Monday, November 14, 2011

New Book on Neuroscience and Free Will

In my previous post on Neuroscience and Evil I noted that the general perspective among neuroscientists these days seems to be the epiphenomenon model, in which consciousness is viewed as the experience related to having a bunch of neurons firing in particular patterns rather than the manifestation of choices or free will. While this remains the majority position, not all neuroscientists agree. One of these dissenters is Michael S. Gazzaniga of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Gazzaniga wrote the excellent Nature's Mind back in 1994, one of the books that influenced my model of how magick works, and now has a new book coming out called Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain that argues against the epiphenomenon model and in favor of the existence of genuine free human will. Today Salon has an interview up with the author.

Gazzaniga uses a lifetime of experience in neuroscientific research to argue that free will is alive and well. Instead of reducing free will to the sum of its neurological parts, he argues that it’s time for neuroscience to consider free will as a scientific fact in its own right. Through fascinating examples in chaos theory, physics, philosophy and, of course, neuroscience, Gazzaniga makes this interesting claim: Just as you cannot explain traffic patterns by studying car parts, neuroscience must abandon its tendency to reduce macro-level phenomena like free will to micro-level explanations. Along the way he provides fascinating and understandable information from brain evolution to studies involving infants and patients with severed brain hemispheres (split-brain patients). The final chapters of the book consider neuroscience as it implicates social responsibility, justice and how we treat criminal offense.

Anyone wondering about the validity of the epiphenomenon model should go ahead and read the whole interview. I'm glad to see this conversation taking place, because the fact is that even though I think neuroscientists have done a fairly good job demonstrating that our behavior is more deterministic than we generally think it is, at the same time there's plenty of evidence that human beings are something other than automatons suffering from the delusion of self and that the choices we make are fundamentally meaningful. The car parts versus traffic analogy there is one of the best metaphors I've ever seen of making the distiction between neurons and consciousness clear, and I can't agree with it more strongly. Consciousness exists in its own right and arises from the interaction of neurons, just as traffic exists and arises from the activity of many car parts all working together.

This sounds like a really great book, and I'll have to pick up a copy.

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Gordon said...

You always find such awesome articles. I'm off to read me some Salon.

Gorizza said...

I don't think that neuroscientists will be able to explain consciousness, ever. It's like cardiologists trying to explain love.

Ananael Qaa said...

@Gordon: Thanks!

@Gorizza: At the very least I'm of the opinion that we would need to develop a new class of tools if we want to investigate consciousness directly. What those tools would be is hard to say at this point, because there's still quite a bit of debate going on as to what consciousness even is. I think you're right, though, in that the epiphenomenon model is never going to cut it. It's just too obviously incorrect regarding peoples' direct experiences.