It must have been at least two years ago when a group of young but eager filmmakers came to my lab in Chicago to spend several hours filming my lucubrations about free will for a movie they were making. I didn’t hear much about the project after that, and assumed that it had died, but no: I just heard that the movie, “Free Will? A Documentary” was out. It’s two hours long, very absorbing for those of us interested in this question, but you’ll have to pay to see it. (As an interviewee, I got a free viewing.)
You can watch the short trailer on YouTube by clicking below; the notes say this:
Free Will? A Documentary is an in-depth investigation featuring world renowned philosophers and scientists into the most profound philosophical debate of all time: Do we have free will?
Featuring physicist Sean Carroll, philosopher Daniel Dennett, writer Coleman Hughes, neuroscientist Heather Berlin, and many more.
The website for the film is here; it was directed by Mike Walsh, produced by Jeremy Levy and Mitch Joseph, and the cinematography is by Matteo Ballatta. They did an extremely professional job, complete with animations, movies, photos of the relevant scientific papers, and so on. You can rent it from either Vimeo or Amazon for only $2.99 (“rentals include 30 days to start watching this video and 48 hours to finish once started”), or buy it to watch permanently for ten bucks. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and if you want to watch it via rental, three bucks is a pittance, especially because it’s as long as and as well produced as any documentary you can see in theaters. And it has a lot of food for thought. I put a few notes below.
The movie is largely a series of talking heads: nearly everyone who’s ever weighed in on free will is here (a notable exception is Robert Sapolsky). You can see physicist Sean Carroll, Massimo Pigliucci, Trick Slattery, Gregg Caruso, Derk Pereboom, Coleman Hughes (new to me on this topic, but very good), and neuroscientist Heather Berlin (also new to me, and also very good). And of course there’s Dan Dennett, who gets more airtime than anyone else, perhaps because he’s the most well known philosopher to deal with free will (he’s written two big books about it), but also because he speaks with vigor, eloquence, and his trademarked confidence. I appear in a few scenes, but the concentration is on philosophers.
On the whole, the film accepts naturalism, giving little time to libertarian “you could have done otherwise” free will. There are two libertarians shown, though: psychologist Edwin Locke (an atheist) and Rick Messing (an observant Jew and, I think, a rabbi). I don’t find them convincing, for, as Carroll points out, the laws of physics have no room for an immaterial “agency” that interacts with matter (our brains and bodies). I would have liked to see a full-on religious libertarian, some fundamentalist who insists that we all have free will because God gave it to us. (Remember, most people are libertarians.)
But everyone else interviewed is a naturalist, all believing that at any one moment you have only one course of action. Whether that can be made compatible with some conception of free will, as do “compatibilists” like Dennett, is a subject of some discussion in the film. But there are also hard determinists like Caruso and me who spurn compatibilism. In fact, at the end of the film several people, including Dennett, suggest that the free will “controversy” between naturalists one hand (i.e., “hard determinists” who accept quantum indeterminacy as well) and compatibilists on the other is a purely semantic issue, and perhaps we should jettison the idea of free will altogether. With naturalism settled as true and libertarianism held only by a few philosophers and a lot of religious people, getting rid of the term would make the debate purely philosophical. That’s fine with me, for once you accept naturalism, one can begin dealing with the important social consequences, including how to judge other people in both life and the legal system.
There’s a good discussion of the science, including the Libet and more recent Libet-like experiments (I find them fascinating, and a good argument for naturalism, but libertarians try to find ways around them). The filmmakers do neglect a wealth of information and neurological phenomena that also support naturalism (e.g., confabulation explaining actions caused by brain operations on conscious subjects, the fact that we can remove and restore consciousness, or trick people into thinking they are exercising agency when they aren’t, and vice versa). That’s one of only three quibbles I have with the film. Another is the failure to connect libertarian free will to Abrahamic religions, of which it’s an essential part—a connection that accounts for why more than half of people surveyed in four countries accept libertarian free will. Finally, the philosophers talk a lot about “desert”, which means that, in a retrospective view of your actions, you deserve praise or blame, but the film never defines the term (if they did, I missed it).
But I think they’ve done as good a summary of the issues involved as is possible in two hours, and have neatly woven together in “chapters” the conflicting ideas of people from all camps, letting the academics do all the talking. (There’s a wee bit of necessary narration.) I would recommend that those of you who like to talk about free will on this site ante up the measly three bucks and rent the movie. (The site for renting or buying it from Amazon or Vimeo is here.)
There are eleven “chapters” of the film, which I’ll list to whet your appetite:
What is free will?
The problem of free will
Libertarian free will
Free will skepticism (includes “hard determinism”)
The great debate: responsibility
The “morality club” (i.e., do we need free will be to morally responsible?)
Free will and the law (I think this section should have been longer, but I do get some say in the movie about this issue)
Should we stop using the term “free will”?
Now if you go to the movies for escapism or to see happy endings, this isn’t the film for you. It’s aimed at people who want to see a serious but eloquent intellectual discussion that involves philosophy, physics, ethics, and neuroscience. And the filmmakers did a terrific job, amply fulfilling their goals. Remember, you can’t even get a latte at Starbucks for three dollars, but for that price you can have a heaping plate of brain food!
One of the reasons that compatibilism is so popular, besides buttressing the comforting idea that we can make a variety of conscious choices at any time (well, that’s the way we feel), is that there’s a widespread belief that if you accept determinism (“naturalism”) as opposed to free will, it will be bad for society. (I prefer to use “naturalism” to mean “one’s actions purely reflect the laws of physics” rather than the more common “determinism”, because some of the laws of physics are indeterministic.) If you think you can’t make more than one choice at any one time, so the argument goes, you become mired in nihilism and irresponsibility, bound to act on your merest impulse, immoral or not. In other words, the argument for keeping free will claims that naturalists who ascribe our actions solely to physical laws become irresponsible cheaters who cannot be trusted, and free will is thus a vital form of social glue that keeps society cohesive.
