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As neuroscience becomes increasingly able to explain human behavior, more and more scientists feel that free will is being explained out of existence. They believe that free will is an illusion, that our sense of ownership over our decisions and actions is not real. Neurobiological determinism, the view that all our thoughts and actions are determined by our brains, has become a common theme in scientific books written for the public.
Eliezer Sternberg's My Brain Made Me Do It is an attempt to introduce the general public to some of the recent neuroscience findings that appear to many to be at odds with our intuitions about human free will and moral responsibility and an attempt to counteract neurobiological determinism's growing popularity among scientists.
Sternberg's main critique is that neuroscientists attempting to explain deliberation through brain activity have only considered exceedingly simple cases. He believes there is not yet reason to believe that findings will be similar when considering cases when we reflect on what he calls boundless problems, problems for which the relevant features or the proper method of solution cannot be specified beforehand. He believes the "boundlessness" of human reason is what constitutes our free will and that it cannot be fulfilled through a determined algorithm.
The book is divided into three sections. Chapters 1-4 discuss the concepts of free will and moral responsibility and explicate how these might be undermined by neurobiological determinism. Chapters 5-13 discuss a variety of recent neuroscience findings that have been used to throw doubt upon the existence of free will. Each chapter addresses a type of finding, e.g., Daniel Wegner's claims that our thoughts and actions are not causally linked or Apostolos Georgopoulos' predicting movements in monkeys from brain activity recordings. Chapters 14-18 propose Sternberg's positive defense of free will.
Sternberg argues for two theses, one negative and one positive. The negative thesis is that the evidence in support of neurobiological determinism is inadequate and that, consequently, the widespread adoption of this perspective among neuroscientists is unjustified. I found all argument for this to be exceedingly weak. His critiques of various scientific findings are hand-wavy at best. For example, Sternberg critiques Benjamin Libet's studies by saying the timing of the readiness potential could have been calculated incorrectly but does not consider whether the calculations were correct. Later, Sternberg critiques Libet's interpretation of his results: "Libet effectively concludes that since the readiness potential comes before the action, it must cause the action" (84). Sternberg compares Libet's argument to saying that "if a car's brakes were defective before an accident, the brakes must have caused the accident" (85). This is insultingly simplistic. Libet's argument is more akin to saying that before hundreds of accidents of a specific, narrowly-defined type, the brakes were always defective, and the details strongly imply that the brakes, not something else, caused the accident. This misrepresents Libet's position to the point of making him out to be an imbecile. Sternberg's critique of Libet, consisting mainly of straw man arguments, is typical of all his critiques. The quantity of argument is also lacking, often constituting no more than the last page of a chapter (sometimes less).
Sternberg's positive thesis is that the activities constituting free will, reflecting on boundless problems, could not be produced by a determined, algorithmic system. I found this section of the book to be frustrating and disappointing. The "argument" appears to be no more than Sternberg asserting that reflection on boundless problems must be non-algorithmic, then pointing to this reflection and saying, "Look, it's not algorithmic!" There is no argument as to why an exceedingly complex algorithm could not perform the calculations he considers. Many examples of deliberation he cites as too open or complex for mechanistic calculation could be performed by simple Bayesian systems. Throughout the book, Sternberg's explanations of his own points are often unclear. In fact, I believe the clearest description of Sternberg's central argument is actually given by Jerry Samet in the foreword (p. 14).
Something I found missing from this book was any discussion of findings in social psychology. Although the relevant studies would likely not fall under the category of 'Neuroscience,' many findings in this field, both recent and throughout the past several decades, constitute some of the strongest evidence for doubting our intuitive beliefs about free will and moral responsibility. Discussion of moral psychology, about which there is ample neuroscientific data for debate, is missing as well. The absence of these topics reflects a significant gap in the scope of scientific evidence considered by Sternberg.
As for the format of the book, I was often disappointed. Each chapter begins with an illustrative story to set the context for the chapter. Personally, I found these topic introductions to be excruciatingly slow. Readers will miss nothing by skimming, or often even skipping, the first page (or two, or three) of each chapter. The chapter names, presumably meant to be mysterious and enticing, are frustratingly non-descriptive. Combined with the fact that each chapter begins with a story, this means the reader does not know what a chapter is actually about until she has already read several pages.
To his credit, Sternberg does introduce a variety of topics, both philosophical and scientific, and describe a wide range of scientific findings in a way that will be readily understood by any layperson with a fledgling interest in neuroscience, not an easy task. Almost all evaluation or interpretation of the scientific data, on the other hand, is unacceptably simplistic even for the layperson and often biased to the point of misrepresentation. The central tenant of the book is argued circularly. Overall, I cannot recommend this book. With abundance of books coming out in this genre, readers can afford to miss this one.
© 2010 Matthew Hudgens-Haney
Matthew Hudgens-Haney received an M.A. in Neurophilosophy from Georgia State University and is now working towards a Ph.D. in Cognitive-Experimental Psychology at The University of Georgia. He has interests in cognitive neuroscience in atypical populations, social neuroscience, embodiment, and philosophy of psychology and psychiatry.