Monday, March 12, 2012

Why Freedom?

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Is "freedom" something that matters to you?

Do you resent being told what you can or cannot do?

Do you vigorously defend your own right to choose for yourself?

Do stories of oppression make your blood boil?

If you are anything like me, the answer to all of those questions would be a resounding YES.

Yet, is "freedom" even real?

Some would say, perhaps, that we are not free at all; that our behaviour is completely determined by the interaction of our genetics and environment, and that although we perceive ourselves as autonomous, self-determined human beings, we are in fact nothing but a sum of (at least theoretically) predictable probabilities. 

But if that is really the case - why is the idea of 'freedom' something we value so highly?

And, another question; is "freedom" even healthy, necessarily?

After all - to be free to choose, is to be free to make the wrong choice, as well as the right one!

I've been listening to, and having conversations lately, that I think all connect to this concept of freedom.  There have been questions like "why do pain and evil exist?"  "How could God allow atrocities and tragedies if he is a loving God?"  "is there really such a thing as the 'self'?" (that one was in this TED talk) as well as the conversation here on Stuart's guest post, about whether there is more to life than a biological cycle of birth and death.  How you answer the question of whether we are really free to make choices has huge implications for all of these other questions.

So... Are we free?  Or are we simply products of heredity and environment?

I believe that our genetics do affect us more than we realise.  My love of vibrant colours, and tendency towards nonconformity are at least partly inherited.  These factors and others really do affect my preferences, and therefore my choices.  Philosopher and Cognitive Psychologist, Sam McNerney believes, along with other philosophers and scientists of note, that the self is, in fact, an illusion.  But - does the fact that biology and environment influence my preferences mean that I am not truly capable of choosing?

Every parent knows that part of helping children mature into functional, healthy adults, is helping them to make sound, healthy choices.  Learning to control impulses and behave thoughtfully toward others is an important part of developing maturity. 

I think of people who have "fallen through the cracks" of our society, in one way or another...  I blogged about some circumstances that helped to create an Australian murderer, here - and I wonder, had I experienced a similar environment, how different would I be, today?  How much of their story can be ascribed to biology and environment, and how much was their choice?  And although we feel there is always a choice of behaviour, if we are unaware of some possibilities, how can we be considered free to choose them? 

But I am meandering.  The feeling that I cannot shake, in all this, is that if biology, environment and a clever interactive system is all that there is to us - We. Should. Not. Care. About. Freedom.  Comfort?  Yes.  Biological needs?  Yes.  Social belonging?  Yes.  But... freedom?  Individual (or even corporate) choice?  Perhaps I'm missing something here, but it just doesn't make sense to me, that we value and seek this idea of freedom the way that we do, if there is nothing but an illusion of "self" and no genuine self-determination. 

I need to tease this out some more...  (and I suppose, if scientists and philosophers cannot agree, the answer is not simple).  What are your thoughts? 


  1. Dear Kerry.

    Genetics are important, but one thing our genetics have given us is an ability to LEARN, from our environment. LEARNING is a vital part of human existence. Parents TEACH, children, to make wise choices, and TEACHERS, may they be blessed, help children learn.

    Our learning abilities are under rated by some, not all, of those who believe in biological determinism or the absence of the freedom to choose right from wrong. Biological determinism is as big a cop out as protestant predestination,or other notions of destiny.

    LEARNING is the basis of all Psychology - especially the type of psychology that can be measured and tested. Psychologists help us relearn or unlearn things that hurt us.

    Some people learn quicker than others. People learn religion or atheism from their parents and the culture they are immersed in. You can learn to develop your spirituality.

    1. Hehe, You're always so nice about teachers, Stu - I do like that about you!! ;)

      Yes - learning is a REALLY important factor. I think it relates a little to my (random) musing about whether people who are not aware of the options, can be said to have a choice - I don't think they can - but education (in all it's senses - not just formal) makes us aware, and increases that freedom of choice.

      The real question, though, is another *why*. Why does freedom matter to us at all? Why is choice important? I think, somehow, the answer has to do with who we really are... and includes more than biology.

