'My Brain Made Me Do It'

A 22-year-old author discusses the threat that brain science poses to our concept of free will

Courtesy of E. Sternberg


At age 22, Eliezer Sternberg has just published his second book on neuroscience and philosophy: “My Brain Made Me Do It,” now out from Prometheus Books. In it, he argues that our growing understanding of how the brain works does not mean the end of moral responsibility. Rather, he sees free will as a special property that emerges from more basic brain functions. A student at Tufts Medical School, he took time out from his first-year exams to talk with Mind Matters co-editor Carey Goldberg.

Q: Moral responsibility has been in the news most recently as people discussed the Tiger Woods scandal. How do you see his case?

A: Tiger Woods does take full responsibility and he should take full responsibility. Some have considered the possibility that his serial adultery was caused by the fact that he had no control over his libido—that he did not act of his own free will.  But unless neurologists confirm substantial damage to his frontal lobe, his ability to freely make decisions was intact and he could have taken measures to control his tendencies.  He has free will, and is morally responsible.
Q: In your book you say that recent developments in neuroscience seem to cast increasing doubt on our concept of free will. What findings seem to most threaten it?

A: The work of [the late University of California, San Francisco physiologist] Benjamin Libet  -- which is itself not very recent but is still being pursued by other researchers.  He found in lab experiments that the brain begins initiating an action before the person has actually decided to take that action. That very stark example really makes you think.

Q: What do you consider the most powerful counter-argument to Libet’s findings?

A: That argument is based on the idea of a “readiness potential” that appears 350 milliseconds before the conscious decision of an action is declared. But my argument would be that there’s really no way of knowing that this potential -- which is just a brainwave, actually -- is the brain beginning to take the action. It’s an assumption made, but for all we know, it could be associated with thousands of different processes.

Q: So how would you sum up your own conclusions about how we can reconcile the accumulating findings in neuroscience with the concept of free will?

A: I believe that, over time, traditional neuronal and biochemical accounts of the mind will run their course—they will try to explain as much as they can, but will fall short of accounting for human consciousness.  There will still be more to explain.  At this point, researchers will have to search for new kinds of explanations that are unprecedented in other scientific fields.  

Q: So you’re saying free will is qualitatively different from the rest of the workings of the brain, which are more mechanistic?

A: Yes. But I think it’s still based in the brain’s mechanical architecture. It’s not a separate entity but it’s an emergent property of the mechanism of the brain.

Q: You are 22. What do you reasonably expect to see in your lifetime in terms of unraveling this question of what the brain has to say about free will vs. determinism?

A: I think that the trend will move further and further into thinking that free will does not exist. Two factors will push that belief. First: There will be more complete accounts of how decisions or behaviors arise from cellular connections in the brain. And second, the incredible expansion of brain-related technologies, including intelligence drugs, and cortical implants, which would have electrodes plugged into various areas of the brain to stimulate or suppress feeling and ideas. I think this merging of mind and mechanism is going to get people thinking more and more along these lines. We’ll see machines and human behavior and see them interacting, so we’ll assume it’s the same kind of system, just one’s made out of flesh and the other’s made out of silicon. I wrote the book to say that all that doesn’t matter, because there’s a fundamental gap that none of that will breach.

Q: What future do you foresee for legal defenses based on “My Brain Made Me Do It?”

A: I think that neuroscience is expanding incredibly quickly and when the field really does reach its apex, I do think that major legal questions will become relevant as more and more scientists become convinced that the brain is controlling more than we assumed in the past.

Q: How might a deterministic neuroscience affect the way we view criminals?

A: If I’m wrong, and all our behaviors are completely controlled by neuronal processes beyond our control, that would mean that our concept of morality doesn’t make any sense and there seems to be no way to hold people responsible for anything.

Q: In fact, in our society, we do have highly deterministic neuroscience, which enjoys quite a bit of respect, and yet our courts do keep the concept of personal responsibility pretty intact. Something doesn’t quite jibe.

A: You are right when you say we already have pretty deterministic neuroscience but that is known by few people. Once science and technology make the perceived determinism of neuroscience more concrete, that is when people are going to start questioning whether our legal system and our concepts of crime and punishment are justified. Obviously, I think it is justified but there will be people who don’t think that.

Q: It does seem like a collision is coming, but for now they’re separate.

A: I’m not the kind of person who can compartmentalize ideas that way. I need to believe something consistent and go with it. So it was pretty hard for me when I was working in various neuroscience labs and would ask questions about free will and personal identity. Anyone I asked would simply brush it off, and say ‘Oh, we don’t deal with that kind of stuff here, this is a laboratory. We deal with serious things.’ It made for fewer people to talk with.

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