Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

“Big questions are Gazzaniga’s stock in trade.”—New York Times“Gazzaniga is one of the most brilliant experimental neuroscientists in the world.”—Tom Wolfe“Gazzaniga stands as a giant among neuroscientists, for both the quality of his research and his ability to communicate it to a general public with infectious enthusiasm.”—Robert...

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Title:Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain
Author:Michael S. Gazzaniga
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Edition Language:English

Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain Reviews

  • Book

    Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga

    "Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain" is the thought-provoking book about the fascinating topic of free will and neuroscience. Neuroscientist and gifted author Michael S. Gazzaniga provides the latest insights into the science of the brain and offers unique perspectives. This 272-page book is composed of seven chapters: 1. The Way We Are, 2. The Parallel and Distributing Brain, 3. The Interpreter,

    Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga

    "Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain" is the thought-provoking book about the fascinating topic of free will and neuroscience. Neuroscientist and gifted author Michael S. Gazzaniga provides the latest insights into the science of the brain and offers unique perspectives. This 272-page book is composed of seven chapters: 1. The Way We Are, 2. The Parallel and Distributing Brain, 3. The Interpreter, 4. Abandoning the Concept of Free Will, 5. The Social Mind, 6. We are the Law, and 7. An Afterword.

    Positives:

    1. A well-researched and well-written book.

    2. The ability to convey difficult topics in an accessible, engaging manner.

    3. Fascinating topics and the author does a wonderful job of breaking them into subtopics.

    4. Educational, backed by current studies and unique perspectives. It's imperative to use the latest advances in science; especially in the fast-paced world of neuroscience and this book delivers...evidenced by interesting new perspectives that are making new waves.

    5. Provides compelling arguments that the mind which is generated by the physical processes of the brain, constrains the brain. Interesting stuff!

    6. Lays the scientific groundwork of what the brain is and how it evolved to be what it currently is.

    7. Fascinating facts and tidbits throughout.

    8. Does a wonderful job of explaining how the brain works. How it makes decisions.

    9. Debunks even preconceived scientific views like the notion that all neurons are alike.

    10. Honestly, where would we be without the understanding of evolution? Brain evolution for your understanding.

    11. The differences between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Many great examples based on split-brain patients.

    12. Phenomenal consciousness, what is the view in neuroscience today.

    13. A thorough look at what the brain's job description is.

    14. Complex systems in an accessible manner and the implication to the brain.

    15. The interpreter module...

    16. Non-conscious processes versus conscious processes.

    17. Free will in proper perspective, thought-provoking points. Fascinating!

    18. A very interesting look at determinism. Personally, it has made me reconsider some of my views.

    19. A look at chaos theory.

    20. The concept of emergence in a whole new light.

    21. Quantum mechanics for the layperson.

    22. Some of the most thought-provoking ideas and concepts pertaining to the mind, enlightening!

    23. Dualism, determinism, reductionism...a transformation of a worldview right before our very eyes.

    24. Great examples of upward and downward causation.

    25. The neuroscience of the influences of social interactions. A lot of interesting new views of social groups here that I really enjoyed.

    26. Wisdom throughout, "A genetically fixed trait is always superior to one that must be learned because learning may or may not happen."

    27. The Baldwin effect, knowledge is a beautiful thing.

    28. Monkey cops...I kid you not, and you wonder why I read?

    29. Theory of mind, mirror neurons and mimicry.

    30. A great discussion on moral systems and moral intuitions. Including whether moral intuitions are universal or not.

    31. The impact of cultures on psychological outcomes.

    32. Interesting takes on what we know about neuroscience and how it's used in the courtrooms. Concepts like responsibility as an example are discussed.

    33. Various forms of justice.

    34. The ultimate question of whether we are free to choose is answered to satisfaction.

    35. Links worked.

    36. Good notes section.

    Negatives:

    1. Lack of charts and diagrams to enhance the learning experience.

    2. There are a number of books that go into more depth on some of the topics presented in this book, check some of my recommendations of books that I reviewed for Amazon.

    In summary, a fantastic, worldview modifying book that I will cherish until new discoveries are made. Books like this one are why I enjoy reading as much as I do. It provided not only current views of neuroscience but even more importantly, it gave the knowledge to update my worldview. An intellectual treat of a book, I can't recommend it enough! Enjoy!

