'Free Will Debate: Who’s in Charge?' by Michael Gazzaniga (review)

It’s a question that never goes away: do we have it or not? In a new book, Michael Gazzaniga reveals how neuroscience has shattered the debate—and it’s impact on how we make decisions and even criminal justice.

11.19.11 12:39 AM ET

It’s an old debate. It’s a conversation spanning millennia. It won’t go away.

Free will—do we have it or not?

The consensus tilts this way, then that.

But today, in the hot field of neuroscience, the trendy view, Michael Gazzaniga writes, is the “bleak view.”  Everything we do, think, feel, say, or fail to do is determined by our neural circuitry. The brain reigns supreme, tugging the mind along in its wake.

“The underlying contention,” Gazzaniga writes, “is that free will is just happy talk.”

In his new book Who’s in Charge?, Gazzaniga advances a counter argument.

Yet to do this, he proceeds along a surprising route. He devotes the first half of his book to laying out the massive collection of neuroscientific evidence showing that we have absolutely no idea what’s going on in our own brains—let alone control it.

And no one is better positioned than Gazzaniga to speak to this point. He is a veteran neuroscientist best known for his work with split-brain patients—people in whom the structure connecting the left and right hemisphere of the brain has been severed. Typically, this is a surgical procedure performed on people with severe epilepsy. It’s a last-resort technique to cut the corpus callosum, the bridge that joins up the two halves of the brain, in order to prevent seizure activity from spreading between them.

In his new book, Gazzaniga gives us an abridged account of the research he’s done on these patients. What’s fascinating about them is that, in many respects, they remain perfectly normal, their intellect, memory, and language abilities intact.

But Gazzaniga’s first great breakthrough was in discovering the places where this left/right disconnect is wildly apparent.

In one of the very first experiments of his career, Gazzaniga tested a split-brain patient named WJ. First he held up a picture of a spoon in such a way that it was only registered by the left half of WJ’s brain—the half that specializes in language. When asked if he had seen anything, WJ responded normally, “a spoon.” But when the same picture was held up so that only WJ’s right brain registered its presence, WJ reported that he hadn’t seen anything at all.

This was the crucial moment that led Gazzaniga deep into the depths of split-brain patient research. What he found was that, once severed, each half of the brain has no idea what’s going on in the other. WJ’s vision wasn’t impaired since the reason he made no mention of a spoon when it was displayed only to his right brain was that his left brain, with its language centers, had no idea it was there.

'Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain,' By Michael Gazzaniga, 272 pages, Ecco, $27.95

Years of this kind of research led Gazzaniga to be able to characterize the differences between the left brain and the right brain. The right, he says, “lives a literal life.”  It doesn’t extrapolate, it doesn’t narrate, it doesn’t generalize. It registers in an exact, concrete fashion what’s going on around it.

The left hemisphere plays a different role. It’s our resident storyteller.  “The left hemisphere was the intellectual,” Gazzaniga discovered. It is our brain’s  “interpreter.”

It’s the left brain that spins a narrative out of all the disconnected bits of information swimming up into our conscious view.  The funny thing, however, is that the stories the left brain produces are largely if not entirely wrong.

“The reality is, listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time,” he writes.

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The reason for this is that the left brain works with whatever becomes conscious, but consciousness is the ultimate slow poke. It lags behind. It’s walking while the non-conscious brain is sprinting to the finish line, processing what’s happening around us, making a decision about how to respond, even beginning to execute that response. Our conscious awareness is the last to find out.

So what “the interpreter” narrates is necessarily after the fact. Whatever we find ourselves doing, our interpreter will cobble together some reasonable explanation, but it is always a retrospective account.

Besides his own research, Gazzaniga touches upon a huge swath of brain science backing up the basic point that we have no idea what’s going on, but we need to tell ourselves otherwise.

This is the illusion that humans daily entertain: we are the masters of our domain, aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

In fact, the illusion that we’ve got a unified operation inside our heads, running the show, is so thorough-going that  “even the most strident determinists and fatalists at the personal psychological level do not actually believe they are pawns in the brain’s chess game.”

So it’s not that Gazzaniga denies the unseen forces that influence all of our actions and moods and impulses. Instead, he challenges the concept of free will as we know it.

“In traditional philosophy, free will is the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice that is not determined by physical forces, fate or God,” he reminds us.

In this view, implicitly, it’s possible to subtract away these external factors—"physical forces, fate and God"—and be left with an essential self, a free-wheeling agent.

But, Gazzaniga argues, neuroscience has dispelled the myth of such a self, of such a “you.” The brain, composed of all kinds of decentralized circuits that work in tandem, has no central command center.

“There is no ghost in the machine, no secret stuff that is YOU.”

“Prior to the startling advances of neuroscience, explanations of mechanisms were unknown. Today they are. Today we know we are evolved entities that work like a Swiss clock.”

It’s no longer useful to ponder the question of free will as such because neuroscience has changed the very meaning of the question. Accordingly, the mind develops ideas and beliefs that then influence the brain, which in turn influences the mind. It’s a constant back and forth. It’s dynamic.

The question of free will isn’t just for academics to debate.  The implications extend well beyond the campus. One conspicuous example is how neuroscience is already creeping into courtrooms.

Should a criminal be held responsible for his crime when a brain scan can demonstrate some abnormality in his neural circuitry?  Some lesion or tumor or chemical imbalance?

“My brain made me do it” threatens to become an increasingly valid defense.

But to Gazzaniga, this isn’t the right framework in which to consider the problem. “The issue isn’t whether we are ‘free,’” he writes. “The issue is that there is no scientific reason not to hold people accountable and responsible.”

A person’s brain, whether healthy or subpar, isn’t the end of the line. Throughout the book runs a version of this refrain:  “the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical properties of the brain, constrains the brain.”

The mind—in ways we don’t yet understand—emerges from the brain, but it can’t be reduced to the brain. It’s not merely some subservient by-product. You can’t predict the mind from the raw ingredients of the brain. The mind is more than the sum of its parts.

Gazzaniga is calling for a new “vocabulary”—one that doesn’t yet exist—that captures the dynamism between the brain and the mind, between the individual and the group, between the group and the environment. All of these relationships are two-way streets; none a matter of simple, linear cause and effect.

Free will is no longer a meaningful concept.

Gazzaniga concludes his book with a call to arms.

“Understanding how to develop a vocabulary for these layered interactions, for me,” he writes, “constitutes the scientific problem of the century.”