    2. It does include more than deterministic biology, it does include more than just biological and chemical reductionism.

      Biological,and chemical reductionism is a type of statement, usually issued by scientists, but not always, which says in essence "it's just biology" or its "just a chemical reaction in your head". It is not "just biology" or "just chemistry" it a whole combination of truly amazing processeses, which might appear simple on the surface, but are in fact, make up an extremely complex whole working system of a human, and by way of the complex interactions of chemistry and biology, sre entirely nuanced and subtle and not completely understood.

      Further our biology does not preclude us from learning and adapting

    3. Hi again, Stu,

      Yes - the whole does indeed seem greater than the sum of its parts - and some of our biological understandings (neural nets, etc) go some way towards explaining this. I can envision the brain, in a sense, as a kind of democratic process, between various potentials. The "majority influence" between all these networks and potentials reduces cognitive dissonance and results in a choice.

      However as Tildeb has also noted, it is unclear how some choices come to be made, and some pathways/values set, if the only "choosing agent" is the neural networks themselves. Perhaps our more "overriding" choices (such as values and life direction) can be explained, or at least hypothesised in terms of executive function, in some way.

      I've been "going over to the woo-woo side" this afternoon, checking out what material I could find online about Near death experiences. Reason being, that these seem to indicate that the location of our consciousness may not be in the neural networks of the brain at all, since they occur when there is no discernable brain activity. To my knowledge, nobody I know has had one of these experiences... it seems only a small percentage of people who undergo resuscitation have (or recall) them - however they are common enough that medical staff are quite familiar with the phenomenon.

      I found this one study that appears to be legitimate and scholarly - it is mentioned in the Wikipedia article (always a useful first point, even if it isn't infallible) and in other articles I found. The authors don't appear to be promoting anything supernatural. Some of the phenomena experienced in Near Death experiences can be explained physiologically - maybe. But there are others that defy medical explanation, at least with our current understandings of perception and consciousness.

      Anyway, it's all very intriguing.

    4. Hi Kerry

      Let us take Freedom apart, the online dictionary definitions of Freedom are:
      1.The state of being free  or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint: 
      He won his freedom after a retrial.
      2.Exemption from external control, interference, regulation,etc.
      3. The power to determine action without restraint.
      4. Political or national independence.
      5.Personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery: a slave who bought his freedom.

      Apart from political or national independence I think you will agree that all the above definitions apply to your sense of Freedom, I hope.

      Take, for example a Cockroach. If you restrain a cockroach in a matchbox, it will seek to escape that confinement and perhaps eat its way through. It will resist your external control and interference by trying to avoid capture. It is not to hard to imagine that the cockroach wants to do what cockroaches do, that is, eat, live, have sex and have babies, it wants it own power to determine its own cockroachy actions without restraint.

      On 3 out of 5 Definitions, even a cockroach desires FREEDOM.

      Higher animals, even our pets like dogs and cats, hate restraint. They want to do, what they want to do, they are more complicated than cockroaches as they very social animals, living in a mutualist relationship with humans.

      As you can see, Freedom, I argue, is not limited to humans.

      Definition 5, Personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery. Yes this applies to us, as normal human beings, we require to be paid for our work, a fair days work for a fair days pay, but we also have responsibilities and restrictions under the law of the land. We are never completely free to do everything we may want to do, we are not free to murder, we are not free to steal, we must pay our taxes, we must obey Social Security law, etc, otherwise we will be restrained, our remaining freedom taken away.

      We may have the misfortune to live in an anarchic society, and thus face greater risk of slavery as a result, as those with the most money, the most violent, the least caring, would be in charge.(For example: Somalia)

      Personal Liberty applies to such freedom such as freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. We are not restricted in our choice of religion, by law or morals, unless our religion harms other people. Some militant atheists argue that all religion harms people, that “Religion Poisons Everything” but I disagree, as it ignores the educative value of Mythology, plus a transformative power. But in the final analysis, people should be given the freedom to have faith and hope, if they choose. People should also have the freedoms of speech about religion, to criticise and examine religion. Both Atheism and Religion are man made, and require critical examination.

    5. With near death experiences I agree not everything is known, and as I said before, not everything is known about death in particular. However I have read rational explanations of the physical process of dying, as to what happens when certain parts of the brain shut down, but I agree, there are still questions.

