Thursday, October 26, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will I

I finally received this new book by Robert Sapolsky and have read about a third of it so far. That section is largely a restatement of information that was provided in his last book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, discussed earlier. Sapolsky looks closely at how the human brain develops and functions neurologically, and in this instance attempts to demonstrate how events prior to and after birth, over which an individual has no control, determine their behavior in various situations. At this stage in my readings, this was rather obvious to me, as was the idea that free will does not exist in a meaningful sense. In later chapters, he writes about the implications of these ideas for legal systems, which may expose their inadequacies by showing how individuals may have little control over their own behavior. 

As before, I am not a fan of Sapolsky's writing style. He often strains to sound un-academic and inserts too many frivolous footnotes. Given the complexity of the subject matter, I think that he makes the material more difficult to absorb than it has to be. For example, I think that both Daniel Kahneman and Vinod Goel make the functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the human brain a little more understandable than he does, though they offer somewhat simplified models. Also, Sapolsky sometimes brings up specific research only to dismiss it a few pages later. He does this with the research of Benjamin Libet, who showed that when a person makes a choice, their brain makes it before they are aware of it. That research has been claimed by some to demonstrate that people do not have free will. Sapolsky takes about twenty pages discussing this only to conclude that Libet's study is irrelevant to the topic of free will because it doesn't establish intent.

One section that I found more useful was his discussion of the effects of collectivist cultures versus individualistic cultures on individual behavior. Neuroimaging studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex activates differently in people from East Asian cultures from people in Western cultures. East Asians are activated equally by pictures of their mothers and pictures of themselves, whereas Westerners are activated more by pictures of themselves. East Asians are also more active in emotional regulation and understanding other people's perspectives than Westerners, who exhibit more emotional intensity, self-reference and capacity for strong emotional disgust or empathy.

In general, collectivistic-culture individuals prefer and excel at context-dependent cognitive tasks, while it's context-independent tasks for individual-culture folks....

East Asian collectivism is generally thought to arise from the communal work demands of floodplain rice farming. 

It appears that recent Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have been more independent than their population in general and self-selected to emigrate to the U.S. This type of self-selection can ultimately affect local gene pools, making them more collectivist or more individualistic.

Sapolsky's perspective on free will and determinism is somewhat different from what I'm used to. I usually read about determinism in terms of physics and astronomy. At this stage, Darwinism encapsulates not just organisms, but the entire universe. Planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies and galactic clusters all evolve, and the question is whether this is all predictable. Currently it appears that there are still random quantum events at the subatomic level, but I don't think that the existence of those events necessarily rules out rigid determinism. To me, this means that every event, at least since the Big Bang, was destined to occur. That may or may not prove to be the case, but I don't think at this point that we have the right tools to know the answer. On a much smaller scale, it is of some practical value to understand how human behavior originates. That information is essential for developing appropriate laws, social systems and governments. As I've been saying for several years, my ideal would be to develop a human-compatible program that manages the Earth's biosphere for the benefit of mankind. Obviously, due to the complexity of such an operation, AI would have to play a major role. I would argue that the traditional democratic republics now in place globally can safely be described as obsolete in light of the psychological research findings of the last few years. 

I will probably make at least two more posts on this book.

Friday, October 13, 2023


I am still adjusting to my new neighborhood. Actually, in some respects I prefer it to Middlebury. I advocated Middlebury initially partly because I thought that it would provide enough activities to satisfy my partner. It didn't. Without her, I have less use for the town. I still buy food at the Middlebury co-op, which only means that I go there once a week. I also plan to attend events at the college periodically. My doctors, dentist and optometrist are still there. I may also visit my old neighborhood occasionally and talk to my former neighbors. I did recently and spoke to Jim Douglas about the Mead Chapel controversy, with which he is involved. The college changed the name because the original Mead was associated with the eugenics movement, and Mead's descendants asked him to help, so he sued the college to change it back. Eugenics was a popular idea locally when Mead was alive, and I agree that his family should not bear the brunt of it now, as his involvement was peripheral. I also spoke to my former next-door neighbor, Fred. He mowed the lawn for my partner after I left, and the house has since been sold. I had tipped him off about her psychiatric state, and he said that he noticed that some days she was friendly and other days cold.

