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.