Monday, January 18, 2021

Can the Evolutionary Neuroscience of the Brain Explain the Self-Awareness and Freedom of the Soul? Sacks, Popper, Eccles, and Dennett

I have been working on the idea that social neuroscience might support Lockean liberalism--particularly, the Lockean principles of self-ownership and natural punishment.  As part of that work, I have been studying Thomas Willis to see how much influence he might have had on Locke.  Willis is sometimes said to have been "the first neuroscientist" because of his anatomical and functional studies of the brain and nervous system.  He was one of Locke's teachers at Oxford University and one of Locke's colleagues in the Royal Society.

While thinking about the questions raised by Willis's brain science, I started to review my notes from a Liberty Fund conference that I organized in 2004 in Tucson, Arizona on "Liberty in the Evolution of the Human Brain."  I decided to post those notes here.


Can a scientific understanding of the evolution of the human brain explain the natural basis of human liberty?  Or does a purely naturalistic science of the brain subvert liberty by denying free will?  Can our common-sense experience of exercising free choice be compatible with Darwinian evolution and neuroscience?  Or does a purely naturalistic science of evolution and the brain disparage our experience of free will as an illusion?  Does free will require some notion of an immaterial soul that is not reducible to material mechanisms?  Can human morality be explained as rooted in human biological nature?  Or does the human sense of moral obligation—the perception of a moral “ought”—transcend our biological nature?  How do these questions about our metaphysical and moral freedom influence our understanding of political freedom?

These are some of the questions that were raised in this Liberty Fund colloquium.  Although we surely did not answer any of these questions conclusively, we came away with a better understanding of the questions and of the possible answers.

The participants were diverse in their backgrounds, which included law, biology, economics, philosophy, psychology, political science, journalism, and literature.

The readings were selected from three books:  Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales (1985), Karl Popper and John Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (1983), and Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves (2003).

I will note a few of the high points of the discussions.



Sacks, pages 1-5, 22-52, 87-96

Sacks’ clinical stories about the weird and poignant consequences of brain disorders were welcomed  by the participants as engaging, although often troubling, stories.

Most of the participants spoke about how disturbing these stories were, because the stories depicted how fragile our human identity could be and how easily we could lose our identity through brain damage.  Some of the participants spoke of their own experiences of physical suffering and their feelings of losing control.

And yet, some participants spoke of how Sacks’ stories were uplifting because of the kindness and artistry of Sacks himself.

Sacks’ stories led us into a discussion of how the mind arises from the brain.  The participant who is a philosopher briefly surveyed the various positions among contemporary philosophers as to the mind-body problem.

Some of the participants commented on the importance of dramatic narrative for Sacks as depicting “the human subject, striving to preserve its identity in adverse circumstances.”  This suggests that the soul itself arises more from dramatic narrative than it does from the brain as a computational machine.  Sacks seems to be attacking the notion of the mind as a mere machine.

And yet some participants suggested that we could in principle build machines that could tell a story, machines with intentions or purposes.  If so, then a mechanistic view of mind might be defensible.

In the story of Ray, who suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, Ray spoke of how normal people have a “natural freedom” that comes from a “natural balance” in their souls, while he had to create an “artificial balance” through using the drug Haldol,  so that he could balance the manic exuberance of his Tourette’s against the sober calmness induced by the Haldol.

Some participants wondered whether the “coherence” of the soul was the crucial thing—maintaining its continuity through time.

Participants commented on the importance of Sacks in guiding us through these stories.  One participant compared him to Dante guiding his readers through Purgatory.

It was observed by some that Sacks’ patients are not free because they have to deliberately control things that in normal people are handled automatically without conscious control.  For example, the “disembodied lady,” who had lost the proprioceptive sense of her own body, had to consciously control her body movements through carefully watching her body in motion.

It seemed that we cannot be truly free when our bodies and minds are in so much conflict that we must deliberately strain to control them, striving to achieve an “artificial balance” where normally we would have a “natural balance.”

