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2/7/12

Is Your Brain a Meat Computer Without Free Will?


I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.(Robert Frost)

When you come to a fork in the road, take it! (Yogi Berra)

Both quotations have to do with forks in the road. Frost implies he exercised free will and Berra makes nonsense out of the very idea of free choice. The Yankees catcher was good at silly quotes that the press liked to scoop up like fly balls but this one resonates into philosophy and brain science.

We can't start over to discover if we could have done differently because we are creatures of time and perhaps it is merely a construction of our consciousness. Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once, as John Wheeler put it, which is another way of saying we are dimensionally constituted to handle one thing at a time.

In terms of starting over, Jerry Coyne says, "A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently."

We cannot go back in time to try it all again so that leaves us with Frost's statement as rather academic as much as poetic. Coyne and I agree on that.  We assume we can choose one fork in the road over another but we cannot know because we are caught-up in time. I agree with him there and it is also where we part, he down his road, I down mine.

His road takes him this way: "We are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the 'choosing.' And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics."

In short, we are determined by the physical stuff that makes up our brains. We have no free will. As he puts it, our brains are "meat computers." He points out that despite the meat that thinks it decides, it nonetheless has an illusion of free will. It only thinks it decides.

There is a lesson in this, he claims. We cannot escape the belief that we choose freely, and so therefore we quit blaming as we gain empathy and come to understand that Nelson Mandela as well as Bernie Maddoff are victims of circumstance. He does not mention Adolph Hitler, nor does he explain how empathy ipso facto comes about if we are unable to choose it.

My view takes him and all the physicalists to task for falling back on a paradigm that cannot explain the hard problem of consciousness except by dismissing it as no problem at all. (A famous presentation of this problem is Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?") Coyne's argument depends on matter, baby, matter all the way down. That goes the wrong direction in pursuit of the elusive (as well as illusive) and so-called neural correlates of consciousness.

Coyne understands the methods of neuroscience but they are inadequate to support his view of physicalist determinism.

New approaches and methods yield different explanations and they take us away from a bottom-up gaze. They do not insist on simplistic reductions.

I grant that free will isn't what it used to be, nor ever was what it used to be. I grant that our neural wiring helps--only helps--to predispose our "decisions." What I do not grant is that the brain is a meat computer and by this denial I do not imply anything mysterious, no God of the gaps, as replacement.

We need a new way of looking at mind, one that allows cognition and consciousness in interaction with "the outside."  I agree with Alva Noe who said the explanations have become too reductive and that we are shaped by more than neural wiring. Michael Gazzaniga argues that free will and responsibility have a social context. Andy Clark makes a case for dynamic loops of interaction between mind and world. These loops are not merely instrumental as they bind environment with mind to enable cognition.

You can read Coyne's account here. Noe offers his point of view

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