Trevor's Reviews > Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga
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bookshelves: evolution, psychology, social-theory, science

The start of this book is pretty much the same as Sam Harris’s Free Will. But this guy comes to the opposite conclusion. A tad frustrating, I guess, but no less interesting for that.

Let’s have a look at the problem. In the middle of this book he has a really lovely analogy explaining the barriers that reductionism places in front of our understanding of free will.

Let’s say you wanted to understand the problem of traffic congestion. To what extent would understanding the workings of a car’s spark plugs help you to understand traffic flows or traffic jams? Or perhaps a better question to ask is if we were to invent a better spark plug would that help in any way to fix traffic congestion?

I assume the answer is that it would not and that to understand traffic congestion by gaining a better understanding the components making up individual cars is really turning to a microscope when we should be getting a telescope. These are matters of scale and often the problem with our analysis is not that we are looking at the wrong things so much, as looking at them from the wrong scale.

So, what of free will?

Well, the problem is that how we think we live in the world and how we actually live in the world are constantly being shown as quite different things. We prefer to think of ourselves as agents – that the flow of our actions goes something like this: we are engaged in the world, something happens, we consider the various inputs presented by this happening, we propose various alternative actions in response to those inputs, we consider the implications of these alternatives, and then – finally – we choose to act. The uncomfortable fact is that in most studies the exact opposite is shown to happen. Our brains can’t wait around for our conscious awareness before we respond – we have to respond prior to conscious mediation.

If there is a snake we need to jump away from it before going through the ‘oh look, what’s that thing over there, gosh, I do believe it might just be a snake. Now, snakes oftentimes tend to be rather dangerous. I guess I really ought to find some way of avoiding it, perhaps I should…” You know, by this stage we would be dead. We respond on autopilot, but our conscious minds don’t like the idea that they are cut out of the loop and so they make up stories that say we decided to act, we chose to act, that our action was willed, but actually our conscious minds decided all this after the event – and we fall for these stories every time. We have a very strong preference for imagining ourselves in control.

There is a lovely example related to this idea given in the book (although, it might seem a little off-to-the-side until you think about it). Raise your finger and touch the end of your nose. It seems like you ‘feel’ the sensation on both your fingertip and the tip of your nose at exactly the same time. But for these sensations to be ‘felt’ they really need to be registered in your brain. To ‘feel’ both (that is, to become consciously aware of both sensations) nerve impulses need to travel from either your nose or from your finger to your brain. That is, there needs to be an impulse that travels virtually no distance in the case of your nose or maybe half a metre in case of your finger. The nerve impulse from your finger needs to go up your arm, over to your spine, up your spine and so on. He says the difference in time between your brain receiving the signal from your nose and in receiving the signal from your finger could be as much as a half second’s lag, that is, long enough that it ought to be ‘noticeable’. Yet no one does notice this difference – everyone experiences both sensations occurring at exactly the same time. And why? Well, because out brain makes sense of the big picture and so forces the two things appear to have happened instantaneously. This is an example of what computer programmers refer to as ‘a feature, rather than a fault’.

It is this post-hoc explanation of our actions that makes the whole issue of free will problematic. It is as if we are so obsessed with narrative (in creating a story that has the right ‘flow’, that makes sense) that we tend to think that the stories we come up with are the explanations for our actions and that these stories ‘cause’ our actions. Unfortunately, it can be shown experimentally that our actions come first and our explanations (or even our conscious awareness) comes very much later.

Now, before we go too much further I think it is important to say that the author of this one is someone who had been involved in neurology for ages and was involved in some of the early work on split-brained patients. A lot of the early parts of this book looks at this work in some detail. I think it is important to know this guy is ‘in the field’, you know, not just an interested journalist or something.

We like to think of ourselves as having free will and this means of our having agency. This is our most common opinion of ourselves and as such it defines our relationship with the world. Minute by minute we have the feeling that we could just as easily leave off doing what it is that we are doing and go do something else, something completely different. So, the fact that we succeed or fail is, ultimately, related to the fact we do or do not keep going at a particular task that ought to lead to success. And in those ‘second by seconds’ we constantly need to ‘will’ ourselves to keep going – and so it comes down to our moral fortitude (or lack of such fortitude) that decides whether we succeed in life or not. And this is what makes us feel we are free agents with a free will.

