Thursday, March 08, 2012

Free Will, the Drunk, and the Streetlights

Windsor, Ontario, Canada
I made a conscious choice, many years ago, to follow the discussion on the nature and reality of free will. So, here are some bullets from "Neurons Vs. Free Will," by Anthony Gottlieb.

On neuroscientific studies: "The more we find out about the workings of the brain, the less room there seems to be in it for any kind of autonomous, rational self." By "autonomous, rational self" I take it to be equivalent to libertarian free will; viz., a choice that is not fully reducible to antecedent causal conditions.
  • "Investigations of the brain show that conscious will is an “illusion”, according to the title of an influential book by a Harvard psychologist, Daniel Wegner, in 2002—a conclusion that has been echoed by many researchers since. In 2011, Sam Harris, an American writer on neuroscience and religion, wrote that free will “could not be squared with an understanding of the physical world”, and that all our behaviour “can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge”."
  • But now, contrary to Wegner, Harris, et. al., there is a "backlash against the brain." "Perhaps the brain is the wrong place to look if you want to find free will. This is a theme of recent books by Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Raymond Tallis, a retired British doctor and neuroscientist. As Dr Tallis puts it in his “Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity”, trying to find human life in the brain is like trying to hear the rustle of a forest by listening to a seed."
  • Neuroimaging does not tell us as much about the brain as some think. fMRI and PET scans have been over-hyped. The majority of these brain scan studies have "used faulty methods that were guaranteed to shift the results in favour of the correlations they had been looking for between mental activity and blips in parts of the brain." 
  • Thinking that brain scan studies will provide the answer to free will is like the drunk who lost his keys at night and goes looking for them where the streetlights are shining because that's where he can see. This has caused some scholars to choose to look elsewhere. Raymond Tallis "points out that taking part in such experiments involves performing all sorts of other actions, too, such as setting an alarm to get to the laboratory on time, declining other appointments, catching a bus, finding the right room, consenting to the proje ct, listening to instructions, and so on. Mundane as they are, such activities are better examples of the sorts of actions that we’d like to regard as free and rational than are twitches of the wrist. And it would be crazy to think that conscious deliberation isn’t really involved in them."
  • To me this sounds like the mereological fallacy in neuroscience, as presented by Bennett and Hacker in Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language (where they argue against John Searle), and in History of Cognitive Neuroscience (241). This fallacy involves ascribing to parts attributes that can be ascribed intelligibly only to the wholes of which they are parts. In History they write: "Our primary concern was with... the error of ascribing to the brain - a part of an animal - attributes that can be ascribed literally only to the animal as a whole." (241) While consciousness and free will are not equivalent, the reasoning seems to me to be the same.