Thursday, June 20, 2013

Picking the Brain

In "Beyond the Brain," NYT op-ed columnist David Brooks makes the quotidian observation that mind is not brain.[1]  He is not the first to do so.  Searle, Kuhn, Lucas, and others have walked this ground before him.  He points out that:
  1. One region of the brain will handle a wide variety of different tasks.  "As Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld explained in their compelling and highly readable book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, you put somebody in an fMRI machine and see that the amygdala or the insula lights up during certain activities. But the amygdala lights up during fear, happiness, novelty, anger or sexual arousal (at least in women). The insula plays a role in processing trust, insight, empathy, aversion and disbelief. So what are you really looking at?"
  2. One activity is usually distributed over many different places in the brain.  "In his book, Brain Imaging, the Yale biophysicist Robert Shulman notes that we have this useful concept, 'working memory,' but the activity described by this concept is widely distributed across at least 30 regions of the brain. Furthermore, there appears to be no dispersed pattern of activation that we can look at and say, 'That person is experiencing hatred.'"
  3. One action can arise out of many different brain states and the same event can trigger many different brain reactions.  "As the eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan has argued, you may order the same salad, but your brain activity will look different, depending on whether you are drunk or sober, alert or tired." 
To this we may add the observation of Freeman that even the steady sensation of one sight may shift about within the brain.[5]  Writing of smell, he says, "Each inhalation excites a small fraction of the available [chemoreceptor cells] in the nose, but it is a diff erent fraction with each breath." [Emph. added.]  That is, the specific regions of the brain affected by various stimuli constantly change. 

A further point we might add is:
4. People have recruited different regions of their brain to take over the functions of other regions that have been damaged. [6, 7]
But Brooks' column elicited a curious response by one Paul S----, who reacted to the stimulus by responding:
So, try to explain to me how neuronal activity does not lead to all animal behavioural activity. What other mechanisms are you proposing? I've worked in neuroscience for years and have seen no evidence that behaviour and decision-making are anything but the results of neuronal firing. Research results are now telling us that free will is really an illusion too. To be crude, we are meat in motion but too self-centred and arrogant to accept it. [1]
  • The most singular part was when he asks "what other mechanisms..." because that assumes that the whole thing simply must be mechanical.  (Why not hold out for the old hydraulic model and insist on a balance of humors?  Remember, the Greeks could "explain" how balances of humors would lead to all animal behaviors.)  Anger was a boiling of blood around the heart -- a statement made opaque by the curiosity that 'boiling,' 'blood,' and 'heart' did not then have their current modern meaning. "What other humors are needed?" 
  • The notion that "research results are now telling us that free will is really an illusion" is laughable, since it indicated that either the researchers, Paul S---, or both have no understanding of what 'free will' means.  They simply designate the lighting of certain brain regions under fMRI as the "moment of decision" and prove their conclusions with their assumptions.  How there can be an "illusion" is left unspecified.  [8]
  • Paul S--- does not explain how "meat in motion" can be either "self-centered" or "arrogant."  Or how it could "accept" anything at all.  If free will is "probably" an illusion, then surely acceptance is an illusion!  But it probably does not strike him that he is ludicrously self-contradictory here. For some reason, Internet atheists have a special animus against free will on the mistaken belief that they are sticking it to religion rather than to humanism! 
  • But his first statement -- that neuronal activity leads to all animal behavioral activity -- does not seem to admit the possibility that animal behavioral activity leads to all neuronal activity.  It may be less that decision-making is the result of neuronal firing than that neuronal firing is the result of decision-making.  The journey explains the footprints; the footprints do not explain the journey. 
This is your brain on stimulus-response
Paul S--- also fails to make the crucial distinction between imagination and intellect.  If the brain is the organ that acts as a switchboard, collating sensory signals that "reach" the brain at different times into a unified image and connects them to appropriate physical motions (including the preparatory e-motions), them we would naturally expect a simple neuro-motional connection.  Heck, most animal motions don't require much in the way of thought: hearts beat, blood flows, nerves signal, lungs respire, and so on.  TOF would expect bodily motions to pass through the neural switchboard.  No one can scratch his butt without the appropriate neurons firing to react to an itch or to move the arm. 