When I lived in Middlebury, I got most of my exercise just by going outside and walking on Munger Street. That got boring after a few years, and I had other walks a short drive away. I have just worked out a walking routine for Brandon. Although there are several good trails in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area nearby, most of them take several hours. For exercise purposes, I prefer thirty-to-sixty-minute walks, and there aren't many near this house. Pittsford, Vermont is only eight miles south of here and has a trail system that fits my requirements. Pittsford is even more rural than Brandon, with a population of about three thousand. It sits between the Green Mountains and the Taconic Mountains, so the scenery is a little more exciting than the Champlain Valley, which is mostly flat. I am in somewhat better physical condition now than I was a few months ago. My shoulder tendonitis has diminished, and I can now do pushups again. I have also been doing more hiking recently and am in very good cardiovascular condition.

Having lived in the Midwest for about forty years, I am always impressed by the local history here and the people who have lived in this area. In Middlebury, there was John Deere, who later moved to Illinois. Also, Charlie Munger, the current vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a descendant of the Mungers who had farms on Munger Street. The electric motor was invented by Thomas Davenport in Brandon. Pittsford had two forts during the American Revolution. The current residents in this part of Vermont seem relatively competent and resourceful compared to those in comparably-sized towns in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Of course, I am still following the news. Now that the writers' strike is over, there is some good late-night comedy again, though I don't watch most of it. This seems like a bizarre historical period, particularly because of the Trump phenomenon. Previous generations would find Trump's popularity incomprehensible. Besides the fact that he obviously has little knowledge of or interest in governing, he has amassed a criminal record for which he has never been held accountable purely as a result of his lifelong abuse of the legal system. If Trump were reelected, anarchy or civil war couldn't be ruled out. One can only ask what drug his supporters are on. And then there is the Hamas-Israel war. As I wrote some time ago, the Israeli Jews would have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had moved to Nevada instead of Israel. There are currently more Jews in the U.S. than in Israel. Furthermore, the Israelis are demonstrating that they are no better than Hamas by copying the murder of innocent civilians. Genetically, I have ancestors from the Levant: they must have left hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Mouse Report

Since moving to Vermont in 2011, I've spent a fair amount of time blocking mouse entrances to houses. In Middlebury, mice began to appear just after we moved in. I would find their entrances and block them off, and then, after about two years, they would find new ones. At the sixth year, I seem to have found the last ones, and there were no mice in the house after that. This can be informative about both mouse behavior and house construction. One can use a quasi-scientific method to determine exactly what the mice are doing and what the weak points of a house are as far as mice are concerned. To block the mice, I have used steel wool, caulk, cement and anti-mouse foam, depending on the circumstances.

The Middlebury house was built in 1798 and had a 1974 addition. The mice came in through the old foundation and underneath the foundation of the addition. When those were all blocked, they climbed up wires to the roof and found new openings. The Brandon house has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1976 on a seventeen-acre lot next to another house. A couple bought the entire property in 1983 and lived in the other house. The wife's mother lived in this house as an in-law house, a popular arrangement in Vermont. In about 1999, the couple got divorced. The property was subdivided into three lots, and this one is five acres. They built a new foundation for the in-law house here, cleared a path through the woods, and then moved the house a few hundred yards to the new foundation. The divorcée moved here and the other two lots were sold.

Because this house has a poured concrete foundation with no drains, mice can't get in directly through the basement. They were getting in above-ground and finding their way to the basement and the walls above. There is very little attic space here, and it is filled with solid foam insulation. The outer walls and part of the basement ceiling are insulated with pink fiberglass insulation. The mice have found paths through the attic but don't seem to live there. They seem to prefer the fiberglass and make nests in it. Initially, most of the mice went down to the basement and were caught in humane traps and released. Generally, the mice could not get into the living parts of the house except through a gap under the basement door, which I blocked. One immature mouse did get through a small opening in a wall upstairs and entered the bathtub, where it became trapped. I took it outside.

