Dipping my toe back in: Neuroscience and Free WIll, or Does science prove Calvin was right?

Why did you decide what to eat – or not eat – for breakfast this morning?  Or, to make the stakes a wee bit higher, why does someone decide to kill another person?

Yes, it’s been a year since I’ve written or posted on fb.  That’s for another day.  Can we just say, “My brain made me do it?”

Because that’s the answer, and a very hot topic these days:  How culpable are we for our deeds and misdeeds, if our brains made us do it?  Implying that our brains are somehow separate from our selves, but in control of our selves.  Are we are just puppets, because our unconscious brain is in charge?  How accountable do we hold someone accused of a crime, if neglect and abuse shaped the earliest years of their brain?

If we’re born with a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism, and we grew up in a home with alcoholic parents – Is it fair?  No.  Is it right?  No.  Does it explain how hard it is to resist certain patterns of thought and behavior?  Yes.  Does it then excuse our own addictive behavior and let us off the hook?  No. The brains of every one of us arrived pre-wired, then grew, with certain tendencies and characteristics.  There are folk whose brains don’t function well enough to hold them accountable.  But if you can read this, that isn’t you.

From one perspective it seems brain science proves Calvin right:  All is pre-determined.  But science also supports free will.  With your prefrontal cortex, how will you live with the brain you’ve got?  The self, the soul, the heart of who we are can rise above the influence of our reptilian impulses.  We have self-agency, and a responsibility to care for our brain just like we’re to care for our body, our children, our world.  No excuses for neglecting your center of compassion.

But what do you think?  How much of who you are and how you live is determined by your brain’s unconscious patterns and drives, and how much can you be held responsible?  I’m curious how you answer the question …



10 thoughts on “Dipping my toe back in: Neuroscience and Free WIll, or Does science prove Calvin was right?

  1. From what little I can understand of it, it seems Quantum Physics throws a monkey wrench into determinism. Although we are programmed by our environment to an extent, it does not explain why one person with the exact same environment and opportunity’s as another reacts in different ways. As a Believer, I’m free to believe in God’s intervention on a regular basis into people’s lives to explain why determinism is incorrect thinking. Funny, I’ve been thinking of doing a post on this topic, especially in relation to miracles and Quantum physics.

    • I agree with the whole monkey wrench of Quantum Physics! In fact in an earlier draft of this post I included a link to Krista Tippett’s On Being discussion with Brian Greene – It’s worth a listen to, as he at one point suggests the mathematics allows no room for free will – but he puts it much more eloquently!
      When it comes to God’s intervention, I’m less a believer in a god who can “zap” us out of or into any particular circumstance. Rather, I find myself growing to trust the power of love, which on the surface looks like it loses out and is less real than the powers we see at work all around us – So I’m a bit wishy-washy, I suppose!

  2. You wrote “If we’re born with a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism, and we grew up in a home with alcoholic parents – Is it fair? No. Is it right? No. Does it explain how hard it is to resist certain patterns of thought and behavior? Yes.”

    Now hold on right there. Is it fair? Is it right? These questions come preloaded with presuppositions about what is fair and right. That somehow alcoholism is bad. This implies a path for living well or happy that is not supported by facts. If a grasshopper is born with a wing deformation that prevents its use is this fair or right? The nominal judgement of what is normal and good infers an objective standard that does not exist. A three legged dog doesn’t much care about the situation as long as it can do the things that make it happy. It adapts and gets on with it.

    I opine that it is not reptilian impulses that most struggle with, rather it is nihilistic impulses. The latter are the correct ones yet we fight them generally as evidenced by your unspoken presuppositions.

    • Thank you for challenging this thinking!
      I was speaking from the perspective a child whose care and nurture has perhaps been negatively affected or severely limited by actively addicted parents – That is what is unfair to the child. My point is that we, as human beings, are called to take responsibility for how our brain’s inclinations can hurt others – not just ourselves. I’m not sure what you mean by “nihilistic” impulses – As our brains are designed to do one job and do it well: Keep us alive this moment. I wonder if our “nihilistic” impulses are misguided attempts by our brain thinking that is what is in our best survival interest in that second? Hmmmm. Much to contemplate …..

  3. Cool post. I would say that 99.9% of who I am and how I live is determined by inherent neurobiological structure and function, and observational psychology, but its always that .1% that gets you. i.e., I decided to eat bacon for breakfast this morning because the hormone Ghrelin was released, activating hypothalamic brain cells to recall my strong passion for bacon through the mirror neuron system… and so on.

    • It is so mysteriously, confoundingly complex, isn’t it! Add in the mathematical and quantum physics models, which suggest all is predetermined, there is no “x” factor for free will decisions, and we’re left scratching our heads. Will what we think of as the “I” or our soul be reduced to a biochemical formula one day? Perhaps, but also perhaps there are close to infinite combinations of factors that we’ll never get it right! Thanks for your comment!

  4. When you say your brain made you do it. Are you separate from your brain?
    When Calvin talks of predetermined, I think he refers to some other being planning your actions.
    Determinism means your actions are caused. Not that they are pre-determined.
    I am interested in knowing what science proves freewill.

    • It’s actually a great debate among neuroscientists at the moment. On one end of the spectrum you have folk like Daniel Siegel, who coined the term and them the field of “interpersonal neurobiology” Whatever the opposite of reductionistic, that is his outlook – The “we-ness” or soul-ness or “I-ness” of our beings cannot be reduced to biological interactions. Another perspective would be quantum physicist Brian Greene, who insists that on the quantum level, there is no space in the math for free will. All I can say is stay tuned! As faith and quantum physics and neuroscience keep exploring this intersection!

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