf /exchange/node/6267).  Classrooms might provide an interesting testing ground for such a counter-factual. 

Can there be a "science" of the "subjective"?  Indeed, I think there not only can be but is in many Eastern cultures (not only Hindu but also Buddhist and Taoist among others), and that western science has already begun accepting that as a necessity in studies of the brain.  And that will, of course, change whatever "demarcation" criteria have been developed in the past for defining "science."  What I would hope will not change is an appreciation of understanding as deriving not from any external authority but rather from the continually repeated generation of candidate understandings from empirical observations (of both the world "out there" and the one "in here") and their replacement as required by new empirical observations, a process that values rather than discourages counter-factuals.

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