Tuesday, April 05, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (4): Freedom in the Brain

If the human mind is the activity of the human brain, as is generally assumed today by neuroscientists, then we might worry that this denies human freedom and moral responsibility. If my thoughts and actions are ultimately determined by the neural activity of my brain, does that deny that I have any free will? Does that mean that traditional notions of moral and legal responsibility are denied by modern science?

Some readers of David Brooks's The Social Animal might draw that conclusion from his book. After all, the main idea of his book is that our lives are more controlled by our unconscious minds (Level 1), which are shaped deep within the brain, than by our conscious minds (Level 2). Our conscious thoughts and choices, it seems, simply ratify and rationalize what has already been determined by our unconscious mental processing.

And yet, in various parts of the book, Brooks insists that modern cognitive science allows enough room for human freedom to sustain traditional standards of human responsibility. Here his reasoning coincides with what I have argued for in Darwinian Conservatism (Chapter 8) as "the emergence of the soul in the brain."

Brooks declares: "The central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious" (xii). We must wonder, How exactly does that "influence" of the conscious mind over the unconscious work?

In Chapter 8 ("Self-Control"), Brooks describes Erica's struggle to keep her irascible temperament from interfering with her tennis. In competition, she would become so angry that she lost control of her game. She had to develop mental techniques for separating herself from her anger and concentrating on performing the task at hand.

She would think about her anger and she would say to herself, "That is not who I am. That is an experience that is happening within me." She imagined a grassy field. On one side was the angry dog of her anger. But on the other was the tennis player who had won her last five matches. She would imagine herself wandering away from the dog and over to the tennis player. (131)

Brooks explains this in the light of psychological studies of how people use habits and strategies for focusing their attention to gain some control over their inner lives. He quotes William James: "The whole drama of voluntary life hinges on the amount of attention, slightly more or slightly less, which rival motor ideas might receive. . . . Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of the will."

In his notes, Brooks cites Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (2002). In Darwinian Conservatism, I cite the same book in showing how Schwartz has used techniques for mental concentration to help patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Using brain-imaging technology, Dr. Schwartz has discovered that this therapy actually changes the neuronal activity of the brain so that the activity of the frontal cortex exerts a mental force to activate one circuit rather than another. He calls this "directed mental force." So it seems that the mind that emerges from the human brain can change the brain itself. The emergent power of the brain for mental attention is the natural ground for human freedom.

To understand this kind of freedom, we need to reject the false dichotomy of free will versus determinism, so that we can see how free choice is a certain kind of determinism in which a conscious choice is an effect of unconscious processes that influences its own cause. Instead of linear causality, we need to see a circular causality in which the conscious mind influences its unconscious causes. Neuroscientist Walter Freeman develops this understanding with his "neurodynamic theory" of the mind/brain.

This would support what Brooks says in Chapter 18 ("Morality") about moral responsibility. Brooks tells the story of Erica's one act of adultery, her remorse afterwards, and her resolve that she will never again allow the temptation to infidelity to destroy her marriage. Erica chooses to frame her life as a story of fall and redemption--her weakness in falling into temptation and her strength in choosing to redeem herself by committing herself to Harold as her true love.

Brooks explains this as consistent with the cognitive science of morality and responsibility. Adopting the "intuitionist" view of Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt, Brooks argues that while moral choices are shaped by moral emotions and unconscious drives, rather than by purely rational conceptions of moral imperatives, there is still room for moral reflection that gives us some freedom of choice. We can consciously influence the habits and dispositions that give us some control over our moral sentiments.

This is not an absolute freedom. This is not free will understood as an uncaused cause that acts from some transcendent realm of pure freedom beyond nature. Rather, this is a freedom within our human nature to exercise some influence over those hidden forces deep in our unconscious that direct our lives.

Some posts on related themes can be found here and here.

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