Imagination involves images,
visual or otherwise
But this is also the reason why "brain scans" always seem to correlate with thought.  Thoughts often entrain emotions and motions.  This thought may lead to anger; that thought to contentment.  These will show up in the neurons.  And memory and imagination, involving as it does ymagos or "images" of concrete particulars, will also fire a neuron or two.  Even in intellection, which involves non-physical objects like "dog" will necessarily involve the imagination upon which the intellect reflects.  You cannot think about "dog" without thinking about a dog; that is, a particular, concrete instantiation of dogginess.  Perhaps a Lab or an Irish Setter; perhaps a mutt.  Or even in some cases the physical sound of the word "dog."  All of this involves the sensation-perception-emotion-motion loop.

But this does not mean the neural patterns cause the thinking rather than vice versa.  One can easily disrupt the neural switchboard and cause a subject to twitch a finger, or to feel fear, or some such physical thing.  You can get into the telephone switchboard and simulate a call from another party, if you try hard enough.  But while if you want TOF to come you may twitch your finger, causing your finger to twitch does not make you want TOF to come. 

The Physics of Baseball

Does this motion require different
physics than "blind forces"?
Suppose Randy Johnson were to throw a baseball with the intention of causing a strike on the part of the batter.  (Is the Big Unit still in play?  TOF has not followed baseball closely since the Dodgers left Brooklyn.*)  If we measure the path of the ball, its speed, and so forth and develop laws of motion from it, would they differ in any way from the laws of motion derived from naturally moving bodies?  Say, from Newton's legendary apple. 

No.  I didn't think so.  We would still find that s=½gt² for vertical distance traveled when starting from rest, and all the rest of that suite of natural laws we studied in high school.  IOW, there is no way to tell from the physics of moving bodies whether the body was moved naturally (or even mechanically) or by volition.  Whether it is Randy Johnson or a automated ball cannon in a batting cage, it follows the same laws. 

Neurons do not differ from baseballs in this regard.  Science is a filter, much like a fishing net; but we mustn't conclude from the fish caught in the net the sizes of fishes in the deep blue sea.  Yet some people reason that if science cannot distinguish between the mechanistic and the volitional, everything at bottom must be mechanistic.  The apparently volitional is "really" mechanical.  But surely it is just as reasonable to conclude that everything is at bottom volitional.  The apparently mechanical is "really" the working out of a Will. At least from the scientific perspective you cannot prove otherwise.  [4, 2]


  1. David Brooks.  "Beyond the Brain," New York Times Opinion Pages, June 17, 2013
  2. James Chastek.  Notes on free-will and determinism, action vs. interaction (III)  Just Thomism (June 15, 2013)
  3. ------------------.  Free Will and Electrodes, Just Thomism (Dec 30, 2009)
  4. ------------------.  Interior dialogue on “blind forces." Just Thomism (February 27, 2009)
  5. Walter J. Freeman.  "Nonlinear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas," Mind & Matter Vol. 6(2), pp. 207-234
  6. TOF.  Humanism in Danger!  The TOF Spot, Jan 15, 2012
  7. ------.  Even More Ethically Fraught, The TOF Spot, July 19, 2012
  8. William Vallicella.  "More on Jerry Coyne on Free Will," Maverick Philosopher (Jan 22, 2012)


  1. I noted the exact same thing that you did in the quote: the author wants to have it both ways. We are both meat without volition, and we are "arrogant".

    I've had a few aquaintances who have argued vociferously against free will, citing the same "studies" referenced above. The thing that they all have in common is that:

    * they are atheists
    * they are DEEPLY unhappy people.

    I can make a few theories about this correlation, but they may be trite: people who are not satisfied with the choices they've made, or what they've achieved in life can choose three different paths:

    * regret / contrition (involves acknowledgement of flaw)

    * renewed commitment to hard work (can involve some acknowledgement of flaws)

    * denial of objective reality (involves zero acknowledgement of flaws).

  2. I'm enough of a mechanist to still be on the fence about free will. I _want_ it to exist, but I'm deeply afraid that it doesn't -- or, more to the point, I'm afraid that people will discover ways to subvert or override it. There's also the alarming political/philosophical implications, since if we have no true free will, then it's a short step to tyrants saying "see, you're not free anyway!"