    Further suggestions: "Human" by the same author, "The Believing Brain..." by Michael Shermer is superb, "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard, "The Moral Landscape..." by Sam Harris, "Hardwired Behavior" by Laurence Tancredi, and "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" by Patricia S. Churchland,

  • Joseph Monaco

    While searching for an appropriate stage setter for the next block of instruction at the School of Advanced Military Studies--Morality and War--I stumbled upon this fine book. I was pleased to discover that Gazzaniga’s metacognitive approach in describing the role of the brain as a complex “systems of systems” overlaps quite well with the evolution of art and science inherent in SAMS. In fact,

    overlaps quite well with the creative theorizing ne

    While searching for an appropriate stage setter for the next block of instruction at the School of Advanced Military Studies--Morality and War--I stumbled upon this fine book. I was pleased to discover that Gazzaniga’s metacognitive approach in describing the role of the brain as a complex “systems of systems” overlaps quite well with the evolution of art and science inherent in SAMS. In fact,

    overlaps quite well with the creative theorizing necessary to understand, adapt, and solve any complex problem within any body of knowledge.

    The best way I can describe the book is a cross between key concepts of Retired Colonel John Boyd, Peter L. Berger (

    ), undergraduate Physics (Newtonian Mechanics and Quantum Theory), and neuroscience. My bias is undergraduate Physics and military (operational level) problem solving so I appreciated his sub-atomic, yet simple approach to outlining the human brain and decision-making.

    Is there innate moral behavior, and how does reason influence Moral Sentiments? What is the role of the brain as a decision-making device?

    The brain is clearly not homologous, and is not complex simply because of a lack of knowledge. The brain is complex because it is a complex adaptive system with emergent (“weak” and “strong”) and “conscious” properties. Hello John Boyd (

    )! The brain’s systems are “distributed,” “layered,” function in parallel, and specialize in tasks. Functioning as a “dynamic chaotic system,” linear models fall short in understanding a “dissipative system” such as the human brain.

    Conscious thought is by itself an emergent property. However, conscious thought is slow and expensive. Cues and perceptions drive our explanations even when faced with a lack of information, or even worse, faulty information. Insert that long list of logical fallacies studied at institutions of higher learning here too.

    The non-conscious is where one “makes their money” because these actions are fast and rely on heuristics. These habit patterns drive decision-making. In essence, “control” is an emergent property. However, how does control relate to moral imperatives? Do deterministic laws apply in complex systems? If so, why are there groupings and why is there seemingly a unity in human thought?

    The interpreter module brings unity and it is only as good as the information it gets. The brain creates a temporal map and is subject to dualism. It is also possible to hijack the interpreter for good and bad, desired and undesired effects. Insert virtual reality and visual illusions here. In any case, through the interpreter, a human brain’s output is a unified and coherent personal narrative.

    Virtues are not universal. This drives differences in morality between cultures. Studies show that culture and genes affect cognition.

    Unless you are an aspiring neuroscientist, I recommend a read for gist. Perhaps an audiobook version played at 1.5x while driving across Kansas (hint, hint). This book would be much more painful as a hard copy for the average reader. However, it is loaded with cognitive wealth. I found the following to be the most valuable takeaways: the brain as a complex system of systems, the relationship between the brain’s decision-making and free will (determinism), and how the human brain shapes moral sentiments. I also recommend this book for the “Boyd and Beyond” reading list if it is not already on there.

  • Elizabeth

    Here is a book to give your brain a workout! Wow! I listened to it being read by Pete Larkin. He was an outstanding narrator. I only understood a fraction of the content and I would need to read it several times to catch on, I think.

    The big explode your head premise is that the concepts of free will and responsibility may be fallacies. And our civilization is based on these ideas.

    Other “subplots” in no certain order were:

    Your primitive brain is still there;

    Tension between developin

    Here is a book to give your brain a workout! Wow! I listened to it being read by Pete Larkin. He was an outstanding narrator. I only understood a fraction of the content and I would need to read it several times to catch on, I think.

    The big explode your head premise is that the concepts of free will and responsibility may be fallacies. And our civilization is based on these ideas.