Since I moved into the house, I have blocked a total of about six mouse entrances. It is difficult to know the exact number, but since those six holes were blocked, no new mice have entered the house. The remaining mice traveled around the house, and at first they went to the basement, where they were trapped. I eventually found and blocked four paths that the mice had been using to get to the basement, and since then there have been no mice in the basement. The closest the mice can get to the outside now is the back porch, which they can reach through an exposed section of attic, which would be difficult to block. So the last few mice were caught on the back porch, and there don't seem to be any more. During this period, some mice occupied a wall in the upstairs bathroom. When the last upstairs mouse had no access to the outside, it also went to the back porch and was caught.

I don't know what the precise conditions were for the previous owner. If she didn't block the basement door, there would have been mice all over the interior of the house, and there is some evidence of that (mouse droppings). The exterminators whom she hired blocked many holes on the exterior and interior of the house, but they appear to have completely missed the main ones actually used by mice. Thus, they eventually placed poison bait throughout the house. I suspect that the previous owner had mice every year that she lived here.  Originally, she kept her garbage in the shed, and that became a mouse habitat. Later, when she added the front porch, she left her garbage in a container out there. Probably as a precaution, she kept no garbage in the house. Deer mice and white-footed mice generally leave houses in the spring and don't return until the fall. Thus, the previous owner strategically put her house on the market in April.

It remains to be seen how successful my de-mousing effort has been here. They will probably continue to try to gain entrance to the house for the next couple of months and try again next fall. They are capable of chewing through screens, so they may attempt to reenter through the back porch. I am keeping an eye out for that. Whatever happens, my future work should be significantly reduced by the work that I've already done.

Mice, as mammals, aren't that different biologically from humans. They seek food and shelter and have babies. Though they don't have nuclear families, some of their behavior mimics it. Although the males have no interest in family life and seek sex with other females, a female with a litter can emit pheromones and make ultrasound calls that induce fathers to help in certain situations.

Sunday, October 1, 2023


The most significant change in my life since June 10, besides the disappearance of William, has been an increase in quietness. I thought that I'd write a little about that, since I find it important. My current house is on a gravel, dead-end road in a town with a population of only about 4129. During the rush hour, I can hear some traffic from another nearby road, and I can hear distant trains, but most of the time it is very quiet, except for an occasional barking dog or a vehicle driving on the gravel road. Also, some of my neighbors shoot guns on weekends. Of course, the men also like to operate heavy equipment, and that can be loud too. The fourth of July was very noisy. But at night, the loudest sound usually comes from barred owls, which sometimes wake me up. It is so quiet during the day that I can hear my digestive system working, and initially I thought that there might be something wrong, but there isn't. For me, this is an improvement over my previous house, which was on a busier road.  

Noise is currently being taken up as a health concern by medical researchers. Particularly in cities, the constant background noise is now thought to produce biological stresses that may induce various diseases. However, in the modern world, the absence of noise itself is thought to induce stress, and there are plug-in background noisemakers to reduce the stress of silence. 

My hearing isn't perfect, and, since 1987, I've had tinnitus, which sounds like a continuous high-pitched tuning fork. Most of the time I don't notice it, but it probably interferes with hearing external high-pitched sounds. Even so, I am sensitive to most sounds, particularly those produced by animals. So, when it was quiet, I heard the cat coming through the cat door and mice in the wall when others didn't. Coyote howls could be loud. In this vein, I think that, as biological entities, we are innately attuned to our environments, and when we block out those sounds with earbuds or noise cancelers, we may be inducing stresses that adversely affect our health. I think that the internet and all of the associated gadgets, along with the social changes caused by social media, have created a kind of cognitive dissonance that may adversely affect our health. So, even though I don't currently have much of a social life, I am probably more in tune with nature than most people and am less likely to become afflicted with the illnesses that hunter-gatherers never experienced before technology altered the human biome. Starting from this concrete base of biological experience, it isn't difficult to see new kinds of dysfunction and illness emerging unpredictably and disrupting the lives of millions of people. 

While a low population density and little noise may have disadvantages in terms of social enrichment, they can facilitate a meditative mental state and unexpected health benefits. I find that the people here in Brandon, though subject to many of the social ills evident elsewhere, are a little more relaxed and at peace with themselves even than the people in Middlebury, which is just up the road but twice the size in terms of population.