This is the 18th 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 Do We have the Brains to Deal with Ourselves? (II). 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.
One of the areas which the new neuroscience is exploring is the nature of memories. What a memory is exactly in terms of brain function is still not completely understood. While scientists are exploring the nature of memories in mice, how this translates to the human mind is not completely known.
“A mouse’s memory of a single fearful event is one thing: the complex associations of human memory, powered by a dense network of neuronal connections, is quite another. … More complex memories, like the recollection of an event that happened to you, are stored in many different areas of the brain.” (Dan Hurley, “Where Memory Lives,” DISCOVER, April 2012, 37)
Tallis commented extensively on how memories cannot be reduced to a simple biochemical or neuronal action. Memories are complexly stored over a wide area of the brain. Part of the wondrous mystery of the brain is exactly how the memories are stored and how they are recalled to form cogent images that our brain can interpret and use. Not only does an individual’s brain use these memories, but they can be shared socially by a number of people in meaningful interactions.
Tallis’ point is that human mental activity is not coterminous with the brain functions that bring them about. There is an immaterial element to thinking, remembering, choosing and creating. This is the “self” which the neo-atheists cannot allow because of their ideological commitment to materialism, not because it doesn’t exist.
Even the recent claims by some of the neo-atheists that science proves the brain begins to act seconds before the human appears to know what action it is going to do fails to take into account that a human does not just begin acting in any one second, but rather each human mind is composed of a countless number of neuronal connections – memories of past experience as well as inherited reflexes. So any activity we do is shaped by and founded in memories and thoughts that are already stored in the brain. We simply do not have the complete picture yet and so cannot claim that free will does not exist. Past choices and experience do shape our thinking, choices and actions – the brain doesn’t just suddenly jump into motion with no premeditation when it has a choice before it. Past experience, likes, pleasures, memories, emotions, etc, are all already at work in us and so predate every decision we make. The fact that neurons begin working and that scientists can from fMRIs predict what a person is going to do before they are aware themselves of what they are going to do, doesn’t disprove free will, it only shows us that our self and will is married to our physical bodies and cannot be completely separated from them. The science is telling us that a dualistic understanding of the human is an incorrect understanding. The notions of self, consciousness and free will are essential for understanding what it is to be human – to understand what has evolved in the human species, in the uniqueness of the human mind.
Jonah Lehrer writing in the March 2012 issue of WIRED (“The Forgetting Pill”) describes the efforts of medical science to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Neuroscientists are trying to understand the nature of memories to see if a memory can be isolated in the brain and then in one fashion or another removed or neutralized so that a person can overcome their PTSD and be freed from the pain of those memories. Such “memory tweaks” raise a variety of ethical problems and questions: Who decides which memories are to be erased? When we lose memories we also lose lessons learned – who accepts responsibility for that loss? How do we deal with people who intentionally erase memories so as not to be held accountable for things they did? Who owns our memories – do future generations (our children for example) have a right to possess or inherit our memories? And legally a host of problems will be raised in courts when people intentionally erase memories which are needed as evidence (tampering with evidence is a crime after all) and witnesses will be invalidated by accusations that their memories were tampered with.
Again, the push for the use of science raises ethical concerns that science itself cannot answer.
Jeffrey Kluger writing in the 5 March 2012 issue of TIME applies some of the same neuronal questions to the subject of will power and whether science can reshape the will once it understands the neuronal activity involved in self-indulgence and self-denial. Here too the complexity of brain function has meant so far an incomplete understanding of how will power works and what can be done to affect it.
But the implication in all of these studies is that science one day will be able to know exactly how the brain functions and will be able to control or change that function in any/every human being. Whether we want science to have that power, or whether we believe that power will be harnessed by other social groups (government for example; or militant ideologues) for their own nefarious purposes, we come to understand that all of these issues in neural science have serious ethical implications for us all.
We need to pay attention to what science might wrought.
Next: Brain Life and Death