    Other “subplots” in no certain order were:

    Your primitive brain is still there;

    Tension between developing societal standards and understanding individual brains;

    How much of our life is emotional and how much of our brain is emotional? (and everyone is different!);

    Complexity of the brain and how an injury can have consequences for everything and everyone; and

    The left and right hemispheres of the brain.

    I wonder how much knowledge of the brain has changed since this book was written in 2011? As we know, learning is happening very rapidly.

    And this is the quote I loved from the book:

    “I once asked Leon Festinger, one of the smartest men in the world, whether or not he ever felt inept. He replied, “Of course! That is what keeps you ept.”

  • David

    Michael Gazzaniga is a leading neuroscientist, and he has written a fascinating book on the subject of free will. Interestingly, we want to have free will ourselves, but we don't want others to have it. We want other people to act efficiently, and basically to think the same way that we do.

    The book examines consciousness and free will from many different perspectives; emergence, evolution, epigenetics, neurons, quantum mechanics, morality, the justice system, split-brain patients, so

    Michael Gazzaniga is a leading neuroscientist, and he has written a fascinating book on the subject of free will. Interestingly, we want to have free will ourselves, but we don't want others to have it. We want other people to act efficiently, and basically to think the same way that we do.

    The book examines consciousness and free will from many different perspectives; emergence, evolution, epigenetics, neurons, quantum mechanics, morality, the justice system, split-brain patients, sociology and culture.

    With all these viewpoints thrown together, the story sometimes gets lost. It's clear that Gazzaniga is not a determinist, but his answer to the question of free will is not a simple one. This is a short book, but definitely not easy to read, despite each chapter being split up into a number of short sections. I think that to really understand the book, it requires multiple readings.

  • Will Byrnes

    Do people really have free will? There are those who contend that since the brain is a physical object, subject to physical laws, human behavior is pre-determined, and thus the antithesis of free. Does a lesion in one’s frontal lobe give credence to a defense of “The Devil Made Me Do it?” Where lies personal responsibility?

    Michael Gazzaniga contends that we are more than the sum, or volume, of our parts and, in the system of human interactions, we are personally responsible for our actions. Duh

    Do people really have free will? There are those who contend that since the brain is a physical object, subject to physical laws, human behavior is pre-determined, and thus the antithesis of free. Does a lesion in one’s frontal lobe give credence to a defense of “The Devil Made Me Do it?” Where lies personal responsibility?

    Michael Gazzaniga contends that we are more than the sum, or volume, of our parts and, in the system of human interactions, we are personally responsible for our actions. Duh-uh. I heard that from Sister Raymond in first grade. Of course Gazzaniga offers a bit more persuasion than a stinging yardstick, an alarmingly florid complexion and a peculiar wardrobe. He does this by walking us through the history of how our understanding of the human brain has advanced over time. And in this lies the core value of the book.

    Did you know that there was a time when it was thought that the brain was a single undifferentiated mass? “Equipotentiality” was the term for this. I like to think of this as the jello model, the same stuff throughout, but with ridges. (and if you are interested in serving your guests a yummy gelatinous dessert in a mindful shape, you might try

    ). With more time and research it became clear that, different parts of the brain specialize in different things. This is called “neural specificity.” And here is where brain size falls down as a predictor of intelligence. There are creatures that have larger brains than us naked apes, but ours is arranged differently, with more specialization in its parts.

    I was particularly smitten with Gazzaniga’s description of how certain reactions have become ingrained, instinctual, while others are not, for example, snakes. I imagine there are some rare individuals, herpetologists I expect, who are not put off by the presence of our slithery fellow-Earthlings, but for most of us, discomfort is the norm. So, there must have been issues with snakes in human history. Early humans who were not put off by such critters were selected out of the gene pool in the usual way, while those who harbored an aversion lived to flee, and breed, another day. And the reverse applies. Say, for example, that after millennia of being preyed upon by clowns, a fear of clowns had become pervasive. Then, over a few thousand years on a remote island where clowns had all died out, that fear would fade from the instinctual default of island residents, as there would be no natural selection advantage to being afraid of clowns. Eventually, people who still carried the instinct to fear clowns might be thought a bit odd. The genes of those whose brains were able to distinguish sweet fruit from poison berries are likely to have made it down the years. The genes of those lacking the ability would not have fared so well. And so on.

