Yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, we gathered to give thanks and feast on the bounty our civilization produces. The holiday is one of the finer collective expressions of our will. But a week or so ago, a philosopher and a scientist, commenting in the NYT and Scientific American, respectively, took opposing positions on whether our will is truly free – and whether, therefore, the tradition we followed yesterday was truly capable of expressing gratitude or was simply behavior of the herd.
In this post, I will try to explain why the philosopher is correct and the scientist is in error. But to do so, I will have to go farther that the philosopher did and explain why I think the will is even more truly free than he has thought.
Michael Gazzaniga, a cognitive psychologist at UC Santa Barbara, thinks that the human mind constitutes a layer of mental activity that lies on top of the neuronal activity human brain. “We are dealing with a layered system,” he explained in an interview with SciAm reporter Gareth Cook.
For Gazzinaga, what is called “will” is really the interaction between the two layers, and how that happens is a problem science has not yet solved. “For now, no one really captures that reality and certainly no one has yet captured how mental states interact with the neurons that produce them.” When science succeeds in elucidating the nature of this interaction, the concept of the will and its illusory freedom will disappear. From the perspective of a scientist observing them, Gazzaniga says, humans have a strong propensity “to think there is some little guy in their head calling the shots. There is not.”
On the other hand, Eddy Nahmias, a philsopher at Georgia State University, believes scientists like Gazzaniga are “employing a flawed notion of fee will.”** Even if scientists succeed in fully explaining mental phenomena in terms of neuronal behavior (Gazzaniga’s “interaction”), such “discoveries about how our brains work do not mean that what we think or try to do makes no difference to what happens.”
The reason for the conceptual mistake, Nahmias explained, is that scientific explanations of the exercise of will – and of the internal deliberations that lead up to decisions to act – do not “bypass our conscious deliberations and decisions.” Rather, they show how those processes work. The scientific findings elucidate the neurological correlates of decision making and exercise of will. Rather than “bypassing” the participation of consciousness in thought and will, the neuronal mechanisms are the correlates that conscious participation.
I completely agree with Nahmias, as far as he goes. To take the next step, it’s helpful to consider a contrary argument made by neuroscientist Sam Harris in the Huffington Post. In his commentary in the NYT, Nahmias referred to Harris’ article in the Post.
Harris said the feeling of being a conscious free agent in decision making is an illusion. “This point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain. All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.” He elaborated his view that our brains make decisions and initiate actions entirely in reaction to impinging stimuli.
In particular, Harris criticized the viewpoint of one biologist, Martin Heisenberg, who pointed to the random – and therefore unpredictable – nature of biological processes “like the opening and closing of ion channels and the release of synaptic vesicles.” Heisenberg contended that random biological processes allow for the possibility of behavior that is not determined by stimuli and which can thus be “self-generated” and constitute a basis for free will.
Harris disputed Heisenberg’s assertion of the significance of biological randomness. If Heisenberg were correct, human behavior would be chaotic, he argued. “Imagine what your life would be like if all your actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires were “self-generated” in this way,” Harris wrote. “You would scarcely seem to have a mind at all. You would live as one blown about by an internal wind. … How would such unpredictable changes in the states of a person’s brain constitute freedom?”
But contrary to Harris’ image of human behavior as erratic as the wind, unpredictable biological randomness would in fact result in organized and predictable behavior. When unpredictably random events occur in large numbers (consider how large a number of randomly acting ion channels and synaptic vesicles there are in the brain), the outcome of those random events is orderly. Large numbers of random events acting together yield stable quantities: magnitudes, frequencies, means, standard deviations, and other statistical parameters.
Millions of neurons in the brain participate in every decision process and exercise of will that a person engages in. And each of those neurons generates action potentials, or not, in consequence of large numbers of partially random events involving ion channels, synaptic vesicles and numerous other cellular organelles. The huge numbers of participating elements means that neuronal randomness results in human behavior that is regular and yet somewhat unpredictable at the same time. In other words, behavior resulting in part from random activity can be free.
In my view, the next step in understanding free will is taking the view that free will occurs within the randomness of neuronal processes. I think that Heisenberg, in the linked article in the Times, led up to but did not go as far as articulating that idea. But I think Heisenberg did argue that the conscious experience of the exercise free will is what the neurological mechanisms discovered by neuroscience explain.
Random neurological events do not bypass the conscious exercise of free will; they are them. The randomness that participates in neurological activity does not make our free will impossible, as Harris seems to think. Rather, the opposite: Within that randomness, we freely choose and freely act.
** I juxtapose the two commentators in this blog for the purpose of contrasting their views. Nahmias’ Opinionator column in the Times actually appeared two days before Gazzaniga’s interview in SciAm. My comments are not based on any discussion that took place between them.