Incomplete brain science ≠ free will

Consciousness may be embedded. It may be embodied. It may be emergent. It may be an illusion. It may be a universal quality of matter. It isn’t just a synaptic map.

Who knows for sure what it is?

In the new issue of Intelligent Life, Anthony Gottlieb indulges an unseemly satisfaction that neuroscience can’t answer all the unanswered questions about self, consciousness, and free will.

What is it with these guys? It’s as if science were a high school football game, with mascots and cheerleaders. Despite his superficial rationality, the tone of his article, “Neurons vs. Free Will,” marks him as another closet dualist. He’s not so much interested in the science he reports as he is in any evidence that determinism is kept at bay. So much for letting the data lead us wherever it will.

This virulent anti-reductionism is a common enough response to unwelcome kinds of brain research. But putting aside for now whether or not the critics are right, it’s tiresome when visceral rejection masquerades as critical evaluation or as a discussion of the philosophy of science.

It seems that these guys can’t just point out the complexities around the study of consciousness — they insist on pointing out that their “side” is winning.

Starting with a breathless history of threats to free will, from ananke to Freud, Gottlieb quickly zeroes in on today’s enemy: “And then along came neuroscience, which is often thought to paint an even bleaker picture. The more we find out about the workings of the brain, the less room there seems to be in it for any kind of autonomous, rational self. ”

But wait. Gottlieb tells us that “there are now hopeful signs of what might be called a backlash against the brain.” Yes, that’s what we’ve all been waiting for — a backlash!

Gottlieb acknowledges that “hardly anybody doubts that the grey matter in our skulls underpins our thoughts and feelings, in the sense that a working brain is required for our mental life.” But he follows this sentence with another of condescension and dismissal: “This is not a new, or even a modern, idea.” And this tone continues, with the derisive assertion that many neuroscientists are becoming aware that “looking at flickers of activity inside our heads” doesn’t tell the whole story.

Of course it doesn’t. No one worth listening to believes that “looking at flickers” will yield the answer to the question of consciousness. Can you say “straw man”?

Gottlieb approvingly echoes Raymond Tallis’s contention that “trying to find human life in the brain is like trying to hear the rustle of a forest by listening to a seed.” He seems quite insensible to how inapt this analogy is. A forest may be thought of as potentially existing in a whole lot of seeds, as a complex state that may emerge, given enough time and just the right conditions. How a single seed is supposed to represent the eminently real, present-time dynamism of brain activity completely escapes me. A seed may become part of a forest, or it may not; a firing neuron is not a potentiality, but is demonstrably part of the active systems of cognition.

“Perhaps the brain is the wrong place to look if you want to find free will.” Okay. Let’s grant that. If it’s not in the brain, and it’s not in the body — the rest of the body is an even worse locus of free will than the brain may be — then it’s “outside”? That makes it what, a social trait? An environmental context? Does that mean that it’s dependent on other things, or on others? Wouldn’t that mean that free will is not a characteristic of “us” at all, but a contingent quality of that with which we interact? That seems an awfully thick philosophical and moral knot to unravel. Or is there just a little bit of the old ineffable “soul” hanging around here, and in the author’s fervent desire to downgrade the physical brain?

Gottlieb does better when he reports the limitations of current investigative technologies. His catalogue of the limits of fMRI or PET scans and of the methodological difficulties common to the statistical interpretation of the results should be a useful caution to those who base sometimes extravagant and premature conclusions on these scans.

After this inoffensive and informative section, Gottlieb returns to his attack on the notion that the place to look for free will is the brain. If we take his claim to mean, narrowly, that merely mapping the functions of the parts of the brain during an activity does not adequately represent, much less explain, that activity, there’s little with which to disagree.

But Gottlieb doesn’t leave it there. He repeats Tallis’s criticism of the Libet test, which seemed to show that action can precede intent, that the neuron signals that make a muscle twitch also spark our consciousness of “wanting” to do the action. Muscle signals are processed faster than cognitions are, so that the muscle twitches before we “tell it to.” There are a number of recent objections to Libet’s work, but to say, as Tallis and Gottlieb do, that “while twitches of the wrist may be simple to monitor, they’re an odd place to search for free will” is to make a metaphysical assertion, not to state an alternative scientific hypothesis. Especially when this caveat comes in the same paragraph in which Gottlieb acknowledges that “similar tests have been repeated and refined many times, and appear to confirm that the feeling of deliberation can be a mirage.”

