Benjamin Libet’s Experiments on Free Will

In class the last couple of weeks, we have been discussing the free will debate. In this post, I would like to bring to light an old research study pertaining to free will. Benjamin Libet was a famous 20th century neuroscientist who conducted groundbreaking research on the neurobiology of consciousness. In one of his classic experiments, Libet taped electrodes to the intact scalp of his study volunteers in an attempt to measure the correspondence of electrical signals from their brains. His goal was to measure this correspondence of electrical signals when the volunteers moved their wrists. The volunteers were required to look at a moving clock and take note of the precise time (to the millisecond) that they consciously decided to move their wrist. Following data collection, Libet compared the timing of brain activity with the timing of the volunteers’ decisions to move their wrist. His results showed that the volunteers’ brain activities preceded their conscious awareness of the decision to move their wrists by ~200 milliseconds.

Libet’s results sparked a debate about whether the volunteers’ decisions to move their wrists was predetermined or an act of free will. Those supporting the former claimed that because the volunteers’ brain activities preceded their decisions, it was in essence “predetermined” that the volunteers would subsequently move their wrist. On the other hand, those arguing for the free will side such as Libet himself claimed that there was a possibility for the volunteers to override the brain’s “proposal” to move the wrist at a given time. For instance, Libet argued that there was a brief period between the initiation of brain activity and the volunteers’ awareness of the intention to act during which they could “veto” the brain’s decision to initiate movement a moment after. If they did so, then they would prolong the initiation of movement. In this way, Libet argued that the volunteers exercised free will in deciding to veto the brain activity.

Libet’s justification reminds me of Kane’s businesswoman example in his article about free will, in which she has two conflicting decisions but ends up choosing one voluntarily (out of free will). In the same way, I feel that Libet’s volunteers must have had this internal conflict (whether to initiate movement a moment after as the brain specified or veto the brain’s decision), but consciously chose one (to veto the brain’s decision) over the other as an act of free will. As such, I feel that the free will defense of Libet’s experiments is more plausible than the determinism defense.


Brain-Inspired Computer Chip

Last week in class, we read Daniel Dennett’s article in which he imagined a hypothetical scenario in which his brain was removed from his body, placed in a vat, and a computer served as his second “brain.” But is this truly plausible? Most of us, including Dennett, would not think so. However, a recently created brain-inspired chip may pave the way for this to be possible in the future (to an extent). This chip, created by IBM, consists of a densely interconnected web of transistors that aim to mimic the brain’s neuronal networks. Thus, the chip is able to process information like the brain does and recognize human actions. In addition, the chip may even be able to control robots and direct them to perform tasks. Based on this, would it hypothetically be possible to remove a human’s brain, replace it with this chip, and have the human function normally (i.e. perform normal tasks a human can?). Theoretically, if the chip is able to control robots, it should also be able to serve as a “brain” in humans and allow them to perform basic tasks. However, would this chip necessarily give rise to consciousness in these humans? I do not believe so, because as a proponent of the idea that the mind is separate from the brain, I am not sure that the chip carries any component that would allow the human to exercise free will or have a true sense of consciousness. Therefore, I feel that such technology would give rise to philosophical zombies that are able to perform normal functions a human can by command, but do not have consciousness or higher cognitive abilities.


A Buddhist Approach to the Mind-Body Problem/Consciousness

Over the course of the past week in class, we have been discussing the very interesting topic of the Mind-Body problem as it relates to philosophy. We have discussed many theories regarding this topic, and I offer an additional one in this post: the Buddhist approach to the Mind-Body problem. According to Buddhism, the mind and the body are unified, with consciousness (inner subjective awareness) being primary. As per Mahayana Buddhism, the body is viewed “as the densest layer of a spectrum of being that ranges in quality from the dense (body) to the subtle (mind) to the very subtle (pure awareness without thought).” According to a different offset of Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, this very subtle quality of consciousness is believed to be the essential quality of all things, including the body, and is therefore termed “Big Mind.” Interestingly, this view claims that because “Big Mind permeates virtually all things, there can be no actual duality between mind and body.” That is, the mind and body differ only superficially in quality. Additionally, an important point to mention is that though consciousness is seen as primary as per Buddhism, it is not the “first cause.” In other words, consciousness does not cause anything, because such a view would imply that there exists a duality between consciousness and that which is caused by consciousness, a violation of the core ideal of Buddhist philosophy that in the reality of things, there is no fundamental duality between a subject and an object.

