Monday, February 6, 2012

An Entry in the Free Will Debate

Transient global amnesia (TGA) occurs when, for no reason that we clearly understand as yet, people get anterograde amnesia for a day or so, and then go back to normal. Essentially you become the guy from Memento and stop being able to form new memories - you "reset" every few minutes - and then eventually you're okay.

Above: a cool picture that I want you to think has something to do with memory and free will. Image by Rainbowmonkey.

A lot of neurologic diseases have implications for very old questions from philosophy; these questions are mostly talking about the behavior and understanding of humans, all of which is dependent on the meat inside those humans' skulls. When that meat breaks, the way in which it breaks is informative to those questions. Consequently TGA may have implications for the free will discussion that's been going on with particular heat in the atheist and philosophical blogosphere for a year or so. But first, an important question about free will is, however you define it, how will your decisions and actions change once you establish that it does or does not exist? If you can't articulate how your behavior will change, that says something very important about the idea - at least that it's not relevant, and maybe even that the whole thing is incoherent and meaningless. This is a principle you can apply to many, many things, e.g. to theists who are decent people, who insist that their moral sense comes from God, but who appear to have an almost identical moral sense with atheists.

How does transient global amnesia relate to free will? If we're just machines, you would expect that we would always produce the same output in response to the same input. Normally we don't show obvious loops because we learn from the last time we got the input, and the machine changes - that is, we learn. But if you can't make new memories, that's the same as saying that you can't learn...start listening at seven minutes to this account from an NPR show of a Bay Area lady who experienced it - and had the episode recorded by her daughter.

What seems to be much more important in being happy and productive, and is supported by data, is being optimistic.

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