This Science News’ article, The Decider [Informing the debate over the reality of ‘free will’ requires learning something about the lateral habenula] , digs into one of my favorite subjects. The following excerpt lays down some pithy groundwork:
“Perhaps,” write neuroscientists Alireza Soltani and Xiao-Jing Wang, “we are entering a new period of consilience between the science of the brain and the science of the mind.” Such consilience would certify the death of Cartesian dualism, the mind-body distinction articulated by the French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century. In modern neuroscience, that division dissolves—the mind is simply a reflection of different states of the brain. And brain states dictate the behaviors that masquerade as free choices.
History demonstrates clearly how the advances in tools of measurement and observation have been the fulcrum upon which science advances. The case of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ‘free will’ exemplifies this. Science is popping the illusion of ‘free will’, step by step. This next excerpt sums it up well:
Brains are, after all, the product of evolution. To survive and perpetuate their species, animals need food, water and sex. So brains are programmed to produce behavior that serves those ends—or seek substitutes that stimulate the same neural systems. Free will is not free to ignore these imperatives, although it isn’t always obvious how they all add up and tip the scales in favor of go or stop, do or don’t. Somehow, the brain sorts out the interplay between desire and caution, pleasure and pain, curiosity and fear. And the neural systems established by evolution for survival direct all the other decisions that animals (including people) routinely make—fight or flee, explore or hide, red or white, left or right.
Nevertheless, I reckon human culture may never accept the evidence. The phrase above, “So brains are programmed to produce behavior that serves those ends—or seek substitutes that stimulate the same neural systems”, suggests why. We have “neural systems” necessary for a social species such as ourselves to carry out the social interactions required for survival. When viewed as a result of our “neural systems”, the sense of free will itself can be seen as a “substitute that stimulates”.
Furthermore, the observation that “brains are programmed to produce behavior that serves those ends” must logically apply to our cognitive behavior as well. In other words, our brains are also programmed to produce cognitive behavior — thoughts — that serve those ends. An essential ‘end’ for social animals lies in the establishment of hierarchical authority. A belief in ‘free will’ serves that “end” for it allows individuals to assign blame, i.e., assigning blame (a.k.a. responsibility) plays a key role in establishing hierarchical authority. The ‘right and strong’ rise to the top of the pecking order, the ‘weak and wrong’ sink to the bottom.
Social animals, including humans, need behavioral mechanisms that pull them together to cooperate at times, and push them apart to compete at other times. A sense of tribal hierarchy drives individuals to compete for the leadership position, or to cooperate and follow their leader. As part of this process, an innate sense of ‘will’, for lack of a better word, helps social animals size up each other and themselves in social situations. Given human cognition, it is not surprising that our sense of ‘will’ turns into a wishful thinking belief — ‘free will’.
The cognitive inability of animals to speak about their experience, erroneously leads us to assume they, unlike us, act merely out of instinct. Actually, the only unique difference between them and us is that they lack the thought processes necessary to conjure up ideals of ‘free will’, and the rest. They have no “substitutes that stimulate” and thus their neural systems deal with life directly. Absent are the symbolic filters (names, words, and beliefs) through which we see life. Our ideas of ‘free will’ and the rest, serve as “substitutes that stimulate”. Rather than debating the “substitutes”, I expect we’ll understand ourselves more deeply by examining the neural systems themselves.
Alas, the substitutes do such a good job of stimulating that it will prove difficult for us to set them aside. Among other things, substitutes offer us a prized sense of species-centric superiority. In fact, every species given the cognitive ‘free choice’ would see itself as superior, would it not? It’s just ‘Survival Instinct 101’