Here, for example, are two statements by the doyen of compatibilism, my pal Dan Dennett (sorry, Dan!):
There is—and has always been—an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—we are already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful mistake. . . . we [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate consequences if not rebutted forcefully.
—Dan Dennett, “Erasmus: Sometimes a Spin Doctor is Right” (Erasmus Prize Essay).
If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.
—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (naturalism.org)
But you can be a “hard determinist” and still believe in responsibility!
These views are often based on an early study by Vohs and Schooler (2008), which “primed” students by reading them an anti-free-will passage written by Francis Crick, with another group reading a “control” passage that was neutral. Not only were the anti-free-will readers less likely to accept free will right after the readings, but they also tended to cheat more in a psychological test given immediately thereafter. To me, this is a thin basis on which to make a blanket statement about the long-term effect of denying free will on society.
Since that 2008 study, however, there have been many similar experiments testing whether such “priming” can not only affect belief in free will, but whether it can promote a variety of antisocial behaviors. Some studies have attempted to replicate the results of others and failed to do so; these, ironically, include the landmark study of Vohs and Schooler.
I should note that, as the authors of the paper below show, there are many people (including me, though I’m not cited) who feel that there are healthy effects of naturalism, including having more empathy for others and a reduced feeling of “retributive justice” (i.e., people should get punished because they made the wrong choice).
The present study by Genshow et al. (click on screenshot below; pdf is here, reference at bottom) is an attempt to combine all existing studies of this type using meta-analysis. They had two big questions:
Research Question 1: Can belief in free will be experimentally manipulated?
Research Question 2: Does this have any downstream consequences?
“Downstream” means “after the manipulation”, and not “permanent”!
The answers, as you can see if you read the long paper are yes, belief in free will can be experimentally manipulated, though the effects aren’t large, and no, the consequences of such manipulation, if any, don’t last long. The authors thus conclude this:
Taken together, there is a debate about whether anti–free will viewpoints should be discussed in the public media. Our findings suggest that the influence on society may be weaker than previously assumed. In this respect, we would like to argue that discussions about the implications of believing in free will should distinguish between scientific facts and philosophical speculations (Schooler, 2010) as well as acknowledge methodological limitations of the cited research (Racine et al., 2017).
In other words, you can promote compatibilistic free will for a variety of reasons (i.e., it comports with our personal understanding of what “free will” means), but not because belief in naturalism will somehow erode society.
First, some clarification. The authors analyzed 84 studies. Of these, 72 were subject to meta-analysis to see if “priming” affected belief in free will. (These studies included 124 experiments, of which 31 were published and 93 unpublished.) Further, 44 of the studies that showed successful manipulation of free will were tested to see if there were effects that lasted (these comprised 67 experiments, 43 published and 24 unpublished.)
What do the authors mean by “free will”. Apparently the classic contracausal or libertarian “you-could-have-chosen-otherwise” free will:
. . . belief in free will reflects a much broader belief about choice and freedom (e.g., “Do I have a choice? Can I freely choose to do otherwise?”).
They construe the opposite of free will to be “determinism” though, as I said above, purely physical indeterminism, like quantum effects, could affect what one does at any given moment but still not reflect conscious choice and not be part of classical “free will”. (You can’t “choose” to affect the movement of an electron.) I will use “naturalism” instead of the authors’ “determinism”. Though they don’t talk about pure physical indeterminism, it doesn’t affect the results of their studies.
They used two methods to measure the effect of reading on free will belief; both gave the same results.
They also analyzed two other aspects of experiments. The first involved four ways of conducting the “priming’ : reading two statements alone, doing that as well giving a verbal reprise, seeing a video about free will or a neutral one, or reading a variety of statements that were either “control” or “anti-free will”. None of the experiments involved reading any pro-free will statements, probably because most people already accept libertarian free will and there’s not much room to manipulate that belief. It turns out that the most effective way to erode belief in free will is a combination of the two readings plus a verbal summary by the experimenter.
Second, the authors analyzed experiments in which the subjects were asked themselves to summarize or rewrite the messages given to them right after they were primed. It turned out that this form or conscious repetition also increased the erosion of belief in free will due to the experimental manipulation.
a. “Can belief in free will be experimentally manipulated?” The meta-analysis showed that over all the experiments, priming did significantly erode acceptance of free will, though not by a huge amount. So yes, beliefs can be affected. When acceptance of “naturalism” (what the authors call “determinism”) was also tested, it increased, though not as much as acceptance of free will declined.
b. “Does this have any downstream consequences?” But how long do these effects last? When erosion of belief in free will occurs in these studies, is it permanent, or does it last only over the experimental period? The “experimental period” appears to last between a day and a week, so it’s by no means permanent. And by “downstream” effects they include experiments where antisocial tendencies were tested right after the priming studies, and where the priming was separated from the measurement of antisocial behavior by another, unrelated test. I didn’t look at every experiment, but most appear to do the antisocial tests right after priming, so the effects can only be said to be temporary—a few hours to a week.
The social behaviors tested are shown in Table 1 of the paper, and include measurements of cheating, helping, aggression, conformity, gratitude, punishment, prejudice, moral actions, cooperation, punishment and moral judgments, victim blaming, and other tests. Again, this was a meta-analysis, so all these “antisocial” behaviors were taken into consideration in a single analysis.
Finally, their main method of seeing if there was an effect over all the studies on social attitudes involved “p curve analysis”, which I’ve never used but the authors describe like this:
In the first step, we ran a p-curve analysis across all dependent variables. While the aim of estimating a population effect size makes a meta-analysis unsuited to evaluate diverse sets of dependent variables, this is not the case for p-curve. Rather than estimating a population effect size, p-curve investigates whether a set of statistically significant findings contains evidential value by testing whether the distribution of p-values is consistent with the existence of a true effect (Simonsohn et al., 2014). Importantly, if confirmed, this does not mean that all included studies show a true effect. Instead, it merely implies that at least one study does (Simonsohn et al., 2014). As such, p-curve can be applied to diverse findings as long as they form a meaningful whole (Simonsohn et al., 2015).
