Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Can the Mind and Brain Be Different? What Does Free Will Mean?

David Brooks wrote a thought-provoking column for the New York Times: Beyond the Brain. The topic is neuroscience. Brooks suggests that workers in the field have demonstrated exuberance for their research that is inconsistent with expected results.

"The field is obviously incredibly important and exciting. From personal experience, I can tell you that you get captivated by it and sometimes go off to extremes, as if understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior."

Brooks seems to be suggesting that thought and behavior can be independent of brain function.

He provides this summary of what he views as extreme positions taken by neuroscientists.

"At the lowbrow level, there are the conference circuit neuro-mappers. These are people who take pretty brain-scan images and claim they can use them to predict what product somebody will buy, what party they will vote for, whether they are lying or not or whether a criminal should be held responsible for his crime."

"At the highbrow end, there are scholars and theorists that some have called the "nothing buttists." Human beings are nothing but neurons, they assert. Once we understand the brain well enough, we will be able to understand behavior. We will see the chain of physical causations that determine actions. We will see that many behaviors like addiction are nothing more than brain diseases. We will see that people don’t really possess free will; their actions are caused by material processes emerging directly out of nature. Neuroscience will replace psychology and other fields as the way to understand action."

Then Brooks adds this curious observation:

"These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind."

If the brain is not the mind, then what is the mind? Where might it reside? Does Brooks believe in a nonphysical object such as a soul that determines our actions? How about the positions of the stars and planets at the instant of our birth?

Brooks seems captivated by the notion that humans possess "free will," something that supersedes mere brain function.

"....there is the problem of agency, the problem that bedevils all methods that mimic physics to predict human behavior. People are smokers one day but quit the next. People can change their brains in unique and unpredictable ways by shifting the patterns of their attention."

The brain is an extremely complex construct with many operational components. These components and the interactions between them can adjust in an attempt to accommodate changes in the demands placed upon them. One can claim that the brain is changing continually as we progress through each day. An act of "free will" is not required.

In fact, if the brain is the only relevant organ we have, the question of whether we have a "free will" or if our actions are the outcome of complex neurological processes becomes obvious. Complex neurological processes are all we have to work with; the issue becomes confused only because we have too little respect for the complexity of our brain and too much respect for our conscious processes.

A typical act of "free will" is to make a decision and select one of a number of options. Often there is no obvious choice. How do we proceed? We examine each option until we decide that one of them "feels right." Presumably, at this point the chemical balances at the various pleasure/satisfaction sites in our brain have been mated with emotional responses and optimized by the anticipated solution.

We recognize that this is a neurochemical process without even realizing it. How often do we address the need for a difficult decision by deciding to "sleep on it?" This is recognition that our futile conscious thrashing about can be replaced by subconscious thrashing about. We are essentially getting out of the way in order to allow our subconscious brain to address the problem. And how often do we return to the issue with a new perspective or suddenly conclude that the appropriate choice has become obvious and congratulate ourselves for having worked so diligently on the problem.

One can think of this as an exercise of "free will" if one wishes. It certainly is comforting to think so. But in reality we only have neural signaling and chemical levels to work with. That is all there is. And it’s pretty damn impressive!

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