At the end of this discussion session, we were left with various questions.  Do clinical stories about the sometimes weird consequences of brain disorders teach us anything about the relation between the human mind and the activity of the brain?  Do they show that a person’s mental activity and personal identity are reducible to the material mechanisms of the brain?  Or do such stories sometimes suggest the freedom of the human spirit to preserve its freedom and nobility even when the brain is disabled?



Popper and Eccles, pages 3-17, 33-60, 72-81, 98-99

These readings come from Karl Popper, who argues against the materialist position that the physical world is closed upon itself, so that the only effective causes in the universe are purely physical causes.  Rather, Popper claims, we need to recognize three “Worlds”—“World 1” (the physical world), “World 2” (the self-conscious mind), and “World 3” (the products of the human mind, such as language, art, and science)—as interacting causally with one another.

One participant asked, Is it true—as Popper says—that the openness of World 1 is needed to explain human freedom?  Someone answered that this is not needed, as long as one sees that World 1 is in fact many worlds at different evolutionary scales—from non-living entities to living organisms to self-conscious animals.  Generally, most of the participants were skeptical of Popper’s dualism.

Another participant suggested that both Popper and Dennett were “emergentists,” although Dennett was defending a “weak” form of emergence, while Popper was defending a “strong” form of emergence.  In Dennett’s thought, complex forms emerge from less complex forms naturally.  In Popper’s thought, these more complex, emergent realities—particularly, self-conscious thought—become detached from the physical world and exert a “downward causation” on that physical world.

One participant observed that whatever plausibility Popper and Eccles had, it came from their appeal to the common-sense, introspective experience of most people that they exercise a freedom as self-conscious minds to control their brains and bodies.  Some participants questioned whether we had to take such introspective experience as decisive.  Isn’t introspection fallible?  But even if it is fallible, one person responded, it is a “data point” that needs to be taken seriously.  And someone insisted that it is hard to just deny this common experience of freedom.

There was some discussion of whether modern science tended to promote determinism, or whether—on the contrary—modern science tended to undermine determinism with quantum mechanics and chaos theory.  But then some participants suggested that saying something was unpredictable was not the same as saying it was uncaused or undetermined.

In defense of Popper’s idea of World 3, one participate asked, What’s wrong with Popper’s claim that “standards of logic are not physical properties”?  Some people responded by saying that if our physical universe were different, our logic might be different, so that in some manner, logic might be rooted in physical reality.  Or one might say that the laws of logic are preconditions for any universe at all.



Popper and Eccles, pages 225-235, 250-51, 272-94, 311-13, 355-76, 437-57, 554-61

The readings for this session come from John Eccles, a Nobel-prize-winning neuroscientist who defends a strong form of dualism, even to the point of suggesting that the self-conscious mind could be immortal.  The question here is whether the self-conscious mind transcends the brain in ways that manifest the spiritual freedom of a soul that is supernaturally created to be immaterial and immortal.

Another question is whether Eccles’ survey of human neurological science supports his dualism.  The discussion began with a philosopher who has studied neuroscience offering a survey of recent developments in neuroscience.  He suggested that these recent advancements provided detailed explanations for how the mind arises as the activity of the brain, and thus this weakens Eccles’ argument for dualism.

Many participants agreed that it was not clear that the purely scientific evidence supported Eccles’ position.  Some suggested that Eccles was motivated by a fear of death and a yearning for immortality of the soul, which pushed him towards finding scientific confirmation for his yearning.  In any case, it would seem from the evidence provided by Eccles himself that any immortality of the soul would require immortality of the body to sustain the soul, which would require the religious idea of resurrection of the body.

There was a sustained discussion of consciousness—whether it is uniquely human, or whether other animals are conscious as well.

Some people wondered whether we needed full self-consciousness for moral responsibility.  Don’t we have levels of responsibility, so that nonhuman animals and young children can act voluntarily, although they might not show self-conscious deliberate choice such as we might expect from a mature human adult?

Some participants thought that the question of the soul is universally of concern to human beings.  We must explain this—this yearning for some purpose larger than oneself.