And they analyzed a subset of the results involved “anti- or prosocial behaviors”:
In a second step, we ran meta-analyses on internally coherent sets of dependent variables. Upon reviewing the literature, one clear set arose—namely, antisocial versus prosocial behavior (for an overview, see Table 1). Hence, we pooled together the studies in this set and subjected them to a meta-analysis testing whether manipulating belief in free will influences social behavior. However, pro- and antisocial behavior is still a relatively broad and unspecific dependent variable. Therefore, in a third and final step, we also ran meta-analyses on three specific dependent variables that have been used in at least five experiments: conformity, punishment, and cheating.
The upshot: there was no statistically significant effect in either analysis. The p-value distribution suggests that not a single study had a “true effect.” Now if you use the psychologists’ way of measuring significance (p < 0.1), there is an overall level of significance for the effect on behavior, but using the biologists’ p value for significance (p < 0.05), the overall result became nonsignificant. And using either criterion, when you eliminate the single experiment that had the largest “downstream” effect, the whole effect on behavior becomes nonsignificant (p = 0.128). The effect on anti-social behavior appeared to be significant, but was seen only in published and not unpublished studies, as might be expected. Further, when those studies were eliminated that showed no effect on manipulating free will, the “downstream” effect disappeared, so it may have been some kind of artifact.
I should add that there was no attempt to correct for multiple tests of significance, which increases the chance that something will appear significant when it’s really not. Experimenters vary in how they do this correction, but some correction is always needed, and none was done in this study. That means that even the close-to-significant results, of which there were few, were probably not statistically significant.
The authors conclude this:
In sum, the analysis showed that the effect of anti–free will manipulations on antisocial behavior was no longer significant after controlling for publication and small sample biases. This was true even when we only included studies that found a significant effect of the manipulation on belief in free will and indicates that there is insufficient evidence for the idea that manipulating belief in free will influences antisocial behavior.
Now there are caveats about all these results (i.e., the downstream effect could have been significant but missed, or there might be an unknown third variable that affected the results, and so on); and the authors describe these in detail. The profusion of caveats means that the authors look as if they’re almost apologetic for finding no effect given the widespread view that denying free will will ruin society.
But given that the effect of priming on eroding free will was weak, that there was no meaningful “downstream” effect of trying to make people reject free will, that there was no attempt to correct for multiple tests of significance (a statistical no-no), AND, especially, the “downstream” effects were measured within a week of the initial priming (usually on the very same day), there’s simply no reason to play Chicken Little and say that we must believe in free will because otherwise society will fall to pieces. How can one possibly make statements about the long-term effects on society of rejecting free will and embracing naturalism without a proper test of that hypothesis? I repeat what the authors say above:
Taken together, there is a debate about whether anti–free will viewpoints should be discussed in the public media. Our findings suggest that the influence on society may be weaker than previously assumed. In this respect, we would like to argue that discussions about the implications of believing in free will should distinguish between scientific facts and philosophical speculations (Schooler, 2010) as well as acknowledge methodological limitations of the cited research (Racine et al., 2017).
And even if pure naturalism be true, and that most people’s belief in libertarian view be wrong, should we really hide that truth from people for the good of society? It reminds me of the Little People’s Argument for Religion: “we of course aren’t religious, but society needs religion to function properly.” It also reminds me of The Little People’s Argument for Creationism, encapsulated in what might be an apocryphal anecdote. It recounts how the wife of the Bishop of Worcester reacted when told that Mr. Darwin suggested that people had descended from apes. Mrs. Bishop of Worcester supposedly said:
“My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known.“
And that is the same argument many make for the prevalence of the laws of physics, which to many of us rules out libertarian free will. Further, if you think that nobody attacks naturalism or supports some form of free will because they decry naturalism’s supposedly bad social consequences, you’re wrong. I quoted Dan above, and I could give more quotes. To me, it’s almost never of value to hide the truth about reality as a way to preserve social harmony.
Yes, you can embrace compatiblistic free will even if you think libertarian free will has no consequences for society, but if that’s the way you think, I ask you this: “Why did the authors of this paper go to all the trouble to do the analysis?”
I’ve had my differences with Massimo Pigliucci, but when he says something I agree with, I give him praise (see my kudos here for his admirable critique of panpsychism). So I’m always puzzled when he has to work in a slur against me when we do have our differences.
In this case we don’t seem to have any differences on the topic of free will, but he still insists on characterizing Sam Harris and me as “philosophically naive anti-free will enthusiasts”. Massimo’s insults usually come in such a form: asserting his superior credentials in either biology or philosophy. I’m not going to respond by calling him names. It is the argument I want to deal with.
That aside—and the “naive” bit did upset me a tad—Pigliucci argues in the article below that the concept of free will is “incoherent”. By “incoherent”, he apparently means that “free will in the pure libertarian sense cannot exist because it violates the laws of physics.” But of course that’s the argument I’ve been making all along, so in fact we agree. Perhaps the word “incoherent” has a philosophical meaning I don’t fathom (I am, after all, philosophically naive)’ but if people do realize that the libertarian (“I-could-have-chosen-otherwise”) concept of free will adhered to by most people and a large proportion of religious believers cannot be true, I will be happy.
Do note that for a long time I’ve lumped physical determinism together with pure indeterminism (as in quantum mechanics) as “naturalism”. It’s naturalism that puts paid to the libertarian concept of free will, not just determinism. “Contracausal” free will (another name for “libertarian free will”) would violate the laws of physics, and so can be dismissed. As Sean Carroll showed, there is no way that immaterial “will” can influence physical objects, and we already understand the physics of everyday life. Libertarian free will is not part of everyday life.
