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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.
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).
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