Thursday, August 02, 2007

Thoughts from the station

Down to London three times this week, so quite a few minutes in the early morning sunlight at Andover station waiting for the train. The subconscious is especially near-to-hand so soon after sleep, sparking the most curious thoughts.


Last night I had the option of ice-cream with my selection of fruits for dessert. My heart (or rather, stomach) was rather enthusiastic, but my sugar-conscious head sternly forbad it. I had exercised willpower -- or had I? Suppose that I did. How would this magical act of willpower have looked at the physics level?

Option A: my decision was completely consistent with the underlying laws of physics, which determined the actions of the neurons which produced my decision. Those laws pre-determined the outcome *. My ‘free will’ was illusory.

Option B: my decision could not have been predicted at the physics level. The transition from my initial to final neuronal state may well have violated physical laws. Gosh, I’m an anomaly!

I’m not sure how much people appreciate that if you believe in free will you have to disbelieve in physics.

* Subject to the vanishingly-irrelevant probability options of quantum mechanics. We might as well live in the Newtonian world of computer simulations as far as neuron-level outcomes are concerned.


As the weather has improved, we’re plagued with houseflies. They all seem identical (and identically irritating). Especially as compared to the diversity of, say, people, with their very different behaviours (and gradations of irritating!).

I think it’s true to say that houseflies are much more alike than people **.

It does require quite a lot of cortical capability to be interestingly different.

** Houseflies are undoubtedly much more genetically-diverse than humans, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.


I wonder how much of my recent ‘free choice’ to learn piano was stimulated by the BBC programme showing various celebrities trying to learn an instrument (Jo Brand heroically trying to master the organ and play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in front of a large audience at the Albert Hall - how did she ever have the nerve?!).

All part of the Reithian mission. People have argued that there is no such mission any more, as we live in unstoppable eddies, swirls and flows of freely available ‘culture’. Still, in an atomised society, there is perhaps an obligation on the elders and institutions to show leadership and execute off an agenda: BBC-1 -- economists-0. Another triumph for evolutionary psychology over homo economicus.