    Another amazing advance was to understand that people in times of ecological disruption are selected for their adaptability, while during periods of stability it is the hard-wired sorts whose genes hold sway. It made me wonder about the genetic inheritance of political orientations. I would expect that there is some part or arrangement of our cranial makeup that orients toward keeping things the same, and another arrangement or part that is oriented more toward adaptability, making those with that trait more comfortable with change. Given the volatile state of the planet these days, I hope the adaptables are having lots of kids.

    A discussion of a brain function known as “the interpreter” had me riveted. There is so much in this book, and a lot more than I have mentioned here, that is absolutely fascinating that I had to hold myself back from just making a list of them all. It might be lightly informative, but perhaps I do not want my accountant genes to overwhelm the right side of my brain. There is enough food for thought here for a Mensa feast. For large swaths this book had me figuratively resting my cheekbones on my fists and saying “wow, cool.“

    And lest one fear that this is a med-school text in brain history for budding neuroscientists, I would suggest trying to calm your inherent fears. Gazzzaniga writes in a very easy-to-read manner, quite accessible to the average reader.

    If it is not already clear, I very much enjoyed this book. That said, I have a few gripes. Gazzaniga presents considerable science in this book, and posits a differentiation between the brain and the mind. Yet, he never gets around to defining what the mind is. Yes, we all know what the mind is, sort of. In a book that is about science, shouldn’t the author offer a definition? Did my sleepy eyes just miss it? He argues against a notion that people are not responsible for their actions because they are part of the physical world. But he offers only one name, Richard Dawkins, as a supporter of such notions. It seemed to me a bit of straw man argument. If you are going to argue against someone else’s theory, one should document where and by whom the challenged position is held. Dawkins alone hardly constitutes a school of thought.

    If you find learning fun, you will love this book. It qualifies as brain candy. And between you and me, I take full responsibility for recommending

    .

    =============================

    A February, 2014

    item offers a look at the brain as you have never seen it before. Interesting stuff, not least for offering information about just how much computer memory it takes to map our gray matter.

    January 2018 -

    - an article that is definitely worth checking out -

    , on finding what is innate, and what is learned. The on-line article was re-titled

    , which is probably more accurate - by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

  • The Pirate Ghost (Formerly known as the Curmudgeon)

    4.5 Stars

    This is a very good read. Gazzaniga explains the workings of the brain in terms that rarely get technical. He puts modern understanding of the neurology of our minds into context with history, free will, evolution. Though neurology is a complex subject, Gazzaniga does a very good job of keeping it understandable. It is non-fiction and it is not a story like an autobiography. Gazzaniga does as good a job as he can at telling the story of our brain in a way that is entertainin

    4.5 Stars

    This is a very good read. Gazzaniga explains the workings of the brain in terms that rarely get technical. He puts modern understanding of the neurology of our minds into context with history, free will, evolution. Though neurology is a complex subject, Gazzaniga does a very good job of keeping it understandable. It is non-fiction and it is not a story like an autobiography. Gazzaniga does as good a job as he can at telling the story of our brain in a way that is entertaining and easy to read or listen too.

    Gazzaniga is not "ha-ha funny" but he manages to be amusing, has a good, comfortable writing style and even managed to make me laugh a couple of times. He is very interesting and knows how to work a scientific mystery to good effect.

    I take a half star away because I think he skirted some of the ethical issues with the initial experiments and should have talked openly about them.

    This is a scientific explanation, not a religious, faith based or even remotely spiritual explanation, though Gazzaniga surely rubs against those things as he unfolds the big picture and the detailed picture of how things work and who's in charge.

    Good read.

  • Aaron

    Despite the author's initial claim that some vestige of free will could be salvaged from the jaws of determinism, he does a pretty good job demolishing that claim. All the while, he mucks around in the many very interesting weeds. In fact, the interesting weeds were what propped up this rating to three stars.

    The author's premise seems to be a form similar to "god of the gaps," wherein the uncertainty of not knowing something or not being able to measure something leaves room for othe

    Despite the author's initial claim that some vestige of free will could be salvaged from the jaws of determinism, he does a pretty good job demolishing that claim. All the while, he mucks around in the many very interesting weeds. In fact, the interesting weeds were what propped up this rating to three stars.

