Saturday, March 5, 2016

Did Libet Prove Determinism?

This post is from the archive but is relevant to a topic my classes are currently discussing, or soon will be discussing, so I thought it'd be useful to post it again:

Students of psychology, philosophy and other disciplines which touch upon the operations of the mind and the question of free will may have heard mention of the experiments of Benjamin Libet, a University of California at San Francisco neurobiologist who conducted some remarkable research into the brain and human consciousness in the last decades of the 20th century.

One of Libet's most famous discoveries was that the brain "decides" on a particular choice milliseconds before we ourselves are conscious of deciding. The brain creates an electrochemical "Readiness Potential" (RP) that precedes by milliseconds the conscious decision to do something. This has been seized upon by materialists who use it as proof that our decisions are not really chosen by us but are rather the unconscious product of our brain's neurochemistry. The decision is made before we're even aware of what's going on, they claim, and this fact undermines the notion that we have free will as this video explains:
Michael Egnor, at ENV, points out, however, the remarkable fact that, so far from supporting determinism, Libet himself believed in free will, his research supported that belief, and, what's more, his research also reinforced, in Libet's own words, classical religious views of sin.

Libet discovered that the decision to do X is indeed pre-conscious, but he also found that the decision to do X can be consciously vetoed by us and that no RP precedes that veto. In other words, the decision of the brain to act in a particular way may be determined by unconscious factors, but we retain the ability to consciously (freely) choose not to follow through with that decision. Our freedom lies in our ability to refuse any or all of the choices our brain presents to us. Or, we might say, free will is really "free won't."

Egnor's article is a fascinating piece if you're interested in the question of free will and Libet's contribution to our understanding of it.

Clinics Closing at Record Pace

This news will delight some readers and disturb others:
Abortion access in the U.S. has been vanishing at the fastest annual pace on record, propelled by Republican state lawmakers’ push to legislate the industry out of existence. Since 2011, at least 162 abortion providers have shut or stopped offering the procedure, while just 21 opened.
The attempt to impute this trend to nefarious Republicans, though they'd be happy to take credit for it, seems misguided. The article makes clear that states like California which are controlled by abortion-friendly Democrats are also seeing dozens of clinics closing their doors. In any case, the article continues:
At no time since before 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, has a woman’s ability to terminate a pregnancy been more dependent on her zip code or financial resources to travel. The drop-off in providers—more than one every two weeks—occurred in 35 states, in both small towns and big cities that are home to more than 30 million women of reproductive age....

Typically defined by medical researchers as facilities that perform 400 or more abortions per year, the ranks peaked in the late 1980s at 705, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive-health research organization. By 2011, the most recent year for which Guttmacher has data, that number had fallen to 553.

State regulations that make it too expensive or logistically impossible for facilities to remain in business drove more than a quarter of the closings. Industry consolidation, changing demographics, and declining demand were also behind the drop, along with doctor retirements and crackdowns on unfit providers....

That just 21 new clinics opened in five years underscores the difficulty the industry has faced in replenishing the ranks of health-care providers willing and financially able to operate in such a fraught field. The impact of that challenge is likely to be long-lived: Even rarer than the building of a new clinic is the reopening of one that has shut.
One thing that perhaps everyone can agree upon is this: Clinics closing because of diminished demand is a good thing. Whether one is pro-life or pro-choice there's widespread agreement that every child should be a wanted child, and if there is reduced demand for abortion that would suggest that more women are deciding that they want their children.

It would be interesting to know exactly what the reasons are for the lower demand for the services of abortion clinics. Is it, in fact, because of a greater desire on the part of young mothers to have children, is it simply that more couples are practicing contraception, or is it because more women are finding abortion to be morally problematic? Perhaps it's all three.