But is this feeling justified? To the author the problem is – as I mentioned at the start of this review – a problem of scale. If we try to answer this problem on the basis of an individual making a decision in isolation, then the ‘free will’ answer doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the author believes that free will, in the sense of completely abstract freedom to choose our actions without reference to the real world in which we live makes no sense either. He says the solution is in looking at how the individual relates to other individuals and how the individual has been shaped by evolutionary forces to be a social animal.

The author is really seeking to give a place for individual agency – even after it seemed he had taken away much of the ground for this agency in the early discussion in the book. Given there is a real sense in which to be responsible for our actions we need to have willed those actions – and, as the author has already shown, there is reason to doubt we really do will our actions – to what extent should we be held responsible for our actions? To what extent does it make sense to punish people for their actions?

This guy wants to say that the limits placed on our free will by the fact that our conscious awareness and justification for our actions so often come after we have already acted, doesn’t take away our fundamental responsibility for those actions. His argument is that we are looking at the problem in the wrong scale – responsibility isn’t so much about individuals acting without context, but individuals acting very much within a social context. He claims that we have evolved to want to punish those who transgress rules, and that punishing such transgressions makes sense and that we want those punishments to be proportionate to the crime. To support this view he attacks determinism – the view that we are not agents, but rather that our actions are determined by outside forces. He does this in a couple of odd ways. One is to show that determinism is no longer acceptable in physics (think Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). This seems to suffer the same problem that his traffic and car part problem illuminated earlier. Just because there is no determinism in the position or velocity of an electron seems hardly relevant to explaining human legal processes. Yet again, a problem of scale.

He ends by effectively saying; look, if you are driving a car on a free way and you see a police car, you will check your speed and, if necessary, slow down. That is, you will do the right thing. You will do what you know to be right. So, therefore, free will exists – you can choose to do the right thing and there are circumstances where you will virtually always do the right thing – so you should be held accountable for your actions at all times, whether there is a police car around or not. Free will exists.

Hmm. This is a strange argument given the stuff he explained at the start of the book to prove that our actions come before our conscious justifications for them. However, he claims this is all resolved by focusing on our evolved responses and the fact we are social animals.

But this is my main problem with the book. I think he has been tricked by the scale problem he mentioned himself. He makes endless reference to brain structures and to physics and to the impossibility of knowing the impact of a brain legion on mind – all good stuff. However, he makes no mention at all of any social science. This is understandable, in some ways, as social science is very much seen as ‘science-lite’ by those in the hard sciences. But the problem is that if you want to talk about the impact of society on individual free will, then you really are talking about social science. And pretending you are the first person to have thought about these issues may or may not be disingenuous, but if it is not then it does display a breathtaking ignorance.

We tend to think that we like particular types of music because we like how it sounds and that it is an expression of our individual taste – but Bourdieu was able to show in his book Distinctions that our tastes, far from being purely subjective (as we like to assume they are) are very much linked to how we belong to various social groups. We wear as a badge of honour our liking of Rap or Mahler or the Classic Hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s (kill me now). But these preferences – which we believe so tellingly reveal our innate personalities – in fact, are mostly predictable from our social location. Does that mean that if you are a university professor you will not like AC/DC? No. But on average it is much more likely that a university professor will know who Bruckner is and that a panel beater will know who Run DMC are.

To me, the problem is that our brains are tuned to make us feel as though we are agents, that we have a free will, even when that free will can be shown to be restricted to the point that we can say, with near certainty, that what most people mean by free will simply does not exist. Most people think they are responsible for their actions – but there are so many influences on us, so many forces pushing and pulling on us, forces that we are often almost completely unaware of, that we are anything but reliable witnesses even to our own actions.

And because we are so certain we have free will – and because so much evidence points in the opposite direction – if we were sensible, I think we would start from the assumption that we don’t have any free will at all. People get worked up about this because it so clearly goes against ’natural feeling’. But also because they can see that if we are not responsible for our actions then we don’t get to punish people who do wrong – and god knows we do love to punish people who do wrong. But if there is one lesson from religion it does seem to be to forgive your enemies and to leave vengeance to god. I think this isn’t such a bad idea (and I’m an atheist). The fact we keep this idea in our religions (where we can safely ignore it) says something rather sad about us, I think.

