Do we have free will? It is an age-old question which has attracted the attention of philosophers, theologians, lawyers and political theorists. Now it is attracting the attention of neuroscience, explains Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the new book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” He spoke with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Cook: Why did you decide to tackle the question of free will?
Gazzaniga: I think the issue is on every thinking person’s mind. I can remember wondering about it 50 years ago when I was a student at Dartmouth. At that time, the issue was raw and simply stated. Physics and chemistry were king and while all of us were too young to shave, we saw the implications. For me, those were back in the days when I went to Church every Sunday, and sometimes on Monday if I had an exam coming up!
Now, after 50 years of studying the brain, listening to philosophers, and most recently being slowly educated about the law, the issue is back on my front burner. The question of whether we are responsible for our actions -- or robots that respond automatically -- has been around a long time but until recently the great scholars who spoke out on the issue didn’t know modern science with its deep knowledge and implications.
Cook: What makes you think that neuroscience can shed any light on what has long been a philosophical question?
Gazzaniga: Philosophers are the best at articulating the nature of a problem before anybody knows anything empirical. The modern philosophers of mind now seize on neuroscience and cognitive science to help illuminate age old questions and to this day are frequently ahead of the pack. Among other skills, they have time to think! The laboratory scientist is consumed with experimental details, analyzing data, and frequently does not have the time to place a scientific finding into a larger landscape. It is a constant tension.
Having said that, philosophers can’t have all the fun. Faced with the nature of biologic mechanisms morning, noon, and night, neuroscientists can’t help but think about such questions as the nature of “freedom of action in a mechanistic universe” as one great neuroscientist put it years ago. At a minimum, neuroscience directs one’s attention to the question of how does action come about.
Cook: Do you think that neuroscience, as a field, needs to tackle these questions? That is, do you consider free will an important scientific question?
Gazzaniga: We all need to understand more about free will, or more wisely put, the nature of action. Neuroscience is one highly relevant discipline to this issue. Whatever your beliefs about free will, everyone feels like they have it, even those who dispute that it exists. What neuroscience has been showing us, however, is that it all works differently than how we feel it must work. For instance, neuroscientific experiments indicate that human decisions for action are made before the individual is consciously aware of them. Instead of this finding answering the age-old question of whether the brain decides before the mind decides, it makes us wonder if that is even the way to think about how the brain works. Research is focused on many aspects of decision making and actions, such as where in the brain decisions to act are formed and executed, how a bunch of interacting neurons becomes a moral agent, and even how one’s beliefs about whether they have free will affect their actions. The list of issues where neuroscience will weigh in is endless.
Cook: Please explain what you mean by the idea of an "emergent mind," and the distinction you draw between this and the brain?