Jun 282011


As with Tourette’s sufferers, split-brain patients, and those with choreic movements, Kenneth’s case illustrates that high-level behaviors can take place in the absence of free will. Like your heartbeat, breathing, blinking, and swallowing, even your mental machinery can run on autopilot. The crux of the question is whether all of your actions are fundamentally on autopilot or whether some little bit of you is “free” to choose, independent of the rules of biology.

This has always been the sticking point for philosophers and scientists alike. After all, there is no spot in the brain that is not densely interconnected with—and driven by—other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore “free.” In modern science, it is difficult to find the gap into which to slip free will—the uncaused causer—because there seems to be no part of the machinery that does not follow in a causal relationship from the other parts.

I am not comfortable with the idea of free will defined as an uncaused causer. I think it is more subtle than that. My choices have reasons, and thus causes, but this does not imply my choices are not free. Perhaps I did X instead of Y because X was more consistent with the values I hold, with the way I want to see myself. It is the metaphor of “machinery” in the above paragraph where we have gone off the rails. Brain activity is too complex to be thought of in mechanical terms. Chaos theory is in play here. From the exact same starting point, or boundary conditions, or determining factors, we get different results. These determining factors may limit the range of these results, but they do not actually determine the results in a classical sense.

However, the author goes on to say…

Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.

Small, perhaps, but important and significant nevertheless. Let’s not confuse quantitative and qualitative measures. The “size” of our free will is not what is important.



When Patricia describes the farmer that does not consult a rule book, she seems to forget the Dear Abby industry, which exists on rule-book checking behavior. I live in Washington DC and there are plenty of rule-book checkers here. Why aren’t these specimens under Patricia’s spy-glass? Or is this behavior to be ignored since it does not fit the narrative?

Sure, prairie cats respond to oxytocin and people respond to oxytocin, but people also respond to principles. We must always remember, whatever wonderful science – and I do think it is wonderful – Patricia and her colleagues are onto, we know that giving people oxytocin will not end divorce. This is a point worth pausing to consider and hold in mind, you Dr.s of the Brave New World.

The rationalist project of reducing people into robot animals, mechanically responding to chemical impulses, sounds just as naive today as it has always sounded. The science is great, but the philosophy is flawed.

There are reasons and there are causes. When I raise my arm, the biochemical reactions are the cause of my arm being raised, not the reason. If consciousness is an emergent property of biology, it is complex enough to defy reductive explanations.

The human brain is the most complex feature of the universe. Remember, even in physics, we cannot solve for the three-body problem. In the hardest of the hard sciences, mathematics, we now know that we must live with chaos and complexity and indeterminacy.

Just because our thoughts arise from chemicals does not mean chemicals explain our thoughts. Thoughts transcend chemicals just as persons transcend biology. Morality is more than a feeling, even if it begins with feelings. That is what my moral receptors tell me, at least.

Look, I love the science, but let us not lose our souls when we try turning it into philosophy. Biology is one tool in the bag that we can use. It is not the only one, however. We all know how the world appears to the carpenter whose only tool is a hammer.

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