But imagine for a second if it was true that people tend to act in accordance to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Then surely, rather than punishing people for the ‘bad’ things they do, we should spend more time thinking about how to create social situations where such bad actions would be impossible. You see, our obsession with individuals and free will means we have entire legal structures set up to find the best ways to punish individuals who choose to act in ways that are anti-social. But we don’t ever seem to think about how we could change society to make such behaviour impossible, you know, rather than inevitable. The recent gun massacre in the United States is a case in point (in the sense there will always have been a recent gun massacre in the US this review can be timeless). And that is the problem with this book – it is so terrified of determinism stealing our free will that it spends half of the book trying to find ways to make sure the individual is left to be blamed for their actions.

But this is the wrong end of the telescope – even if this is the end of the telescope we rush to every time. This is the end that gives us our most pleasing view of ourselves – even when it makes us look like monsters. The other end of the telescope shows all of the societal influences that act upon us. The societal influences that mean some of us will inevitably act appallingly. It is this end of the telescope that makes us all responsible for the vile acts that occur in our society – not the side that makes us feel comfortably content with having some individual to blame. Even if that individual is us.

Maybe we should spend some time thinking about those societal influences and how we could change them. Just for once, just for a change.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 19, 2012 – Shelved
December 19, 2012 – Shelved as: evolution
December 19, 2012 – Shelved as: psychology
December 19, 2012 – Shelved as: social-theory
December 19, 2012 – Shelved as: science
December 19, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Thomas J. (new)

Thomas J. Hubschman "To me, the problem is that our brains are tuned to make us feel as though we are agents, that we have a free will, even when that free will can be shown to be restricted to the point that we can say, with near certainty, that what most people mean by free will simply does not exist."

Well put! We are hardwired to believe we have freedom of choice ("free will" has always seemed a contradiction in terms to me; I take "will" to be a substantive use of the future particle, i.e. a determinative, and "free" of course to be its opposite). But so are any other conscious creatures. Tell a dog, if you could, that her decisions are unconscious and pre-thought and she would properly scoff at the idea.

"The other end of the telescope shows all of the societal influences that act upon us. The societal influences that mean some of us will inevitably act appallingly. It is this end of the telescope that makes us all responsible for the vile acts that occur in our society – not the side that makes us feel comfortably content with having some individual to blame. Even if that individual is us."

Thank you. A perfect formulation of the alternative to "free will" as it's generally understood, with all the nasty and absurd consequences. I also like the tie-in with the idea of forgiveness. It even makes some sense for me of the so-called Truth and Reconciliation commissions which till now seemed just a cynical necessity that doomed people to go on living and working with the murderers of their kin--as happens today in Rwanda.

Chomsky, by the way, recently talked about free will in an interesting way, though only in the question period after a recent lecture he gave in Oslo on Newton and the science of the mind. He seemed oddly ambiguous about the subject--free will. As best I can make out, he seemed to be asserting that free will does indeed exist, even if our decisions are made unconsciously and prior to conscious thought. The reason: we have an immediate experience of it, just as we do of consciousness, therefore it must exist.

The lecture itself, though, is superb, stands on its head the traditional notion of what Newton accomplished and shows him as actually undoing everything the scientific revolution to that point had accomplished.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5in5E...


Brendan Egan I thought this guys skipped over a lot of things that were relevant, important even, that Sam Harris, David Eagleman, and Leonard Mlodinow (even though he didn't really assert anything about free will) talked about. And the fixation on determinism really ruined it for me.

I guess I don't see determinism being untrue (if it is) meaning we definitely have free will. Just because things aren't laid out in advance, doesn't mean we're in control (not in the sense that we feel we are). So, if this is true, as Harris and Eagleman talk about, I don't see how we can be responsible for what we do. Obviously there would still be a need for rehabilitation and incapacitation since we can't have people just running around killing each other. But it definitely seems to take retributive punishment off the table (to me, anyway).

Anyway, I gave the book 4 because it had a lot of new, interesting stuff I hadn't learned previously, and I didn't mind his style for the most part. I think the book was useful, but not his conclusions. But then, I"m no neuroscientist, so what do I know?


Trevor Likewise - I like the take the 'what do I know' stance anyway. Although, it didn't exactly work out too well for Socrates. Then again, being the Son of God didn't work out too well for Jesus either, so I guess it comes down to which ever you feel more comfortable with and acknowledging I know nothing has always seemed closer to the truth for me.

I'm just reading Mlodinow's Subliminal now. It is annoying me in places - particularly where he does the Gladwell 'Blink' stuff - particularly since he is not nearly as good a writer as Gladwell and his bad arguments are much more obviously rubbish than Gladwell's were.

