Dr. Michael Gazzaniga on Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Hello all!

Dave Muscato here again. Tonight, a group of us attended a public lecture from guest speaker Michael Gazzaniga, the renowned psychobiologist famous for his research on “split brain” patients: people who have had the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated from one another, in order to treat epilepsy.

He spoke tonight about free will: Do we have it? What does “free will” mean? What are some of the implications, specifically legal, if we do not?

In a sentence, he demonstrated that from a neuroscience (indeed, scientific) context, it is quite clear that we lack free will. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the concept of “free will” is nonsensical and should be disposed of: Free from what? The laws of physics? No, each cell of our brain follows predictable patterns of behavior, i.e. is soul-less and automated, and our brains are “merely” highly parallel and complex conglomerations of cells. No where in this equation arises a homunculus, a “mind” within our brain that makes decisions separate from itself, no matter how much we might wish for this to be so, or how much it feels to us like this is the case.

Here’s where I think he lost us: Gazzaniga went on to argue that, while our brains do not have free will, persons (in a society) do. I don’t think he justified this leap. His argument, as best as I could understand it, was that individual responsibility arises on the level of a society, rather than on the level of the individual. He gave the analogy of a car, versus traffic. Regardless of one’s mechanical understanding of the operation or construction of a car, you cannot extrapolate or understand traffic patterns by observing a car in isolation. Similarly, humans in isolation lack responsibility—a single human just follows patterns of behavior and isn’t responsible “to” anyone—but in the context of living in a society, we can hold individuals responsible for their behavior.

This seems to me to call for the application of the is/ought problem. I think Gazzaniga was trying to say that, descriptively, societies hold individuals responsible for their behavior, and that this is permissible because individuals should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. What I don’t understand is, where did that “should” come in? Is he making an ethical argument here? Because up until that point, he’d been speaking descriptively. I understand why societies would do good to hold individuals accountable for wrongdoings, but that doesn’t mean “persons have free will” just because they live in societies. Persons may be responsible for their individual wrongdoings—it’s not like anyone ELSE is responsible for a person’s actions—but I don’t understand why he argues this means that they magically have free will.

I’m considering writing a talk of my own about free will, based loosely on Sam Harris’s “Free Will,” the Free Will chapter in The Big Questions by Nils Rauhut, and some guided discussion questions of my own design. What do you guys think? Would SASHA be interested in that for December?

Take care!

- Dave

Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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A bit about free will

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Hi this is Seth.  Recently there has been a bit of a flare up of the free will debate on skeptic/science blogs.  Massimo Pigliucci penned a brief criticism of the brand of determinism often adhered to among fairly prominent skeptics, like Jerry Coyne, Alex Rosenburg, and Sam Harris.  His post does a great job highlighting the important conceptual issues of the debate, that may frequently be swept under the rug, or worse, smuggled in without argument.

In response, Jerry Coyne draws parallels between the rhetoric sometimes used by philosophers and the rhetoric we in the skeptic community associate with theologians (read: undesirable argument tactics).  Coyne then presents what he takes to be the important distinctions and conceptual issues of the free will debate, and defends the view that there is no free will in any meaningful sense.

Sean Carroll, a physicist at CosmicInvariance weighs in, examining the implications physics has on the free will debate.  Carroll defends a compatibilist position of free will and determinism hereCoyne responds to Sean, and all the fuss compels PZ to voice his agreement with Coyne.

It is pretty crazy to me to see all this chatter about free will.  It’s a topic I’ve always been interested in, and I wrote my senior thesis about it a few years ago, but have since moved on to other things.  I never expected the free will debate to be of interest to the skeptic community, except insofar as the free will defense is offered as a response to the problem of evil.

On the one hand, I’m glad to see some love shown to a philosophical topic, but on the other hand I’m bothered that more love isn’t shown to the philosophers who research the question professionally.  It may be a bias on my part, something Coyne refers to as Turf Defense, where philosophers get all incensed when a non-philosopher opines about a philosophical topic without being familiar with the relevant literature.  I see this skepticism of philosophical authority/expertise pretty regularly among the skeptic community.

There is a tendency to see a non-science discipline as being incapable of producing experts with any kind of claim-making authority.  Listen to Julia Galef flirt with the view in this episode of Rationally Speaking.  I am not sure whether philosophers can be experts in the same way, if at all, that a molecular biologist or astrophysicist is.  We don’t exactly have a large bank of empirical facts that we can assert, that would only be known after years of study.

Instead, the payoff of studying analytic philosophy comes in the form of clarity of the relevant issues and understanding how various positions logically relate to one another.  Through rational argument, we accumulate a large bank of thought experiments meant to motivate judgments about certain propositions, and responses to those thought experiments.  No thought experiment should be taken as proof of a proposition, of course, but it merely serves as a basis for a well-considered, reflective judgment.  Those judgments are always revisable in light of empirical evidence and further reflection on thought experiments.

