#4. A Summary of ‘Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain’ by Michael Gazzaniga

‘Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain’ by Michael Gazzaniga (Ecco)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis

1. The Evolution of the Human Brain

2. An Overview of Modern Neuroscience

3. The Neuroscience of Behaviour

4. The Neuroscience of Consciousness

5. The Neuroscience of Our Inner Voice

6. The Neuroscience of Free Will

7. The Principle of Emergence

8. Social Interaction and the Emergence of Freedom and Responsibility

9. Determinism Strikes Back

10. Rescuing Accountability from the Determinist Trap

i. Introduction/Synopsis

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.

1. The Evolution of the Human Brain

We may acknowledge that human beings are just as much a part of the natural world (and just as much the product of evolution) as any other living creature from cockroaches to chimpanzees. However, a quick comparison of how different creatures live will reveal a big difference between us and any other species we can think of. To begin with, while our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, struggles with termite sticks and leaf sponges, human beings have designed and fabricated a mind-boggling array of technological devices from sliced bread to rocket ships. To take just one quirky example of how crazy-amazing (author’s words) our technological acumen is, “a monkey with a neural implant in North Carolina can be hooked up to the Internet, and, when stimulated, the firing of his neurons can control the movements of a robot in Japan. Not only that, the nerve impulse travels to Japan faster than it can travel to that monkey’s own leg!” (p. 8).

Additionally, while our chimp cousins sit on the brink of extinction, we have succeeded in spreading to every corner of the world, and manage to stay in touch and cooperate with one another unlike any other species. Think about your dinner consisting of a local salad, Chilean pears, Italian gorgonzola, New Zealand lamb chops, Idahoan potatoes and a French red wine. The number of innovations and amount of cooperation that was needed in order to bring this meal together is staggering: “from the person who first thought about growing his own food, and the one who thought the old grape juice was a bit interesting, to Leonardo, who first drew a flying machine, to the person who took the first bite of that mouldy-looking cheese and thought they had a winner, to the many scientists, engineers, software designers, farmers, ranchers, vintners, transporters, retail dealers and cooks who contributed. Nowhere in the animal kingdom does such creativity or cooperation between unrelated individuals exist” (p. 9).

Finally, human beings are curious unlike any other species; and not just about nature and what lies beyond the stars, but about ourselves and our brains and what make us tick. In the author’s own words “man has always been intrigued with the nature of the mind, self, and the human condition… That is not what your dog is thinking about on the couch” (p. 9). This curiosity and desire to understand ourselves has driven a long-standing tradition of trying to identify precisely what it is about humans that separates us from other creatures. While numerous abilities and faculties have been proposed (from consciousness to language and everything in between), sooner or later someone comes along who points out that the ability or faculty in question also exists in other animals, albeit in a more rudimentary or less complex form. Nevertheless, while the differences in faculties and abilities between us and other animals may only be quantitative and not qualitative in nature, the quantitative differences turn out to be so great as to have led to what are, for all intents and purposes, true qualitative differences in our experience of the world and our way of life (as touched upon above).

Whatever the proposed differences between us and other animals have been, virtually all of them stem out of our brains, and for a long time it was thought that our big brains were the first feature to have evolved in our ancestors that separated us from our closest evolutionary relatives. However, more recent fossil finds have revealed that it was not our brains that evolved first but our legs; that is, we became bipedal before we became big brained. Evidence for this has come from numerous fossil finds, such as the discovery of Lucy, a 4 million year old hominid with a small brain but a pelvic structure set for upright walking, and another fossil from 4.4 million years ago that suggests that our bidpedalism began as early as this date (p. 24). Why bipedalism? It appears that walking on two legs allowed our ancestors to branch out from the rainforests of Eastern Africa onto the adjoining plains, as bipedalism allowed them to traverse the plains much more efficiently.