    The author's premise seems to be a form similar to "god of the gaps," wherein the uncertainty of not knowing something or not being able to measure something leaves room for other sorts of dubious concepts. Call me skeptical.

    However, he does make one case that is important enough to consider. He elaborates on the idea of emergence, the fact that simply looking at, in what is is most used example, parts of a car will not allow one to predict rush hour traffic congestion. That is, a complex system like the brain or like traffic is more than the sum of its constituent parts. He uses this to suggest that free will can't be predicted from studying the brain's components, instead moving it into the realm of social interaction. Once he does this, he continues to undermine the case for free will by presenting all of the constraints that act upon human social relations, until we're left with the idea that there is, after all, no such thing as free will. I'll admit I might have missed something, but I don't really think so.

    In the end, I think the conclusion we can draw is that while our actions might not be able to be reliably predicted (doing so might actually require a higher level of emergence), neither are they completely unconstrained. Insofar as free will exists, it appears to be a useful illusion that we can treat as real for a good number of purposes.

  • Trevor

    The start of this book is pretty much the same as Sam Harris’s Free Will. But this guy comes to the opposite conclusion. A tad frustrating, I guess, but no less interesting for that.

    Let’s have a look at the problem. In the middle of this book he has a really lovely analogy explaining the barriers that reductionism places in front of our understanding of free will.

    Let’s say you wanted to understand the problem of traffic congestion. To what extent would understanding the w

    The start of this book is pretty much the same as Sam Harris’s Free Will. But this guy comes to the opposite conclusion. A tad frustrating, I guess, but no less interesting for that.

    Let’s have a look at the problem. In the middle of this book he has a really lovely analogy explaining the barriers that reductionism places in front of our understanding of free will.

    Let’s say you wanted to understand the problem of traffic congestion. To what extent would understanding the workings of a car’s spark plugs help you to understand traffic flows or traffic jams? Or perhaps a better question to ask is if we were to invent a better spark plug would that help in any way to fix traffic congestion?

    I assume the answer is that it would not and that to understand traffic congestion by gaining a better understanding the components making up individual cars is really turning to a microscope when we should be getting a telescope. These are matters of scale and often the problem with our analysis is not that we are looking at the wrong things so much, as looking at them from the wrong scale.

    So, what of free will?

    Well, the problem is that how we think we live in the world and how we actually live in the world are constantly being shown as quite different things. We prefer to think of ourselves as agents – that the flow of our actions goes something like this: we are engaged in the world, something happens, we consider the various inputs presented by this happening, we propose various alternative actions in response to those inputs, we consider the implications of these alternatives, and then – finally – we choose to act. The uncomfortable fact is that in most studies the exact opposite is shown to happen. Our brains can’t wait around for our conscious awareness before we respond – we have to respond prior to conscious mediation.

    If there is a snake we need to jump away from it before going through the ‘oh look, what’s that thing over there, gosh, I do believe it might just be a snake. Now, snakes oftentimes tend to be rather dangerous. I guess I really ought to find some way of avoiding it, perhaps I should…” You know, by this stage we would be dead. We respond on autopilot, but our conscious minds don’t like the idea that they are cut out of the loop and so they make up stories that say we decided to act, we chose to act, that our action was willed, but actually our conscious minds decided all this after the event – and we fall for these stories every time. We have a very strong preference for imagining ourselves in control.

    There is a lovely example related to this idea given in the book (although, it might seem a little off-to-the-side until you think about it). Raise your finger and touch the end of your nose. It seems like you ‘feel’ the sensation on both your fingertip and the tip of your nose at exactly the same time. But for these sensations to be ‘felt’ they really need to be registered in your brain. To ‘feel’ both (that is, to become consciously aware of both sensations) nerve impulses need to travel from either your nose or from your finger to your brain. That is, there needs to be an impulse that travels virtually no distance in the case of your nose or maybe half a metre in case of your finger. The nerve impulse from your finger needs to go up your arm, over to your spine, up your spine and so on. He says the difference in time between your brain receiving the signal from your nose and in receiving the signal from your finger could be as much as a half second’s lag, that is, long enough that it ought to be ‘noticeable’. Yet no one does notice this difference – everyone experiences both sensations occurring at exactly the same time. And why? Well, because out brain makes sense of the big picture and so forces the two things appear to have happened instantaneously. This is an example of what computer programmers refer to as ‘a feature, rather than a fault’.