Popper stresses that there is no “ultimate explanation” for anything, because every explanation ultimately depends on unexplained starting points.  So if we ultimately appeal to the laws of nature, we assume that uncaused nature is the starting point for explanation that cannot itself be explained.  But if we look beyond nature to God as nature’s Creator, then we assume that uncaused God is the starting point.  We cannot conclusively decide this disagreement.  But this could be used by religious believers to argue for the limitations of scientific explanation.



Dennett, pages 1-22, 169-218.

Dennett argues that a naturalistic explanation of the evolution of the human brain can support the freedom of human beings as cultural and moral animals.  Determinism, he claims, does not mean inevitability.  Animals can evolve to avoid dangers in their environment, and this flexible behavior has been highly developed in human beings.

One participant suggested that Dennett’s rhetorical style displays arrogance towards the readers he wants to persuade, and thus he is unlikely to persuade.  He uses the Walt Disney story of Dumbo the elephant to suggest that believers in an immaterial soul need to believe in “magical feathers” that allow them to fly.

Some people responded that Dennett—and those like him—might have persuaded some undecided students who were unsure of whether modern science could be compatible with human freedom.

And yet some thought that sometimes Darwinists are “true believers” who assume metaphysical naturalism without proving it.

One participant thought that the mystery of the origin of the universe and the origin of life left plenty of room for a sense of wonder and awe that might be religious.

There was some discussion of whether Dennett was employing a “sleight of hand” in the way he defined “free will” as “evitability.”  A butterfly on a train track can fly away to avoid a train.  But, according to Dennett, the butterfly is determined to fly away.

Dennett makes much of cultural evolution—as “mimetic” evolution.  But then, one participant observed, mimetic determinism is still determinism.

 There was a discussion of whether morality could be explained as rooted in moral emotions as “commitment devices,” as suggested by Robert Frank.



Dennett, pages 221-55

For this session, the question was, If mind is what the brain does, and if the brain is a purely material mechanism with no place for an immaterial soul, does that mean that our brains make decisions without our having any free will?  Or can our free decisions show a form of free will that arises from the natural mechanism of the brain?

One participant insisted that a deterministic system can enable free choice, just as the artistic rules for some genre of art can generate artistic freedom.

Another participant argued that cognitive science can list the features that make a system more in control and then compare systems as more or less in control, more or less free.  For example, having a model of the world, having a language, having more than two options, having memory—these and other features would make a system freer than one without such features.

One participant suggested that in working out the levels of freedom, we need a nested hierarchy of three kinds of order (such as one finds in Aristotle, Darwin, Hayek, and others)—nature, custom (or habit), and reason.  So, first, we need nature as genetic evolution.  Then, we need custom or habit as cultural evolution, which is constrained by genetic evolution.  Finally, as mature human beings we have the capacity for rational choice, which is constrained both by genetic evolution and cultural evolution.  The first two levels—nature and custom—are spontaneous orders.  The third—rational choice—is a deliberate order.  Consider, for example, marriage law.  As human beings, we have natural inclinations to sexual mating and parental care.  These natural inclinations are expressed in cultural traditions as to the norms of marriage and familial bonding.  Finally, we might decide by deliberate choice to favor some forms of marriage over another; but this deliberate choice would be constrained by both nature and custom.  The current debate over whether the law in the United States should sanction homosexual marriage illustrates this.  Similarly, the laws governing incest avoidance illustrate this nested hierarchy.

But then one participant suggested that biotechnology will give us the power to reshape human nature, and perhaps even abolish it.  Others responded that the power of biotech will be constrained by natural human desires and propensities.  For example, when a 63 year old woman had a child using reproductive biotech, many people thought this would radically change the nature of human reproduction.  But, in fact, most 63 year old women will not want to become pregnant.  This and other kinds of biotech innovations will not change the human condition when they go against the natural propensities of most people.

There was some discussion of how in vitro fertilization has weakened our repugnance towards “unnatural” reproductive technology.  This is a result of our seeing that this has succeeded in allowing people to have healthy children who have no other means of procreation.  And yet if medical studies were to show that IVF children were subject to serious genetic defects, that might arouse our repugnance.  Here reason and emotion are combined in our moral judgments.



