Showing posts from 2023

Undetermined - a response to Robert Sapolsky. Part 2 - assessing the scientific evidence

In Part 1 of this series, I explored the different philosophical premises that Robert Sapolsky and I bring to the question of free will, in our respective books, Determined and Free Agents . Here, I will examine the scientific evidence that Sapolsky marshals to make his argument that all our decisions are fully determined. Part 2   No, but yeah, but no – assessing the scientific evidence   Sapolsky presents an array of experimental evidence from studies of various kinds to support his claim that we are completely driven by all the causal factors in our past or intervening on us in the present. The word study appears 163 times in the text, in fact, and it felt a bit like being pummeled into submission at times. I’m all for providing experimental evidence to support one’s claims, but in this case, much of the supposed evidence is completely unreliable. The fields that are cited the most include social psychology, especially social “priming” experiments, ca

Undetermined - a response to Robert Sapolsky. Part 1 - a tale of two neuroscientists

Free will is in the air. Among neuroscientists at least, the question of whether we are in control of our actions has been attracting renewed attention of late, driven in large part by the successes of the field in laying bare the neural machinery of behaviour. It’s thus not a total coincidence that two books by neuroscientists on this topic – Determined , by Robert Sapolsky, and Free Agents , by yours truly – have been published so close together (both in October, 2023). What may be more surprising to readers is that we reach such divergent conclusions on the topic. With thanks to Bill Sullivan   That we can survey the same evidence and interpret it so differently may suggest to some that the question of free will is not really an empirical one at all. Of course many of the issues are metaphysical, but both Prof. Sapolsky (Sapolsky hereafter) and myself think that the science of decision-making is at least relevant to these philosophical discussions. In short, he thinks that science

What questions should a real theory of consciousness encompass?

Well, now! The consciousness field is all atwitter! A letter has been published, with 124 signatories, claiming that one prominent “theory of consciousness” – the Integrated Information Theory proposed and developed by Giulio Tononi, Christof Koch and colleagues over several years – is “pseudoscience”. That’s a serious charge to level in print, and one that I presume the authors of the letter did not make lightly.    The letter was a response to some of the media coverage around the COGITATE study – an adversarial collaboration which purports to test the predictions of several theories of consciousness in an open and fair way. (You can see here , from Hakwan Lau, some commentary on whether it is actually designed and executed appropriately to achieve that). The letter seems to reflect the growing exasperation of some researchers in the field with the perceived hype and misrepresentation of IIT, its claims, and the results of the COGITATE study, which apparently came to a head an

Reflections on “Systems – the Science of Everything”

Did you ever get the feeling, when you’re working on some problem (scientific or otherwise), that there are some basic principles at play that elude you, but that must have been worked out already by somebody? That’s certainly been my experience in my career in biology, whether it was in developmental biology, human genetics, neuroscience or other areas. I’ve felt the joy of discovering new components of systems and working out some interactions and pathways, but also a nagging feeling that I was not seeing the whole picture – that I was elucidating details of what was happening, but not grasping what the system was doing . I often felt like I lacked the principled framework to even approach that question. This was not because such frameworks don’t exist but because I had never learned about them – systems principles had simply not been part of my education.   This seems to be true across many disciplines. We’re all so specialised that we have to concentrate on the specifics of our