Last week I was invited to two different talks. I willingly (or so I am led to believe) chose to go to both. The first one was an empty promise; both keynote speakers did not (chose not to?) show up. So the focus on my post will be on the second one that was given by renowned professor Michael Gazzaniga under the title of “Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain."
Whenever I hear the words “free will” a light flashes in my brain. I have been fascinated with this topic for various years, and my perspective has changed over time. From being convinced that we are free to be who we want to be - an overly optimistic and open-ended view I admit - I have come to espouse a perspective that limits and restricts our freedom, especially since gaining a little more insight into biological and psychological processes.
However, judging from the abstract it seemed that Gazzaniga believed in personal responsibility regardless of the influence of our brain-machine on our thoughts, actions, and behavior. I was curious to see how he was going to achieve that feat, particularly with his neuro-scientific background.
The auditorium filled up rather quickly, and I chose the front seats after ensuring that they were not reserved or taken. Even as a student I always preferred the front row over the back; the back rows I tend to find more distracting. At the same time, in case of questions I would be more visible and audible compared to people behind me.
I was immediately impressed with the speaker who despite a proven track record and a number of significant accomplishments struck me both as a humble and humorous person. He interspersed his slides with sly comments and funny clips. He included various references to popular culture and Hollywood that illustrated and backed up his views in a clear and simple manner.
The talk started with a direct and predictable assumption: Free will is an illusion. He then gave a general philosophical definition that revealed the fantasy element of such a concept. So far we were on the same page. I do not believe that we are free to do or think what we wish; there are evident limitations on whatever we wish to be or to do.
For example, we are born with strengths and abilities that can be fostered through the environment but we are not as plastic as B. F. Skinner once claimed. We cannot be anything or anyone we want to be; our choices and options are much more limited. I can never be a painter or a dancer (I have come to accept those facts); neither one of these abilities are in my blood so-to-speak.
In addition, free will would mean continuous conscious control and just think how much of our body is beyond our conscious scrutiny. If it were not so, it would lead to an unmitigated disaster. We would forget to breathe, forget to create red cells and so on. Since our body already does most of the work for us, it shows us that whether we wish to accept it or not, we are not as free as we think we are.
Then, Gazzaniga moved on to questions of blame and responsibility hence moving out of the realm of neuroscience onto questions of morality and society. He claims that although we live in a deterministic world and our brain is a machine, we are still ultimately responsible for our actions.
He claimed that there is a social layer to our brain. Although the brain may be fixed - he compared it to my own favorite analogy of the motherboard of a computer - we can still influence it in various ways through our experiences and social contact, which would be the software we download.
He believes that morality is mainly a social issue and gave the example of being the sole survivor on an island. Without social interaction, morality would not matter, but the moment you have another person arrive on the island, the fight over the coconut becomes of value (These were indeed his words that I am paraphrasing here!). To me this was a kind of stretch because I think morality is more a personal and individual matter. If we are moral only because social forces are present, then our morality lacks a sound basis.
I will give two examples to show that. One is actually a study Gazzaniga himself talked about. Infants already are wired to recognize issues of justice and fairness. When there are two people or two moving objects (the latter would be perceived as animated and hence with life), and they receive compensation, the infant will be content when each receives the same portions, not more or less. This shows that we have, at least before significant contact with society itself, an ingrained sense of right or wrong, our own integral morality.
The second is a personal example. I will stop at a red traffic light no matter what. Even if there are no cars in sight or if other people cross the red light, I still stick to the law. I would generally not jaywalk in this case unless it turns out that the traffic light is broken and stuck on red.
I think that my compulsion to follow the rules is an individual matter; it is not contingent on social contact, such as other people being present at the time of the action. In an empty room without cameras, I would still turn in the fat wallet somebody has left behind to the lost and found department. It is conditioned by my respect for the law as well as for doing the right thing and is not dependent on the eyes of the other. (Please note that whether I necessarily had a choice in the matter is still up for debate.)
Then the talk continued and looked at criminal behavior. Are people who commit evil ultimately responsible for what they do? He claims so, and that put me in a state of disbelief. How can somebody who is insane be still considered responsible for their actions? Gazzaniga seems to believe they are.
That opens up a lot of questions, not to say a can of worms. If so, then what would be the best manner of punishment? Is retribution acceptable? And who ought to decide on these matters? At this point, he could not resist some surprisingly snarly but pointed attacks on lawyers who he claimed have little to no background in neuroscience and psychology, and hence are not the best people to deal with such matters.
A licensed lawyer made himself heard during the question period, while I could not help but disagree with the comment made by Gazzaniga. Lawyers are simply doing their jobs. It is, sad to say, not so much about getting to the truth of the matter but about defending the client regardless. Sure, they generally make a handsome amount of money in the process, but their job is not shedding light on the issue but rather finding the best ways to uphold the human rights of the client, deserved or not. In other words, lawyers do not need to have a background in psychology but must be versed in rhetoric and the law. Yet when it comes to the decision-makers, judge and/or jury, that is a different matter altogether.
To wrap up, it turns out that although we do not have free will, we are still responsible for what we do because of a type of social responsibility. During the reception period, I had a chance to sit down with Gazzaniga with my glass of red wine and ask him some questions about his talk. Did he believe that we have a choice then? In typical professor-style he retorted with a question for me, do chimps have a choice? I said, well humans are a bit more developed in terms of reason, but he stuck to his own question. All right, yes, in my own view, chimps have a choice. He nodded and smiled.
Then what we have is a rather limited form of free will, restricted by our brain and experiences, right? Although he seemed not to appreciate the use of the word free will, he generally agreed.
My line of questioning continued, nonetheless. If you claim that we have a choice, then why do we choose to do evil? To my knowledge, this question was either left unanswered or he digressed in typical professor-style. I came somewhat to his rescue (putting words into his mouth and answering my own question) by referring to Socratic ignorance, that we do evil because we simply are not fully aware of good. He seemed relieved to put that question to sleep.
I asked him what he thought about Buddhism and its view on the ego. He answered that the perspective of the mythic “I” can be useful. It is a narrative that we use to make sense of the world, but that it is not detrimental and it is not necessarily untrue. In other words, it is a useful illusion we create that could indeed end up being true.
Would the same not apply to the illusion of free will then? This question remained unasked partly because we were interrupted by others and mostly because I felt that our discussion was not going anywhere in particular.
But I want to finish on an important observation he made during his talk that left me thinking about morality and the human need for punishment and retribution. If there were a pill that could cure Parkinson's, would we all not embrace and hail this discovery? Of course.
What if there were a pill that could be given to the murderer or shooter of innocent children, which would be able to cure him of re-committing violence. Would society accept that as willingly? I think the answer is no. We do want the perpetrator to undergo suffering for his actions. Perhaps it would be best to give them the pill before they act in Minority Report-style (although highly controversial), or more practically, if we take away their opportunity to have dangerous weapons at their disposal.
And finally, we can also give those who seem lost, confused or helpless, those who suffer from a dangerous cocktail of genes and environment, the empathy and care they need to escape the dark void within. That way we can bring a little light into tormented souls and hope that a Socratic light of wisdom will flicker at the end of their dark tunnel propelling them not to go through with the evil deed.