Geneticist Craig Venter is at it again. Not content with shotgun-sequencing the human genome, Venter has recently speculated that designer bacteria might be the first wave in a process of converting other planets into human habitations. This speculation of course, piggybacks on Venter’s recent fame as the creator of the first synthetic life-form. A recent video by the New York Times, however, raises a pertinent question: ‘What exactly is life?’ Did Venter and his team actually create ‘artificial-life’? –or is his bacterial cell more of a Frankenstein’s monster than anything truly living?
This question has a long history in biology and philosophy. It’s inexorably tied up with questions about the essence of life, and indeed of humanity. Lucky for us though, we can skip tricky metaphysical questions about souls, élan vitals, and the like, and focus on something far more specific and parochial. Just what is needed – what are the nuts and bolts required – for life?
Philosophers shop for free will as hypochondriacs do for good health. Nothing but the real thing will do, and yet they refuse to trust the countless everyday indications that they already possess their quarry. Of course it seems to be the case that to act on one’s decisions is to exercise one’s freedom, but can it be true that, winding time back to the crucial moment, you or I could have done otherwise?
Enter the biologists. We can account for free will so long as we are willing to share it with flies, leeches, and all forms of life that enjoy a nervous system. As Bjorn Brembs has recently argued in The Royal Society, we should equate free will with variability, or an organism’s power to determine the precise way in which it responds to its environment. Variability, Brembs contends, is a (as yet little understood) neural process that amplifies random fluctuations in the brain in order to introduce non-sensory dependent variations into Continue reading “Flies Do It, Leeches Do It— Even Biologists Do It: Free Will Explained”
Superstar philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini have recently published a controversial book, What Darwin Got Wrong. They argue that “Darwinism,” specifically the theory of natural selection, is not just false, but even incoherent and therefore couldn’t be true. A summary of their argument is here. Elliott Sober debates Fodor in a diavlog on Bloggingheads.tv here. If you watch the diavlog (perhaps best to start about 6 minutes in: here) you’ll quickly notice that Sober doesn’t think Fodor’s argument works. In that respect I think Sober represents the vast majority of philosophers and scientists.