ghost in the machine

there was a little discussion (starting here) in the recent linkfest comments about whether or not the brain runs on autopilot and what that means for concepts like responsibility and free will and all that.

benjamin libet was the first guy to experimentally document that the subconscious brain seems to decide upon an action before the conscious mind “decides” to do it. his experiment has been successfully repeated many times, most recently using a different methodology (but winding up with the same, or a similar, result — i.e. subconscious decides what to do first). the wikipedia page on the neuroscience of free will has some excellent descriptions of the experiments. from that page:

“One significant finding of modern studies is that a person’s brain seems to commit to certain decisions before the person becomes aware of having made them. Researchers have found delays of about half a second. With contemporary brain scanning technology, scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice…. It may be possible, then, that our intuitions about the role of our conscious ‘intentions’ have led us astray; it may be the case that we have confused correlation with causation by believing that conscious awareness necessarily causes the body’s movement. This possibility is bolstered by findings in neurostimulation, brain damage, but also research into introspection illusions.”


given what we also know about all the cognitive biases that we humans have, along with the heritability of certain traits like religiosity and political persuasion — aspects of ourselves and our lives that we all just feel that we’ve really thought about and independently made up our minds about, even though … heh … the truth is that we’ve prolly just inherited a certain package of genes from our parents — all of these things make me distrust what our conscious minds tell us. the conscious mind, pardon the antropomorphism, wants us to feel that we’re making all the decisions, but that’s probably just a useful adaptation — an illusion of our neocortex, a more recently developed brain structure which has been jerry-rigged on top of more ancient brain structures.

as an hbd-ist, i would guess that probably some individuals have more “free will” than others — some people can probably use their conscious minds as more of a veto on automatic behaviors, for instance, although that that happens at all is by no means certain either. i would also guess that some populations have more “free will” than others, too.

see also: and Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‘I’m just a machine’ and The human brain: turning our minds to the law and The uncomfortable truth about mind control: Is free will simply a myth?

(note: comments do not require an email. responsibility?)


linkfest – 11/06/11

Siberians share DNA with extinct human species

Fossil Teeth Put Humans in Europe Earlier Than Thought

Ethnicity and camping – from the inductivist.

Is mental time travel what makes us human?

Lynn On The Jews: Yes, It’s Intelligence—But There’s Something Else Too – review of richard lynn’s latest book, “The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence,” from steve sailer.

The ‘rich club’ that rules your brain

Decoding the Brain’s Cacophony“Scientists now know that the brain runs largely on autopilot; it acts first and asks questions later, often explaining behavior after the fact. So if much of behavior is automatic, then how responsible are people for their actions?”

Are birds’ tweets grammatical?

Back to the trees – greg cochran on the flores hobbit.

Bones reveal 18th and 19th-century breastfeeding fads

Exercise Cuts Risk From Obesity Gene“The obesity risk of a genetic variation can be least partially offset with exercise.” – from parapundit.

A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain

Sperm Whales Really Do Learn From Each Other“Sperm whales, Earth’s biggest-brained animals, live in far-flung clans with lifestyles so different and vocalizations so complex that it’s natural to think they have culture.”

Does Inequality Make Us Unhappy?

Scientists and autism: When geeks meet“Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen thinks scientists and engineers could be more likely to have a child with autism. Some researchers say the proof isn’t there.”this week’s issue of nature is all about autism.

bonus: There’s just something about him… – the latest on the wonderfully weird Toxoplasma gondii from carl zimmer.

bonus bonus: An Unexpected Alliance“Lee Siegel considers the weird comedy of letters between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx”

(note: comments do not require an email. groucho cat.)

mea culpa?

great article in the telegraph:

The human brain: turning our minds to the law

“Our understanding of the way the brain works could help us create a better legal system, says neuroscientist David Eagleman….

“The problem is that the law rests on two assumptions that are charitable, but demonstrably false. The first is that people are ‘practical reasoners’, which is the law’s way of saying that they are capable of acting in alignment with their best interests, and capable of rational foresight about their actions. The second is that all brains are created equal. Everyone who is of legal age and above an IQ of 70 is assumed, in the eyes of the law, to have the same capacity for decision-making, understanding, impulse control and reasoning. But these ideas simply don’t match up with the facts of neuroscience.

