Greetings, meat machines, it's a New Year

I was going to make it a quote of the day, but this column by NYT writer Dennis Overbye is worth reading in full. It's about the march of science against free will:

"If people freak at evolution, etc.," [philosopher of science Michael Silberstein] wrote in an e-mail message, "how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?"

As Overbye points out, it's far from a new problem:

That is hardly a new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as Einstein paraphrased it, that "a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants."
Einstein, among others, found that a comforting idea. "This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals," he said.

Well, a hopeful fatalism is one of the attractions of a belief in predestination. But personally, I think when quantum physicists start talking about free will, it is just anthropology-envy. Hey, if you want to study human action, then make a proper study of it! You don't need Gödel, for goodness' sake! That's just a way to say, "Harrumph, the ancient experts show us by long proof that the problem of free will lies deep in a paradoxical enigma. Murmpheaoww! Give me another cigar!"

It's like your doctor quoting Galen when he prescribes an antibiotic. Totally irrelevant!

I don't really think that the central metaphysical question here -- is human action something other than deterministic or random? -- is one that most of us worry too much about. Most people who are thinking about "free will" have in mind things like whether SS stormtroopers were responsible for various reprehensible actions, or whether "just following orders" is a valid excuse.

To my mind, if you've gone all the way to the subatomic level to talk about free will, then you've already answered the really important questions. That is, unless you want to posit an "obey-evil-dictator" neutrino!

Anyway, the article presents a good basic-level overview of Libet's experiments and various follow-ons. The problem is when it derails into whether Cretans are liars and other detours. Seth Lloyd is extensively quoted about whether computer laptops have free will of a sort. Well, they probably do, and in the human sense, besides! Who hasn't thought that her own computer is deliberately thwarting it's master's subtle plans? That's probably more evidence than we require to assume that other people have free will!

I can understand why one might object to a human-computer analogy, but a human brain that is a product of evolution must be computer-like in some important ways. The other side of that analogy is that computers are like brains in some important ways.

"Free will" doesn't mean "unpredictable action", after all. If it did, there would be no sense in predicting anything for the coming year. Which is what I'm setting my mind to this morning!

Why else would I start the year with an overly-glib post about an ancient philosophical problem?