The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

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 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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About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at

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

  1. Seth Kurtenbach
    November 29, 2012

    Yeah, a talk/discussion about free will would be great. I’m in favor.

  2. Jeremy
    November 29, 2012

    I’m glad he wasn’t trying to cobble together a defense of free will. It was probably nothing I didn’t already know, but I’m sorry I missed it anyway. So, some speculation about the problem raised:

    First of all, I’m sure there was an ethical argument involved with the idea of holding others accountable. That’s simply the way it goes… you can’t argue that free will doesn’t exist without showing people that humans can live ethically without it. Those of us who are atheists understand this far too well. With most people, you can’t simply argue that God doesn’t exist… you have to also be able to argue that he doesn’t need to (i.e., he is not the source of ethical behavior, and neither is free will).

    So as should come as little surprise to those who are well-versed in the social sciences, the source of ethical behavior is simply a series of “relatively predictable behavioral patterns” embedded in “an unfathomably diverse array of human experiences.”

    Setting aside the distinct possibility that the argument was an attempt to parse a more appealing explanation (relegating free will to a higher level rather than denouncing it altogether for political or even self-affirming purposes), it’s not a useless analogy. When we acknowledge the role that external factors play on our decisions, we can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say, “Oh well. Haters gonna hate, I guess.” If we’re at all driven to resolve these problem behaviors (e.g., crime), then we have to pass the buck to the societal level. We have to address systemic problems. And many of these problems exist not in a person’s mind, but in the infrastructure of our world–on paper in laws, and in the placement of signs and resources like water, electricity, internet, etc… It’s almost a political argument for free will. (He maybe wasn’t saying that at all. I’m trying to extrapolate here, and there are problems with this argument too.)

    Possibly he was just trying to do as Daniel Dennett has done before and make a (less stupid) semantic argument for free will by defining it as something else that does exist. Anyway, I have a couple of good videos you need to show/reference if you want to host a talk. I have to dig up some of my philosophy lectures first.

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