It’s the end today and tomorrow in CoPhi, our last class meetings of the Fall semester. We’ll pull Plato out of the MRI machine and send him back through time, after pondering his thoughts on free will and contemporary brain science. (He’s been auditing MOOCs and is up to speed.)
Can we adequately explain a person’s actions or the episodes of a life by assigning them to his or her neuronal processes? What is a person, anyway? “Agatha” the grad student and lab assistant is on a far more promising track to answer this than is her reductionist mentor “Dr. Shoket,” who says “When you get right down to it, there isn’t even a person. There’s a brain…”
Reminds me of something I wrote once on brains, persons, and philosophy conferences. (One more James reference for you, Bryce.)
So long as [William James] and we persist in representing mental life and subjectivity generally as more intimately identified with the self that acts, or the whole person, than with the brain either in isolation or in mysterious contact with ‘nether-regions, then any account of how a person may sometimes act freely even though his acts are produced by brain events and “bodily happenings” must take seriously the subjective experience of free will. This is not finally negotiable. As a practical matter for James, free will is not a “problem” but a datum. But it is a challenging datum. James could respond to the challenge, in part, by distinguishing the mechanism responsible for mental events (the brain, its neuro-physiological stimuli, and whatever other causes may be at work) from the experienced nature and content of those events. The latter is all interiority, personality and subjectivity. But does this provide adequate insulation? And should we want to insulate our minds in this way? Do not we court the bogey of dualism if we follow this line? Would it make more sense to rethink the prejudicial self-concept that treats the brain as somehow “external” to our persons and incapable of hosting or executing our spontaneity? But how do we do that? I do not think James wants to insulate the mind, nor does he want to backslide into dualism. The brain is not external, though anyone who has ever spent more than a moment trying to hold the thought “I am a brain” will report that the identity issue here is not easy. If we could say all that we want to say about our inner lives and experiences by referring to it, instead of to minds and consciousness, James should not object. In fact, he thinks there are processes of consciousness and dimensions of experience that brain-talk may miss. Contemporary debates continue on this issue, as we will see. For some of us, though, it is just laughably obvious that extreme “eliminative” materialists are out of touch with the very realities betrayed by their own activity in the world. I once had occasion to point this out at a professional gathering of philosophers when the claim was presented, in all apparent seriousness, that there are no persons but only organisms and their brains meeting a physical description matching our own. But brains do not attend philosophy conferences, persons do. And not uncommonly, many of them seem to have left their brains at home. One of the unfortunate “inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers” that James is eager to turn his back on is an almost indiscriminate, juvenile posturing, so much in evidence at such gatherings, that is in defiance of common sense. “Common sense is better for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third. . . .” Why should not all philosophers know this?
Shoket doesn’t know it. Agatha does, and so does Plato when he says “one must bring in the mind to explain his action.”
The famous Libet experiments seem to suggest otherwise, in suggesting that the mind consists (only) in neuronal activity. We come to decisions before we’re aware of having come to them. But can a philosopher admit that awareness may be highly overrated?
Maybe free will is too. Agatha and Plato agree, we can drop free will if we retain accountability. What’s that? Just (says the sensible grad student) “offering each other our reasons, evaluating them, accepting and rejecting and reconsidering them and maybe even changing our minds. To be accountable means to be prepared to give reasons for the things we say and the things we do.” It’s to philosophize.
The reductive neuroscientist doesn’t get that either, of course, but Plato does. “I gladly accept accountability.” Freely or not. The really vital question for us all is, what shall we be accountable for? What will we make of this life, of this day? What are our goals?
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