Human Understanding, Randomness, Free Will, and Delusion: Part III

Kent Bottles

Posted 3/12/12 on Kent Bottles Private View

In this exercise I am trying to understand what is going on in my world. Car Talk with the Magliozzi brothers is popular with 4 million listeners because they attempt to fix real world problems that callers have with their cars.Genomics, proteomics, and gene therapy have captured the attention of the public and science journalists because they attempt, so far with limited success, to move us from diagnose and treat to predict and prevent which should help us lead longer and more satisfying lives. In Part I and Part II, we saw that even experts like Ray and Tom Magliozzi sometimes are stumped and that science does not always deliver what I desperately need and want: a clear and truthful understanding of what is going on in my world.

Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are fascinating subjects to read and claim to provide a framework to give me what I want. The natural sciences claim to give an explanation for everything in my world, including me as a human being. However, the explanation the scientists offer clashes with my understanding that I am a conscious person who has a coherent and unified self that is capable of exercising free will. I am a little worried that my left-brain interpreter is making up this story, but that is how I feel.

Most scientists believe we live in a completely determined universe that is governed by physical laws. Since human beings are part of the physical world the physical laws must explain our behavior and even our consciousness. Although it is troubling to disagree with Spinoza and Einstein who accepted this theory, it just does not seem right to me. The neuroscientists tell me that my mind or my soul is just my brain at work.

Here is Francis Crick, who switched over to neuroscience after discovering DNA, in his book The Astonishing HypothesisThe Scientific Search for the Soul:

“You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

One wonders if Crick was familiar with Hippocrates’ writings on epilepsy where he opined:

“Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arises our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant.”

And here’s what neuroscientists SR Quartz and TJ Sejnowski have to say about human character:

“If you think that there is an inviolable core within you that dictates how you behave despite any context – something called character– a growing mound of psychological and historical evidence suggests that you may simply have never been exposed to an extreme context in which to test yourself. Character may be an essential –but largely baseless– story we tell ourselves.”

The evolutionary psychologists reinterpret human psychology within a Darwinian framework. Raymond Tallis in Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity summarizes the basic tenets of evolutionary psychology:

  • The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract information from the environment.
  • Individual brain behavior is generated by this evolved computer in response to information it extracts from the environment.
  • The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist because they produce behaviors in our ancestors that enabled them to survive and reproduce.
  • The cognitive programs of the human brain, which were adaptive in ancestral environments, may not be adaptive now.
  • Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains allows a systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena. This architecture consists of a myriad of modules, such as cheat-detection modules, snake-fear-detection modules, and waist-to-hip-ratio-detection modules.

Why am I so troubled by the dominant orthodoxy of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology? If all our actions were predetermined at the time of the Big Bang, then why should we be bothered with trying to help our fellow human beings or lead an ethical life? If all our actions are so predetermined, then it makes no sense to hold criminals responsible for the most heinous crimes. Their brains over which they have no control made them do it. Learning about meliorism by reading William James and John Dewey at the University of California saved me from having to choose between pessimism, which seemed hopeless and optimism, which seemed naïve. I am afraid that if we accept the orthodoxy of determinism we will “abandon” all those who Tallis notes “are still denied long life, good health, security, and pleasure, living short lives of unbearable suffering.”

While I still have not arrived at my preferred destination (a clear and truthful understanding of what is going on in my world), three books have convinced me that I am not the only one who is troubled by the current natural science orthodoxy. Raymond Tallis, a former Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, writes in Aping Mankind a combative, sarcastic, and devastating critique of the current state of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at University of California, Santa Barbara, inWho’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain offers a defense of holding individuals accountable for their actions in a determined universe. Terrence Deacon, professor of neuroscience and anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, inIncomplete Nature disputes the popular notion that the mind is the software of the brain in a dense and hard to penetrate volume that attempts to explain how the mind emerges from the brain.

These three books crystallized my reservations about the avalanche of studies in both peer-reviewed and popular journals that claim to locate the place in the brain where love or God or criminal behavior originates. It is comforting to discover authorities like M. B. Crawford who observes that these studies are “often accompanied by a picture of a brain scan, that fast-acting solvent of critical faculties ( It is also depressing to encounter Scott Vrecko who catalogs neuroscience studies of altruism, borderline personality disorder, criminal behavior, decision making, empathy, fear, gut feelings, hope, impulsivity, judgment, love, motivation, neuroticism, problem gambling, racial bias, suicide, trust, violence, wisdom, and religious zeal.

Tallis provides examples of the most questionable studies and then proceeds to explain why they don’t deliver what they claim. Tallis takes Mario Beauregard to task for “The Neural Basis of Unconditional Love” fMRI study where home care workers looked at pictures of people with intellectual disabilities first neutrally and then with feelings of unconditional love:

“By subtracting the brain activity seen in the first situation from that seen in the second, the authors pinned down the neural network housing unconditional love. It was distinct from that which had previously been identified for romantic love and maternal love – although there was some overlap – and it included parts of the brain’s ‘reward’ system. This Beauregard has argued, may be the link between reward and strong emotional links which (guess what?) ‘may contribute to the survival of the human species.’”

In a sarcastic footnote, Tallis says he would be surprised “if the ideal of unconditional love would survive the removal of the salary as a condition of caring.”

Tallis gleefully and with great relish criticizes these studies for the following reasons:

  • fMRI measures brain activity indirectly by documenting increases in blood flow that may be supplying more than one set of neuronal discharges
  • The simple design of the experiment does not reflect the complexity of unconditional love as experienced in real life
  • There are serious problems with the localization observed in such studies
  • One prominent experimental psychologist in a paper title “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience” noted that “a disturbingly large and quite prominent segment of fMRI scan research on emotion, personality and social cognition is using seriously defective research methods and producing a profusion of numbers that should not be believed.”
  • A review concluded that “the reliability of fMRI scanning is not high compared to other scientific measures.”
  • fMRI scanning, according to David Dobbs, “overlooks the networked or distributed nature of the brain’s workings, emphasizing localized activity when it is communication among regions that is most critical to mental function.”
  • fMRI scanning studies confuse correlation, causation, and identity.

fMRI scanning studies are interesting, but one has to suspect that the profusion of articles may be a reflection of tenure committees being more able to count number of publications than to understand whether good science is being performed by their assistant professors up for promotion to associate professor. The profusion of fMRI scanning reminds me of all of the articles that are being published that link a gene to a chronic disease in such a way that does not affect at all what the clinician taking care of the patient does in the clinic.

Part IV will continue to explore how critical thinking is essential to understand the world we all live in.

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