Like you, I don't feel at all comfortable with the idea of retribution. It is like junk food - we know it is bad for us, but we are attracted to it anyway. Better to resist - no matter how hard resisting proves to be.


Spyros I really liked your review Trevor, but I think the individualistic aspect is more a societal U.S. thing than anything else. Sure, every legal system, Europe included, places the judgment on the individual. But in Europe, especially if a crime has larger societal or political bearings (drug crime, political or ideological crime, etc.) there always follows a discussion on the actual societal structures that made this crime possible, or almost always.


Spyros I too found Mlodinow's Subliminal very annoying, btw.


Trevor I never finished Subminal and now am not sure what happened to stop me. I really loved his The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives and his Euclid's Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace - others of his I've been much less impressed with. I've been reading lots of Bauman and Beck lately and they are both really interesting about this stuff. The more our problems become impossible for single countries to solve, the more our politicians move to fear as a way to motivate us to vote for them and the more we are left to use our life biography as individuals to tackle global issues. Their solution - if there really is one - is for us to have some sort of global government that is real and effective. Not much chance of that, I guess.


Spyros Ha, same story here, didn't' finish it and I don't know why. I remember that I thought it beneath me to read at some point, as bad as it might sound. Drunkards walk was one of the first books I put on the kindle, and it's ended up on the end of the list with some 100 books I 've uploaded afterwards, so thanks for the heads up again I 'll definitely give it a go. Sadly I think if we do get a global government it will fall short of our collective expectations, if it's not, like you said, a solution that comes from some broader agreement and understanding, as well as participation on a global scale by individuals as such. But that would also mean ideologies fade and religions are upgraded to their better elements. But I am quite sure we 'll not be around for this utopia. Thanks for the reading tips!


Trevor A couple more then. Avoid War of the Worldviews: The Struggle Between Science and Spirituality, a very irritating book. Have you read any of the plethora of books that came out on decision making? Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions and The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making are two favourites. The second is probably the best but also the hardest to get hold of.


message 9: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Chuang Well, I think very early on in life, mostly through our parents' instruction, we learn that we have a choice -- that alternatives to the actions we have taken or are thinking of taking exist, and that one's conscious apparatus can make choices, by overidding one impulse by another. So just to be the devils advocate, I would side Gazzinga and say freewill in the sense we intuitively use the term exists, as it encodes some information about uncertainties in our imaginitive and external worlds, the very possibility of other worlds. There is probably some sort of bifurcating, unstable dynamics inside the brain and based on what we identify as sources of self -- social influences, morality, goals, preferences, we can draw on these sourced of self, stored as memories and what not, bias the dynamics in the direction which would be most consistent with whatever sources of self were most dominant at the time. So the self does make choices by being one of the sources of reasoning about choices, though far from being the only source. The question, then, isn't really, 'is there free will', but rather 'what are we?' However, it is really turtles all the way down -- we are merely a continuation of culture and of the environments in which we live, and the developmental trajectory of our brain. We are a living, dynamic representation designed to maximise fitness, and nothing more. There is no transcendance of self, of will etc. There is only changes in the internal dynamics of the brain.


Trevor I think my main problem with the idea of free will is that it makes us feel as if we are 'individuals' that are in charge. But if you look at society the most striking thing about it isn't that it is composed of free acting agents making remarkably individual decisions - but rather how blindingly predictable 99% of those decisions are. We are much less individuals than we are products and producers (and reproducers) of already existing social relationships - social relations we 'choose' to reenact a thousand times a day - it would be easier to just say we are automata, and mostly in our engagement with the world, this is exactly what we are. What we mostly do is 'choose' what is already chosen for us, we freely and wilfully choose what we have no other choice but to choose. Not one in a hundred of us act in ways that could not be reasonably predicted from the moment we were conceived - and yet we congratulate ourselves on our free will. If we were to watch bees behaving as we do and be told they have free will we would laugh our heads off. The problem with the whole notion of free will is that it makes us think far too highly of ourselves - and to do this despite all of the evidence. This notion of free will (as a kind of self-congratulation) actually limits what we can be, because it underestimates the power of society to force us down particular paths, seemingly of our own choosing, and so blinds us to the paths we otherwise might have taken, but which had been closed to us by our long-formed habits. Habits our place in society imposes on us until those habits feel as if we have chosen the prison they have constructed for us.


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