Monday, July 26, 2010

Science & Free Will


In an influential article in the Annual Review of Neuroscience, Joshua Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington sum up experiments aimed at discovering the neural basis of decision-making. In one set of experiments, researchers attached sensors to the parts of monkeys’ brains responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were then taught to respond to a cue by choosing to look at one of two patterns. Computers reading the sensors were able to register the decision a fraction of a second before the monkeys’ eyes turned to the pattern. As the monkeys were not deliberating, but rather reacting to visual stimuli, researchers were able to plausibly claim that the computer could successfully predict the monkeys’ reaction. In other words, the computer was reading the monkeys’ minds and knew before they did what their decision would be. [...]


  1. There is a whole discussion of the meaning of Libet's experiment. And there is some recent data that brings the significance of the original experiment to question.

    See the discussion of Libet on Conscious Entities blog, as well as this discussion of the newer experiment. Last, Peter recently posted something on how free will might not require consciousness (although I disagree).

    Peter's approach is that one isn't timing the conscious decision, but one layer above -- when one is conscious of the consciousness of the decision. That extra step, when you become aware that you decided with awareness to do something, is what takes the extra quarter-second.

    Also, Libet's experiments still leave room for "free won't". It measures the impulse to do -- perhaps bechirah is the filter by which we decide which impulses to allow to come to action, and which we stop.


  2. OT:

    >Harry Maryles
    I cannot understand how a reasonable man like Like R' Sternbuch has anything to do with the Edah. I have some of his Seforim - and I usually like what he has to say. I look in his Parhsa Seforim almost every Shabbos.

    OTOH - another very respcted Charedi Rav privately called Rav Sternbuch a wildman when I was discussing a specific issue with him in which Rav Sternbuch was involved!<

  3. Have a little respect pleaseJuly 27, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    Rav Sternbuch is known to have a "wild" derech in learning. In other words, he will write certain things in his seforim that do not follow the standard derech of the yeshiva world. I am being dan lekaf zechus that this is what the unnamed rov meant.

    Even Esav was not some barbarian dressed in a tiger skin, so how dare you speak of a gadol as a "wild man"?

  4. Even Esav was not some barbarian dressed in a tiger skin

    This is both true and a good point. Esav is usually depicted that way. But in fact he tried to appear to be the tsaddik -- even fooled Yitzchak.

    (Maybe that's why Chazal associated Edom with Rome. The Romans were outwardly very culutred people -- they achieved much in architecture, law, and civil administration. But beneath the surface they were capable of the most barabaric cruelties.)

    Maybe when we get to Parshos Toldos and Va Yishlach this is worthy of further discussion.

  5. R' Harry bashes chareidim regularly. The tenor of his blog: If a chareidi does something he disagrees with, he finger points at those chareidim; if he finds something positive, it becomes a statement about how great Orthodoxy is. At any given time, 80% of the posts on the home page of his blog are aimed at criticizing Chareidim. It makes for a popular blog, between people hearing what they want to hear, and others getting riled up enough to try refuting him. (I say try, because R' Harry's audience are primarily people in the first camp; not people willing to hear that an issue might have two sides.)

    I am not sure why this particular comment is taken seriously enough to warrant discussion.



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