Overall, I believe that the Buddhist view of the Mind-Body problem is interesting and certainly plausible. It seems to suggest that consciousness is a phenomenon that just exists within us and permeates throughout our mind and our bodies. Could it then be said that it is fundamental, like David Chalmers postulates? I think it can be, provided that “fundamental” does not imply causation.


The Australian Study of Child Health in Same Sex Families (ACHESS)

In class yesterday, we discussed the idea of same-sex marriage and Gallagher’s stance on the topic. She is clearly opposed to same-sex marriage, and one of her arguments is that it is better for children to grow up in households with heterosexual parents than with homosexual parents. Having found this argument to be absurd, I decided to do some research and came across a landmark study from earlier this year (July 2014) which found that “children raised by same-sex parents thrive.” In this study, so called the Australian Study of Child Health in Same Sex Families (ACHESS), researchers surveyed 315 same-sex parents across Australia and questioned them about family cohesion, social adjustment, mental health, and general physical health of their 500 children. They then compared the results to those representative of the entire population of Australia. Interestingly, the researchers found that children raised by same-sex parents scored about 6% higher than those raised by opposite-sex parents, even when sociodemographic factors such as parent education and household income were kept constant. Thus, the conclusion was that children raised by same-sex parents are potentially happier and healthier than children raised by opposite-sex parents. Dr. Simon Crouch, the study’s lead researcher, explained that these observed results were due to the fact that parents in same-sex households must “take on roles that are suited to their skill sets rather than falling into those gender stereotypes.” Accordingly, he believes that the familial unit is more harmonious and therefore the children (in same-sex parent households) are happier and healthier.

I think that these results clearly contradict Gallagher’s claim that it is better for children to grow up in households with heterosexual parents than with homosexual parents. In fact, this study found the opposite to be true, that children raised in same-sex parent households do better than children raised in opposite-sex parent households. How would Gallagher respond to these findings?




A Summary and Reflection of Prof. Tyler Doggett’s Video on “Killing Animals for Food”

Having watched the optional video (Professor Tyler Doggett’s video on “Killing Animals for Food”), I feel there is strong evidence that it is not morally acceptable to kill animals for food. Prof. Doggett starts off by asking the following question: if it is morally acceptable to kill animals (he specifically chose to use pigs as an example) for food, is it morally acceptable to kill people (human beings) for food? Obviously, we can all agree that the answer to the latter question would be no. Why then would it be ok to kill pigs for food? What is the difference between humans and pigs? Doggett discusses a number of possible responses one may offer, but I list just a couple here that I thought he argued particularly well against: humans and pigs have different genetic makeups and humans are stronger (higher up in the food chain). Let’s consider the first difference one may offer, that humans and pigs have different genetic makeups. In his hypothetical example, Doggett says to consider the case that aliens come to Earth and decide to farm humans. Their justification in doing so is that aliens and humans have genetic differences, so it is morally acceptable for them to farm humans. However, if humans shouldn’t kill other humans for food, why should aliens kill us for food? Exactly, they shouldn’t. If we translate this idea to the humans/pig scenario, it is clear that even though pigs are a different species than humans, it is not morally permissible for us to kill them for food. Now to the second response, that humans are stronger. That is, the response that humans are higher up in the food chain. Doggett argues that even if humans are higher up in the food chain, it is not morally acceptable to kill those lower down in the food chain for food. This is because if we take the example of 2 humans, one stronger than the other, it would obviously be wrong for the stronger to kill the weaker. Similarly, he argues, even if humans are stronger than pigs, it is not morally acceptable for humans to kill pigs for food.

Personally, I feel that Prof. Doggett makes a strong case for why we should’t kill animals for food, although he does not specifically address the issue of whether it is wrong to consume them. Perhaps one may argue that humans kill animals for food simply because they can? This seems to suggest that humans are in some way superior to other animals and therefore deserve extra rights. As Regan would argue, this would be blatant speciesism. One could argue against this and say that animals kill animals for food all the time in nature, but as a more intellectually evolved species, I feel that we humans should exercise better judgment and consider the perspective of the animals we are slaughtering. Therefore, like Doggett, I personally don’t believe it is morally acceptable to kill animals for food.


