Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (3): The Neurobiology of Liberty

Jaoquin Fuster lectured on "The Neurobiology of Liberty".

He is one of the leading neuroscientists in the world today.  He has taught at UCLA, where he is now a Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.  His publications include Cortex and Mind (Oxford University Press, 2005) and The Prefrontal Cortex (4th ed., Academic Press, 2008).  His lecture summarized some ideas that are elaborated in his new book--The Neuroscience of Freedom and Creativity: Our Predictive Brain (to be published in September by Cambridge University Press).

Fuster began with a quotation from Friedrich Hayek: "Without a theory, the facts are silent."  In The Sensory Order (1952), Hayek presented a theory of perception as arising from networks of neuronal connections that he called "maps."  Now, Fuster argued, Hayek's theory of cognition as emerging from interactive networks of cortical neurons has been confirmed by facts--by empirical research in neuroscience--that were not available to Hayek when he wrote his book.  Hayek's profound insights in that book have not received the recognition they deserve, Fuster observed.  When the book was first published, it was overshadowed by Donald Hebb's The Organization of Behavior, which postulated some of the same ideas about the network model of the brain that Hayek had developed.

One might wonder whether there could be any connection between Hayek's neurological psychology and his promotion of the classical liberal principle of liberty.  Fuster suggested such a connection by arguing that neuroscience shows us that the prefrontal cortex of the human brain provides human beings with freedom of choice and with the ability to organize societies that institutionalize liberty.

Fuster pointed out that the evolutionary history of the prefrontal cortex shows ever increasing size and connectivity in mammalian species, culminating in the human prefrontal cortex, which is almost one third of the entire human brain.  The large size and complexity of the human prefrontal cortex creates a uniquely human capacity for deliberate reflection and freedom of choice.

                                 Prefrontal Cortex in Four Mammalian Species

I was pleased by Fuster's lecture, because of the clarity and vigor in his presentation of his deep understanding of the human brain, and because what he said provided an expert's confirmation for what I have claimed as to the neurobiological basis for human freedom and classical liberal thought (see Darwinian Natural Right, 83-87, 223-30; and Darwinian Conservatism, 109-111).

Only human beings have a soul, which gives them a moral and intellectual freedom that other animals do not have.  This soul is an emergent product of the evolution of the primate brain once it passed over a critical threshold of size and complexity in the neocortex, particularly in the frontal lobes.  Larger and more complex frontal lobes give animals the capacity for voluntary action, in the sense that they can learn to alter their behavior in adaptive ways.  In human evolution, the growth in the size and complexity of the frontal lobes passed over a critical threshold allow human beings to use words and images to compare alternative courses of action through mental trial and error.  Consequently, human beings are capable not just of voluntary action but of deliberate choice, by which they self-consciously choose present courses of action in the light of past experiences and future expectations to conform to some general plan of life.

I was also impressed by what Fuster said about how our cortical free choices are constrained, on the one hand, by the instinctive memory of our species and, on the other hand, by the cultural memory of our society.  This seemed to confirm what I have argued about the neurobiology of self-ownership, property, and mammalian sociality as supporting classical liberal thought (see pp. 36-43 of my MPS paper, "The Evolution of Darwinian Liberalism").

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


Troy Camplin said...

Funny you should mention Fuster. He and I each have a chapter in Hayek In Mind, a volume in the Advances in Austrian Economics series.

manwithoutqualities said...

Fuster send me a copy of his latest a couple of months ago: http://manwithoutqualities.com/2013/05/05/the-neuroscience-of-freedom-and-creativity-our-predictive-brain/