Neurons vs Free Will
he notion of free will is under attack again, this time from the advance of neuroscience.
On the evening of October 10th 1769, in one of his typically curt dismissals of a philosophical problem, Dr Johnson silenced Boswell, who wanted to talk about fate and free will, by exclaiming: “Sir…we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.” Nearly two and a half centuries later, free will and responsibility are debated as much as ever, and the issue is taking some new twists.
Every age finds a fresh reason to doubt the reality of human freedom. The ancient Greeks worried about Ananke, the primeval force of necessity or compulsion, and her children, the Fates, who steered human lives. Some scientifically minded Greeks, such as Leucippus in the fifth century BC, regarded the motion of atoms as controlled by Ananke, so that “everything happens…by necessity.” Medieval theologians developed a different worry: they struggled to reconcile human freedom with God’s presumed foreknowledge of all actions. And in the wake of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, philosophers grappled with the notion of a universe that was subject to invariable laws of nature. This spectre of “determinism” was a reprise of the old Greek worry about necessity, only this time with experimental and mathematical evidence to back it up.
In the 20th century, the new science of psychology also seemed to undermine the idea of free will: Freud’s theory of unconscious drives suggested that the causes of some of our actions are not what we think they are. 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. Where, in the chain of events leading up to an action, could such a thing be found? Investigations of the brain show that conscious will is an “illusion”, according to the title of an influential book by a Harvard psychologist, Daniel Wegner, in 2002—a conclusion that has been echoed by many researchers since. 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. 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. This is not a new, or even a modern, idea: Hippocrates proclaimed as much in the fifth century BC. But there is a growing realisation among some neuroscientists that looking at flickers of activity inside our heads can be a misleading way to see how our minds work. This is because many of the distinctively human things that people do take place over time and outside their craniums. Perhaps the brain is the wrong place to look if you want to find free will. This is a theme of recent books by Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Raymond Tallis, a retired British doctor and neuroscientist. As Dr Tallis puts it in his “Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity”, trying to find human life in the brain is like trying to hear the rustle of a forest by listening to a seed.