Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Libet’

We Are the Law: The Human Mind, Free Will, and the Limits of Determinism

June 8, 2011

The title of this post is identical to the name of the presentation Michael S. Gazzaniga gave at the recent annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). Some are convinced that the world, indeed the universe, is deterministic. Albert Einstein did not believe in free will. One of the founders of the DNA helix, Francis Crick, does not believe in free will. Richard Dawkins, the ethologist, evolutionary biologist, atheist, and author of The Selfish Gene, does not believe in free will. Benjamin Libet conducted experiments in which he demonstrated that measurements in the brain indicated that the action to move a finger occurred before the individual realized that her finger was moving. Some have taken this as proof of determinism, that there is no free will, and that consciousness is only along for the ride. It is interesting to note that Libet himself did not take this position. He spoke of free won’t, in which consciousness can reject an action proposed by the brain. That is conscious volition is exercised by the power of rejection.

Results from brain imaging research also can be interpreted as being supportive of determinism. For example, juvenile impulsivity can be attributed to the low level of utility in the medial prefrontal cortex. So are delinquent juveniles to be excused on the grounds that their medial prefrontal cortices are not performing correctly. Actually, one can go further than this. The medial prefrontal cortex does not reach its full maturity until the mid to late twenties. By this time, most of us have already needed to make important decisions that could have adverse effects on our lives. Do we all have this excuse for the poor decisions of our youth?

On the other hand, there remains much to be said for free will. Although Einstein with his deterministic bent said the “God does not play dice with the universe” findings in quantum mechanics by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg indicated that quantum mechanics did behave in a probabilistic manner and, at least at the subtomic level, God did play dice with the universe.

There is also the notion of emergent properties. These are properties that occur as a result of underlying processes. So consciousness can be regarded as an emergent property that emerges from the underlying psychophysiological processes. In the case the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and consciousness can exert its effects on underlying psychophysiological processes.

Gazzaniga’s own work with Roger Sperry on split brain phenemona support this notion. In these split brain studies the corpus callosum is split (for medical and not research purposes). Because of the wiring from eye to brain, stimuli can be selective presented to the respective hemifields that go to the left or right hemispheres. So different stimuli can be sent to the left and right hemispheres. Under normal viewing circumstances this does not present a problem as the different stimuli would go to both hemisperes. But in the experimental condition the two hemispheres are unaware of what the other has seen. In this situation the experimental participant is asked what is seen. Different reports will be made for each hemisphere. No matter how bizarre the differences, the experimental participants are able to make sense of what they have seen. In other words, consciousness is making sense of the different reports of each hemisphere.

Gazzaniga notes that cognition is both parallel and distributed. Cognition is also modular, yet it is modular with apparent psychological unity. He also noted that there exists innate notion of fairness. This has been demonstrated with experiments involving infants.

Gazzaniga concludes that the notion of free will is a bad idea. He asks “Free from what?.” He notes that while brains might not be free, people are free. There exist notions of fairness and responsibility and that we need to have a contract with our fellow humans.

Essentially Gazzaniga is a pragmatist. William James, the famous psychology and philosopher, was also a pragmatist. He also believed in free will. When free will is contrasted with pragmatism, it is clear that free will is the more pragmatic notion. It is much better to adopt the belief in free will and believe that we can affect our brains and our lives via the exercise of our free will. Determinism can promote passivity via the belief that consciousness is only along for a free ride.