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Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Will you make choices this year?
At WebMetricsGuru, a site I rarely visit about "Web analytics," the writer, Marshall Sponder, who has a search engine marketing consultancy, points out an article in yesterday's New York Times that is currently the most emailed on nytimes.com. It's a pretty fascinating article, summing up with a nice synthesis the current thinking about the old problem of free will vs. determinism -- in other words, the question of whether we act on choices we are free to make or whether we're a bunch of atoms bouncing around in ways already determined by the laws of physics.
Sponder's post isn't too enlightening compared to the piece itself, but he picks out some good quotes and captures what I also took to be the flavor of the research findings reported in the Times -- that sadly things couldn't have gone differently than they have. One example: it seems we actually have conscious thoughts about, say, choosing to punch someone just after our limbs starts moving, though we experience it in the reverse order. In other words, if that finding is to be believed, we interpret what we do in retrospect as the result of a decision that never took place.
Daniel Dennett, the controversial atheist philosopher, is quoted in the piece presenting a "third way" interpretation, trying to make free will compatible with determinism, as other philosophers have. But it isn't clear in the article exactly what he means. Has anyone read the relevant Dennett work? Maybe you, Josh?