Posts Tagged ‘Mark Ballagher’

A Needed Post on Consciousness

July 9, 2018

This post is inspired by an article in the 23 June 2018 issue of the New Scientist by Per Snaprud titled “Consciousness: How We’re Solving a Mystery Bigger than Our Minds.” The truth is that they are not solving a mystery. Unfortunately there are scientists who regard themselves as being rigorous who are strict determinists and who cannot abide the notion of free will. They are trying to solve consciousness as something that we do not control and in which we view our lives in a deterministic manner.

First of all, they need to accept the concept of free will. Entering “free will” into the search block of the healthymemory blog will yield many previous posts on this topic. The post titled “Free Will” is a review of a book by the same title by the philosopher Mark Ballagher. The book is in MIT’s Essential Knowledge Series, and HM would certainly agree that this knowledge is essential.

Consciousness is something we all experience, and we can experience consciousness in a passive mode. As long as we’re awake, we have a conscious experience. And even during sleep we dream. The Global Workspace Theory states that specialized modules send messages into a vast network where they compete for dominance. The winner is broadcast globally and enters consciousness. This is an accurate description of consciousness in its passive mode. What it does not explain is consciousness in the active mode

We can focus consciousness on particular topics. A failure to do so would lead to incoherent, disastrous lives. One of the goals of meditation is to focus and control our consciousness. There are many benefits to meditation. Accordingly, there are many posts on meditation and mindfulness. Undoubtedly our ability to focus and to meditate is one of our executive functions that is found in the prefrontal cortex.

Please review the numerous posts on meditation and mindfulness to review the many benefits of gaining control of our conscious minds. One post of special importance is titled “The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind Body Connection.” Enter [Mind Body Connection] in the healthymemory blog search block to access this post.

Free Will

July 13, 2015

On the last day of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) convention I attended a session on the general topic of free will.  One of the papers analyzed choices people make as a source of data, which is very close to the approach advocated in a book I had recently read.  I recommended this book to the presenter.  He thanked me as was unaware of this volume.  I decided that a review of this book would be more informative than a discussion of the papers at this session.

Free Will is an important philosophical topic and is also the title of the book by Mark Ballagher in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  He is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles.  He is the most remarkable philosophical author I have ever read.  In my experience philosophical writing involves making the same point with the most subtle nuisances over and over again to what is, in my view, beating a dead horse.  I think in many cases Cliff Notes will suffice and one need not suffer the abuse of philosophical writing.  Mark Ballagher is  an exception.   He is writing is highly readable and to the point.  He allows the horse to live.  He neatly dissects the topic and makes his points concisely.

In the case of free will he dismisses arguments that justify free will on external basis not relevant to the philosophical argument per se.  For example, arguing that free will is necessary or there would not basis for law and punishment.  Ballagher states up front that he has no religious beliefs and does not believe in God.  So those issues are out of the way.

He argues that the big problem with the classical argument against free will is that it just assumes determinism is true.  That makes it easy.  But what makes determinism true? Determinism is still an open philosophical and scientific question.  Quantum physics undermines determinism because it entails uncertainty, but there are still clever arguments that attempt to deal with this uncertainty in undermining free will.  But these are arguments, not compelling arguments, and do not disprove free will.  Philosophical arguments against free will do not hold up  to Ballagher’s analysis.

Then he addresses the scientific argument that there is empirical evidence against free will.  Psychologists might argue that subliminal perception and the fact that the vast amount of mental activity is unconscious (see the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  But to argue that we are unaware of some, even most of our mental activity, does not mean that we never control or make decisions on the basis of mental activity.

Evidence from neuroscience appears to be stronger.  There is LIbet’s experiment that there was neural activity indicating the action before we decided to perform the action.   Ballagher does not mention this, but I believe that LIbet himself did not believe this, although many have used his data to make the argument.  Haynes’ studies appear to be a more successful attempt to debunk free will, but Ballagher digs into the scientific data to reveal its flaws.

Ballagher even criticizes philosophical arguments for free will, for example Hume’s compatabilism.  Ballagher gets to his point by asking what is meant by Free  Will actually.   It is true that most of our information processing  occurs below our level of consciousness.  Ballagher introduces the notion of torn decisions to explain what he means by free will.  Examples of  torn decisions are which restaurant to go do, which movie to see, which college to go to, and so forth.  One can still argue that these decisions are made subconsciously, but this is an assertion, not proof.  Ballagher would not claim that he has proved the existence of free will.  Rather he has defended it from those who attempt to debunk free will.

It is impossible to do justice to Ballagher’s dissection of this topic.  For those interested in this topic, I strongly recommend reading the book.  I would also recommend reading this book to see how informative philosophy can be when incisively analyzed and concisely written.

I would close by providing my reasons for believing in free will.  I am sure that Ballagher would disagree with what I am about to write on philosophical grounds.  Also it is important to realize the Ballagher makes no attempt to prove the existence of free will.  Rather, he is debunking arguments that attempt to disprove free will.  I would argue for believing in free will on pragmatic grounds.  The basic concept of mindfulness is that we have enough control of our conscious minds to modify our behavior and emotions.  And there is much evidence that mindfulness works for those who believe in and practice mindfulness.  If one does not believe in free will, then there is little basis for trying.  If we are without free will, then we are stuck sitting in front of a television set with no ability to change channels.

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