Jewish Journal

Does free will exist? Tom Wolfe and the father of cognitive neuroscience debate

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 7, 2008 | 5:38 pm

Seed’s August issue

The current issue of Seed has a conversation between Tom Wolfe, once my favorite author and still the author of my favorite book, and Michael Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive science. The discussion hinges on evolutionary psychology, the human condition free will. Good reading and a little response, after the jump.

MG: I’m involved in a new project called “Neuroscience and the Law,” which I think you’re familiar with. It brings up the idea that there are these causal forces that make us do the things we do, that by the time you’re consciously aware of something, your brain’s already done it. How else could it be? Because the brain is what’s producing these mental events that we’re sorting through. So these ideas — what I call the ooze of neuroscience — are going out everywhere, and people are willing to accept that: “My brain did it. Officer, it wasn’t me.” These defenses are popping up all over the judicial system. But if we adopt that, then it’s hard to see why we have a retributive response to a wrongdoing. It would seem to me to be morally wrong to blame someone for something that was going to happen anyway because of forces beyond their control. So people get into this loop, and they get very concerned about the nature of our retributive response. This puts you right smack in the middle of the question: Are we free to do what we think we’re doing?

TW: Oh, it’s the hottest subject in academia. Philosophy students are flocking to neuroscience because they think the answers are all there, not in our silly, cherished way of thinking. It’s called “materialism,” to some. We are computers, and a computer is programmed a certain way, and there’s nothing the computer can do to change its programming. I think materialism is too grand a word for it. It’s mechanical. I mean, here’s what happens. The scientist says, “We are machines.” There’s no ghost in the machine. There’s no little tiny “me” in the conning tower surveying the universe and figuring out a place within it. It’s a machine. Things get more and more complicated when it comes to humans, but it’s still a machine. Obviously, this machine has no free choice. It’s programmed to do certain things. It’s as if you threw a rock in the air, and in midflight you gave that rock consciousness. That rock would come up with 12 airtight, logical reasons why it’s going in that direction. This has caught on like wildfire. The flaw in that is that speech, language, creates so many variables. Speech reacts. It’s the only artifact I can think of that reacts.

MG: Well, I think using the term “free will” is just a bad way to capture the problem. Because here’s the question: Free from what? What are you trying to be free from?

TW: It’s a very simple definition: You make your own decisions.

MG: Yeah. But who is “you”? “You” is this person with this brain that has been interacting with this environment since you were born, learning about the good and the bad, the things that work and don’t work. You’ve been making decisions all the way along, and now you have a new one and you want to be free to make it. So psychologically, the Interpreter is telling you you’re making this decision. But the trick is understanding that your brain is basing the decision on past experience, on all the stuff it has learned. You want a reliable machine to make the actual act occur. You want to be responding rationally to any challenge that you get in the world, because you want that experience to be evaluated. That’s all going on in your brain second by second, moment to moment. And as a result, you make a decision about it. And phenomenologically, when the decision finally comes out, you say, “Oh, that’s me!”

TW: Speech has introduced so many variables into your machine that it becomes pointless to argue whether this is free or not free will. Obviously, it’s not free in the sense that if you don’t have this body, you can’t do anything. But it is free in the sense that because of your experiences and because of the reactions of speech constantly feeding you new material, your brain is going to operate differently from anybody else’s, and that is the free will — whether you call it mechanical or not. Everybody becomes such an individual, it becomes pointless to say, “You didn’t make that decision.” It’s an absurd idea.

MG: Well, I think we’re saying the same thing. There is a very clever little experiment that you would be amused by, run by my colleague Jonathan Schooler. He has a bunch of students read a paragraph or two from the Francis Crick book, Astonishing Hypothesis, which is very deterministic in tone and intent. And then he has another group of students reading an inspirational book about how we make our own decisions and determine our own path. He then lets each group play a videogame in which you’re free to cheat. So guess who cheats? The people who have just read that it’s all determined cheat their pants off.

Not much of a surprise there.

This topic gets even more difficult when dealing with theology. From a Christian perspective, I always felt that those who were predestined by God would be precisely those people who wouldn’t cheat. But, then again, we’ve all cheated. The more important exercise, I think, is being able to balance the concept of free will with that of a predestined fate. (I know, this seems like doublethink, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”)

A good friend of mine used to put it this way: If God is the author of life, and we are characters in His story, then we live out His plot without realizing we are following a script; it feels like free will, but it’s predetermined. Another friend used to say he believed in free will on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, predestination on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and wasn’t sure on Sunday.

I try not to think about it too much. If history’s great theologians haven’t been able to settle this debate, why would my friends and I be able to?

The rest of Wolfe and Gazzaniga’s conversation can be read here. Hat tip to the DMN religion blog.

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