This is the 13th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Memory and the Mind. This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.
Both Gazzaniga and Tallis offer criticisms of the claims of some that neuroscience has disproved the existence of the self or of free will. Tallis by far offers a much stronger defense for free will from the scientific evidence, from philosophy and from logic. Gazzaniga certainly has reservations about the far reaching claims of what neuroscience has proven. However, he does hedge his ideas a bit.
“Vohs and Schooler suggested that disbelief in free will produces a subtle cue that exerting effort is futile, thus granting permission not to bother. People prefer not to bother, because bothering, in the form of self-control, requires exertion and depletes energy. Further investigation along these lines by Florida State University social psychologists Roy Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and C. Nathan DeWall found that reading deterministic passages increased tendencies of the people they studied to act aggressively and to be less helpful toward others. They suggest that a belief in free will may be crucial for motivating people to control their automatic impulses to act selfishly, and a significant amount of self-control and mental energy is required to override selfish impulses and to restrain aggressive impulses. The mental state supporting the idea of voluntary actions had an effect on the subsequent action decision. It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1831-40)
Gazzaniga moves in the more neutral direction of pointing out that even if free will is an illusion, it still has positive effects on our behaviors and for society as scientific research has shown. But in the above passage he says, “The mental state supporting the idea of voluntary actions had an effect on the subsequent action decision.” The very statement that we can effect decisions by our behavior indicates that determinism doesn’t rule everything in the human life. We are not merely following a cause and effect chain of events, but we actually engage life, make decisions and our decisions have an effect on what happens next. We in fact are marking choices and these choices change what happens next – this is in fact the exertion of free will. Our empirical brains process input from the world and from other humans; this results in real thinking and decision making. There is in fact an immaterial aspect to our existence even when our self and free will are always interfacing with the material world in and through our brains and bodies. What the studies Gazzaniga show is that non-material input received by our brains does translate into changed behavior which can be statistically demonstrated. This is scientific evidence against absolute materialist determinism.
Tallis goes much further than Gazzaniga and is very clear that the evidence of science is that humans do exhibit free will as part of human consciousness.
“As Carter says: ’The illusion of free will is deeply ingrained precisely because it prevents us from falling into a suicidally fatalistic state of mind – it is one of the brain’s most powerful aids to survival…’ This is an interesting claim because it suggests that our belief that we are free can (after all) alter what happens in the world: initially, as far as we are concerned, for the better because it helps us survive. In short, the illusion of free will does deflect the course of events, and hence it is self-fulfilling. It is not an illusion. For if we really cannot deflect the course of predetermined events, then the idea that we are free cannot change anything, any more than the idea that we are not free can change it.” (Tallis, p 262)
Beliefs can alter what actions we take. The immaterial influencing the material. The material brain is able to make choices which effects what we do, which in turn changes what happens in our lives and in the world. In other words science is demonstrating that free will exists and that strict determinism is not governing everything that is unfolding in the universe. Even genetically speaking aberrations and mutations unpredictably enter into genes – we see that record in the human genome. Absolute determinism based in materialism does not describe reality as we know it anymore than Newtonian physics can describe the quantum world. There is uncertainty in the world of physics as well as in human sociology and psychology.