Does neuroscience prove that there is no free will? This is one of the biggest questions on the lips of the intelligentsia these days. Do we have influence over the events of our lives? Can we direct the unfolding future of the culture we live in? What makes us choose, not just which kind of cereal to buy but the major decisions that impact the direction of our own lives, not to mention the future of our social structures that we inhabit? This is, of course, a perennial question, but it has taken on a greater urgency in today’s intellectual climate today—thanks in large part to breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience. So I was excited last Sunday to have the opportunity to sit down with one of the most interesting figures in the contemporary free-will conversation, neuroscientist David Eagleman, at an intimate salon in New York City sponsored by Gerard Senehi’s Open Future Institute.
David Eagleman is a major player in this blossoming field, with his recently published bestseller Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain leading the way. It provides a highly readable, popular representation of the emerging scientific insights that we are discovering as we get “under the hood” and more closely examine the “three pounds of alien computational material between our ears,” as Eagleman likes to describe it. Incognito, along with his other recent works, not only helped establish Eagleman as a major public figure in the field (his academic credentials were already impressive) but also distinguished him as an open-minded intellectual unwilling to draw hasty conclusions or take extreme sides in the culture wars. When it comes to polarizing issues like the nature of
consciousness and the existence of freewill, he is careful not to make premature assumptions about the very exciting but preliminary data coming out of fMRI labs and academic research institutes. In fact, his declaration of independence from both religious certainty and the certainty of the New Atheists came with a new self-created label: a “possibilian.” His TEDx talk announcing this new category went wildly viral.
It was with all of this in mind that I joined David for our dialogue Sunday night. We spent the better part of the evening discussing the issue of choice with a small, sophisticated audience from across a spectrum of fields. Eagleman spoke passionately and powerfully about influence of brain functions and decision making all happening beneath the awareness of our conscious minds. He questioned our usual conclusions about identity, challenged our sense of authorship over our decision-making and issued examples after example of research which illustrates just how much of human will is a questionable construct. Our stories about our choices often have little to do with our brains’ actual reasons for making decisions. Gracious, brilliant, and broadly knowledgeable, he made a good dialogue partner and he entertained the audience with the kind of research that makes one’s head spin. Did you know that people are statistically more likely to marry a person whose name begins with the same first letter as their own? (As he put it, “It’s not the best reason to choose a life partner”) Did you know that people named Dennis and Denise are statistically more likely to be dentists?
I responded by suggesting that the latest data from neuroscience research, as I understand it, is certainly intriguing, and in at least one respect is consistent with data reported by meditation practitioners. Indeed, it doesn’t take long for most sincere meditators to discover that the contents of a large part of their own consciousness is way outside the control and awareness of the normal conscious mind. Granted, neuroscience is taking this insight further and offering evidence that cannot be found merely through introspection, but there are interesting parallels. And I appreciate the efforts of science to counteract the tendency toward hubris that we fall prey to when unaware of the depth and momentum of the unconscious or subconscious dimensions. There is no doubt that we are deeply and irrevocably conditioned by the past and by our culture, which imprint themselves in the very pathways of our brains. However, suggesting that such research disproves the existence of free choice is a philosophical (and perhaps even metaphysical) leap, not a scientific conclusion. I, for one, am convinced that choice, in its many forms, remains critical to any deep appreciation of the human condition and its significance—even more so today.
Eagleman openly played Devil’s advocate for a time, provoking a healthy debate, but when it finally came down to it, he more or less agreed that the evidence does not support the extreme conclusion that many of his scientific colleagues leap to embrace. True to his “possibillian” identity, he suggested that we know too little to jump to conclusions about the question of free will and choice. Clearly, we are not in control of our own decision making to the degree we once thought. Undoubtedly, the Western Enlightenment’s picture of a free-thinking human being, fully in control of his or her rational faculties and decision-making, is under assault on many fronts. Much of this is simply part of the natural advance of human knowledge, and Eagleman is alive with an explorer’s sense of possibility. Over time, understanding these new truths surely will help us build institutional structures that better respond to the human nature. Eagleman himself has a passion for law and is working to update our legal code to better reflect the insights of science. He advocates shifting the focus of our courts from the traditional concern with blameworthiness to a more “forward-looking” legal system that supports rehabilitation. But there is a veritable chasm between all of that good work and the rash eradication of free choice from the human milieu. Determinism, including whatever new form it has taken in the 21st century, is an extraordinary claim in any age. And there is insufficiently extraordinary evidence to make that leap.
There was much more to the dialogue than I can capture on this page, but I’ll end with some thoughts about one of the great Evolutionaries of the early twentieth century whose work I explore in my forthcoming book. To my mind, Whitehead offers us one of the most elegant and illuminating ways to look at this question of the relationship between the influence of conditioning and the power of choice. The following excerpt from my book captures (perhaps a little more eloquently) the essence of what I shared with David and the audience on Sunday night:
My Thoughts on Whitehead, Choice and Free Will
Whitehead’s view, each moment of experience, or “occasion” as he referred to it, is being created by the converging moments or occasions that have come before. He writes that the “whole universe is an advancing assemblage of these processes [of experience].” All of the preceding moments of experience cascade into the present and are integrated. Whitehead described this process with the enigmatic phrase “the many become one and are increased by one.” That means that the many events of the past cascade into the present and converge, creating a new moment, and thereby increase their number by one. According to this perspective, the present and future are constantly being created anew as the “whole antecedent world conspires to produce a new occasion.”
So without question, the present and future are heavily influenced by the past. But for Whitehead, there is another key factor. At every moment, creativity is possible; the potential for novelty exists. In every cascading occasion of experience, there is the opportunity for something new to exert its influence. “The antecedent environment is not wholly efficacious in determining the initial phase of the occasion which springs from it,” writes Whitehead. Believe it or not, that’s actually one of his simpler sentences. Basically, it’s a way of saying that the future is not entirely determined by the past. We don’t live in a deterministic universe. At every moment, potential novelty is present in the struggle to form the future out of the events of history. But notice the dynamic tension between freedom and historical determinism in Whitehead’s view—the unformed potential for novelty is in a constant, active relationship with the weighty influence of what’s come before. It is a dynamic we can easily see in our own lives as the power of our free will interacts with the influential tendencies of our own established psychological, social, and cultural predilections—the result of which shapes our destiny.