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On Neuroscience, Free Will, and Morality

Fifteen years ago, when I was traveling to a conference in Seattle, I read an article by Tom Wolfe which caused me to begin thinking seriously about matters of neuroscience, free will, and morality. Wolfe wrote about brain imaging and what he called “the hottest field in the academic world, neuroscience.”

According to Wolfe:

Neuroscientists … will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or self–consciousness (Cogito ergo sum) is located. This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. The young generation takes this yet one step further. Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system—and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth—what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What “ghost,” what “mind,” what “self,” what “soul,” what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you? I have heard neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human being’s life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was about to shake his head over the very idea. I doubt that any Calvinist of the sixteenth century ever believed so completely in predestination as these, the hottest and most intensely rational young scientists in the United States at the end of the twentieth century.

This sudden switch from a belief in Nurture, in the form of social conditioning, to Nature, in the form of genetics and brain physiology, was according to Wolfe the “great intellectual event, to borrow Nietzsche’s term, of the late twentieth century.” He added, “Thereupon, in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: ‘The self is dead’—except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche I, he will probably say: ‘The soul is dead.’ He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: ‘The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists.’”

Which brings us to the here and now.

Sam Harris, an influential atheist who received a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA, has written a book, The Moral Landscape, excerpts from which appear on his blog. Two recent entries [here and here] put forward these propositions: (a) brain science has spoken and the conclusion is inescapable: the concept of free will is a myth; and (b) this understanding, while it might alter our view of morality in some respects, doesn’t destroy the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil. We can have morality without free will.

Harris puts it this way:

You spot your best friend standing on the street corner looking strangely disheveled. You recognize that she is crying and frantically dialing her cell phone. Was she involved in a car accident? Did someone assault her? You rush to her side, feeling an acute desire to help. Your “self” seems to stand at the intersection of these lines of input and output. From this point of view, you tend to feel that you are the source of your own thoughts and actions. You decide what to do and not to do. You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain. All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion. [emphasis added]

But from what I can discern, the evidence is far less conclusive and far more complicated than what Harris suggests. For example, Roy F. Baumeister, a Professor of Psychology at Florida StateUniversity, and his colleagues reviewed several studies on whether conscious thoughts cause behavior. They found, “The evidence for conscious causation of behavior is profound, extensive, adaptive, multifaceted, and empirically strong. However, conscious causation is often indirect and delayed, and it depends on interplay with unconscious processes … It is plausible that almost every human behavior comes from a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing.”

The interaction between the conscious and unconscious mind is enormously intricate and still shrouded in mystery. There appears to be a complicated push and pull between free will and how we are hard-wired, between our moral commitments and our impulses.

In his marvelous book The Social Animal, David Brooks, having culled the data and consulted with experts, writes that unconscious emotions have “supremacy but not dictatorship.” We in fact exercise some control over our decisions. Moral sentiments can be refined and improved. Conscious decisions can influence our behavior, and changing our behavior can (to some degree) rewire the way we think.

The ancient Greeks and the Jewish and Christian traditions hold that character is, at least in part, the product of habits, which are the result of a series of choices we make. These choices, taken together and over time, determine whether we are people of integrity. The way we become just and brave is by committing just and brave acts, Aristotle put it.

To be sure, advances in neuroscience have made us in some respects a more compassionate people. It would be wrong, even cruel, not to take into account the influence that, say, mental disorders have in determining how people behave. People imprisoned in a dark world not of their own making deserve sympathy and support. But the danger we face is that we come to believe that free will is a fable, something Wolfe warned about and people like Sam Harris are now championing.

Try as he might, Sam Harris cannot explain how morality is possible without free will. If every action is the result of biological inputs over which we have no control, moral accountability becomes impossible. Mao Tse Tung and George Washington may have acted in different ways, but neither one can be held responsible for his actions, over which they had no control.

If what Harris argues were true, our conception of morality would be smashed to pieces. If there is no free will, human beings are mere automatons, robots programmed to act (and not act) in certain ways. We cannot be held responsible for what we have no control over. C.S. Lewis dealt with this matter in Mere Christianity, where he wrote, “However much you improve the man’s raw material, you have still got something else: the real, free choice of the man, on the material presented to him, either to put his own advantage first or to put it last. And this free choice is the only thing that morality is concerned with.”

Pace Sam Harris, then, free will isn’t an illusion. Our souls aren’t dead. And the new Nietzsches are as misguided as the old one. For all that, I might add, we can thank God.


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