While bipedalism allowed us to spread out onto the plains, we were now living in an environment that demanded further modifications. For one, we were now exposed to the big cats of the African plains, against which we were not well adapted to defend ourselves. The solution, it appears, was to stick together in larger and larger groups—the better to defend ourselves against attacks; which solution also had the added benefit of providing us with more and better opportunities for cooperative scavenging and hunting (p. 26). Group living offered its own challenges, however, as competition between group members for resources such as food and mates became even fiercer. Meanwhile, the potential benefits of cooperation demanded sophisticated mental capacities and attitudes not necessarily fully developed by our ancestors living in the rain forests. In order to negotiate the new challenges (and exploit the possible benefits) of group living, a bigger, more sophisticated brain was needed, and so selection pressure favoured just that, and our brains began to grow.

A bigger more complex brain was also beneficial in coming up with new uses for our recently freed-up hands, and so was also favourable in this regard (p. 26). The production of rudimentary tools soon followed, which allowed for more successful scavenging and hunting, and the increased access to meat afforded by these developments provided an important source of energy to allow for ever more brain growth (the brain uses up an enormous amount of energy—up to 20% of the body’s total for an organ representing only 2-3% of body weight—and requires a large number of calories to become viable, which additional meat would have provided).

In connection with this development, the academic Owen Lovejoy has hypothesized that a major new use that males put their hands to was brining meat back to camp with which to exchange with females for sexual favours (p. 26). This development completely changed the group dynamic between males and females, and led us to become a more monogamous, less aggressive species (I have already addressed this fascinating topic extensively in a previous article and so will not go into further detail here. If you wish to look into this discussion it can be found in the blog post entitled ‘A Synopsis of Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’ in the chapter on Dominance [Part I, Chapter 2]).

With regards to what drove the enlarging hominid brain in the course of evolution, then, it appears to have come down to two factors in particular: “a diet that provided the added calories needed to feed the metabolically expensive bigger brain, and the social challenges originating from living in those larger groups needed for protection” (p. 27).

2. An Overview of Modern Neuroscience

For much of the 20th century it was thought that the brain is nothing but a general problem-solving device, and that the new and increased mental functionality in humans was caused by an increase in the size and hence the processing power of our brains alone. In other words, it was thought that the brain has a single function (solving problems), and that this function depended on the amount of brain matter around to perform it. Hence if you took an existing brain and cut away half you would be left with the same qualitative functionality, only reduced by 50%. Alternatively, if you doubled the size of the brain you would be left with twice the ability to solve problems. In the lingo of the day, the brain was considered to be ‘equipotential’, because it was thought to be the same stuff through and through, and hence each part had equal potential in terms of functionality as any other, and no specialization was to be found (p. 11).


*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

4 thoughts on “#4. A Summary of ‘Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain’ by Michael Gazzaniga

  1. I agree very much with your criticism of Gazzaniga. He doesn’t seem to understand that just because mental phenomena involve higher, emergent properties, there is no reason to think they are not just as much the product of cause and effect as purely physical processes are. However, he may be hedging this conclusion. In an interview he gave following the publication of this book, I believe he conceded that we don’t have free will, that all he was claiming is that our behavior is not completely pre-destined or predictable. Daniel Dennett in Freedom Evolves makes a similar argument about emergent properties, and seems to come to a similar conclusion. That even though all phenomena are caused, the outcomes can’t be predicted in advance.

    You may be aware that Sam Harris has just published a very short monograph aimed at debunking the notion of free will. I think he makes a very good point that it is not just a matter of there being no compelling evidence for or reason to believe in free will. He notes that the concept of free will is incoherent. In the scientific worldview, all phenomena are either the result of causes, or occur randomly. Neither scenario implies free will. In fact, if we try to imagine how we would freely choose some behavior, we always come back to having particular reasons, and those reasons are the cause. It is very difficult, to say the least, to conceive of how or why we would do anything without having reasons, and if we truly did something without any reason–so called spontaneously–it would still not qualify as free, in the sense that we chose the behavior. The bottom line, I believe, is that any “I” that might choose to act in some way is itself constituted by causes. To say that it isn’t requires taking a dualistic view, and all the philosophical problems that entails.