  2. We talk about our aspirational values versus our expressed values in our classes a lot. That is, we can say we value (or believe) one thing (like radical skepticism, believing that there is no ultimate reality). However, the way we live often betrays the values we aspire to and show what we truly believe. Nobody truly lives as if there is no ultimate reality; indeed, people do things because they believe something will happen or there's purpose, or cause and effect.

    In the same way, though we may believe we are shaped by our genetics and it doesn't seem like we're "free" as a result of that and our social construction, we STILL operate as if we have a choice. We can believe it all we want, but you are still free to reply to this comment or not to. Sure, outside and internal forces influence you one way or the others, but ultimately, you still have the choice.

    1. Also, love the new blog design! =)

    2. Heyy! Someone noticed!! :D TY!

    3. GREAT comment, Adrian! I'd go further with the "belief" idea and say that mental assent does not equal belief - in fact it's not even close!! You can only tell what you or someone else *Really* believes, by how they act.

      The idea of freedom is something we all seem to *really* believe in. We value it enough to fight for it. And, like you say, we really DO have choices - constrained though they may be. We may not make them as freely as we think we do, but we make them. All the time. To me, the whole "freedom value" doesn't make sense in any kind of "pure biology" way that I can come up with - though I'm not a biologist, so open to explanations!

    4. As explained above, even a cockroach values Freedom.

    5. mmm.... yes, Stu, I do see your point. My pets certainly have minds of their own and don't like being restricted. I wonder how self-aware a cockroach is, though, or how abstract his idea (if he has any) of freedom might be.

      Antonio Demasio (see this Ted talk: talks about 3 levels of "self" - the proto self, the core self, and the autobiographical self - which he posits only the higher mammals possess.

      I wonder if the difference between the drive a cockroach has, to be free to follow its own biological urges, and the will we have to make free choices and have some degree of self-determination over our own lives, is only a matter of degree, or whether it is qualitatively different. Not a question I can really answer, though.

    6. the main difference between us and other animals is that we write. We also keep a lot of what we have written. Other animals communicate, but we write and record what we communicate. This stored knowledge of what is written, is part of our higher selves.

    7. It's called the Ivory Tower and it is mankind's greatest achievement.

  3. Kerry, perhaps this will help explain why we don't have contra-causal free will.

    One of the central problems in exploring this topic is figuring what it is we're actually talking about. The terms, in other words, are very fuzzy. For example, you seamlessly equate free will as choice. But what if any difference is there between what you call 'will' and what you call 'free will'? How is this the same or different from the ability to choose? What is it that is doing the choosing? And so on.

    The problem from where I sit is from those who insist without evidence that there is some kind of ghost in the machinery of your brain directing its thoughts and actions. Clearly this model does not withstand scrutiny. If there is no separate agency from the biology and chemistry of the brain - and there is zero evidence to suggest that there is and overwhelming evidence that says there is not - then this raises the question of what is it that we call the self if not the sum accumulation of our brains? And if we are our brains, then we do not have 'free will' in the sense that if you and I exchanged bodies atom for atom then I would be fully you and you would be fully me. In this sense every act we undertake would be determined by our biological and chemical interaction with the environment we inhabit with nothing left over to which we could attribute 'agency' for 'choice'.

    But this is where the point begins to get awfully confusing for some who then assume that responsibility for actions evaporates. This is not true if we are moral agents who can connect consequences to actions. This, too, becomes part and parcel of the biology and chemistry formulating actions but at this point the arguments allow for will but not freedom in the sense of "I could have done otherwise but decided not to." In other words, you cannot take back the action you undertook and substitute another.

    Here is where I begin to take issue with some of the free will participants. I know I can change my brain by changing my perspective. I can build different pathways and as Stuart points out learn, which has the effect of causing physiological changes to my neural net. In other words, there is some kind of directed intention I can undertake that is not deterministic, not fate, so to speak. How is this possible if the causal agent is only my prior brain state? I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to this conundrum other than an intriguing notion of feedback loops between hemispheres running imagined results prior to a selected action. I know our mirror neurons play a role in empathy whether observed or imagined so I think our brains are capable of selecting one action from an assortment of possibilities from different parts of our brains that we then call 'choice'. But I have no good evidence to back this up other than speculation.

    Now that the mud puddle of free will is stirred up, I'm sure we can all see so much better!

    1. Hey, Tildeb,

      You explain the issues much clearer than a lot of sources I've read!