“Along any axis that we measure, brains are different – whether in aggression, intelligence, empathy and so on. Brains are more like fingerprints: we all have them, but they are not exactly alike. As Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, put it, these myths embedded in the legal system do not provide a ‘uniformly accurate guide to human behaviour’.

“The legal system needs an infusion of neuroscience. It needs to turn away from an ancient notion of how people should behave to understand better how they do behave….”

i agree with eagleman 1000%. how can everyone be held equally accountable for their actions when everyone is not equal?

for example, how can someone who is born with the genes predisposing him towards psychopathy — AND who is raised in the right (or should that be wrong?) environment — be held responsible for his actions in the same way that a non-psychopath can be? answer: he can’t.

the psychopath behaves differently because he has a very different neurology than a non-psychopath. how can he be in any way personally responsible for his psychopathic actions? he certainly cannot be reformed! (without a lobotomy or something drastic like that.)

i’m not saying that criminals shouldn’t be locked up — we need to do that to keep society safe. but, we do need to rethink the basis of our legal system given what we now know (and will learn in the future) about our biology.

previously: who’s responsible?

(note: comments do not require an email.)

who’s responsible?

sarah palin said:

“President Reagan said, ‘We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.’ Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them….”

yes. and, well, nuh-uh!

now, i’m no shrink, but after reading (too much) about jared loughner, including police reports and community college “police” reports, i’m gonna go ahead and diagnose him as crazy. in fact, ’cause of his obvious paranoia as well as his disorganized thinking, i’m gonna go ahead and say he’s prolly schizo (which often develops in early adulthood — jared’s friends talk about how he got weird in just the last year or so).

if i’m right, can this guy really be held accountable for his actions?

from livescience:

“People with acute mental disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are two to three times more likely to commit violent crimes (not just homicide) than people without mental illness, Fazel’s research has found. But there’s an important caveat: Substance abuse dramatically increases the risk of violence, up to about eight to 10 times the rate of the general population.

“Substance abusers without mental illness have similarly high rates of violence, Fazel said.”


– schizos and some other crazy people are 2-3 times more likely than the average joe to commit a violent crime;
– those numbers are even worse — 8-10 times more likely — if the schizos/crazies have substance abuse problems;
– those numbers are about the same — 8-10 times more likely — amongst anybody who has substance abuse problems.

first, jared loughner. prolly crazy (schizo) + he drank (like during school) and smoked pot (according to friends/police reports). so he’s one of these 8-10 times more likely folks.

i’m sorry, but can he be held accountable for his actions? i mean, really. the guy was not in ANY sense of the word in control of what he was doing. read the reports from the community college to see what i mean.

i’m not saying that jared loughner shouldn’t be locked up ’cause he’s obviously a danger to society — but can someone like that ever be “reformed”? can they be changed? don’t think so.

what about the substance abuse folks who are not schizo/crazy? aren’t a lot of them prolly just self-medicating and they prolly actually are bipolar or borderline or something but just haven’t been diagnosed according to the dmv dsm (which is screwy itself anyway)? substance abuse, like alcoholism for instance, is partly heritable after all — so how are those people in control of what they’re doing? can they really be held 100% accountable for what they do?

maybe agressive people are just aggressive and there’s not much to do about it once they’re adults.

what about psychopaths? heritable personality — can be bad if the person has an unloving or abusive upbringing. can they be held accountable?

lately i’ve been leaning strongly toward “no” in answer to all these questions.

again, i’m not saying that dangerous people or people who commit crimes shouldn’t be locked up — we need to do that to keep society as safe as possible — but maybe we need to admit to ourselves that we’re not locking these people up to reform them.

perhaps some people can be reformed; but what can you do, for example, with a mentally retarded person (iq below 70) who is aggressive and murderous? are u really going to be able to reason with him to be a better person? medication or other treatments might work, but you’re not really fundamentally changing the person then, are you? you’re just treating the symptoms. and he hasn’t become more accountable for his actions, has he? just more docile in his behavior.

guess i’m just not a big believer in free will, that’s all. if our personalities|intellects|behaviors are products of our natures and our nutures, where does the free (i.e. independent of those factors) enter into it all?

see also: crime times

(note: comments do not require an email.)