Anyway, click below to read Pigliucci’s short essay in “Philosophy as a way of life”:
Massimo’s argument seems no different from one I’ve been making for years (it’s not of course my argument; I’m parroting the naturalists who preceded me). A quote:
“Free” will, understood as a will that is independent of causality, does not exist. And it does not exist, contra popular misperception, not because we live in a deterministic universe. Indeed, my understanding is that physicists still haven’t definitively settled whether we do or not. Free will doesn’t exist because it is an incoherent concept, at least in a universe governed by natural law and where there is no room for miracles.
Consider two possibilities: either we live in a deterministic cosmos where cause and effect are universal, or randomness (of the quantum type) is fundamental and the appearance of macroscopic causality results from some sort of (not at all well understood) emergent phenomena.
If we live in a deterministic universe then every action that we initiate is the result of a combination of external (i.e., environmental) and internal (i.e., neurobiological) causes. No “free” will available.
If we live in a fundamentally random universe then at some level our actions are indeterminate, but still not “free,” because that indetermination itself is still the result of the laws of physics. At most, such actions are random.
Either way, no free will.
Note that, as I’ve also maintained (but some readers here don’t) that the popular view of free will is wrong because it violates the laws of physics, including both the deterministic ones and the truly indeterminate but statistical quantum-mechanical ones. (Note that Newtonian mechanics is a special case of quantum mechanics, but determinism suffices for much of everyday life, like sending rockets to the Moon.)
So where is the incoherence here? Massimo’s argument appears to be this (my take):
a. The universe is governed by the laws of physics. The brain is part of the universe and behavior (including “choice”) comes from our brain
b. If the laws are deterministic, we can’t have free will
c. If the laws are indeterministic, we can’t have free will, either, because, according to libertarians, our behaviors are not completely “random” or capricious.
d. Since deterministic and indeterministic laws are all we have, there is no free will, which is seen as independent of the laws of physics.
If that’s “incoherent”, I don’t see why. It’s not a purely philosophical deduction, because determinism and indeterminism are empirical phenomena.. And I’m happy that Massimo agrees that there’s no free will the way most people use the term. At least he doesn’t assert, as compatibilists do, that the popular notion of free will is really a sophisticated Dennett-ian one. Surveys show that that is not true: it’s the libertarian one that both Pigliucci and I say is nonsensical. (Or, in his case, “incoherent.”)
In the rest of the article, Pigliucci discusses the meaning of the Libet experiment as well as interesting newer experiments in which brains are monitored when more complex decisions are made. It turns out that for a simple random decision, like pressing a button or deciding whether to add or subtract, as in Libet’s study, the brain gives a signal before the actor consciously decides what to do. And that signal predicts with substantial accuracy what the actor will do. The predictability has increased as brain monitoring has improved.
Massimo says this:
Libet also asked participants to watch the second hand of a clock and report its position at the exact moment they felt the conscious will to move their wrist. The idea was to explore the connection between the RP [the “readiness potential” detected in the brain before the actor’s decision comes to his/her consciousness] and conscious decision making.
The results were clear, and have been confirmed multiple times since, using different and improved experimental protocols. Unconscious brain activity, measured by the RP, preceded the conscious decision to move the wrist by at least half a second, with more recent studies putting that figure up to two full seconds.
This was interpreted as to mean that the participants had in fact decided to move their wrist quite some time before they became conscious of their decision. The implication being that consciousness had nothing to do with the decision itself, but was rather an after-the-fact interpretation by the subjects.
Philosophically naive anti-free will enthusiasts like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, among others, eventually started using the Libet experiments as scientific proof that free will is an illusion. But since free will is incoherent, as I’ve argued before, we need no experiment to establish that it doesn’t exist. What Libet’s findings seemed to indicate, rather, is the surprising fact that volition doesn’t require consciousness.
I don’t in fact remember using the Libet experiments as “scientific proof that free will is an illusion.” You can rule out libertarian free will, as I do when I talk about the subject, from the laws of physics alone, using exactly the same argument that Pigliucci does. What I do say is that insofar as the popular conception of free will requires a conscious decision, it doesn’t seem to work, as consciousness is temporally decoupled from choice, which can be predicted with substantial but not perfect accuracy from brain scans before the conscious choice is made.. Again, we have pilpul: a distinction without a difference.
The stuff in Massimo’s piece that interested me was his discussion of a paper that I haven’t read for a while:
Enter a pivotal paper published by U. Maoz, G. Yaffe, C. Koch, and L. Mudrik in 2019 in the journal eLife Neuroscience and entitled “Neural precursors of decisions that matter — an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice.”
The authors set up a series of conditions that allowed them to distinguish between what was happening in the brains of people asked to engage in arbitrary decision making (similar to the original Libet experiment) or in deliberate choices (the latter characterized by different degree of difficulty).
The results were highly informative. They did detect the RP, but only in association with arbitrary, not deliberate decision making. In other words, Libet’s results do not extend to situations when people engage in conscious decisions, and therefore it has nothing to do with the debate on volition.
Maoz and collaborators also built a theoretical model that was able to nicely match the experimental results. On the basis of their model, they suggest that — contra the common view regarding the RP — where arbitrary decisions are concerned “the threshold crossing leading to response onset is largely determined by spontaneous subthreshold fluctuations of the neural activity.” That is, the RP goes up and down randomly until it crosses a threshold that leads to action, in the case of the original experiment, the flicking of the wrist.
Maoz et al.’s model also suggests that two different neural mechanisms may be responsible for arbitrary vs deliberate decision making.
That’s interesting, though Maoz et al., while able to make a model of what happened, couldn’t suss out what the “decision” would be using their models or the measurement methods (EEG). That doesn’t of course mean that researchers with more knowledge of the brain, couldn’t eventually find a way to predict what decision a person could make before it’s made.