    I think one way of interpreting the arguments of Gazzaniga and Dennett, though, is to say that as we evolve, we become progressively freer from cause and effect. While we can’t choose what we do, the forces that cause our behavior become more restricted. Thus whether a particular molecule moves this way or that generally has no effect at all on even a single cell, let alone on a complex organism. For complex organisms like ourselves, the disposition of any particular cell in our body generally has no effect on our behavior. So as life evolves, it becomes progressively freer from physical then biological processes, even as it continues to be the product of higher level causes. Terrence Deacon has a wonderful discussion of emergence in his book Incomplete Nature, in which he argues that it involves increasing constraint. That is, as life evolves, it is channelled in certain ways, making it in effect immune to many causes that would otherwise tend to push it in other directions. I have reviewed this book at my blog http://www.nodimensions.com/blog.

    We can draw a rough analogy with the weather. We are largely unable to control or choose what the weather will be, but we are nevertheless to a great extent free from its effects (the exceptions of course being major events such as floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.). We achieve this freedom not through choice, but through becoming beings for which most vagaries of the weather largely become irrelevant.

  2. Excellent. The notion of consciousness (and free will) I take from Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism – but love it when science backs it up. Because science can also back up on the opposite proposition, Rand felt that in areas pertaining to philosophy, philosophy overrules science and is in a hierarchical superior position. If all subjects are trees [e.g. economic , neuroscience, etc.] in a forest, then philosophy is the forest floor.

    Objectivism summarised.

    Metaphysics: what is reality?
    Epistemology: but how do we come to know anything, like the above?
    Ethics: what are Objective moral principles?
    Politics (and economics)

    Metaphysics has 3 principles:
    - Existence exists. We validate it using our sense organs: there is something as opposed to nothing (non-existence). Existence is a concept in infinity: it exists, existed, will forever exist whether or not the galaxy exists.

    - Consciousness affirmed. Why? Because the above could not be known without consciousness.

    - Aristotle law of identity affirmed. Why ? Because the above would not be definitely right otherwise. There is a right and wrong, and we can come to know it.

    Epistemology: we come to know things using the methods of reason and logic.

    Ethics is determined from the lone man on a desert island that must do certain things by virtue of being a human being to sustain and enjoy life:
    - productivity
    - happiness
    - sex
    - justice (reap what he sows)
    - independence [of mind, he must reach his own conclusions]
    - rationality [one must use the method of logic properly to reach conclusion]
    - honesty
    - integrity

    Politics: democracy because in ethics we are independent citizens. We need a government of,by, for the people to protect our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

    [Economics must be capitalism: because our right to property stems from our above inalienable rights. We have the right to acquire, maintain, dispose or trade our property. We need property to live and to grow (e.g seeds, home, chair, clothes, tools etc.)

    Aesthetics; man’s mind needs art just as man’s body needs oxygen.

    The main point: do we have free will ?

    Yes. Consciousness is a part of metaphysics. Using the mind to come to know things must be done by us (epistemology) using our mind (independence): the final judge of our conclusion is each individual, we are self responsible.

  3. p.s I missed out one important controversial part of ethics: selfishness (is ethical and a moral right). Selfishness is defined in the dictionary as pursuing your RATIONAL self interest (even though colloquially it is known as pursuing one’s IRRATIONAL self interest).

    Once again, we have free will and must pursue our RATIONAL self interest if we are to sustain life and be happy.

  4. Pingback: #40. A Summary of ‘Breakpoint: Why the Web Will Implode, Search Will Be Obsolete, and Everything Else You Need to Know About Technology Is in Your Brain’ by Jeff Stibel | New Books in Brief

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