A. Gottlieb has written a piece for The Economist’s More Intelligent Life magazine. Neurons v Free-will? (here).
Aside: Regular readers will know how I feel about this debate – both determinism and free-will are flawed ideas. What is needed is an actual understanding of how decisions are made. The two concepts can be made compatible by redefining them so that determinism does not involve predictability and free-will does not include consciousness. I would prefer to throw out both words than redefine them.
Gottlieb starts with the fact that determinism is a very old idea that just will not die. “Every age finds a fresh reason to doubt the reality of human freedom.” He mentions ancient Greek ideas of fate and necessity, God’s foreknowledge, science’s lawful universe, Freud’s unconscious and now findings of modern neuroscience. He says, “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.”, and, “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. Where, in the chain of events leading up to an action, could such a thing be found?”. Even in the opinion of Webner and many others, “Investigations of the brain show that conscious will is an “illusion”.” But, I wonder, how determinism can die as long as the only alternative is conscious free-will? It does not die but it does not win the day either.
Gottlieb goes on: “In 2011, Sam Harris, an American writer on neuroscience and religion, wrote that free will “could not be squared with an understanding of the physical world”, and that all our behaviour “can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge”. Really? There are now hopeful signs of what might be called a backlash against the brain.” What is this backlash? Gottlieb gives some evidence that scans have been overhyped but does not mention other methods that have not been overhyped. And in the case of decision making, they have confirmed that the process of decision making does not start in conscious awareness. This whole part is beside the point – Libet type experiments do not depend on scans.
Gottlieb feels that it is not practical to look for free-will in the brain. Referring to the simplicity of the Libet experiment, he says, “But while twitches of the wrist may be simple to monitor, they’re an odd place to search for free will.” I disagree, what would be a better place. Here we have a simple act that is easy to identify and time; it is done whenever the subject chooses without any sort of ‘want’, ‘need’, ‘habit’, ‘place in a chain of actions’, etc. to interfere with the subject’s freedom; it can be followed and timed without recourse to scans. If there is conscious free-will it should show itself here and it definitely does not. So why does conscious free-will not die if it has been shown to not happen where it should. How can it die when the only alternative is seen as a already determined future outside one’s control?
Tallis is quoted in the context of more complex and natural decisions, “And it would be crazy to think that conscious deliberation isn’t really involved in them.” (I must be crazy.) Gottlieb leans too heavily on Tallis’ ideas. Stephen Cave puts his finger on it when he says that most philosophers and scientists do in fact believe that mind is just the product of certain brain activity, even if we do not currently know quite how and that Tallis “does both the reader and these thinkers an injustice” by declaring that view “obviously” wrong. He has not put forward any alternative.
There is a way out of this dispute – reject both sides.
We do not have two brains or separate thinking systems or separate ‘minds’. We have one brain, it thinks, and some of the results of thinking are made conscious. We cannot have our brains being one thing and our consciousness another; that really is crazy. Our brains make decisions, they are as close to an autonomous, rational self as we get (and that is fairly close). The decisions are not determined or predictable – there is no shortcut to actually making the decision. The bottom line is that we do make decisions. If it is important to the processes of decision making for the brain to be globally aware of some step or to hold it in working memory, then it will be made conscious. If it does not needed to be conscious then it probably with not be. Strings of steps passing through consciousness may appear to be a thought process but really all the cognitive thinking work behind each step is not entering consciousness. We are not consciously making a decision; instead we are making a decision and we may be aware of some ingredients in the process. We are not in a determined world but we are in a physical one and part of it. We do not have conscious free-will – no problem here because that doesn’t mean we lack a will or are not responsible for what we do. Both determinism and free-will are straw men, red herrings, passe and flawed half-truths.