The controversial science of free will

New findings raise questions about our brain's role in decision-making. An expert weighs in

Topics: Neuroscience, Science, Nonfiction,

The controversial science of free will

These days, we seem to be living in a new golden age of choice. One moment we’re tweeting, the next we are changing our profile picture. We get a hankering for hummus and next thing we know, it’s off to Yelp the nearest falafel place. In every choice and action we make, online or off, we have the unique sense that we are in control. This is what it feels like to have free will.

But many neuroscientists have maintained a long-standing opinion that what we experience as free will is no more than mechanistic patterns of neurons firing in the brain. Although we feel like free agents contemplating and choosing, they would argue that these sensations are merely an emotional remnant that brain activity leaves in its wake. If these neuroscientists are right, then free will isn’t worth much discussion.

Michael S. Gazzaniga, professor and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California at Santa Barbara, seriously disagrees. In his new book out this month, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain,“ Gazzaniga uses a lifetime of experience in neuroscientific research to argue that free will is alive and well. Instead of reducing free will to the sum of its neurological parts, he argues that it’s time for neuroscience to consider free will as a scientific fact in its own right. Through fascinating examples in chaos theory, physics, philosophy and, of course, neuroscience, Gazzaniga makes this interesting claim: Just as you cannot explain traffic patterns by studying car parts, neuroscience must abandon its tendency to reduce macro-level phenomena like free will to micro-level explanations. Along the way he provides fascinating and understandable information from brain evolution to studies involving infants and patients with severed brain hemispheres (split-brain patients). The final chapters of the book consider neuroscience as it implicates social responsibility, justice and how we treat criminal offense.

Salon got a chance to speak with Gazzaniga over the phone about the latest findings on consciousness, our innate propensity toward fairness and why America is so obsessed with retribution.

As a neuroscientist, why does the issue of free will appeal to you?  

If you spent 50 years of your life trying to figure out how the brain works to produce behavior and cognition, you begin to wonder as the title suggests, “who’s in charge here?” Is it the brain or that special self, the one that we all feel we have? How should we think about this? It’s a natural question for me to have been thinking about, just from my professional work.

Something I really enjoyed in the book was your hardware/software analogy. Can you describe what is the hardware and software when it comes to the brain?

There is a difficult vocabulary in computer science in describing how hardware and software interact to produce the functionality of a computer. That dilemma is the same one in the mind/brain business. We can talk about the nervous system but we also know there are these mental states which are produced by the nervous system. No one’s saying this is some cloud floating over the head, right?

So in other words you’re saying that our nervous system and the physical makeup of brains are like hardware, and consciousness and thought are like software. I like that analogy. Another point you make in the book is the way in which our brains have what you call “specialized circuits.” You say that these are refined for processing really specific types of information. How is this kind of decentralization beneficial to us?

There is a great importance on the local circuits of organization in brains so that information processing tasks can be done in a local place and does not have to be transferred all over the brain. That would take time. It would be costly, and it just doesn’t work that. So it’s modularized.

In the book you discuss a part of the brain that you aptly dubbed “the interpreter.” Who is “the interpreter” and what does it do?

There is something in our left hemisphere, a system, a module, a capacity that is constantly trying to see the meaning in the patterns of activity in the brain. It’s trying to interpret emotional changes and behaviors. It’s trying to put this into a story line. It’s the thing that builds our story. It’s also, I think, responsible for why we can talk about determinism and a lack of free will until we’re blue in the face, but none of us actually believes it. Because we feel we are unified and we have this sense of self. I think this is highly related to the interpreter.

You also take issue in the book with “determinism,” which you just mentioned – the idea that our actions are preordained by our brains.

What I meant is that determinism, at one level, suggests that we are kind of just along for the ride. It’s all done for us. Neuroscience is constantly unearthing mechanisms for understanding behavior and cognition. Neuroscience provides more and more evidence for a mechanistic view of the human mind. A lot of people find that bleak and they don’t like it. I say: It’s not bleak, it’s just the way the machine works. The fundamental value that we all hold in human culture is that we want people to be held personally responsible for their actions. Once you learn how the machine works, does that mean that you’re not responsible for your actions because your behavior may be determined? No, I don’t think it means that at all. The idea of social responsibility arises out of a social group. It’s in the laws of interaction between people and you don’t look for it in the brain any more than you’d look for the answer to understand traffic by understanding car parts. It’s another level of organization that you are trying to understand.