I mention that philosophers are good at clarifying the relevant issues.  Included in this task is the identification of the possible positions one can adopt regarding a particular discussion.  Carroll writes,

We can imagine four different possibilities: determinism + free will, indeterminism + free will, determinism + no free will, and indeterminism + no free will. All of these are logically possible, and in fact beliefs that some people actually hold!  Bringing determinism into discussions of free will is a red herring.

Actually, this is not quite right.  Whether determinism is relevant or not to free will is itself a question under consideration in the free will debate.  In fact, there are no less than 9 logically possible positions one can adopt (Strawson, Galen, “Freedom and Belief” Oxford University Press 1986, p. 5).  See Pereboom, Derk, “Living Without Free Will” Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. xvi-xix for a discussion.

Here are the positions, and I pull them straight from Strawson:

D = Determinism is true

F = the free will required for moral responsibility exists

? = Agnostic/Don’t Know

Incompatibilists can be anything but 3, 5, and 8.  Libertarians are mostly position 2; they hold that determinism and free will are incompatible, and that we have free will.  Hard determinism is usually 1; it agrees with the libertarians that free will and determinism are incompatible, but holds that determinism is true.  Another view, which Pereboom calls Hard Incompatibilism, can be positions 1, 4, or 7.  Hard Incompatibilism holds that whether determinism is true or not, we do not have free will.  Position 8 is Al Mele’s position, called Agnostic Autonomism, which subsumes positions 2 and 3, and holds that whether determinism is true or false, we have the sort of free will we need for moral responsibility.  This also appears to be Carroll’s position, as he thinks determinism is irrelevant for the issue of free will.

PZ seems to adopt position 7, as he says,

I don’t understand why free will was getting all tangled up in indeterminacy vs. determinism, since that seems to be a completely independent issue.


I’ll sum up my opinion by agreeing with Jerry Coyne.

Coyne says,

Of course, whether the laws of physics are deterministic or probabilistic is, to me, irrelevant to whether there’s free will, which in my take means that we can override the laws of physics with some intangible “will” that allows us to make different decisions given identical configurations of the molecules of the universe.

This indicates that he adopts position 7 when he says that determinism is irrelevant.  This is the position Pereboom defends in his book, linked above.

Furthermore, there are no less than 7 ways one can be a compatiblist, illustrated by the following distinct claims:

1. D is true.  D does not imply that we lack F.  But in fact we lack F.

2. D is true.  D does not imply that we lack F.  We don’t know whether we have F.

3. D is true.  We have F.

4. D is true.  We have F.  Our having F requires that D be true (David Hume, and other soft determinists).

5. We don’t know if D is true.  We have F either way.

6. D is not true.  We have F.  We still have F if D were true.

7.  D is not true.  We do not have F.  F is nonetheless compatible with D, logically.

Traditionally, we associate a compatibilist view with 3 – 6, the positions that hold that we have F regardless of D’s truth or falsity.

Hopefully this is useful for anyone interested in the ongoing discussion.  Also, here’s a picture.


Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers [EDIT: He recently shaved his mighty beard, and has thus lost all of his philosophical powers.  :(  ].  Feel free to contact Seth at SJK7v7@mail.missouri.edu with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

Helpful resources:

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Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick, Rationally Speaking.

Congrats on your first week, and a question about free will

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Hello everyone!

Today wrapped up the first week of school at Mizzou. I hope everyone is getting settled into their classes and meeting some good people, likes their professors, and is excited about the coming year.

A small group of us had lunch at Heidelberg, and then we had the Ask an Atheist table out for a few hours this afternoon. I’d like to continue doing the table as often as possible throughout this year; it’s a great way to meet people and have some really interesting discussions with people who might not ordinarily be interested in attending meetings (FYI: our meetings are open to all!).

As an aside, I want to pose a question to our readers:

I think most of us in the group are metaphysical naturalists, that is, we agree with the statement, “There is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences,” i.e. all alleged miracles can (in theory, if not necessarily in practice) be explained using science.

My question is, “Can free will be reconciled with metaphysical naturalism?”

If we start with the presumption that there is no such thing as a spirit or soul (the “mind” is simply an emergent property of sufficiently complex brains), then how can we separate our “will” from what the chemicals in our brains simply do of their own accord (from randomness, or external stimulus, etc)?

Scott Adams of “Dilbert” fame explains it well in this strip:

Social psychologist Daniel Wegner, in his book, “The Illusion of Conscious Will,” explains how our sense of control over our actions is actually imaginary, and in a statement, our actions happen to us, and the feeling of will is created by the brain. This helps us have a feeling of control and authorship over our actions, but ultimately, our actions are the consequence of our brains doing their thing – which, if you think about it, is something we really already knew. It’s carrying things out to their natural, logical conclusion, as jarring as the implications might be to other things we take for granted. Take, as one very important example, our legal system: How might that be affected by the idea that free will is illusory?

Curious for your thoughts.

Until next time!

- Dave

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

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