Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Free Will by Remote Control   posted by TangoMan @ 10/26/2005 12:49:00 AM

Over on the Mises Economic Blog, Lucretius, a neurobiologist, has written a post rebutting the contention put forward by Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in their paper For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything that:

New neuroscience will change the law, not by undermining its current assumptions, but by transforming people’s moral intuitions about free will and responsibility. This change in moral outlook will result not from the discovery of crucial new facts or clever new arguments, but from a new appreciation of old arguments, bolstered by vivid new illustrations provided by cognitive neuroscience. We foresee, and recommend, a shift away from punishment aimed at retribution in favour of a more progressive, consequentialist approach to the criminal law.

I'd encourage you to read the philosophical musings being entertained but also keep in mind the news breaking in Japan today in which Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. researchers demonstrated a rudimentary ability to control volunteer subjects via remote control:

A special headset was placed on my cranium by my hosts during a recent demonstration at an NTT research center. It sent a very low voltage electric current from the back of my ears through my head — either from left to right or right to left, depending on which way the joystick on a remote-control was moved.

I found the experience unnerving and exhausting: I sought to step straight ahead but kept careening from side to side. Those alternating currents literally threw me off.

The technology is called galvanic vestibular stimulation — essentially, electricity messes with the delicate nerves inside the ear that help maintain balance.

I felt a mysterious, irresistible urge to start walking to the right whenever the researcher turned the switch to the right. I was convinced — mistakenly — that this was the only way to maintain my balance.

The phenomenon is painless but dramatic. Your feet start to move before you know it. I could even remote-control myself by taking the switch into my own hands.

There's no proven-beyond-a-doubt explanation yet as to why people start veering when electricity hits their ear. But NTT researchers say they were able to make a person walk along a route in the shape of a giant pretzel using this technique.

It's a mesmerizing sensation similar to being drunk or melting into sleep under the influence of anesthesia. But it's more definitive, as though an invisible hand were reaching inside your brain.

[ . . . ]

If you're determined to fight the suggestive orders from the electric currents by clinging to a fence or just lying on your back, you simply won't move.

But from my experience, if the currents persist, you'd probably be persuaded to follow their orders. And I didn't like that sensation. At all.

The article goes onto speculate about the commercialization of this technology, for both civilian and military markets. What struck me about this report was how the remote control device was stimulating the senses and causing the brain to induce action, but instead of free will being the agent of initiation, it was an external electrical current acting on the nerves and initiating the cascade of processes that followed.