Monday, November 14, 2011

Hannah Tepper - The controversial science of free will

Free will is, according to many neuroscientists, an archaic notion with no validity when held up for examination. There have been studies show that the brain has made a decision in some task before the owner of that brain is aware of having made a decision. The problem with this is that we can't know that the decision was not made by the owner of that brain simply because the brain registered the decision before its owner experienced awareness of having made a decision - it's impossible to prove a negative most times.


In the article from Salon, Hannah Tepper looks at the science of free will in an interview with noted neuroscientist and author Michael S. Gazzaniga, professor and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California at Santa Barbara - his new book is Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.

The controversial science of free will

New findings raise questions about our brain's role in decision-making. An expert weighs in

brain book

These days, we seem to be living in a new golden age of choice. One moment we’re tweeting, the next we are changing our profile picture. We get a hankering for hummus and next thing we know, it’s off to Yelp the nearest falafel place. In every choice and action we make, online or off, we have the unique sense that we are in control. This is what it feels like to have free will.

But many neuroscientists have maintained a long-standing opinion that what we experience as free will is no more than mechanistic patterns of neurons firing in the brain. Although we feel like free agents contemplating and choosing, they would argue that these sensations are merely an emotional remnant that brain activity leaves in its wake. If these neuroscientists are right, then free will isn’t worth much discussion.

Michael S. Gazzaniga, professor and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California at Santa Barbara, seriously disagrees. In his new book out this month, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain,“ Gazzaniga uses a lifetime of experience in neuroscientific research to argue that free will is alive and well. Instead of reducing free will to the sum of its neurological parts, he argues that it’s time for neuroscience to consider free will as a scientific fact in its own right. Through fascinating examples in chaos theory, physics, philosophy and, of course, neuroscience, Gazzaniga makes this interesting claim: Just as you cannot explain traffic patterns by studying car parts, neuroscience must abandon its tendency to reduce macro-level phenomena like free will to micro-level explanations. Along the way he provides fascinating and understandable information from brain evolution to studies involving infants and patients with severed brain hemispheres (split-brain patients). The final chapters of the book consider neuroscience as it implicates social responsibility, justice and how we treat criminal offense.

Salon got a chance to speak with Gazzaniga over the phone about the latest findings on
consciousness, our innate propensity toward fairness and why America is so obsessed with retribution.

As a neuroscientist, why does the issue of free will appeal to you?  
If you spent 50 years of your life trying to figure out how the brain works to produce behavior and cognition, you begin to wonder as the title suggests, “who’s in charge here?” Is it the brain or that special self, the one that we all feel we have? How should we think about this? It’s a natural question for me to have been thinking about, just from my professional work.

Something I really enjoyed in the book was your hardware/software analogy. Can you describe what is the hardware and software when it comes to the brain?
There is a difficult vocabulary in computer science in describing how hardware and software interact to produce the functionality of a computer. That dilemma is the same one in the mind/brain business. We can talk about the nervous system but we also know there are these mental states which are produced by the nervous system. No one’s saying this is some cloud floating over the head, right?

So in other words you’re saying that our nervous system and the physical makeup of brains are like hardware, and consciousness and thought are like software. I like that analogy. Another point you make in the book is the way in which our brains have what you call “specialized circuits.” You say that these are refined for processing really specific types of information. How is this kind of decentralization beneficial to us?
There is a great importance on the local circuits of organization in brains so that information processing tasks can be done in a local place and does not have to be transferred all over the brain. That would take time. It would be costly, and it just doesn’t work that. So it’s modularized.

In the book you discuss a part of the brain that you aptly dubbed “the interpreter.” Who is “the interpreter” and what does it do?
There is something in our left hemisphere, a system, a module, a capacity that is constantly trying to see the meaning in the patterns of activity in the brain. It’s trying to interpret emotional changes and behaviors. It’s trying to put this into a story line. It’s the thing that builds our story. It’s also, I think, responsible for why we can talk about determinism and a lack of free will until we’re blue in the face, but none of us actually believes it. Because we feel we are unified and we have this sense of self. I think this is highly related to the interpreter.
Go read the whole interview.

1 comment:

Tom Armstrong said...

Yes, yes. I buy all this. There is something else that is not physicalist -- mechanical -- operating in our heads. Software coming from somewhere, or coming somehow, that both expains the me-ness that we feel and puts "me" at the wheel of the ship.