      Yes it is all very puzzling. I think in the reply I just made to Stuart, I've also addressed some of what you talk about here. I do think the kind of "systems model" that is being used more in biology nowadays (or so I understand), where all parts of a system influence one another, provides a better understanding than reductionist models.

      I wonder if your claim that "there is zero evidence to suggest that there is and overwhelming evidence that says there is not (a separate agency to brain chemistry/physiology)" is quite accurate, though. I think the fact that scholarly people are unable to form any kind of consensus is an indication that the evidence is far from overwhelming in one direction. An example I've been looking at this afternoon (also see my comment to Stuart) is the phenomena of Near Death Experiences where comatose or even clinically dead patients are able to accurately give details of the room and the process of their own resuscitation that they should not have been physically able to know. Weird stuff indeed, but well enough documented to raise serious questions about the physical location of consciousness.

      I love stirring up a good "mud puddle"!! ;D

    2. I regard Tldeb's analysis that there being no ghost in the machine, no "psyche" separate from the brain as entirely accurate, and there is a building consensus, that this is the case. Most credible scientists agree.

      I. am not a pure naturalist like Tildeb, because I regard that there is a lot of subjective, qualititative and anectdotal evidence to support the Question of spirit. If spirit is anything, however, in my cosmology, it is entirely natural, some subtle chemical interaction or process. I may however be subjecting myself to a ind of "God of the Gaps". I do not think however all spiritual phenomena is fully explained.

      I also understand that this real, physical universe, is full of illusion, Buddhists call it Maya. From the typical psychological examples of visual illusions, to man made and illusions of nature, they are everywhere, and they are deceptive.

      I also understand that our brains decieve us, especially under stress. Hallucinations and delusions do occur.

      I do how ever

    3. There is also the field of Quantum physics where people are coming up with all sorts of theories such as parallel universes. Quantum physics has yet to be fully explored, and I do not claim to have any full understanding, as only a few people in the world have been assessed to have a comprehensive understanding.

    4. Kerry, the only 'evidence' you think mitigates my position that there is zero evidence to suggest that there is and overwhelming evidence that says there is not anything beyond the biology of the brain (and the chemistry that runs it) rests with highly controversial claims like NDEs. Having read Susan Blackmore's lifelong attempt to back this kind of stuff up and finding nothing of substance in which to do so provides the alternative explanations a closer look... like how closely so many NDEs correlate to the identical reported effects as certain kinds of strokes and certain kinds of chemical interventions. There simply is no good evidence from NDEs that mind is in any way independent of brain. And if mind is brain dependent (and there is no reason it is not), then it is deterministic, rendering the common notion of free will to be incorrect. If we do not, in fact, have any free will to exercise, then this undermines a lot of theology that attempts to explain why things are the way they are with metaphysical claims for causation of effects we experience that supposedly offer us evidence for divine agency. I therefore expect the greatest pushback against a deterministic mind not to be from neuroscience (and compelling contrary evidence) but from the ranks of those who have the most to lose if their invested religious beliefs are factually questioned.

    5. Hey, Tildeb, I think you know by now that I believe religious (and other) beliefs SHOULD be open to question. Even if the questioning is hard. I wonder, though, if you feel the same about your own beliefs, such as they are. As you indicated in your earlier comment, there are big questions surrounding the idea of consciousness that can't be resolved satisfactorily for anyone. I'm not an expert in NDE's, but my careful reading so far seems to show that there IS properly documented evidence that warrants further investigation, not dismissal, because "we are just physical". That's letting your presuppositions (however reasonable they might be) get in the way of the evidence. I think intellectual honesty requires that both sides leave this question open. There is a "black box" at the heart of this conundrum - and neither you nor I have solid, scientific proof of what is in it. It is not just the religious who have their world view invested in one particular interpretation!

    6. This may be of interest to anyone interested in the question what if any free will do we actually have?

      We all like to think we are in control of our lives - of what we feel and what we think. But scientists are now discovering this is often simply an illusion.

      Surprising experiments are revealing that what you think you do and what you actually do can be very different. Your unconscious mind is often calling the shots, influencing the decisions you make, from what you eat to who you fall in love with. If you think you are really in control of your life, you may have to think again.