A (Very) Strongly Worded Criticism of Effective Altruism

Today in class, we talked about the concept of effective altruism. In a simple sense, effective altruism calls for the public to realize that major problems such as poverty plague our world today, and we should take action to mitigate/resolve these problems. In his TED talk, world renowned effective altruist Peter Singer makes the claim that we should aim to reduce poverty in the world by donating money to charities he deems as legitimate. Having watched his TED talk, I was convinced that the effective altruism movement was plausible. However, I stumbled upon an interesting article published late last year in which the authors harshly criticize effective altruism and even go as far as to refer to it as “defective altruism.” In this article (link below), the authors point out that effective altruism is not at all effective at what it aims to do. That is, they claim that one should not be motivated to donate to a charity simply because one has been told to do so; rather, they should do so based on facts and should “be informed and see their donation as an investment.” In the authors’ words, “Being an informed donor means using facts to help make a giving decision, and looking beyond the slogans and the emotion triggered by appeals.” The authors believe that donating to a charity because of “emotions triggered by appeals” defeats the purpose of effective altruism, because such an action cannot be considered altruistic (since an altruistic act is one that is done out of selfless concern for others and independent of outside influence). Could they be right in their criticism?


The Meaning of Life According to Hinduism

In class this past week, we discussed the meaning of life. In this post, I would like to discuss the meaning of life based on Hinduism. According to Hinduism, the meaning (purpose) of life is four-fold: to achieve Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha. The first, dharma, means to act virtuously and righteously. That is, it means to act morally and ethically throughout one’s life. However, dharma also has a secondary aspect; since Hindus believe that they are born in debt to the Gods and other human beings, dharma calls for Hindus to repay this debt. The five different debts are as follows: debt to the Gods for their blessings, debt to parents and teachers, debt to guests, debt to other human beings, and debt to all other living beings. The second meaning of life according to Hinduism is Artha, which refers to the pursuit of wealth and prosperity in one’s life. Importantly, one must stay within the bounds of dharma while pursuing this wealth and prosperity (i.e. one must not step outside moral and ethical grounds in order to do so). The third purpose of a Hindu’s life is to seek Kama. In simple terms, Kama can be defined as obtaining enjoyment from life. The fourth and final meaning of life according to Hinduism is Moksha, enlightenment. By far the most difficult meaning of life to achieve, Moksha may take an individual just one lifetime to accomplish (rarely) or it may take several. However, it is considered the most important meaning of life and offers such rewards as liberation from reincarnation, self-realization, enlightenment, or unity with God.

Having described the meaning of life according to Hinduism, I now briefly offer my thoughts on this subject matter. I feel that religion provides its followers a set of goals to achieve in life, and in doing so, provides a meaning to each follower’s life. Without such guidance, one would likely conclude that life is ultimately meaningless. Therefore, for those individuals in the world who feel that there is no meaning to life, is belief in a religious faith is all that is needed to change their minds?


Corporal Punishment in India

In class today, we talked about corporal punishment and its prevalence in schools in Mississippi. In this post, I would like to discuss corporal punishment as I have witnessed it in my home country of India and offer a reason based on cultural relativism for why I think it exists even today despite being illegal.

Although there are many forms of corporal punishment, the one I have witnessed most commonly in Indian schools is the spanking of students by the teachers. What I found particularly surprising from my experience was that in one of the schools I attended, students from all grades were subject to this form of corporal punishment. This included children of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest. Supposedly, this instills in the children a sense of discipline, but does it really do so directly? I strongly feel it does not — instead, I believe it instills in students a sense of fear, which in turn “disciplines” them. That is, students are taught to behave properly out of fear of the consequences of misbehaving. This is especially powerful in extreme cases of corporal punishment, which in India can include forcing students to sit outside on their knees in blazing hot temperatures (often upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit) for hours on end.