The overall impression Gottlieb’s article gives is that, no matter what, if there is brain science that suggests that “free will” is a characterization of the workings of a complex network of mental functions, that science must be wrong. And it must be scorned.

Let’s be clear — I accept Gottlieb’s rather obvious charge that the science is incomplete, that we do not have a full, or even a very good, understanding of consciousness. The problem’s not solved. No argument there.

And I will not be disappointed or otherwise troubled if it turns out that our ability ever to explain consciousness fully — self, mind, will, and the rest of it — is thwarted by our being a part of the system we’re trying to understand, in ways similar to the problems physicists face in trying to comprehend fully a universe of which they themselves are a part.

But I expect that people like Anthony Gottlieb will be very disappointed and very, very troubled if it turns out that some advancement in technology or some as yet unimagined theory give us a complete understanding of human thought and action.

And the shame is that their disappointment will be due not to science, but to metaphysics.


7 thoughts on “Incomplete brain science ≠ free will

  1. Life is full of spiritual traps, we are born and know nothing discovering all spiritual truths for ourselves. We have the desire to survive knowing that we will die, every thing we discern to be true, if we dig deeper we know in our soul may not be true materially. Science itself is drenched in human ambition and prejudice, dripping from the human ooze of the can of worms we are all in in the attempt to to escape from, crawling all over each other to get out. Linear thought will never satisfy the human spirit because there is a germ of the non-linear within. Account for this however you like. I am not impressed with science, I am sad to think what the understanding actually amounts to, and it isnt much.

    • I don’t object to the incompleteness of science. In many areas, it works well enough. (Airplanes fly, etc.) And even in those areas in which it is least definite, it offers more resemblance to the material world in which we live than do wish-fulfilling spiritualisms. The point I was trying to make about Gottlieb et al. is the inappropriateness, in a discussion of the science of mind, of their satisfaction that we’re still “mysterious.” Maybe it makes them feel less finite, less mortal.

  2. Yeah, I wrote about this and also AI in a post called “Soul & Simulation”, basically letting my hard determinist bias flow out. I don’t understand how metaphysics can effect physics without being traceable, so I can’t see a soul being in any way feasible.

    Do you have views on the intelligence of computers?

  3. I was talking to a physics/math friend today, in fact, about what might happen when computing power reaches a complexity (measured as number of “neuron” connections) equivalent to that of the human brain. Will consciousness emerge spontaneously, as a “spandrel”? Shades of Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Matrix and other cautionary tales!

  4. The fact is that the ultimate units of matter, like the electron do not exist in a real sense. They are defined by the field, and exist as bumps in the field. You cannot define one exept as part of being a condition of the field, just ask any advanced physicist. You can think about it like a wrinkle on your linen. The wrinkle has no reality or can it be defined except as a condition of the linen. The existence or non-existence of the wrinkle does not contradict the reality of the linen.We are all made up of these ultimate units of matter so in some real sense we don’t exist either and the lack of physical reality is not a contradiction of reality.

  5. I enjoyed your discussion of my article, which raises more interesting objections than most of the rebuttals I’ve seen. I didn’t have space to go into my own views, so here’s a sketch of them–since they’re very different from what you surmise.
    I’m a compatibilist (ie, like Hobbes and Hume, I believe that determinism is compatible with free will). And I don’t believe in an ineffable soul that is forever beyond the reach of science: indeed, I think it is a confusion to believe that anything is beyond the reach of scientific explanation (see the second para of this for why I think so: ). My aim in the piece was an entirely negative one, namely to attack the idea that today’s neuroscience undermines the concept of free will. The “backlash against the brain” which I welcome is the growing scepticism about what has aptly been called neurobabble. I think that a more mature understanding of free will will be found by looking at our interactions with the world and (especially) at our interactions with other people, not by looking simply at material processes in our brains (or by positing non-material processes in them).

    • I’m pleased to learn that I wrongly imputed a metaphysical context to your article. I admit to being rather quick to pounce on even the slightest perception of rearguard dualism, which you have made clear is not your position. And I would point out that it was not my intention to attack the notion of free will itself. Indeed, in a more recent posting I reviewed a series of short articles with the predominant position that “free will” is best viewed as being more conceptual than actual.

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