In the book you point out that people tend to misconstrue where and what consciousness is. What is it and where is it?

I am of the opinion that whatever it is that enables our phenomenal sense of consciousness is tied to the brain system that we are dealing with at a given time. Brain mechanisms that underlie conscious experience are very locally tied to the sensory neurons involved in processing a particular sensation and connecting that information to the neurons involved in processing a particular cognitive fact.

So it’s as though consciousness is distributed. Being conscious of something occurs because that sensation takes prominence over other brain activity at a particular time?

It’s absolutely distributed. I use an arcade game to describe it. Do you know the game Whack-A-Mole? It’s the same with consciousness. When you’re conscious, it’s as though a mole is popping up at one place in your brain. When one mole has popped up, the other is down. We might have a sensation of a unified integrated consciousness, but it’s actually individual sensations popping up with whatever you’re particularly conscious of in one moment.

You mention social contracts, and in the book you describe many ways that the human brain is kind of programmed for sociality. So what are some of our innate social instincts?

The one that’s grabbing everybody’s pulse in the last few years is the realization that there seem to be some universal moral judgments that we make, such as fairness. The notion that you can actually find identifiable circuits in the brain that deal with the activities of making moral choices is an incredible advance. People argue about whether some of these things are built into us or whether they are all culturally learned. Well, it turns out that it’s both. Take fairness, for example. Fairness is clearly a capacity that is present in the adult brain and it’s clearly a capacity that young babies have. We come from the factory with these predispositions, and they are manifested in certain neuro-circuits that can be interrupted later in life to reorganize what people consider a fair response.

Yeah, I was really taken with that portion of the book. One thing I was surprised by is the fact that in some of these studies that you mentioned people seem to have built-in retributive instincts when it comes to punishing others for their misdeeds.

I think the evidence is pretty clear that we have a built-in retributive sense to ourselves. You hit me, I’m gonna hit you back. Babies have it and you certainly see it all over our responses. Think about someone harming a member of your family. It would take you two nanoseconds to harm them back. The question is, do we as a human culture want to harness that and instead use healing or provide treatment instead of punishment. Americans are still pretty retributive in their response to wrongdoing. Some cultures are different. Italians tend not to be retributive particularly. They take the treatment route as far as possible. They are not that interested in retribution.


We have this mafia, godfather preconception going on in our head. But if you actually look at how the Italians mete out their justice they actually have quite a different attitude about it all. It’s not the sense that they don’t punish but it turns out punishment will be mitigated by the circumstances more easily in Italy than it is here.

So would Italy’s system be more utilitarian, or practical, than ours?

Absolutely. But whatever your view is, nobody will say that the person committing a misdeed does not have to be held accountable. They do. No social network functions if there’s not accountability in it. With accountability for a wrongdoer, you have to decide what to do with them? Do you bonk them on the head? Do you see if there’s a treatment for them? That is a social judgment that different cultures are constantly thinking about. So far we haven’t been very good at coming up with treatments, so the recidivism rate is pretty constant. The utilitarian approach will really do better once we get more effective with treatment.

And in the book you mention some studies that show this apparent irony: People will propose a utilitarian policy but always fall back on retributive ones. Does this mean it’s safe to assume that really progressive criminal justice policies are doomed for failure?

I hope not. I think in the future we might be able to identify brain pathologies. Right now being a psychopath is not a defense one can use for committing a crime. At some point we might be able to recognize psychopathology as a problem just as we recognize Parkinson’s as a problem, or Alzheimer’s as a problem. I can imagine in the future there’s going to be biomedical research to recognize criminal mind states to see if they can be remedied. Maybe then people would be happier with utilitarian policies because they will think, “Fine, we can fix these brains.” Meanwhile the attitude of the culture will have to allow treatments to come along. There are lots of things that need to change to make it work.

In the book you say that responsibility is a social contract that wouldn’t necessarily exist if we weren’t around other humans. Sometimes I feel like I tend to make contracts internally, with myself. Or I try to regulate my behavior independent of what other people think. Am I deluding myself when I think that I’m making these independent, responsible choices?

No. What you’re doing is that your brain is building a belief or a plan of action that you think is wise for you. It exists in your cognitive system and you want to attend to it. Now the question is whether you do. How many do you attend to and how many do you not? It’s really personal for you, but there’s accountability in your own cognitive “I think those things are all real.” What you’re saying is that you can have this whole social contract model within your own head, right?


That’s true. I mean, in the sense that it’s a social model working in your head.

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