Given this information, I ask a stupidly obvious question: is corporal punishment moral? Of course, I believe not. How then is there justification for its prevalence in India? From a cultural relativist standpoint, I believe that those who support corporal punishment in India fail to see that an objective moral truth regarding this practice exists (even though the Indian government has declared it illegal). That is, these individuals do not realize that corporal punishment is morally wrong and would likely argue that since society does not condemn the practice (i.e. it is prevalent despite having been declared illegal by the government), it is morally acceptable. However, I feel that the value behind corporal punishment is the same as that behind any other form of child disciplining: to teach children what is right and wrong. Why, then, do teachers in India exercise corporal punishment to teach students right and wrong when the same goal can be accomplished by more humane methods (i.e. timeouts)? Personally, I feel it is because throughout Indian history, disciplining children by corporal punishment has been the norm, so society has come to accept it as moral. That being said, when will all of Indian society realize it is immoral?

Biological Evidence to Support Altruism?

In this post, I would like to discuss the concept of altruism. First, I admit that it may be difficult to acknowledge that some people in our world are truly selfless and willing to help others so that they (the “others”) benefit. However, a news article published just three days ago (September 22nd, 2014) claims not only that altruism exists, but also that there is biological evidence for it:

In this article, it is mentioned that an immensely kind-hearted and selfless lady, Angela Stimpson, donated a kidney to someone she did not even know. In my opinion, such an act is an example of true altruism because the motive is clearly for the benefit of the organ recipient. Abigail Marsh, mentioned in the article as one of the most famous researchers of altruism in the US, agrees with me. Fascinated by altruism, she decided to investigate whether any biological evidence exists for this phenomenon. In a research study, she imaged the brains of 19 altruists (those who had donated a kidney to a stranger, including Angela Stimpson) and 20 non-donors to compare brain size and also took MRI scans of her participants while they completed computerized tests. She found that the amygdala, a region of the brain heavily involved in emotional response, was noticeably larger in the altruists than the non-donors. Furthermore, she found that the amygdalae of the altruistic participants were more sensitive to images of “people displaying fear or distress” than those of the non-donors.

These findings are truly exceptional because they provide sound biological evidence that altruism is a legitimate phenomenon that exists in our world. Additionally, they undermine the cynical viewpoint we discussed in class that everyone in the world is an egoist and performs good deeds only for self-satisfaction. After all, only a true altruist would donate their organs for the good of others.

A Comparison Between Arguments Made By Louise M. Antony and Paul Kurtz

In this post, I would like to compare arguments made by Louise M. Antony in her article “Good Minus God” and Paul Kurtz in his debate with William Craig on “Is Goodness without God Good Enough?”

In her article, Louise Antony argues that from an atheist perspective, morality is not imposed on the world by a divine entity. Instead, she believes that morality is present in the world and is a part of human nature, stemming from human experiences and our upbringings. In essence, her viewpoint is that morality is innate within humans and therefore what is morally good is discerned by humans themselves rather than decided by God. She goes on to distinguish between two types of theories concerned with this topic: Divine Command Theory (DCT) and Divine Independence Theory (DIT). Proponents of DCT believe that God decides what is morally good. On the other hand, proponents of DIT believe that moral goodness is independent of God. Antony, of course, is a Divine Independence Theorist and as mentioned previously, believes that morality is an innate human value that is independent of God.

In his debate with William Craig, Paul Kurtz argues that morality is independent of belief in God. His main argument is that “morality and moral behavior do not depend on divine commandments but on the development of an inner moral sense and, particularly in the young, the growth of moral character, and the capacity for moral reasoning” (Kurtz/Craig Debate Pg. 25). He believes that as evolutionarily advanced species, we humans are capable of sensing feelings among one another and are clearly able to discern morally good actions such as love and friendship towards one another. Lastly, he believes that in order to best resolve moral dilemmas, we must all find a common ground and learn to reason together based on common moral principles.

It is evident from both Antony’s and Kurtz’s arguments that they are share very similar if not identical viewpoints with respect to morality as it relates to religious beliefs. Hence, I believe it is fair to say that Kurtz himself is a proponent of DIT, just like Antony. Both philosophers believe that morality is independent of religious beliefs, that one does not have to believe in God to know what actions are morally good. To conclude, both Kurtz and Antony, as defenders of atheism, make the powerful claim that life is meaningful even if one is an atheist.