Are we truly in control of our own actions, or are they are really determined by our genes and environment? Are our brains really just machines operating according to the laws of physics? Is our free will nothing more than an illusion? And if it is, how can we be morally responsible for anything?
These questions are just about the biggest and most difficult questions we can think about. I know what the answers are, but if you don’t, it would be worth your while to read the first half of “My Brain Made Me Do It” by Eliezer Sternberg. Sternberg raises the questions, discusses some of the evidence and research and identifies some current approaches. It’s a good exploration of the topic and it does get you thinking.
But when the time comes to try to answer the questions in the second half of the book, he jettisons the scientific approach and gives an answer based on homely folk understandings of consciousness and free will. There’s nothing wrong with folk wisdom, but this part of the book offers no new insights.
Sternberg worries that if all our thoughts and actions are subject to natural laws, then our actions are in principle predictable, and therefore we cannot be held morally responsible for them. But we’re only predictable in this way if the natural laws are entirely deterministic, and quantum indeterminacy indicates that randomness plays a part in natural laws. This means that our thoughts and actions are not predictable even in principle, even if our brains and minds are really just machines. This is a mechanistic viewpoint, which holds that our thoughts and decisions come about according to the laws of physics, but that these laws may incorporate enough randomness to make them unpredictable in advance.
If nature is not deterministic, but is actually mechanistic in a way that incorporates randomness, then our decisions are not predictable. But Sternberg makes it clear he wouldn’t be happy with this either. Determinism is not the problem.
Besides, you could argue that determinism is not just compatible with moral responsibility, but actually necessary. As Wikipedia says, “If one’s actions are not determined by one’s beliefs, desires, and character, then how could one possibly be held morally responsible for that action?” This interesting line of argument is not explored in the book.
Sternberg describes epiphenomenalism, which is the theory that our thoughts, decisions and actions operate mechanistically according to the laws of physics, and our consciousness is just a side-effect. According to this view, our conscious thoughts have no effect on our actions — they just seem to. My brain wiring and chemistry alters in a certain complex way, and that causes my arm to move up and my hand to scratch my nose. Meanwhile, these brain events also cause me to decide to scratch my nose. It’s an illusion that my decision caused the scratching; actually, the mechanical workings of my brain caused the decision and the scratching.
Epiphenomenalism seems counterintuitive. I thought it was nonsense the first time I heard of it (a long time ago), but now I think it’s true. Sternberg doesn’t. He spends an entire chapter attempting to debunk the attempts of psychologist David Wegner to demonstrate epiphenomenalism. Sternberg does indeed show that Wegner has not proved his case, but then he just moves on as if he has actually disproved it. We shouldn’t dismiss epiphenomenalism so readily — it may seem strange but I think it’s the simplest idea that could actually explain how the mind works.
The point of all this is that Sternberg wants to show that we have free will, and therefore that we are morally responsible agents rather than automata. He wants to show that we ourselves are responsible for our decisions. But he never properly discusses what this means. He briefly discusses the meaning of free will, but never says why he thinks we have it. He seems to believe that we have free will simply because it feels as if we do. But what would it feel like if we didn’t have it? That is an interesting and enlightening question. But Sternberg does not ask it.
And even if he could show that we do have free will, it wouldn’t help his case. Sometimes we have moral responsibility even for things that we have no control over, such as injustices perpetrated by our ancestors. If my forefathers systematically oppressed the indigenous people in our country, then many would say that I am partially responsible for putting that right. But this is irrespective of whether or not I have free will, since the injustices happened before I was born. Sternberg doesn’t consider this point at all.
Sternberg just can’t bring himself to believe that our internal thought processes could be the result of the mindless operation of physical laws. He tortuously walks us through some examples of human reasoning in order to show us that it’s all far too complex to be reduced to mere algorithms. But he shows no such thing. Yes, we all know that our thinking processes are very complex, but there’s no evidence that they are boundless. The problems that humans are able to solve are often ill-defined, difficult and fluid — but not infinite. A thinking algorithm would deal with such problems in the same way that we do: by using heuristics (derived from experience) to disregard irrelevant information.
I’ve glossed over a lot of points here, but that’s because I am only writing a short article, not a book (though that could happen one day). I’m disappointed that Sternberg’s book misses so many opportunities for fruitful discussion.
My Brain Made Me Do It is strong on neuroscience and good on some general theories of consciousness. But in tackling the really tricky issues of free will and responsibility it falls back to simple folk notions of consciousness. Recent neuroscience research has produced an ever-increasing amount of information about the working of the brain, and many people look to neuroscience to help explain conscious experience. Consciousness, however, remains just as mysterious and fascinating as ever. Science doesn’t yet have the answers — and neither does this book.