Neuroscience Challenges Old Ideas about Free Will
Celebrated neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga explains the new science behind an ancient philosophical question
Do we have free will? It is an age-old question which has attracted the attention of philosophers, theologians, lawyers and political theorists. Now it is attracting the attention of neuroscience, explains Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the new book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” He spoke with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.Cook: Why did you decide to tackle the question of free will?
Gazzaniga: I think the issue is on every thinking person’s mind. I can remember wondering about it 50 years ago when I was a student at Dartmouth. At that time, the issue was raw and simply stated. Physics and chemistry were king and while all of us were too young to shave, we saw the implications. For me, those were back in the days when I went to Church every Sunday, and sometimes on Monday if I had an exam coming up!
Now, after 50 years of studying the brain, listening to philosophers, and most recently being slowly educated about the law, the issue is back on my front burner. The question of whether we are responsible for our actions — or robots that respond automatically — has been around a long time but until recently the great scholars who spoke out on the issue didn’t know modern science with its deep knowledge and implications.
Cook: What makes you think that neuroscience can shed any light on what has long been a philosophical question?
Gazzaniga: Philosophers are the best at articulating the nature of a problem before anybody knows anything empirical. The modern philosophers of mind now seize on neuroscience and cognitive science to help illuminate age old questions and to this day are frequently ahead of the pack. Among other skills, they have time to think! The laboratory scientist is consumed with experimental details, analyzing data, and frequently does not have the time to place a scientific finding into a larger landscape. It is a constant tension.