    7. Kerry, your notion of opinions does not equate with a similarity of religious beliefs. I am quite open to having my opinions changed completely if I have good reasons - better evidence, more informed data, etc. - for doing so. I have done this many times - equivalent to you completely rejecting not just christianity but even the idea that god is real - which I seriously doubt you are open to doing.

      But as the evidence stands now in regards to mind and brain, there is no equivalent data suggesting that NDEs may or may not be anything other than our biological response to the event. To have a balanced belief for and against likelihood of something being true in reality requires equivalent data on both sides of issue so that the probability comes down somewhere in the middle. This is not the case in regards to NDEs. Although there are some intriguing stories, there is no independent evidence to verify these claims.

      So the way you use this notion of balance seems to me to be based on certainty on one side and uncertainty on the other. This starting point undermines any notion of balance in data, in possibility, in likelihood, and replaces it wholesale to favour uncertainty. Nothing in science IS certain, so you tilt the playing field to suggest that any uncertainty - no matter how small - is a reasonable and balanced opinion... in spite of there being no balanced evidence in reality for and against. This approach in the case of NDEs completely misrepresents what we know about the brain.

      Sure, there are big questions about the brain and consciousness and mind but zero evidence of comparable and independently verifiable quality (other than self-reported experiences which are wholly subjective and wide open to abuse) about extending the mind beyond the physical boundaries of a functioning brain.

      And your notion of further testing is fine; no one is saying there cannot be any further investigation. But there remains no good reasons based on compelling contrary evidence to suppose the possibility is equally likely, equally possible, equally reasonable, to the wholly brain-centered causation for these experiences. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence for this explanation. In this sense it is UNreasonable to think there is an equivalent case based on evidence, based on data, based on likelihood and probability, to suggest there is a split between scientifically minded investigators when the truth of the matter is that very few if any scientists who seriously entertain that NDEs are evidence for another reality. Those who think NDEs reveal a likely possibility for another realm of existence are outliers, and it falls to them to produce better evidence for their explanations.

      Science is not about producing 'proof'; science is about formulating explanations for evidence that (hopefully) works for everyone everywhere all the time. I have no invested belief of the religious kind in any particular interpretation about reality. I am free to alter my opinions whenever reality reveals why I should do so.

    8. Hey, Mr. T

      (& anyone else who might be curious)

      I'm not sure the "subjective, self-reported experiences" of NDE's are as easily dismissed as you say. For one, there are too many of them, and they are too similar. Of all the facets that make them puzzling, the most intriguing is the fact that some subjects are able to accurately describe scenes and events that occurred while they were "out". Not just one or two isolated cases, enough to provoke serious research into "why?". There are currently studies going on to either prove or disprove how accurate these "out of body perceptions" really are.

      This article from TIME magazine gives a good overview of the research where it stands.,9171,1657919,00.html

      I also found this TED Talk by Antonio Demasio, on the way consciousness and our sense of self appear to be mediated in the brain, very informative. Basically, the sense of self appears to reside in the brain-stem.

      The whole talk is very interesting, but he begins to talk about the roles of different brain regions at 7:56, goes on to propose a reasonable physiological basis for "continuity of self", and outlines the role of the brainstem at 11:47. At around the 14 min mark, Tildeb, he talks about the neural maps and recursive connections that contribute to this continuity of self - very much along the lines of your own idea of feedback loops - you would probably find it very interesting.

      Van Lommell, whose large Dutch study of NDE's can be read here: has himself gone from believing the phenomenon to be merely physical, to being convinced that whilst brain structures allow us to access consciousness, it may not reside in the brain at all.

      PS - HOW do you insert links properly into your comments?? I am able to do this in posts, but when commenting, can't work out how... would love a little blogging lesson on this if you have the patience!!

    9. PPS - I've bookmarked the BBC link and will watch it later tonight when I have a little more time - it looks interesting!

    10. Tildeb, basically I think biological determinism is a convenient cop out for those who do not want to take responsibility for their own actions The ability to learn is under rated, and so is the human capacity for lazy thinking on questions of law and morality. We should not be making excuses for those people who are too lazy to think and too lazy to learn..

    11. Stu, the argument is not quite that "we are not responsible" - just that our behaviour is "determined" by biological and environmental factors - *including* society and learning. I think it's pretty close to your own position, actually.

