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Phew! Hoton the heels of the ginormous SfN meeting in the metropolis of Washington DC with ~32,000 participants, I find myself thrown into the German outback in Meissen at a symposium with about 30 participants, organized by the Protestant Academy there. The topic of the meeting is "Freedom and Reformation" and they invited me to represent neuroscience in the debate about free will. I used my presentation on the nature of freedom in biology (below) and expanded it with a few explanatory slides, because I had the time.
The questions after the talk didn't really differ all that much from the questions I get when I present these results to other generally interested audiences. Maybe only one question was a little strange: if behavioral variability (freedom) increases with decreasing sensory input, do we have maximal freedom when we're dead and thus completely without sensory stimuli? I chose to end my answer with the strong assertion that behavioral variability and behavioral freedom are brain function and once the brain ceases to function, so does its freedom. I probably should have said, in hindsight, that the brain then is only left with the single option to go foul (an attempt to translate a German play on words with a soccer connotation). devilmad.png

Next up in the program was a Theologian who gave a pretty interesting account of the historical developments within the Christian tradition on the ' evolution' of concepts about free will. Not surprisingly, the ideas meandered here and there without any clear development or time arrow. Without evidence of course there cannot be an development, any discarding of ideas in favor of other, more valuable ideas. Not once was mentioned why one idea or concept was favored over another. It was merely an enumeration of different views over the course of a few centuries. Each, at least to me, pretty much equivalent to the other. Apparently, people just invented ideas and concepts and some of those stuck and some didn't.
Another notable point was that his presentation mainly contained figures who depicted the protagonists of the ideas and concepts he presented. This, of course, is necessarily so as any and all of the content of his presentation is entirely derived form the brains of these people and has otherwise no relation to what one would call reality. This was an addition insight to try and reduce the amount of reference to researchers in my talk more than I already do. The important parts of a presentation should be the evidence, not the people who discovered the evidence. One may (and sometimes must) mention the sources of information at the end, but during the talk only where absolutely necessary.

Luckily for me, the speaker only used the G-Word sparingly. This word always sounds to me like "Easter Bunny", which only initially sounds funny. Once you realize that people take it dead seriously, it ceases to be funny and gives me a similar uneasy feeling as the one I have when I interact with psychotic or senile patients (which luckily is about just as rare as my interactions with theologians).

UPDATE: I saved the post towards the end of the presentation following mine because the speaker was at the end of his allotted time. Interestingly, the part of the talk that he didn't go into was all concerned with the standard experiments that everybody know, i.e. Libet et al. Maybe not all that surprisingly, he defined the most important freedom that humans have as the one where science knows the least about - because that's the one where the deity comes to play. I really shouldn't be surprised at the sophistication with which theologians construct concepts to evade the sciences and still find something left for the magic man to influence.
UPDATE2: The Q&A of this talk actually escalated into hilarity while I was summarizing the last part of the talk. One person in the audience asked the presenter hw one should behave if god is so free that he/she/it always does what it wants anyway. Unfortunately, the question was asked in all sincerity (and with a capital 'He'), or I would have had problems containing myself. The speaker twisted and turned with the question and said that for some this is really a problem, because it meant that whatever they did god may still not shine his grace upon them and for others it is a relief, because no matter what the did god may still shine his grace on them. Yes, of course it was hard to only smile. The discussion was so firmly trapped in the old dilemma that already Spinoza recognized: if the deity in question is all-powerful, all-encompassing, all-all, then it can have no will: it already has everything its will might strive for. It cannot be swayed by anything we do, because it is all-free to do as it pleases. Just as Spinoza recognized, a deity like that has absolutely no consequences for human behavior whatsoever. It is completely irrelevant for anything but itself. And there sat the learned theologian admitting that this was, in fact, the case (albeit not verbatim). This little piece of the discussion was already worth the trip. I'm only dreading the podium debate at the end of the meeting today

Posted on Saturday 19 November 2011 - 11:41:54 comment: 0

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