    It is this post-hoc explanation of our actions that makes the whole issue of free will problematic. It is as if we are so obsessed with narrative (in creating a story that has the right ‘flow’, that makes sense) that we tend to think that the stories we come up with are the explanations for our actions and that these stories ‘cause’ our actions. Unfortunately, it can be shown experimentally that our actions come first and our explanations (or even our conscious awareness) comes very much later.

    Now, before we go too much further I think it is important to say that the author of this one is someone who had been involved in neurology for ages and was involved in some of the early work on split-brained patients. A lot of the early parts of this book looks at this work in some detail. I think it is important to know this guy is ‘in the field’, you know, not just an interested journalist or something.

    We like to think of ourselves as having free will and this means of our having agency. This is our most common opinion of ourselves and as such it defines our relationship with the world. Minute by minute we have the feeling that we could just as easily leave off doing what it is that we are doing and go do something else, something completely different. So, the fact that we succeed or fail is, ultimately, related to the fact we do or do not keep going at a particular task that ought to lead to success. And in those ‘second by seconds’ we constantly need to ‘will’ ourselves to keep going – and so it comes down to our moral fortitude (or lack of such fortitude) that decides whether we succeed in life or not. And this is what makes us feel we are free agents with a free will.

    But is this feeling justified? To the author the problem is – as I mentioned at the start of this review – a problem of scale. If we try to answer this problem on the basis of an individual making a decision in isolation, then the ‘free will’ answer doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the author believes that free will, in the sense of completely abstract freedom to choose our actions without reference to the real world in which we live makes no sense either. He says the solution is in looking at how the individual relates to other individuals and how the individual has been shaped by evolutionary forces to be a social animal.

    The author is really seeking to give a place for individual agency – even after it seemed he had taken away much of the ground for this agency in the early discussion in the book. Given there is a real sense in which to be responsible for our actions we need to have willed those actions – and, as the author has already shown, there is reason to doubt we really do will our actions – to what extent should we be held responsible for our actions? To what extent does it make sense to punish people for their actions?

    This guy wants to say that the limits placed on our free will by the fact that our conscious awareness and justification for our actions so often come after we have already acted, doesn’t take away our fundamental responsibility for those actions. His argument is that we are looking at the problem in the wrong scale – responsibility isn’t so much about individuals acting without context, but individuals acting very much within a social context. He claims that we have evolved to want to punish those who transgress rules, and that punishing such transgressions makes sense and that we want those punishments to be proportionate to the crime. To support this view he attacks determinism – the view that we are not agents, but rather that our actions are determined by outside forces. He does this in a couple of odd ways. One is to show that determinism is no longer acceptable in physics (think Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). This seems to suffer the same problem that his traffic and car part problem illuminated earlier. Just because there is no determinism in the position or velocity of an electron seems hardly relevant to explaining human legal processes. Yet again, a problem of scale.

    He ends by effectively saying; look, if you are driving a car on a free way and you see a police car, you will check your speed and, if necessary, slow down. That is, you will do the right thing. You will do what you know to be right. So, therefore, free will exists – you can choose to do the right thing and there are circumstances where you will virtually always do the right thing – so you should be held accountable for your actions at all times, whether there is a police car around or not. Free will exists.

    Hmm. This is a strange argument given the stuff he explained at the start of the book to prove that our actions come before our conscious justifications for them. However, he claims this is all resolved by focusing on our evolved responses and the fact we are social animals.

    But this is my main problem with the book. I think he has been tricked by the scale problem he mentioned himself. He makes endless reference to brain structures and to physics and to the impossibility of knowing the impact of a brain legion on mind – all good stuff. However, he makes no mention at all of any social science. This is understandable, in some ways, as social science is very much seen as ‘science-lite’ by those in the hard sciences. But the problem is that if you want to talk about the impact of society on individual free will, then you really are talking about social science. And pretending you are the first person to have thought about these issues may or may not be disingenuous, but if it is not then it does display a breathtaking ignorance.