      (I like your thoughts about written knowledge being part of our "higher self" - it is certainly an important part of the development of society and culture as we know it... not convinced that it's all neurologically and socially based, though :)

    12. Hi Kerry. On matters of law, especially guilt and innocence their is a push from biological reductionist and radical determinists to excuse criminal behavior based on genetics. This is a cop out and a medicalization of morality. It as the potential to enable a criminal to say, not guilty, my genes made me do it.

    13. I'm not on the "purely determined" side of this fence, however I do think that our response to criminal behaviour has to be a lot more than just punitive. Gaols just make better criminals. But that's a whole other conversation. The kinds of deterministic arguments I've been hearing here do include the ability to learn, and seem to see consequences for actions as important determining factors. I see no slide into anarchy there...

    14. Hi Kerry,

      First off, to insert links behind key words (text) requires you to type a standard html code. When I try to do this, blogspot intervenes during 'publish' and insists it cannot possibly allow me to show you how to create linked text.

      So I'm going to explain that I type in a '<' symbol (forget the single quotation marks... I'm doing this with every letter and symbol I'm showing you to try to fool blogspot into allowing the comment) followed by the letter 'a'. Next, insert a space followed by the four letters together 'h', 'r', 'e', 'f' followed by an equals sign '='. Next comes the quotation '"' followed by the link you want and another quotation mark '"', immediately followed by the symbol '>'. Now you want the text word or words you want to highlight immediately followed by a '<', '/', 'a', '>'. That's it. I know it sounds complicated but after a couple of tries you'll be making links quickly and easily.

      I, too, have heard and read about many fascinating stories, thinking that there must be something to it to be so widely reported. But then I remember this makes sense also in favour of a shared biology; we'd expect the results to be similar.

      I am somewhat sympathetic (to the great consternation of some my fellow atheists) to the notion of an extended brain field because of my experiences in the martial and musical arts where I feel that my consciousness - no longer concerned with my physical actions and reactions - extends beyond my physical body. I emphasize the term 'feel' because I know enough not to trust that my feelings and reality actually align. I am, after all, the easiest person in the world to fool... especially by my own doing.

      And once I read of Jill Bolte Taylor's experience of stroking, I realized that body awareness is a brain function; whatever impairs the function, impairs the perception, and this could certainly explain my feelings about an expanded sense of consciousness. The impairment does not have to be damaging or negative; the impairment might be quite handy with a reduction of blood flow or what have you.

      Also, we must not forget that we have a bicameral brain where we carry on conversations with our other hemisphere all the time. Because we first assume we are one thing, the voice we hear different from our own is often attributed some other agency... forgetting that each of us comes equipped with different voices already in place. Each of us is an ongoing compilation of experiences between our biology and our environment... and our biology is a multi-faceted, multi-organ, complex flock of cells. Our consciousness is but one element that like to think it is in charge... right up until it isn't. This is why men generally fear women who have an intuitive understanding that life is first biological and capricious long before it is reasonable and controllable. Men continue to try to control life by controlling women and eventually may even figure out it's not working too well. That's why Adam in particular needs to grow up and leave his Daddy's place with his other half if he wants to embrace life as it really is and not stay in the imaginary play pen where he's the boss of all his toys daddy has provided.

      But I digress...

    15. Hehe - your digressions are interesting!!

      Thank you SO much for the html lesson... shall write it down and keep it in a safe place until I have the hang of it... and now for some practice:

      thank you!

  4. Thank you for linking this to me Aunty Kerry! I thoroughly enjoyed not only your blog, which was extremely thought provoking, but also all the comments that followed. It has provided me with topics to research and thoughts to process :)

    1. Heyyy, Abs!! Glad you stopped by! Yes, there's usually some thought-provoking discussion going on!! Thought you'd enjoy it! :D

    2. Hey hey hey! It worked!

      (Don't know why this comment appeared farther down.)

  5. What we have learned, by adapting to our environment, and consequently shaping our environment , informs the way in which we make choices.

    Thus a person who has not learned, or has learned in a maladaptive way, will not be able to make the right choice.

    Therefore a person with learning difficulties is at greater risk of making wrong choices, than a person with better learning abilities.

    What we have learned, is critical to making choices.

  6. What we have learned is critical to behavioral and cognitive psychology.


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