Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain
by Michael S. Gazzaniga. Ecco (HarperCollins Publishers), 2011
Most people are convinced that they possess a central “me,” a purposeful self who calls all the shots. In the past few decades, however, this view has come under attack, as scientists and philosophers increasingly adopt a mechanistic view of the universe, in which physical laws govern our every move and choice. Know enough about how the brain operates, and you will be able to understand—and predict—the mind.
Into the fray enters neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, who dodges those well-worn reductionist arguments to offer a fresh perspective in his new book. Determinism has no meaning in the context of free will, he argues, because personal responsibility is a contract between two people, not a property of the brain.
Gazzaniga begins his exploration of free will by describing how no single entity or process generates our conscious experience; rather it is assembled on the fly. Yet we still feel like we live a narrative of our own choosing, a result of what he dubs the “interpreter” module of the brain. This specialized neural system integrates our actions, memories and perceptions, stitching together a unified story.
Flaws in this well-orchestrated system can be observed in people with brain damage. Gazzaniga introduces a patient who cannot see objects from the right side of his brain but can draw them. Another individual reports that her hand belongs to her son. These and other cases expose consciousness for what it really is: a vast assembly of disparate systems that interact to form our experiences.
Still, simply tallying up all our neurons’ behavior will not help us make sense of our lives. Just as knowing every detail about all cars on the highway will never predict traffic, tracking every neural twitch will never reveal a specific mental state. Furthermore, the brain makes decisions within a social context, not in isolation. Here Gazzaniga gets to the real question about free will: personal responsibility. He points out that notions of accountability arise only when brains interact, which neuroscience is barely beginning to understand.
Gazzaniga concludes by urging us to consider this bigger social picture when debating what it means to be a responsible agent. An accessible read, Who’s in Charge? will make you think twice about your actions and interactions.