    We tend to think that we like particular types of music because we like how it sounds and that it is an expression of our individual taste – but Bourdieu was able to show in his book Distinctions that our tastes, far from being purely subjective (as we like to assume they are) are very much linked to how we belong to various social groups. We wear as a badge of honour our liking of Rap or Mahler or the Classic Hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s (kill me now). But these preferences – which we believe so tellingly reveal our innate personalities – in fact, are mostly predictable from our social location. Does that mean that if you are a university professor you will not like AC/DC? No. But on average it is much more likely that a university professor will know who Bruckner is and that a panel beater will know who Run DMC are.

    To me, the problem is that our brains are tuned to make us feel as though we are agents, that we have a free will, even when that free will can be shown to be restricted to the point that we can say, with near certainty, that what most people mean by free will simply does not exist. Most people think they are responsible for their actions – but there are so many influences on us, so many forces pushing and pulling on us, forces that we are often almost completely unaware of, that we are anything but reliable witnesses even to our own actions.

    And because we are so certain we have free will – and because so much evidence points in the opposite direction – if we were sensible, I think we would start from the assumption that we don’t have any free will at all. People get worked up about this because it so clearly goes against ’natural feeling’. But also because they can see that if we are not responsible for our actions then we don’t get to punish people who do wrong – and god knows we do love to punish people who do wrong. But if there is one lesson from religion it does seem to be to forgive your enemies and to leave vengeance to god. I think this isn’t such a bad idea (and I’m an atheist). The fact we keep this idea in our religions (where we can safely ignore it) says something rather sad about us, I think.

    But imagine for a second if it was true that people tend to act in accordance to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Then surely, rather than punishing people for the ‘bad’ things they do, we should spend more time thinking about how to create social situations where such bad actions would be impossible. You see, our obsession with individuals and free will means we have entire legal structures set up to find the best ways to punish individuals who choose to act in ways that are anti-social. But we don’t ever seem to think about how we could change society to make such behaviour impossible, you know, rather than inevitable. The recent gun massacre in the United States is a case in point (in the sense there will always have been a recent gun massacre in the US this review can be timeless). And that is the problem with this book – it is so terrified of determinism stealing our free will that it spends half of the book trying to find ways to make sure the individual is left to be blamed for their actions.

    But this is the wrong end of the telescope – even if this is the end of the telescope we rush to every time. This is the end that gives us our most pleasing view of ourselves – even when it makes us look like monsters. The other end of the telescope shows all of the societal influences that act upon us. The societal influences that mean some of us will inevitably act appallingly. It is this end of the telescope that makes us all responsible for the vile acts that occur in our society – not the side that makes us feel comfortably content with having some individual to blame. Even if that individual is us.

    Maybe we should spend some time thinking about those societal influences and how we could change them. Just for once, just for a change.

  • H Wesselius

    Gazzaniga provides a succinct enough summary of current research into the brain. However, its when he addresses the notion of free will that the book falls flat. In attempt to find room for free will, he takes a detour into quantum physics and probability theory. Even if one accepts his argument, this only grants free will within a limited range offer by a list of probabilities. To contend that free will on this basis is rather difficulty so he also provides the common sense idea that we do empl

    Gazzaniga provides a succinct enough summary of current research into the brain. However, its when he addresses the notion of free will that the book falls flat. In attempt to find room for free will, he takes a detour into quantum physics and probability theory. Even if one accepts his argument, this only grants free will within a limited range offer by a list of probabilities. To contend that free will on this basis is rather difficulty so he also provides the common sense idea that we do employ choice when we make simple decisions. Secondly cultural context is asserted to be as influential as biology. In the end he follows the evidence and accepts some form of determinism. He then asserts free will and determinism are not odds and can coexist. This is probably true but its not what the evidence states in his book.

  • Kaethe Douglas

    Added to my list with some trepidation. For one thing, Tom Wolfe blurbed it, and Wolfe is a reactionary assberet, so that's hardly a glowing recommendation. And then the snippet says "counters the common wisdom that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes we cannot control. " And I think, "Oh, really?" That "wholly determined" looks like a strawman to me, thrown up to give the author a very low standard of proof. Not to mention that "free will" is so rich in religious connotation.

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