I can’t remember whether a reader or someone else recommended that, since I’m interested in free will, I should read Michael Gazzaniga’s book Who’s in Charge? Gazzaniga, a well known neuroscientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures (an annual series of endowed lectures in Scotland that have been going since 1898) in 2009 and 2010.
All Gifford lectures deal with the intersection of science and religion, but aren’t Templeton-esque since they’ve included explicit critics of religion like Steve Pinker and Carl Sagan. They’ve also included religionists, of course, including William James, Terry Eagleton, Rowan Williams, and Alfred North Whitehead. Traditionally, the Gifford Lectures are turned into a book, the most famous of which was James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. And Gazzaniga’s book represents his writing-up of the lectures. Sagan’s lectures were, after his death, edited by Ann Druyan into the lovely book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (recommended by Professor Ceiling Cat). Those who see Sagan as a “kinder Old Atheist” should have a look at that book.
Gazzaniga’s thesis is that, although determinism reigns at the brain level, so that our actions are determined in advance (though not 100% predictable), humans nevertheless still have free will and moral responsibility. In other words, he’s a compatibilist. Compatibilism is, of course, the notion that “free will” can still exist despite physical determinism of our behaviors, including “choice”. It contrasts with libertarian free will (the notion that we can make free and undetermined choices—that we could have “done otherwise” at any time), which almost always rests on a form of dualism: that the mind is somehow separate from the brain and can control it. It’s also opposed to incompatibilism, which holds that free will (one must define it, of course), is incompatible with physical determinism. Since my definition of “free will” is the traditional one, held by religionists and many laypeople alike, I’m an incompatibilist. Here’s my definition, taken from biologist Anthony Cashmore:
[F]ree will is. . . defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.
That’s explicitly dualistic. Of course, compatibilists define it differently, as they must if they’re to harmonize free will and determinism, but I think the above definition comports with the common (and certainly the religious) notion of free will. It is the one, for instance, held by many scientists I have met.
As an incompatibilist, I reject the notion that humans have moral responsibility for their actions, since the concept of “moral responsibility” involves “ability to choose otherwise.” I do, however, think that people are responsible for their actions; that is, they must be held accountable for what they do for the good of society. But I’ve written about that on this site before; just search for “free will.”
There are dozens of different (and sometimes incompatible!) ways to define “free will” to make it compatible with determinism, which leads me to suspect that compatibilists are like theologians, who redefine God so it always remains compatible with the latest findings of science (ergo, we now have a “Ground-of-Being” God, compatible with all possible findings. Some types of compatibilism give free will to animals and computers, others to primates, still others to our species alone. That means that none of them can be “right” in any meaningful sense.
Gazzaniga defines free will as a function of human social interaction. The meat of his book is summarized in these two paragraphs in the penultimate section of his book, “Social interactions make us free to choose” (p. 215, my emphasis):
My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context. Human nature remains constant, but out in the social world behavior can change. Brakes can be put on unconscious intentions. I won’t throw my fork at you because you took a bite of my biscuit. The behavior of one person can affect another person’s behavior. I see the highway patrolman coming down the onramp and I check my speedometer and slow down. As I said in the last chapter, the point is that we now understand that we have to look at the whole picture, a brain in the midst of and interacting with other brains, not just one brain in isolation.
No matter what their condition, however, most humans can follow rules. Criminals can follow the rules. They don’t commit their crimes in front of policemen. They are able to inhibit their intentions when the cop walks by. They have made a choice based on their experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not.
I have read this several times, and I don’t see it offering much scope for free will, even defined broadly. What Gazzaniga defines as “choice” is not a “free” choice, but a choice that has been determined by the individual’s experience—in the case of behaving well in front of a policeman, by the experience of knowing what happens when people misbehave and of seeing what happens to convicted criminals. So, somewhat like Dan Dennett, Gazzaniga sees “free will” simply as a computer program in the brain, but a complicated one that can be modified by the social environment (in this case, the presence of the police).
But even diehard incompatibilists like myself, and all scientists, agree that interaction with the environment, and that includes other people, can modify the brain and hence one’s behavior. That’s not news! The “contract” that modifies our own brains to give us free will is simply the set of rules that social groups of humans generally live by, whether those rules be coded in our genes, the result of experience, or an interaction between these two factors. Those rules don’t differ in principle between the rules that many animals obey, or even chess-playing computers, which learn to modify their moves based on whether previous moves have brought them victory or defeat. There is a “contract” between two squirrels (or so I have noticed) that when they are competing for a pile of seeds, the smaller one gives way to the larger. That’s a result of either genes or learning, but it’s a contract nonetheless, and is there to prevent harm to squirrels. Do squirrels then have free will and moral responsibility?
So in the end, Gazzaniga sees human free will in the behaviors we possess that resulted from our evolution and participation in social groups. We change our behavior based on our experiences, and that learning, of course, is a result of adaptive evolution itself: we modify what we do based on what we see, and in a way that preserves our well being. (I’ve written a bit on Gazzaniga’s views before, but haven’t read his book until now.)
Gazzaniga’s whole thesis is undercut by this misguided statement: “My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context.” Well, if the contract is itself determined by our genes and our environment, which I believe it is, then why is determinism irrelevant to responsibility, much less moral responsibility? Why does a contract suddenly give us more responsibility than if we were solitary animals like orangutans, but could kill or injure, or steal from other orangutans? And what is “free” about the contract? Of course determinism is relevant to social contracts.
Gazzaniga’s book is worth reading, as it has a lot of fascinating information about neuroscience, how the brain works, and how split-brain patients behave when their separated hemispheres receive conflicting information. But it fails as a synthesis of neuroscience and philosophy, for there is no obvious connection to me between social “contracts” and free will. Such contracts are just another way of saying that an animal’s environment can modify its behavior.
In the end, I still hold that the philosophical exercise of finding ways to make free will compatible with determinism is unproductive: a waste of time motivated in part by philosophers’ views that, without thinking that we can “choose otherwise,” society would degenerate into a pack of wastrels, nihilists, and people who won’t get out of bed. What on earth has compatibilism accomplished? It is akin, as I said, to theology, and in many ways (one of which is the view that without belief in free will, like without belief in God, society will degenerate).
One of the most obvious resemblances of theology to compatibilism is the continual redefinition of “free will” so that (like God) it’s always preserved despite scientific advances. When Libet and Soon et al. showed that they could predict a person’s behavior several seconds in advance of that person’s conscious decision, the compatibilists rushed to save their definition, declaring that these experiments are completely irrelevant to the notion of free will. They’re not. For if free will means anything, it means that our choices are coincident with our consciousness of making them (to libertarians, our consciousness makes those choices, and we could have chosen otherwise). There is no scientific experiment, no finding from neuroscience, that will make the compatibilists give up their efforts, for they will simply continue to redefine free will in a way that humans will always have it. That resistance to evidence is another way compatibilism resembles Sophisticated Theology.™
And let me say this one more time: philosophers who are truly concerned with changing society based on reason wouldn’t be engaged in compatibilism, they’d be engaged in working out the consequences of determinism, especially its implications for how we reward and punish people.