Famed Neurobiologists on Free Will vs. Determinism, Emergence in Nature (and how their views and arguments compare with C. S. Lewis's Argument from Reason)

Famed Neurobiologists on Free Will vs. Determinism

Roger Sperry (1913–1994) was a neuropsychologist, neurobiologist and Nobel laureate who, together with two others , won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work with split-brain research. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Sperry as the 44th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

Sperryʼs writings on emergence in nature, as well as what he had to say on free will versus determinism are fascinating to read:

“Recall that a molecule in many respects is the master of its inner atoms and electrons. The latter are hauled and forced about in chemical interactions by the over-all configurational properties of the whole molecule. At the same time, if our given molecule is itself part of a single-celled organism such as a paramecium, it in turn is obliged, with all its parts and its partners, to follow along a trail of events in time and space determined largely by the extrinsic over-all dynamics of that paramecium. When it comes to brains, remember that the simpler electric,atomic, molecular, and cellular forces and laws, though still present and operating, have been superseded by the configurational forces of higher-level mechanisms. At the top, in the human brain, these include the powers of perception, cognition, reason, judgment, and the like, the operational, causal effects and forces of which are equally or more potent in brain dynamics than are the outclassed inner chemical forces…”

“We deal instead with a sequence of conscious or subconscious processes that have their own higher laws and dynamics…that move their neuronal details in much the way different program images on a TV receiver determine the pattern of electron flow on the screen…”

“And the molecules of higher living things are… flown… galloped… swung… propelled… mostly by specific holistic, and also mental properties—aims, wants, needs—possessed by the organisms in question. Once evolved, the higher laws and forces exert a downward control over the lower.”

“Evolution keeps complicating the universe by adding new phenomena that have new properties and new forces that are regulated by new scientific principles and new scientific laws—all for future scientists in their respective disciplines to discover and formulate. Note also that the old simple laws and primeval forces of the hydrogen age never get lost or canceled in the process of compounding the compounds. They do, however, get superseded, overwhelmed, and outclassed by the higher-level forces as these successively appear at the atomic, the molecular and the cellular and higher levels.”

“This does not mean these (higher forces) are supernatural. Those who conceived of vital forces in supernatural terms were just as wrong as those who denied the existence of such forces. In any living of nonliving thing, the spacing and timing of the material elements of which it is composed make all the difference in determining what a thing is.”

“As an example, take a population of copper molecules. You can shape them into a sphere, a pyramid, a long wire, a statue, whatever. All these very different things still reduce to the same material elements, the same identical population of copper molecules. Science has specific laws for the molecules by no such laws for all the differential spacing and timing factors, the nonmaterial pattern or form factors that are crucial in determining what things are and what laws they obey. These nonmaterial space-time components tend to be thrown out and lost in the reduction process as science aims toward ever more elementary levels of explanation.”

One might add that taking simple elements found in rocks and arranging them into just the right configurations can lead to the production of not just another rock, but a computer (perhaps even a ‘quantum computer’ one day).

“In determinism, humans are not free from the higher forces in his own decision-making machinery. In particular, our model does not free a person from the combined effects of his own thought, his own impulses, his own reasoning, feeling, beliefs, ideals, and hopes, nor does it free him from his inherited makeup or his lifetime memories. All these and more, including unconscious desires, exert their due causal influence upon any mental decision, and the combined resultant determines an inevitable but nevertheless self-determined, highly special, and highly personal outcome. Thus the question: Do we really want free will, in the indeterministic sense, if it means gaining freedom from our own minds? There may be worse fates, perhaps, than causal determinism. Maybe after all it is better to be an integral part of the causal flow of cosmic forces than to be out of contact with these—free-floating, as it were, with behavioral possibilities that have no antecedent cause, and hence no reason nor any reliability relative to future plans, predictions, or promises. If one were assigned the task of trying to design and build the perfect free-will model, consider the possibility that the aim might be not so much to free the machinery from causal contact as the opposite, that is, to try to incorporate into the model the potential value of universal causal contact. In other words, contact with all related information in proper proportion—past, present, and future.”

“At any rate it is clear that the human brain has come a long way in evolution in exactly this direction [from determinism to free will], when you consider the amount and the kind of causal factors that this multidimensional, intracranial vortex draws into itself, scans, and brings to bear in turning out one of its preordained decisions; potentially included, through memory, are the events and wisdom of most of a human lifetime. Potentially included, also, with a visit to the library, is the accumulated knowledge of all recorded history. And we can add, thanks to reason and logic, much of the forecast and predictive value extractable from all these data as well as creative insights newly conceived. Maybe the total falls a bit short of universal causal contact; maybe it is not even up to the kind of thing evolution has going for it over on galaxy nine; and maybe, in spite of all, any decision that comes out is still predetermined. Nevertheless it certainly represents a very long jump in the direction of freedom from the primeval slime mold, the Pleistocene sand dollar, or even the latest model orangutan.”

Hence, Sperryʼs naturalism does not appear to pose any ‘cardinal difficulties’ for itself, contra C. S. Lewisʼ ‘argument from reason.’

Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of computer science, notes in a similar vein to Sperry:

“Even if we understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The ‘laws of thought’ depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells, but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, ‘general’ laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, ‘general’ laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular…”

“It is not a matter of _different_ laws, but of _additional_ kinds of theories and principles that operate at higher levels of organization… Each higher level of description must _add_ to our knowledge about lower levels, rather than replace it.”

And contrary to C. S. Lewisʼ claim that “[Naturalism] leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking depends,” cognitive scientists have clearly demonstrated the validity of positing a level of mental representation. They study “perceptual apparatus, mechanisms of learning, problem solving, classification, memory, and rationality… The conjecture about the various vehicles of knowledge: what is a form, an image, a concept, a word; and how do these ‘modes of representation’ relate to one another… They reflect on language, noting the power and traps entailed in the use of words… Proceeding well beyond armchair speculation, cognitive scientists are fully wedded to the use of empirical methods for testing their theories and hypotheses… Their guiding questions are not just a rehash of the Greek philosophical agenda: new disciplines have arisen; and new questions, like the potential of man-made devices to think, stimulate research.”

“Given the most optimistic scenario for the future of cognitive science, we still cannot reasonably expect an explanation of mind which lays to rest all extant scientific and epistemological problems. Still, I believe that distinct progress has been made on the age-old issues that exercised… Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Darwin.” After all, “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldnʼt.” [Lyall Watson]

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