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Pioneer neuroscientist: Defining social life in terms of biology “a fool’s game”

Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain

In “Decoding the Brain’s Cacophony” (New York Times, October 31, 2011), Benedict Carey profiles neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, who offers in his new book some unexpected almost-dissent from the neuro-determinism sponsored by, say, neuroscientists Sam Harris or David Eagleman. You know the sort of thing, the mind is an illusion, there is no free will, society must be revamped to eliminate these concepts …

Gazzaniga comments,

Can brain science tell exactly where automatic processes end and self-directed “responsible” ones end?

Not now and not likely ever, Dr. Gazzaniga argues in his book. Social constructs like good judgment and free will are even further removed, and trying to define them in terms of biological processes is, in the end, a fool’s game.

“My contention is that, ultimately, responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of the brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context,” he writes in “Who’s in Charge?”

Like generosity and pettiness, like love and suspiciousness, responsibility is what he calls a “strongly emergent” property — a property that, though derived from biological mechanisms, is fundamentally distinct and obeys different laws, as do ice and water.

It’s the “emergent” thing that doesn’t really work, of course; it’s like “self-organization” as an origin of life. And another neuroscientist promptly pounces on it, announcing that, “ … at some point, some key legal concepts such as accountability or responsibility will have to be redefined.” Which means exactly what you think it does.

Still, it is good to hear another voice of dissent, alongside Raymond Tallis.

By the way, Carey takes for granted that Gazzaniga’s split brain thesis is incontestible, but see this, for example, about naturally split brains.


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