Philosophy department hosts conference on the human self

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September 30, 2008

12:01 AM

The Second Biennial William and Mary Colloquium in Philosophy, “The Study of the Human Self,” took place at the Williamsburg Hospitality House Thursday and Friday.

Top psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists addressed issues of free-will and willpower around which the conference centered.

One of the topics that received particular attention during the conference was Yale University philosophy professor Tamar Szabo Gendler’s introduction of the term “alief.”

“An alief is an innate or habitual propensity to respond to an apparent stimulus in a particular way,” Gendler said.

Aliefs differ from beliefs in that they change in response to habit instead of evidence. Gendler cited a study in which participants refused to eat a cake that they themselves had decorated to look like a used kitty-litter box, even though they believed it was perfectly edible.

“It’s not that I believe [that by] shaping the tootsie roll this way suddenly I have transformed its chemical content,” Gendler said. “Rather, what is kicking in is what I call an alief system.”

Gendler emphasized the alief system’s usefulness as a conceptual framework rather than as a biological process.

“It’s not that I think alief is something that takes place in a certain part of the brain,” she added. “We need to make room for a wide range of phenomena that would otherwise remain perplexing.”

Another presentation that spurred discussion was Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister’s paper, “The Limited Resources of the Agentic Self: The Cost of Using Willpower for Self-Regulation and Choice.” According to Baumeister, studies show that willpower is based on a limited resource — glucose — which becomes quickly depleted during acts of self-regulation.

“Acts of self-control reduce glucose in the bloodstream,” he said.

Baumeister cited tests in which participants who drank sugary lemonade, a source of glucose, between unrelated acts of self-control performed better than others who drank lemonade made with Splenda, a sugar substitute.

“The same energy seems to be used for many different acts and kinds of self-control,” he added.

For instance, he noted that a lack of glucose makes one less likely to compromise.

“We should put some glucose machines in the halls of Congress,” University of Texas philosophy professor Robert Kane joked.

Kane represented the libertarian view of free will, which says that theories of free will and determinism cannot both be true and that humans have free will. Kane’s theory of free will is based on what he calls “ultimate responsibility.”

“Free will is the power of agents to be the ultimate creators or sustainers of their own ends or purposes,” he said.

“The basic idea is this: to ultimately be responsible for an action, one must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient cause or reason for the action,” he said.

According to Kane, people are ultimately responsible for their actions not because they make an actual choice every time they decide to do something, but because they have a certain predisposition they themselves are responsible for forming from previous decisions he calls self-forming actions.

“These undetermined self-forming actions occur at those difficult times in life when we are torn between who we are and who we want to become,” he said.

To make self-forming actions possible, Kane presumes a sort of quantum indeterminacy in the brain, but recognizes that mere indeterminacy does not guarantee that an action is free.

“For instance, if the event occurred due to a quantum jump or other in someone’s brain, would that amount to free choice? Indeterminism is required for free will, but it isn’t enough — it might provide causal gaps in nature, but something must fill those gaps,” he said. “No purely philosophical issue can settle the issue. Scientists will have to settle this for us.”

The final presentation, Harvard University psychology professor Daniel Wegner’s “When the Will Goes Away,” represented the determinist point of view that free will does not exist.

Wegner detailed his personal experience last year when his own conscious will temporarily went away when he developed a non-malignant brain tumor. He found himself with symptoms analogous to Alien Hand Syndrome in which his right hand began performing actions without him being aware.

“Standing at the counter getting ready to wash a pear I found that the pear had been picked up by my far right [hand] and brought in front of me,” he said. “I almost felt like saying thank you.”

After his own experience and numerous other studies, Wegner came to rethink conscious will as an experience rather than as a cause of action.

“We normally think of thought and action as occurring in a simple causal relationship,” Wegner said. “We are agents whose mental systems allow us to know what we are doing, often in advance of the action. This knowledge allows us to draw causal inferences about apparent relationships between our thoughts and actions, and these inferences can lead to the experience of agency.”

By the end of the conference, at least one panelist had changed her mind on free will.

“I now no longer believe there is such a thing as free will. I have come to believe there are processes that are beyond our control,” Esther Sternberg, a neuro-immunologist at the National Institutes of Health, said. “It’s always going to be influenced in one direction or another by many biological factors of which we have no control.”

The conference ended Friday evening with a reception at the Muscarelle Museum of Art. College President Taylor Reveley made an appearance, where he took a moment to praise the exchange of ideas that took place during the conference.

“You guys did it right,” Reveley said.

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