But even if it’s made at the very last second, it doesn’t matter. The whole process of deliberation and “decision” in complex tasks is analogous to the working of a giant computer made of meat. There are inputs, they work through the neurons, and we spit out an “output”: a decision. That decision is still not “free” in the sense that it could have been “made” (via volition) in a different way. That decision still reflects the deterministic or fundamentally indeterministic laws of physics, and is not made independently of them. If the decision could have been otherwise, it could only be because an electron jumped a different way, not because the actor willed a different outcome. (We still don’t know, and I doubt, that quantum-mechanical indeterminacy really does show its effects in the way people behave.)
But the end, as Massimo says, “Either way, no free will.”
Neuroscience and our understanding of how we act as we do is a hard but fascinating subject, and experiments like the one above are essential in understanding behavior. But we’re a very, very long way from working out the physical basis for “choice.”
Massimo ends his article this way:
Research like the one conducted by Maoz and colleagues opens fascinating insights into a real scientific question: how do human beings make conscious decisions? The other question, regarding free will, is a non-issue because free will cannot possibly exist in a universe with laws of nature and no miracles. It follows that there is nothing at all that neuroscience can say about it.
I don’t agree. Free will is not a non-issue, and we know that because many people accept it. For them it is an issue! They accept it because they don’t understand physics, because they embrace duality, or because they believe in God and miracles. You can’t dismiss all those people, for they are the ones who make and enforce laws and punishments based on their misunderstanding that we have libertarian free will. They are the ones who put people to death because, they think, those criminals could have chosen not to pull the trigger.
I agree that there’s little that neuroscience can say about free will, but it can say this: Because neurons are material objects that obey the laws of physics, we cannot have free will. That is not “nothing”!
The rest is commentary—and a lot of hard work.
Oh, and Massimo, if you’re reading this, could you just be civil and lay off the insults? I may be philosophically naive, but I can still understand what you’re saying and can still learn from your arguments.
Every evening or so in the ads on NBC News, I have to watch television star Mayim Bialik tout her “brain supplements”, which she claims she invented. They are of course untested nostrums (see below), but the icing on the cake is Bialik’s claim that she’s “a real neuroscientist.” (She does have a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and plays one on the t.v. show “The Big Bang Theory,” but that’s as far as it goes.)
Here are two of her commercials for Neuriva. Nothing she says in the first commercial about Neuriva is true, and she adds that she’s a genuine scientist, saying, “I really am; ask your phone.” Well, I asked my computer, and no dice.
Below is the short commercial I usually see, in which she advertises her snake oil and boasts, “I’m an actual neuroscientist.” She also says she “loves the science behind Neuriva Plus.” Both the value of the product and her claim to be an actual scientist are dubious. As Harriet Hall notes below, there is no science behind Neuriva.
Over at Science-Based Medicine, Harriet Hall went after Bialik’s claims (both of them) and found them wanting. Neuriva’s efficacy is untested and doubtful, and as for the “actual neuroscientist” part, well, see below, as I did my own investigation.
Click on screenshot to read:
I hope Dr. Hall won’t mind if I reproduce her entire short piece:
I wrote about the brain supplement Neuriva over a year ago. I thought their claim to have proof from clinical studies was misleading. I won’t repeat here what I said there about the evidence: I urge you to click on the link and read what I wrote.
Now they are selling Neuriva Plus, which combines the ingredients in the original Neuriva with vitamins B6, B12, and folate. Do they have any evidence that adding these vitamins enhances the effectiveness of Neuriva? Of course not! Neither Neuriva nor Neuriva Plus has been clinically tested. They are relying on studies of individual ingredients, and those studies are questionable. The results have been mixed, and one study was in aged mice!
Now Mayim Bialik has embarked on a campaign as Neuriva’s science ambassador. You may have seen her commercials on TV where she says she “loves the science of Neuriva” and claims it supports six key indicators of brain health. You may remember her as Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon’s girlfriend in “The Big Bang” t.v. series.
Neuriva Plus is backed by strong science — yes, I checked it myself — and it combines two clinically tested ingredients that help support six key indicators of brain health.
She holds a PhD in neuroscience, but I couldn’t find whether she ever actually worked as a neuroscientist. It’s obvious that her understanding of “strong science” doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. I doubt if she reads Science-Based Medicine or understands the principles we go by.
Conclusion: Bialik is a good actress.
Does Neuriva Plus support brain health? Maybe. We have no way of knowing for sure until the product itself is clinically tested.
To check how “actual” Bialik’s claims to be a scientist are, I searched the Web of Science under the names Bialik M and Bialik MC to see if she had any publications (this is the way we find out someone’s record). As the screenshot below shows, she has zero publications. She is neither teaching in a university, working in a lab, or, as far as I can see, actually doing any science. (BTW, I no longer say “I’m a biologist” when someone asks me what I do. I say that I’m a “former biologist”, “superannuated biologist” or “retired biologist.”) The circling is mine:
But if you look at references 2, 21, 26, and 27, you find no peer-reviewed publications except her Ph.D. thesis. She has written no books on neuroscience, either. She’s written or coauthored four books, but none about neuroscience:
Bialik has written two books with pediatrician Jay Gordon and two by herself. Beyond the Sling is about attachment parenting, while Mayim’s Vegan Table contains over 100 of Bialik’s vegan recipes. Her third book, Girling Up, is about the struggles of and ways in which girls grow up, showing the scientific ways in which their bodies change. Its successor, Boying Up (2018) analyzes the science, anatomy and mentality of growing up as a boy, and the physical and mental changes and challenges boys face while transitioning from adolescence to adulthood.
To me this doesn’t give her present status as a neuroscientist, and she’d stand no chance of being hired by a university as one. But I don’t mind that nearly as much as her using those credentials to sell untested “brain supplements” to a credulous public. People are spending actual money on Neuriva, and much of that must be based on Bialik’s claimed credentials and her status as a television celebrity. In this sense she is the female equivalent of Deepak Chopra, who can claim, “I’m an actual doctor” while selling his useless “longevity supplements.”
