An (Embellished) Anecdote – Free Will, Autonomy, Selfhood, and Hot Dogs

May 7, 2011 at 21:33 (Great Quotes, Neuroethics, Philosophy, Psychology)

Not long ago, I was walking across campus to the office, slightly behind schedule and thus going briskly so as not to be late. As I passed by the Student Union Building, the most pleasing aroma came to my nose, and I looked to notice that Japadog had set up shop just a few hundred paces out of my way. (Japadog is a hot dog cart that is something of a Vancouver legend, and it is life-changingly delicious.) I felt my feet veering me off to my left as I began to imagine securing some of this delectable fare for myself.

Almost immediately, the fact that I was going to be late if I went even a few yards astray came rushing back to me. Bummer though it was to give up my Japadog, I corrected my course and fastwalked onward. As the smell of kurobuta sausage and wasabi mayo faded into the distance, my philosophically reckless inner monologue exulted: “see, I wasn’t going to just let that happen! Way to exercise free will.

Of course, I caught myself, and posing as my own internal interlocutor, self-responded “hey now, exactly what about that decision makes it look like free will? Given the set of things you care about, the relative value you place on those things, and some basic rules of reasoning, it was literally impossible for you to have chosen in any way but the way you chose, even if it felt like you could have done otherwise. Or do I have to remind you about how what just now played out looked from a brain’s-eye view?

Unable to really argue with myself on that, I eventually came up with: “okay then, genius, but you still have to explain the feeling of satisfaction that comes from looking back on what happened. Are you just gonna say that in fact there was nothing to take credit for and it’s silly to be pleased?

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Is the Case “Against” Euthanasia Really Just a Case for Better Policy?

February 24, 2011 at 00:20 (Bioethics, Great Quotes, Politics)

Lately, one of the topics I’ve had occasion to think about quite a bit is the culture-war-tinged set of issues swirling around physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. A couple of months ago, a dear family friend of mine succumbed to lymphoma, and while the specific question of assisted suicide didn’t come into the picture there, end-of-life care inevitably forces everyone to consider what might happen along those lines. In particular, that episode prompted me to revisit the powerful Nietzsche quote I keep on my Facebook profile: “One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.”

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I happened to sit in on a lecture by one Dr. Margaret Cottle, whose unexpectedly polemical presentation really jarred me into revisiting the euthanasia debate with some of the perspective I have gained from my own area of research. For the sake of background, here is an article that quotes Dr. Cottle quite a bit (though I must apologize that I couldn’t find an article from a less upsetting and nasty website). Interestingly, though, the talk that I heard her give didn’t really focus on what one might take to be the deep, in-principle reasons to oppose physician-assisted suicide. Instead, it was largely a broadside on how permissive euthanasia policies have played out where they have been implemented. In Dr. Cottle’s estimation, the impact of such policies has, in every case, been an unmitigated disaster.

Why did her talk give me such pause? Well, because it highlighted an important feature in the topography of this, and other similar, debates.

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