Neuroscience, Determinism, and Free Will: Gazzaniga’s “Who’s In Charge?”

Michael S. Gazzaniga’s latest book “Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain” (Harper Collins) attempts to counteract the increasingly widespread notion that contemporary neuroscience research proves determinism and lack of free will, particularly in terms of personal moral responsibility.  As he states in his introduction, “Beliefs have consequences,” and belief in determinism leads us “to not hold people accountable for their actions or antisocial behavior” (4).  He never makes quite clear who exactly is not holding people responsible, and one suspects that we have encountered a bit of a straw man already this early in the book.  Nonetheless, his point that neuroscientists (unlike, for example, physicists) tend to be deterministic seems true to anyone who has recently read some of the more accessible popular books on the subject, and as a practicing and prominent researcher himself, Gazzaniga knows whereof he speaks.  The introduction also makes clear that he does not believe in reductionism:  “the physical world has different sets of laws depending on what organizational layer one is looking at” (6).  Just as the laws of atoms do not apply to the bodies they compose, so the firing of neurons is not equivalent to the mind.  As he will be at some pains to demonstrate, the mind is emergent, a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

The body of the book falls into two parts: chapters 1 through 4 provide basic information on what neuroscience does know about how the brain works, including both its abilities and its limitations; chapters 5 through 7 attempt to use that knowledge to explain or at least further clarify our concepts about free will and moral responsibility, including whether or not neuroscience should inform law.  Readers will find the first four chapters highly informative, interesting, and even a bit surprising; they are precise and well written, mainly because in these chapters Gazzaniga, a prominent neuroscientist and professor at UC Santa Barbara who is perhaps most famous for his pioneering split brain research, is in his natural element.  They will experience more skepticism as they read the last three chapters, primarily because there Gazzaniga ventures beyond his field of expertise.

To read the full review, click here.

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