Here’s a 26-minute presentation from the Institute of Art and Ideas by neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, someone whose work on consciousness I’ve always liked. I like it because she sees the problem of consciousness as not some kind of unsolvable philosophical mystery, but as a scientific problem whose solution comes down to this: if you understand what physiological and neurological phenomena give rise to consciousness and the perception of qualia (sensations), you’ve already solved the problem. What is required for us to be conscious is THE explanation of consciousness, and the rest is commentary. Or so I think.
Here are the website’s notes on her talk:
Have you ever made a decision and wondered why you made it? Or wondered where your morality comes from? Renowned philosopher of mind and founder of Neurophilosophy Patricia Churchland takes us on a journey into the brain, the nature and data of morality and the origins of nonconscious decision-making.
Patricia Churchland is a the distinguished founder of neurophilosophy. A pioneer of eliminative materialism, Patricia heralds a radically different way to understand the brain, arguing that ideas like pure morality and reason will eventually be abandoned in favour of a purely scientific view of the human mind.
Because of her mechanistic approach to the problem, she analyzes and explains what we know about the neural basis of consciousness and unconsciousness. How do anesthetics like propofol and ketamine work? What can restore consciousness when it’s vanished, as in comatose people? You may not consider this a satisfying approach to understanding consciousness, but it’s the only one that, in the end, will make inroads on the problem.
Churchland also discusses the neural basis of reinforcement learning, of pleasure (the interaction of dopamine with specific neurons), and of maintaining life goals (a conscious phenomenon) as well as attaining those goals (unconscious processes, as are the “execution of well-honed skills”).
I was pleased to see criticize panpsychism several times; that’s the harebrained idea that every bit of the universe, including electrons, rocks, and pizza, is conscious. I won’t embarrass the purveyors of this nonsense by naming them, but Churchland tells us, correctly, that their approach to consciousness (roughly, “when the little conscious bits of matter get together in a brain, we get big-time consciousness”) tells us absolutely nothing about the mechanism of feeling pain, how anesthesia works, or other scientific questions about consciousness.
This is a first, I think: a major literary figure writing a piece in a science journal. The award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates was married to distinguished neurobiologist Charlie Gross for a decade—until Charlie died in 2019. (They both taught at Princeton.) I met them at the Great New Yorker Cat vs. Dog Debate in 2014, where Joyce was on Team Cat, and had dinner with them afterwards at the Union Square Cafe. They were clearly deeply connected, and I remember that dinner fondly.
I’ve kept in touch with Joyce ever since, and know how devastated she was when Charlie passed away. She told me how, like me, Charlie was addicted to travel, especially to Antarctica, and also loved photography. She added that she was more of a homebody, but went with him on some of his trips.
This is recounted in a lovely new memorial that Joyce wrote for Charlie in Progress in Neurobiology—in a special issue devoted to him. Hers is a short piece, highlighting Charlie’s photos from around the world and connecting his vocation with his avocation.
I’ll give an excerpt and show a few of his photos. You can read the piece for free by clicking on the screenshot (if the link doesn’t work, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf):
If the world is essentially a mystery, research scientists are investigators, explorers, pilgrims, even at times mystics; “scientific method” is the crucial tool, but the motive underlying the pursuit of intransigent truth in a world of shifting illusions and delusions is likely to be deep-rooted in the personality, as the motives for art are deep-rooted, essentially unknowable. The research scientist, like the writer and artist, is not satisfied with surfaces—the “superficial”; the comprehension of underlying principles and laws are the goal.
Neuroscience dares to address the most basic of all questions involving life: what is the neural basis of behavior? how can it possibly be that out of molecules, ions, and nerve cells somehow there emerges the vast richness of human consciousness and experience? It isn’t an accident that Charlie Gross spent most of his professional life exploring vision in the cerebral cortex. He was never more fiercely concentrated in thought—(if indeed it was “thinking” that so absorbed him)—than when he was taking photographs, and afterward working with the digital images he’d captured. Out of the raw image, what “meaning” can be discovered? The camera lens radically narrows the visual field into an aesthetically satisfying form because it is limited, reduced; “coherence” is created out of a chaos of impressions that without the camera lens lack focus and meaning. Surely there is some fundamental analogy here with the mechanisms of the eye—the visual cortex.
. . . Charlie and I were married in March 2009 and in the decade we spent together traveled widely—to Spain, Italy and the Greek Islands, Capri, Corsica, Dubrovnik, Galapagos and Ecuador, Australia, and Bali as well as, more frequently, to London, Paris, Rome, and (his favorite) Venice. We spent time in the most scenic parts of California—Berkeley, Humboldt State Redwood Park, Big Sur; we visited many National Parks—Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yosemite. To all these places Charlie brought his photography equipment and spent many hours taking pictures, ideally at dawn. He was exacting and patient; he could wait a long time for a perfect combination of landscape, sky, and light. His work is surpassingly beautiful — not a consequence of accident but design. Though Charlie did not “photoshop” his work, he spent much time selecting images he wanted to make permanent. He was a serious artist of beauty but he did not theorize —he followed his intuition.
For the article Joyce selected nine photos “that are most abstract and apolitical—indeed, ahistorical—in their beauty; and those set in the West, which he loved and had visited many times.” Three of them are below— and one of Charlie as well.
Go to the article to read more about Charlie and photography, and to see more of his work.
Bryce Canyon at twilight:
Yosemite. A Magritte-like boulder suggestive of a glacier or a dream image seems to push through the surface of the water in this Yosemite scene:
I’ve written a fair few critical posts about panpsychism, the idea that the “hard problem of consciousness” is solved by positing that all matter in the Universe is conscious. Advocates of panpsychism say that understanding consciousness in an organism like humans is impossible with present approaches, for figuring out how the feeling of “subjective experience”, or “qualia” can never be accomplished by simple mechanistic study and manipulation of biological features like neurons. Panpsychists reject a correlational approach—that if we have a complete picture of what structures have to be there for an organism to experience consciousness, we’ve solved the problem. It maddens them that this, in fact, is the way neuroscientists are approaching the problem.