Dennett, pages 289-309

The discussion leader asked the director of the colloquium to open this session with a series of questions.  He offered three sets of questions.  First, since we began by speaking about how disturbing Sacks’s stories were—because they arouse our fear of annihilation or of losing our identities—we might ask whether science can explain that fear and help us face up to it.  Or does such a fear show religious longings that science can never satisfy? 

Second, although most of us seem to reject the Popper/Eccles position of dualism, we should ask ourselves whether we have a good alternative.  If we look to Dennett for an alternative, it’s not clear how coherent his alternative is.  After all, doesn’t his cultural evolution look at lot like Popper’s World 3?  Has Dennett replaced the immaterial soul with an immaterial culture?  Many evolutionary psychologists reject the naturalism of Darwin and, instead, adopt the dualism of T. H. Huxley, who argured that morality requires culture as “an artificial world within the cosmos.” 

The third set of questions concern the legal and political implications of Darwinian naturalism.  Dennett says that “the real threats to freedom are not metaphysical but political and social,” and that we need to agree on governmental and legal systems that are compatible with a scientific understanding of human nature.  What would these governmental and legal systems look like?  Paul Rubin (in Darwinian Politics) and Steve Pinker (in The Blank Slate) argue that a Darwinian science of human nature supports a Tragic Vision of human nature—as opposed to a Utopian Vision.  (The distinction between the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision comes from Hayek as elaborated by Thomas Sowell.)  And this Tragic Vision supports the principles of modern democratic republicanism—limited government, individual liberty, the rule of law, and free markets.  But is this true?

Various participants responded to these three sets of questions.  I will summarize a few of the responses.

To the first set of questions: Yes, religion can work to reassure us.  Science gives us little reassurance in facing up to the fear of annihilation.  But science can look for cures for our mental maladies.  The fear provoked by Sacks’ stories is not fear of death but fear of continued physical existence with loss of soul or deformity of mind.  If death is total oblivion, it need not be fearful (as Lucretius argued).  Someday death might be optional as biotech and biomedical medicine extend life.  Religion might actually promote fear of death by creating fear of punishment after death.

To the second set of questions: Yes, Huxley broke from Darwin, but later Darwinians (like Dewey) defended Darwin’s position by arguing that moral culture cultivates the natural potentialities of human nature.  We don’t need to accept a radical dualism of facts and values because there are natural ethical facts about what is required for proper human flourishing given our nature.  Substance dualism is wrong.  But matter-form dualism is defensible in Dennett.  After all, the power of “information” (such as the DNA code) shows how “form” rules over “matter” in the natural world, without requiring a radical substance dualism.  We can explain morality as a purely natural product without any dualistic transcendence of nature, because morality arises as cooperative concern for others as an end in itself (proximate motivation), although the ultimate explanation is that this was favored by evolution by natural selection promoting reproductive success.  Evolution creates beings with purposes, even though the evolutionary process itself is not purposeful.  At least one participant argued that Darwinian evolution was necessary but not sufficient to explain morality, because human beings have the potentiality to develop moral norms of right and wrong that surpass biological instincts.

To the third set of questions:  Darwin can explain the natural desire for freedom as rooted in the instinct of the human animal to protect oneself against harm and exploitation.  Darwin confirms that human beings are self-governing creatures.  We have a Darwinian function to be free.  The criminal code manifests a Darwinian notion of the normality of responsibility versus the abnormality of people who are not responsible for their behavior.  Political freedom is rare in history, and so this looks like a novelty created by cultural evolution in the last few hundred years.  Has this changed human nature?  Historically, Darwinism was interpreted as supporting socialism (Alfred Russel Wallace), fascism (Ernst Haeckel), feminism, and many other ideologies.  This suggests that Darwinism has no clear political content.  Like other forms of social thought, Darwinism can be abused by various ideologies.  But surely Darwinism denies the Leftist assumption of human perfectibility (as conceded by Peter Singer).

Over the years, I have written a series of posts on the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain that that is close to the position taken by Popper (hereherehere, and here).  I have also written about Oliver Sacks (here).

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