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Are We Masters of Our Own Destiny?

By Jeremy Taylor


On Friday, 20th August, I joined the panel for a Great Debate entitled “Are We Masters Of Our Own Destiny?” at the University of Newcastle, organized as part of the Green Phoenix Festival, 2010. My fellow panelists were science writer Rita Carter, most famous for her books on neuroscience: The Brain Book and Mapping The Mind, and local philosopher David Large. The debate was chaired by Caspar Hewett. As we suspected, this pitted two biology-oriented commentators against a more conventional philosopher who answered the question in the affirmative because he believed we can control our own destiny in the sense that Joyce could write his masterpiece Ulysses and Wittgenstein formulate his idiosyncratic theories. The nature of Joyce-ness, Ulysses-ness, Wittgenstein-ness, and the product of the mind and skill of great artists – Rembrandt-ness if you like – transcended “mere” functional explanations of what the mind is. He took umbrage with psychology which, he claimed, pretends its functional explanation of how the mind works is the explanation. It isn’t.

Rita Carter saw things very much from the bottom up rather than the top down. The mind is made up (literally!) by myriads of tiny, unconscious neuro-chemical events in our brains. She therefore believed free will is an illusion deeply wired into the brain as a set of mechanisms which automatically create the sense of self and agency to make it feel as though we decide what our acts will be – that we are responsible for them – rather than merely responding to stimuli.

I agreed strongly with Rita by suggesting that – like the illusion of free will – a large school of modern neuroscientists believe that our moral behaviour is produced not by moral reasoning but by input of extremely simple neurochemical data from our sense organs and receptors which is turned into moral intuitions in our brains by processes of which we are oblivious – the intuition simply pops into our heads. We then apply moral reasoning to our intuitions in a post-hoc sense in order to justify these instinctive beliefs. I agreed with one prominent such neuroscientist who claims that the conscious mind is like the mahout on an elephant. The elephant is the other 99% of what is going on in our minds – things that are unconscious and automatic. If free will and morality are the unconscious products of the way our brains work, thought a number of members of the audience, what, then, is the advantage to us of the illusion that we are in control? Carter argued that without the illusion that we are responsible for our own actions, and that we are therefore accountable for them, no society could possibly function; while I argued that the illusion of moral responsibility is a social phenomenon which evolved as a sort of social glue holding human groups together by commonly agreed norms and principles “outsiders” do not share. In that sense it is similar to the evolution of theory of mind – by which we explain other peoples’ actions by inferring to ourselves the hidden states of mind – their wants, beliefs and knowledge – that must be guiding them. If a teacher could have no inkling that he owned a state of knowledge his pupil lacked, and could not learn unless that knowledge was efficiently transferred from one brain to another, no culture could thrive and be built upon.

How can unconscious process explain the more spiritual side of our nature, thought others. What is the nature of love – affairs of the heart? Near-death experiences? Phantom limbs? The experience of strong emotions like love, I argued, are similar to the experience we have of the presence of a hand after amputation. Both are registered and processed unconsciously in the brain. We do not physically feel love in our hearts though our hearts may send raw autonomic data to our brains, along with data from our eyes, ears, nose and gut, to form the basis of our feelings. Large was not convinced. “I cannot approach the love of my life”, he exclaimed, “And tell her ‘I love you with all my…..brain!’, it just wouldn’t work!”

What were the limits to science in a full explanation of human agency, wondered others. Reductionism can never provide the answer. Large agreed. The creation of a great work of art on canvas is invulnerable to dissection by the scientific method. Science, in attempting a reductionist explanation, was forever throwing babies out with bath-water. There must be explanations at other levels. But what other explanations? What other levels? What other heuristics? For Carter, however, science was the only game in town. What else could any other form of enquiry be based on, if not science and the scientific method, she asked. Neither is science pathologically reductionist, I argued. We no longer have to explain how the machine works by examining one single cog. Psychologists are Skinnerians no longer. Modern technologies like brain-scanning allow them to view phenomena like the mind-brain in multi-dimensional, dynamic terms.

Perhaps, said Large, tongue firmly in cheek, it is scientists who are the masters of our destiny, after all? I responded that we might have an invidious choice in trying to master our destiny: Reduce our civilization to the level which corresponds to the complexity faced by our stone-age intuitive moral minds scores of thousands of years ago – as some primitive philosophers have argued – or behave more like scientists (and philosophers!) by training our pre-frontal cortices – the most recent evolved additions to our brains – to squeeze out as much moral reasoning as possible – over-riding our intuitive inclinations. Only then can we stand a chance of a rational, unbiased approach to facing the extremely complex problems standing between us and any secure future. Hunter-gatherers or geeks?

Carter shuddered at either possibility. Ultimately, she said, there is great humility to be gained from the understanding that much of what we take for granted in terms of will and reasoning is actually the invisible and unknowable activity of trillions of molecules in our brains responding to the laws of nature in much the same way as rain-drops falling through the atmosphere.

Jeremy Taylor has been a popular science television producer since 1973, and has made a number of programmes informed by evolutionary theory, including two with Richard Dawkins. His latest book is Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human, out now in paperback. You can read his previous OUPblog post here.

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  1. Anonymous

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  2. Watkins

    “like the illusion of free will”

    Free will is a fact not an illusion.

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