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The question of whether or not we truly have a free will has vexed humans for ages. On the one hand, it certainly feels as though we do: when it comes to the decisions that we make and the behaviour that we engage in, we experience the world as though it is ‘I’, the conscious self, who is responsible for these choices. Indeed, even though we may acknowledge that there are certain physical, biological, and social forces that influence our decisions and actions, we nonetheless feel as though ‘we’ are somehow separate from these impersonal forces, and that rather than being at their whim, it is ‘we’ who are the final arbiters in making the choices that we do. The experience of being able to choose as we wish is what we call free will, and it has traditionally been thought that it is an essential, if not the essential feature of what it means to be human.
However, as the study of the brain has progressed over the past century (and particularly in the past 40 years), the evidence seems to point more and more towards the idea that our sense of freedom, and our being in control of our choices, is a mere illusion, and that our thoughts and actions are in fact as determined as the physical world around us. The idea of a determined self not only challenges our traditional understanding of ourselves, but has practical repercussions in terms of our understanding of issues such as agency and responsibility, and forces us to ask whether we can legitimately hold people accountable for their actions. Indeed, if people truly are determined to behave as they do, then they could not reasonably be considered responsible for their behaviour, and hence it would seem to be unjust to punish them for their actions, thus throwing our entire judicial system into question. These issues have already begun to surface in our court systems, and have in fact had an impact on certain court decisions to exercise leniency on convicted offenders where this would not have occurred previously (p. 190-4).
According to neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, however, this whole line of thinking is both dangerous and misguided. This proves to be the case because, for him, the findings coming out of brain science do not in fact imply a determined self. Indeed, Gazzaniga claims that the idea of a determined self is based on a misinterpretation of the relationship between the mind and the brain, and that the proper interpretation of this relationship reveals that there is room for both responsibility and accountability. To elaborate, the idea of a determined self is based on the notion that the mind and its mental states are no more than a lifeless by-product of neurochemical activity in the brain. Since this neurochemical activity operates according to fixed physical laws, it is argued that the mind itself is a by-product of these fixed physical laws, and hence could not be free.
Gazzaniga agrees that the mind and its mental states emerge out of neurochemical activity in the brain. For him, though, the mind is not a lifeless by-product of this neurochemical activity. Rather, he maintains that once the mind emerges from underlying processes it takes on a life of its own, to the point where it becomes an independent force, capable of having a causal effect on the same neurochemical activity out of which it emerged, thus allowing it to influence future brain and mind states. Though this may sound somewhat suspicious, there is in fact plenty of precedent for this type of phenomenon elsewhere in nature. Indeed, it is based on the principle of emergence, which is coming to be appreciated as a major force in explaining how all sorts of complex systems emerge out of more basic building blocks. In this new light, the mind is not a determined entity, but is instead a free agent that is responsible for its actions, and hence capable of being legitimately held accountable for them.
This is the argument that Gazzaniga makes in his new book ‘Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain’. In order to get this argument off the ground though, Gazzaniga takes us on a tour of the brain based on the latest findings from neuroscience (including what neuroscience is revealing about the question of free will), as well as a tour of the evolution of the brain, and it is here where we shall begin.
What follows is a full executive summary of Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga.
*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles