Free Will debate in Second Life

We had a massive debate at TPN HQ last night (until my internet access dropped out at midnight and didn’t return) about the subject of free will which was kicked off in a massive twitter debate during the day.

My central postulate was this: if every decision you have is a thought: and if a thought is an autonomous electro-chemical process in the brain: then to claim to have free will, you have to be able to explain how you create a thought outside the process of causality.

The discussion got fairly heated at one point when I (probably wrongly) threatened to eject Dave from The Global Geek Podcast if he kept interrupting me. Sorry Dave, probably harsh. Belinda says I get like that during debates.

Anyway, nobody in the room was able to explain to me how they create a thought except to say “I think them”, which, in my opinion, is a circular argument, because the next question is “how did you decide to think that thought?”.

My other suggestion was that if you are in control of your thoughts, you should be able to stop having them. I suggested everyone in the room stop thinking for ten minutes, and when everyone agreed they couldn’t do that, I asked how they could claim to be in control of the creation of thoughts if they couldn’t stop them at will also? This lead to lots of angst and “but but but” retorts, none of which held any water.

Second Life is a pretty good environment for having discussions like this with people from around the world in real time, although you still suffer from the issue of having 20 people trying to talk at once at times. We need a virtual talking stick to pass around or something. Perhaps someone should create one.

nothing but sophisticated meat machines

Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.

“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.

That is hardly a new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as Einstein paraphrased it, that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

From a NYT article entitled “Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t” which I came across via Scott Adams’ blog.

Putting Us Into Perspective

Last week, after the very excellent STIRR Sydney event, me old mate Brenton Perry (remember him from our free will cast?) drank beer and discussed how free will doesn’t exist, how we will save Shane from Christianity, why you shouldn’t take your position on global warming from Michael Crichton, and how damn insignificant humans are in the whole scheme of things and arrogant it is of those humans how think the whole universe was created just for them. And then I happened to stumble onto this six-month old post from Dick Hardt which puts our place in the Universe into some perspective. I highly recommend you check it out.

I’m currently reading Ideas: A Brief History by Peter Watson and it’s very enjoyable. Today I was learning about FOXP2 (“forkhead box P2”), a gene that is implicated in the development of language skills. Many scientists believe evolved in humans about 200,000 years ago and which, when mutated, gave early homo sapiens the ability to communicate which of course gave them an enormous survival advantage. The same genes appears in mice and chimps, with only a couple of molecules different from the version that we have.

And I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Richard Dawkins’ new book “The God Delusion”. The preface is here to read in pdf format. Sounds like a brilliant book and I’m going to try to get him on the show. Father Bob should love that.

The Box and the Stopwatch

Two lifehacks I’ve found useful to share with you today.


Have you ever had something that you are obsessing over and it takes up all of your mental and emotional energy? It might be a problem you are facing, a mistake you made, someone you’ve lost, hunger pains or even a pain in your back. I’m a pretty obsessive personality. I *like* being obsessed. Being obsessive has certain negative associations in our society but, as I always say, the difference between a considered fanatic and an eccentric is just how much money you have. After spending the first ten years of my adult life fighting my genetics, I finally decided to accept them and build on top of them, use them to my advantage if I can. That said, there are times when my obsessions aren’t productive. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. When I realize one of my obsessions is stopping me from moving on with my life, here’s what I do. I put it in The Box. It’s a simple little mental exercise whereby I mentally gather up all of the items associated with the obsession and put in into a solid, lead-lined safe. Then I lock the safe and store it away in one of the back compartments of my mind, like the Ark at the end of Indy 1. Then, whenever a thought associated with the obsession pops into my head (because, as you know, you can’t stop these thoughts from happening as there is no free will. If you don’t believe me yet, listen to G’Day World podcast #155), I just say "put it in The Box". And the energy (what is the definition of that again?) that the thought has seems to lessen. That’s not saying it completely disappears, but it diminishes and, over time, will drift into the background. Remember: put it in The Box.


I learned this one from Merlin Mann’s excellent “(10+2)*5” productivity hack but it has a range of other uses. Again, even when I’m using The Box to store away something that I need to forget about, going completely cold turkey is frakkin hard. So I’ll allow myself to think about the thing inside the box for a couple of minutes a few times every hour. I use a stopwatch (if I’m working at my PC I use this excellent little app) and set it for ten minutes. I make a deal with myself that I will ignore the urge to open the box for ten minutes and, for that ten minutes, I will work on something important. Then, when the alarm of the stopwatch goes off, I allow myself 2 minutes to think about the thing inside The Box. Then, reset the stopwatch for another ten minutes, and get back to work. Eventually I can lift the time on the watch to 15, 20 and 30 minutes. Then a whole hour will go past before I remember I need to visit The Box.

GDAY WORLD!!! #155 – On Energy, String Theory and Free Will

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Yesterday my mate Shane Williamson in Sydney skyped me (long time listeners might remember him from G’Day World #3) and then he conferenced in our mate Brenton Perry (who was on G’Day World #132) at home in Texas. Shane, Brenton and I all used to work in the same team at Microsoft back in ’98. The conversation quickly centered around the definition of “energy” and string theory and then morphed into a debate about free will. As I had Skylook running it automatically got recorded and I thought the conversation was interesting and you might all enjoy it. The sound quality isn’t the best (due to the fact that I was sitting on my $25 USB headset on the desktop (which has a fan which sounds like a Boeing engine) but it’s okay if you can ignore the background buzz and occasional echo. I bring you into the conversation about 20 minutes in.

The G’Day World Theme Song: “Save Me” by The Napoleon Blown Aparts, America’s baddest rock n’ roll band!