Instead, they “solve” the problem by saying that all matter, from electrons on up, has a form of consciousness, and so—problem solved—humans are conscious because all the matter in their bodies and brains are conscious. But this raises two issues. First, how does the rudimentary consciousness of electrons, atoms, and molecules combine in a human to create a much more sophisticated kind of consciousness? This is known as the “combination problem.” Advocates of panpsychism, including Philip Goff—an assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University—have no solution to this problem. (Yes, I read his book on panpsychism and found it deeply flawed.)
Further, the claim that inanimate objects like electrons, rocks, and spoons have a form of consciousness is untestable in any way I can see, and so the theory is a non-explanation: a kind of metaphysical claim that will lead nowhere, even as neuroscientists beaver happily away, figuring out what is required for consciousness and its sub-bits.
Nevertheless, every time I write about panpsychism, or post about it on Twitter, I get a passel of enraged advocates who tell me that it’s a great theory and I misunderstand it. My answer is this: no, it’s a crappy theory and I don’t misunderstand it. For some reason, perhaps because of its numinous, almost dualistic aspect, it attracts a certain kind of person—the kind of person who worships quacks like Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra.
But I won’t psychologize further; this post is to point out that neuroscientist Anil Seth went after panpsychism over two years ago on NeuroBanter, as well as more recently. I had missed this earlier critique, but it’s short and sweet, and is still absolutely relevant since panpsychism, being untestable, has not progressed since then. Seth is professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex as well as “Co-Director (with Prof. Hugo Critchley) of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and Editor-in-Chief of Neuroscience of Consciousness.” You can read his critique by clicking on the screenshot below:
Goldhill’s article is about panpsychism, which is the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, present to some degree everywhere and in everything. Her article suggests that this view is becoming increasingly acceptable and accepted in academic circles, as so-called ‘traditional’ approaches (materialism and dualism) continue to struggle. On the contrary, although it’s true that panpsychism is being discussed more frequently and more openly these days, it remains very much a fringe proposition within consciousness science and is not taken seriously by many. Nor need it be, since consciousness science is getting along just fine without it. Let me explain how.
He then explains how “consciousness scientists” are going about their work without a nod to panpsychism. As Laplace supposedly said about God, “We have no need of that hypothesis.”
But consciousness science has largely moved on from attempts to address the hard problem (though see IIT, below). This is not a failure, it’s a sign of maturity. Philosophically, the hard problem rests on conceivability arguments such as the possibility of imagining a philosophical ‘zombie’ – a behaviourally and perhaps physically identical version of me, or you, but which lacks any conscious experience, which has no inner universe. Conceivability arguments are generally weak since they often rest on failures of imagination or knowledge, rather than on insights into necessity. For example: the more I know about aerodynamics, the less I can imagine a 787 Dreamliner flying backwards. It cannot be done and such a thing is only ‘conceivable’ through ignorance about how wings work.
Seth talks a lot about “integrated information theory” as panpsychists’ way of asserting that consciousness is inherent (in a narrowly defined way) in matter, but that claim is highly technical and I’ll let you read about it yourself. Instead, here’s his take on why an “explanation” of consciousness in scientific terms may be unsatisfying, just as an explanation of quantum uncertainty may be unsatisfying (“that’s just the way it is”), but at least it counts as an explanation. (Correct explanations may not seem emotionally or intuitively satisfying to us.):
. . . people often seem to expect more from a science of consciousness than they would ask of other scientific explanations. As long as we can formulate explanatorily rich relations between physical mechanisms and phenomenological properties, and as long as these relations generate empirically testable predictions which stand up in the lab (and in the wild), we are doing just fine. Riding behind many criticisms of current consciousness science are unstated intuitions that a mechanistic account of consciousness should be somehow intuitively satisfying, or even that it must allow some kind of instantiation of consciousness in an arbitrary machine. We don’t make these requirements in other areas of science, and indeed the very fact that we instantiate phenomenological properties ourselves, might mean that a scientifically satisfactory account of consciousness will never generate the intuitive sensation of ‘ah yes, this is right, it has to be this way’. (Thomas Metzinger makes this point nicely in a recent conversation with Sam Harris.)
Metzinger’s discussion is apparently over 3 hours long (oy!), but you can hear 50 minutes of it at the link.
Finally, the Big Problem with panpsychism:
This leads us to the main problem with panpsychism. It’s not that it sounds crazy, it’s that it cannot be tested. It does not lead to any feasible programme of experimentation. Progress in scientific understanding requires experiments and testability.
As Seth notes, panpsychism is often justified because big names like Arthur Eddington, as well as influential figures like neuroscientist Christof Koch, have favored panpsychism. But even though these people made big contributions to science, panpsychism isn’t made any more credible just because some famous scientists have pushed the theory. In the end, we need data and we need testability—and those things we ain’t got.
I’ve quoted a lot here, as I have little to add to what I’ve said before, but I’ll argue again that the current penchant for panpsychism, which seems to me more a religion than an adherence to science (after all, there is some scientific underpinning to as-yet-untestable theories like string theory, while panpsychism is a form of assertion that didn’t come from science), is baffling. Perhaps its adherents really do believe it instead of glomming onto it to carve themselves out a niche in neuroscience, but we needn’t pay them any heed until they tell us how to test whether spoons are conscious. The last word goes to Seth:
At the end of her piece, Goldhill quotes Chalmers quoting the philosopher John Perry who says: “If you think about consciousness long enough, you either become a panpsychist or you go into administration.” Perhaps the problem lies in only thinking. We should instead complement only thinking with the challenging empirical work of explaining properties of consciousness in terms of biophysical mechanisms. Then we can say: If you work on consciousness long enough, you either become a neuroscientist or you become a panpsychist. I know where I’d rather be – with my many colleagues who are not worrying about conscious spoons but who are trying, and little-by-little succeeding, in unravelling the complex biophysical mechanisms that shape our subjective experiences of world and self. And now it’s high time I got back to that paper on training synaesthesia.