    There is a paradox of a sort here: if there is no free will, why do I want it to exist? What impersonal biochemical systems created by natural selection would "want" free will?

    However, the most arresting sentence in the entire essay was David Brooks's remark about ordering salad. I don't think I've ever ordered a salad while drunk in my entire life. You'd really have to hit the aperitifs hard to achieve that. Desserts, maybe -- especially if you're having different wines with each course. But drunk salads?

    1. The will is an appetite for the products of the intellect, that is, for universals, concepts. Since you cannot desire what you do not know, the will is determined only to the extent that the matter is known. The will is not free to deny that 2+2=4 (once one understands the concepts involved) because it is completely known. But when knowledge is imperfect, the will is not entirely determined to this or that and is therefore 'free'. Otherwise multiple-choice tests would be impossible. In the instruction "choose one," to which permissible answer does "one" apply?

  3. I'm more or less in Cambias' camp. Sympathetic to your arguments, but unable to see how they work when you get down to the nitty-gritty.

    Randy Johnson is a physical entity who acts on the ball to produce motion. What physical entity are we positing that acts on neurons in order that they fire? If it's the action with which those neuronal firings are associated, then what physical entity sets the action in motion?

    If the answer is an immaterial will, how does the immaterial act on the material?

    --Jay Squig

    1. How does the immaterial sphere act on the material basketball?

    2. Certainly not in the sense that Randy Johnson acts on it.

      Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we have knowledge way beyond the current state of neuroscience, and have mapped out the entirety of the physical process in a decision (i.e. interaction of physical bodies). We know that person P, in material circumstances C, will always make decision D. It follows, that--from a physical standpoint--P can never make a decision other than C.

      I'm afraid superimposing on this process a metaphysical label "free will" will not do. There might be some clever and coherent philosophical argument for that move, but common sense demands that freedom entail the power to do otherwise.

    3. Sorry, the last sentence of the second paragraph should read:

      It follows, that--from a physical standpoint--P can never make a decision other than **D, in those given material circumstances (C).**

      I think this was clear, but just in case...

    4. You realize you are appealing to teleology in order to avoid the play in the will.

    5. I don't. I am trying to learn though. Let me simplify.

      Is there any conceivable scientific knowledge that would disprove freedom of the will?

      If not, does this freedom of the will include the power of contrary choice?

    6. The hypothesis is that causal laws will be discovered which could be successfully applied to all human behavior, including thought. Yet, even if such laws were discovered, they would not show that a man’s reasons were not his own.

      In fact, a man who is explaining his reasons is not giving a causal account at all. “Causes,” in the scientific sense (that realm of causal laws) are explained in terms of observed regularities: but an individual's reasons or motives are not founded on observation of regularities. ‘Reasons’ and ‘motives’ are what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.

    7. The above is a simplified version of the argument put forth by G.M. Anscombe. I highly suggest you track down her monograph, Intentions, which does a much better job of rejecting both determinism and consequentialism. She may indeed be the best philosopher of the 20th century, and it is a shame her work(thoroughly analytical) is seemingly ignored.

    8. Thanks a lot, ALLT. That answer is satisfying and direct.

      It seems to endorse a form of compatiblism, to which I am open, but does seem to preclude the libertarian model of free will.

      INTENTIONS is next on my library list. I'm currently reading Fr Garrigou-Lagrange's PREDESTINATION, which argues that God does not command that which is impossible. On Anscombe's model, can one still affirm such a statement?

    9. I'd like to correct something first: where I said argument in my 3:01 post, I should have more rightly said assertion, or better yet thesis; what I posted hardly counts as an "argument."

      As for compatiblism and Anscombe- she once said, "Ever since Kant it has been a familiar claim among philosophers, that one can believe in both physical determinism and ‘ethical’ freedom. The reconciliations have always seemed to me to be either so much gobbledegook, or to make the alleged freedom of action quite unreal. My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom."

      You should track down "Causality and Determinism," which I believe to be lecture notes from 1971, where the above quote can be found. Be warned that she leaves some things rather open ended.

