Tag Archives: neuroscience

Ethics Science

Free Will and the gap between philosophy and neuroscience

Hello all,

Dave Muscato here again. Last night, a group of us from MU SASHA attended a public lecture at Mizzou from guest speaker Michael Gazzaniga, the renowned psychobiologist famous for his research on “split brain” patients: people who have had the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated from one another, in order to treat epilepsy. It was a real treat to hear someone so well-known in his field speak in person, and I was privileged to be able to attend.

He spoke about free will: Do we have it? What does “free will” mean? What are some of the implications, specifically legal, if we do not?

In a sentence, he demonstrated that from a neuroscience (indeed, scientific) context, it is quite clear that we lack free will. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the concept of “free will” is nonsensical and should be disposed of: Free from what? The laws of physics? No, each cell of our brain follows predictable patterns of behavior, i.e. is soul-less and automated, and our brains are “merely” highly parallel and complex conglomerations of cells. No where in this equation arises a homunculus, a “mind” within our brain that makes decisions separate from itself, no matter how much we might wish for this to be so, or how much it feels to us like this is the case.

Here’s where I think he lost us: Gazzaniga went on to argue that, while our brains do not have free will, persons (in a society) do. I don’t think he justified this leap. His argument, as best as I could understand it, was that individual responsibility arises on the level of a society, rather than on the level of the individual. He gave the analogy of a car, versus traffic. Regardless of one’s mechanical understanding of the operation or construction of a car, you cannot extrapolate or understand traffic patterns by observing a car in isolation. Similarly, humans in isolation lack responsibility—a single human just follows patterns of behavior and isn’t responsible “to” anyone—but in the context of living in a society, we can hold individuals responsible for their behavior.

This seems to me to call for the application of the is/ought problem. I think Gazzaniga was trying to say that, descriptively, societies hold individuals responsible for their behavior, and that this is permissible because individuals should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. What I don’t understand is, where did that “should” come in? Is he making an ethical argument here? Because up until that point, he’d been speaking descriptively. I understand why societies would do good to hold individuals accountable for wrongdoings, but that doesn’t mean “persons have free will” just because they live in societies. Persons may be responsible for their individual wrongdoings—it’s not like anyone ELSE is responsible for a person’s actions—but I don’t understand why he argues this means that they magically have free will.

It seems to me that there is a gap between what philosophers have to say about free will and what scientists have to say. From Sam Harris to Daniel Wegner to Michael Gazzaniga, those who study the brain tend to say that we lack free will, from what I have seen and read. So why aren’t philosophers agreed on this? I’m especially talking about thinkers who side toward religiosity (read: theologians). I understand that for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we are required to have free will, but that doesn’t mean that we do. Similarly, for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we must have souls, but—and I’ll put this gently—neuroscience has yet to discover them. I’m skeptical.

I’m considering writing a talk of my own about free will, based loosely on Sam Harris’s “Free Will,” the Free Will chapter in “The Big Questions” by Nils Rauhut, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner, and some guided discussion questions of my own design. If I do, I’ll post a link to video of it here, or at least a summary, once I deliver it to SASHA and/or another group and can get film it for you.

Until next time,

Dave