But in my view, the opposition to materialism is rooted in the belief that the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science is ill-suited to the task of capturing the qualities of conscious experience.
Capturing is one thing, understanding is another. And there’s this:
One gets the impression reading Seth’s piece that he thinks anti-materialists are stopping neuroscientists making progress. But in so far as neuroscience is giving us correlations/explanations, it is neutral between materialism, dualism, and panpsychism. The proponents of these views would simply give different philosophical interpretations of the data: the materialist would see the physical states as constituting the conscious states, the dualist would see the physical states as causing the conscious states (in conjunction with basic psycho-physical laws of nature), the panpsychist would see the conscious states as the intrinsic nature of the physical states. In so far as some neuroscientists are trying to reductively explain consciousness, then of course they are pursuing a goal inconsistent with dualism/panpsychism. But a plurality of different theories are pursued in science and philosophy without it being a problem. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
I don’t understand that form of dualism, which seems explicitly naturalistic, and re panpscyhism he uses psychobabble that doesn’t explain anything. “Let a thousand flowers bloom” is not a good mantra when some of the flowers are stinkweeds, like creationism is to the beautiful blossom of evolution. Panpsychism isn’t a flower, for it hasn’t ever blossomed.
About six months ago, in the time before lockdown, I gave a talk about my then new book, The Idea of the Brain, at the Royal Institution in London. About a week later, the country went into lockdown and because the RI staff were furloughed, they could not work on the video. Reader Christopher mailed Jerry last night to tell him that the video was now online – I didn’t know! Anyway, here you are:
The talk was chaired by my pal the science journalist and author Adam Rutherford, who fell ill with covid a couple of days later and is still not fully recovered. Be careful out there. . .
JAC: The question-and-Answer section of Matthew’s talk has surfaced, and I’m posting it below:
“As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”
Matthew sent me a link to this new article in New Scientist. Yes, yet another credulous git has fallen for panpsychism. Click on the screenshot to read just the first three paragraphs (it’s paywalled, though the content of this rag isn’t worth paying for):
Below are the first three paragraphs, touting the panpsychist view that I’ve criticized before: everything in the Universe, right down to electrons, has a form of consciousness. This is supposed to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness: how you get subjective sensations from nerve impulses and brains. How does this crazy suggestion solve it? By sleight of hand: if every constituent of the Universe is conscious, then when you build a nervous system and mind out of atoms and molecules, it will be EVEN MORE CONSCIOUS! Because its constituents are conscious, so it must be too—big time!
Isn’t that delightful? In this U.S. we call this a “carny trick”.
From New Pseudoscientist:
THEY call it the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Physicist Eugene Wigner coined the phrase in the 1960s to encapsulate the curious fact that merely by manipulating numbers we can describe and predict all manner of natural phenomena with astonishing clarity, from the movements of planets and the strange behaviour of fundamental particles to the consequences of a collision between two black holes billions of light years away. Now, some are wondering if maths can succeed where all else has failed, unravelling whatever it is that allows us to contemplate the laws of nature in the first place.
It is a big ask. The question of how matter gives rise to felt experience is one of the most vexing problems we know of. And sure enough, the first fleshed-out mathematical model of consciousness has generated huge debate about whether it can tell us anything sensible. But as mathematicians work to hone and extend their tools for peering deep inside ourselves, they are confronting some eye-popping conclusions.
Not least, what they are uncovering seems to suggest that if we are to achieve a precise description of consciousness, we may have to ditch our intuitions and accept that all kinds of inanimate matter could be conscious – maybe even the universe as a whole. “This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution,” says Johannes Kleiner, a mathematician at the Munich Centre for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany.
If some hapless reader wants to ferret out the rest of the article and read it, be my guest. I would bet a substantial sum that “doing the maths” does not show that the Universe is conscious. How could it? Only empirical investigation could possibly show that.
When I asked Matthew why so many apparently smart people believe in this palaver, he simply drew four capital “S”s with vertical lines through them and then made a pungent remark about how it’s garbage but it sells.
Panpsychism is quack philosophy, and New Scientist is the National Enquirer of science.
Matthew’s new book about the history of research on the brain is now out in both the UK and the US (Amazon links provided). I read it in advance and blurbed it; it’s very good.
I’m not alone in my opinion, as the first five reviews that I know of all praise the book unstintingly. Links below:
1). New Statesman, review by Henry Marsh, brain surgeon and author. Money quote: “an intellectual tour de force, and a brilliant demonstration of how a historical approach is often the best way of explaining difficult scientific problems… I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.”
2.) Science, review by Alex Gomez-Martin, researcher at the Instituto de Neurociencias (CSIC-UMH), Alicante, Spain Money quote: “Cobb’s erudition and engaging writing style take us on an enthralling journey”
3). Wall Street Journal, review by Carol Tavris, social psychologist and well known author. Full review not free online but I can send you a pdf. Money quote:“The Idea of the Brain” is “elegant… engrossing… clear and lively… The reader will come away from this illuminating history of thinking about the brain with a renewed appreciation of the task that remains.”
4.)Science News, review by Laura Sanders, neuroscience writer and journalist. Money quote: “a fascinating tour of how concepts of the brain have morphed over time. His writing is clear, thoughtful and, when called for, funny.”
5.) Scientific American, on list of “Recommended books” by Andrea Gawrylewski. Money quote: “If you know nothing about neuroscience and need to get up to speed fast, don’t go out and buy an “Idiot’s Guide.” Instead try this brilliant offering, in which zoologist and science historian Cobb dives into the fundamentals—and the frontiers—of our understanding of the brain.”
Well, what are you waiting for? I told you it was good!