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The Brain and the Meaning of Life 6: How Brains Decide


Big Decisions
Inference to the Best Plan

Decisions in the Brain
Thagard describes in brief how decisions are made in the brain. It combines an emotional evaluation of mental representations of actions with beliefs about how these actions are to occur. Somehow (big somehow) the activation and inhibition of neurons that represent these states of affairs leads to a decision. Things that are consistent are activated, those that conflict are not.

goals are emotionally valued mental representations of imagined states of the world and self (1588).

Changing Goals
Thagard looks at where goals come from and how they change. He points to some biological goals we’re born with. Other goals are subordinate, instrumental goals to help achieve higher ones. Still others may be transmitted by family, or by other people in a social group.

People abandon goals for similar reasons. The goals might be impossible, or conflict with other goals, or they are sub-goals whose upper goals have been abandoned, or information arrives that goals will not help achieve higher goals.

How to Make Bad Decisions
Thagard lists six ways to make bad decisions. It would be pretty funny to see this quote mined as real advice he is giving for life.

you may find it possible to improve your choices by following these positive rules when making decisions: 1. Carefully consider all the relevant actions and goals. 2. Collect reliable information about how well different actions facilitate different goals. 3. Evaluate the importance of different goals. 4. Remain flexible and open to new information. 5. Consult other people about actions and goals. 6. Altruistically take into account the goals of other people (1753).

Intuitions can be reasonable when they are based on unconscious parallel satisfaction of all the relevant constraints concerning all the relevant actions and goals. But intuitions are just as likely to arise from faulty unconscious processing of limited information (1761).

Living Without Free Will
This is a very brief section that does not argue that free will does not exist, but instead points out that based on the rest of the chapter, free will is, like immortality and the soul, an illusion. Thagard things this is lamentable, but necessary. I don’t even think it is lamentable. Contra-causal free will is just randomness. Doesn’t add anything of value.

Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and Owen Flanagan have shown that giving up free will in the absolute sense provided by the view of mind as nonmaterial soul is not so bad as you might think. We can still have many of the desirable attributes of free will, including self-control, self-expression, individuality, sensitivity to reasons, rational deliberation, accountability, and an important kind of autonomy (1776).

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