      What Anscombe does is respond to Hume. The great Humean mistake, for her, is to believe that the effect of causes are connected by law; or, those causes must necessitate the effect. She finds it to be sneaking necessity into our observations, which we need not do. Furthermore, she makes a distinction between determinism and determination.

      I wish not to say anymore because I am way unqualified to do so. Maybe Mr.Flynn has something to add.

      As for Fr.Garrigou-Lagrange and Anscombe: well, I think it could be said both are very influenced by Saint Thomas, and the Dominican tradition in matters religious. I would say Anscombe would probably have much in common with Fr.Garrigou-Lagrange- she found Molinist answers to be incoherent...but I am unfamiliar with the Father's book, so I can't say anything (on top of, you know...not being qualified.)

    10. Oh!

      All right then, thanks for clarifying. I've got those notes open in another window right now.

      I appreciate the direction. For me this is the most vexing subject.

    11. I don't understand why people have such a hard time with the brain/body interacting with the will, such that they think free will can't exist.

      You externally can chain a guy up and constrain his physical acts and the operation of his will. You can externally constrain a guy's imagination by having him born in a time and place with none of the prerequisites for imagining a certain thing. And so on. We're constrained plenty in daily life, and yet the closest of us end up with very different ideas, tastes, and choices. So clearly, physical stuff does constrain the will somewhat, just as the chain constrains it somewhat; but it doesn't eliminate free will, any more than it eliminates all pizza everywhere from the timestream if I can't happen to get the ingredients or a delivery at some particular moment.

  4. Reading this, and Cambias' fears of physically overriding the will recalled to me a passage I recently reread from Gene Wolfe's The Claw of the Concilator:

    "My captor now lifted the wire noose until I stood. I was conscious, as I have been on several similar occasions, that we were in some sense playing a game. We were pretending that I was totally in his power, when in fact I might have refused to rise until he had either strangled me or called over some of his comrades to carry me. I could have done several other things as well- seized the wire and tried to wrest it from him, struck him in the face. I might have escaped, been killed, been rendered unconscious, or plunged into agony; but I could not actually be forced to do as I did....In silence two praetorians...caught our destriers and led them away. How like us those animals were, walking patiently they knew not where, their massive heads following thin strips of leather. Nine-tenths of life, so it seems to me, consists of these surrenders."

    It may be possible...indeed, I would even say if the Lord tarries, it will be possible to manipulate the nervous system of a man such that he acts against his will. But that will not be changing the will any more than carrying a man is forcing him to walk against his will. How much easier (and how much more satisfying to our just and benevolent glorious leaders) to manipulate a man's will such that it coincides with your own, as in the quote above?

    1. Oh, I see someone else making the point! And much better than I!

  5. Due to severe prenatal hydroceaphalus, my daughter was born without any apparent brain tissue. Her first MRI showed a skull empty of anything except CSF and the brain stem. She was given a few hours at most to live. the prognosis was that she would be unable to breathe, move, suckle, or swallow due to absence of brain tissue.

    She's five months old and doing better.

    Subsequent to her birth, a brain appeared in her skull. It is misshapen and incomplete, yet she can breathe, move, suckle, and swallow. No one is sure where the brain came from or how it came to appear. The neurosurgeon theorized that the CSF had compressed her brain into a thin layer around the inside of her skull, a layer which expanded into a brain when the pressure was relieved.

    Maybe so. I'm counting it a miracle anyway. Thanks to Saint Jude for his intercession.

    I think we're using the wrong model. The brain isn't a consciousness generator. The brain is a consciousness receiver -- an interface between the immaterial soul and the material body.

    When I was a little boy, I thought there were tiny musicians inside our radio. I later figured out that the radio was not creating the music -- it was receiving the music from some other place.

    The radio is not the music. The map is not the territory. The browser is not the Internet. The brain is not the mind.

    1. "The radio is not the music..." etc. reminded me of a story I heard recently about a father whose daughter became distraught upon losing her smart-phone.

      When he asked why she was so upset -- he could easily buy her a new phone -- she replied that she had lost all her friends!!!

      The father had to explain that her friends did not live in the phone, and were all fine.


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