About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The neurobiology of obsession & depression

This morning I was preparing my notes for a class I'm teaching on "how science works." Lots of fun, and part of class time consists in examining items of science in the news and discuss their implications for society. A recent article in Nature magazine (in the July 7, 2005 issue; sorry, you'll need a personal or library subscription to access it) discusses the deep implantation of electrodes in the brain to treat psychiatric disorders such as depression and obsessive compulsive disorders.

It is fascinating to see how these complex human behaviors can be altered dramatically by a very localized action in the brain. One obviously wonders about such matters as free will, personal responsibility, and all the other similarly loaded issues that dominate public discussions of things like disease and socially dangerous, or simply reprehensible "habits." Reading the article, it is hard to escape the distinct and uneasy feeling that "we" have a heck of a lot less control than we'd like on our alleged "choices." In a society as obsessed as the American one is by the balance between social and personal responsibility, this ought to make for crucial food for thought, but it hardly surfaces on the radar screen...


  1. You can find interesting articles on free will (or lack thereof) here:

  2. To me, it underscores how such amazingly complex functions of our brains emerge from a relatively simple set of instructions. It reminds me of the discovery of homeotic transformations in developmental biology. While the changes that were initially studied were largely quite damaging and harmful, the rules of homeotic gene regulation/activity helped unlock the secrets that relate genotype to phenotype. I presume such discoveries as the one presented here will lead us down similar directions towards understanding consciousness. Thanks, Massimo!

  3. From my webpage; C:\webpage\Current Alfred\philos1.htm

    (free will is an illusion)
    I didn't design myself. Nobody designs themselves.
    The level of my intelligence, my thoughts, behaviors and my perception of reality are a direct consequence of how my brain is constructed.
    The structure of my brain is a consequence of the initial structure, which was determined by my genes, and how that structure was affected by the environment i.e. the experiences that my brain went through. Unlike computers there is no clear distinction between hardware and software in brains. Experiences actually change the wiring patterns of the brain. Brain programs are in the wiring pattern.
    What I am and think, is the result of my genes and how the resultant thinking structure (my brain) was, and is, affected by the environment.
    I am an Organic Thinking Machine!

    Free will is a logical impossibility, it cannot exist, it is an illusion.

    No thinking apparatus can have designed itself.
    All thinking is a direct function of the structure of the thinking apparatus.
    All thinking is done by apparatuses that did not design themselves.
    All thoughts, opinions, choices, decisions, behaviors and fantasies are a direct consequence of the structure of the brains that formulated them, and brains are not responsible for their own structure.
    Therefore free will is a logical impossibility, it cannot exist, it is an illusion. No thinking apparatus can have free will.
    Because you did not design your brain, you cannot decide to be intelligent, talented, etc.
    Philosophically to have free will you would have to have complete control over your thoughts, you would have to be able to decide exactly what you were going to think.
    But logically
    You cannot think of a thought before you have thought of that thought and decide whether you are going to think that thought or not.

    Free will is logically impossible because it is impossible for a thinking apparatus to be responsible for its own structure and functionality, and because ultimately it is not logically possible to decide what your next thought is going to be.

    No thinking apparatus can have free choice/will.

    Life is a lottery.
    Everything is luck! (random chance) You may be intelligent, rich, good looking, successful, living in Canada etc., or a retarded mutation living in Ethiopia. Even such attributes as hard working and ambitious are a result of random chance. Nobody decides to be stupid, ugly or even lazy. (Often these faults are used to justify poverty in capitalism, as in the rich deserve to be rich because they are intelligent and hard working and the poor, poor because they are lazy and stupid.) (On the surface people decide to be lazy but the fact that they have decided to be lazy is a consequence of the structure of their brains.) Nobody deserves anything. Stephen Hawkin's deserves his induction into the Royal Society as much as he deserves motor-neuron disease. You are what you are, and that includes your ability to change. Who you are, what you are, where you are, are direct consequences of the deck you were dealt.
    Life is a lottery.
    We are all just a product of evolution, a product of this universe.
    Ultimately no one is responsible for their actions. Ultimately there is no free will, we are machines; Organic Thinking Machines!

    The great nature/nurture debate
    Whenever the shaping influences (causal factors) of human behavior and personality are discussed, the discussion always centers around whether the traits were inherited or learned, a result of genetics or the environment or what combination thereof.
    This debate has been going on for generations yet free will is almost never seriously considered as a factor, quiet simply because it is not a factor.

    Humans cling to the concept of free will with even more desperation than they cling to the concept of an afterlife, imortality and soul.

    The illusion of the self made man
    The self made man is where he is because he was at the right place at the right time and he had a brain that made the right decisions.

    from some of the feedback I have been getting I see the need to clarify that having no free will is not synonymous with determinism. I don’t think that we have no free will because the future is predetermined but because we have no control over the design and therefore the functioning and thoughts of our brains. I believe the future is impossible to predict not only because of the impossibility of gathering all the needed information but because of quantum uncertainty. If the future were predetermined it would be as good as if it had already happened. We would be living in a clockwork universe.


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