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Subtitled "Free will and the science of the brain," Michael Gazzaniga's Who's in Charge gives the initial impression of using science to tackle a traditional philosophical issue. This wouldn't be surprising from Gazzaniga, whose work often overlaps with ethics; he has after all written books entitled Human and The Ethical Brain. But as I was reading through the book, I started to wonder when he would address the issue of free will. I kept on wondering this as I got to the last page, and then I guessed maybe I had somehow skipped a crucial passage. I went to the index and noticed that most of the references to free will are in Chapter Four: Abandoning the Concept of Free Will. I went back to that chapter and looked over it again. Indeed, Gazzaniga does there argue against the neuroscientific determinists who claim that there is no such thing as free will. His arguments there are plausible, and his comments indicate that he finds that modern psychology and neuroscience have shown that the whole notion of free will is unhelpful -- hence his chapter title indicating that he plans to abandon the concept. Gazzaniga's view is that we can talk about personal responsibility even with the findings of modern neuroscience. At the end of his last main chapter, he points out that criminals "don't commit their crimes in front of policemen" (215) and so they are capable of modifying their behavior. In his short afterword, he says that we need new language "to capture the thing that happens when mental processes constrain the brain and vice versa" (220). He suggests that developing this vocabulary is for him "the scientific problem of this century." So really the whole book can be seen as a collection of prefatory comments setting up a project that has yet to be done.
What Gazzaniga does do is survey a wide range of work in psychology from the last few decades that are relevant to choice and morality. He recaps the evidence that there is no center of agency or consciousness in the mind, and the apparent unity of mind that we experience has little correspondence in the brain. Much of this has to do with different processes in the left and right brain hemispheres and he also spends a lot of time discussing and criticizing the work of Benjamin Libet. Much of the information he gives will be very familiar to those who have read his previous popular books or the many other books that set out the discoveries of neuroscience relevant to self-control, unity of self and moral behavior. It is still interesting, and Gazzaniga is a good writer, but here he does not do enough to set out a clear line of argument, and he digresses too much into anecdotes and stories. So readers will find plenty of interesting information here, and will have a general sense of his position, which is broadly compatibilist even if he is skeptical about the concept of free will. But the argument lacks focus and as already indicated, ends by saying that the major part of the project is still to be done. So readers hoping for a Big Theory of Free Will and Personal Responsibility will be disappointed.
The most illuminating comments in the book are in the chapter at the end on the use of neuroscience in the law. Gazzaniga rightly points out that many legal concepts about personal responsibility are based on old science, and he rightly condemns past uses of psychoanalytic theory in the court room, since it was not based on good evidence. Then, more surprisingly, he condemns several instances of much more recent use of neuroscience in the court room, in the same grounds. He does a good job at pointing out conceptual vagueness and problematic uses of science in legal cases. Unfortunately, he also addresses issues that he does not resolve. In particular, in that same chapter he considers what psychology can tell us about punishment and whether it is useful. Here his remarks are scattered and fragmentary, and he leaves the question open. Maybe that is appropriate given the evidence available to us, but it is an odd way to end his book.
The biggest problem with this book, however, is its neglect of the philosophy of personal responsibility. It is striking that Gazzaniga thinks that developing a new language of self-control that takes on board the lessons of modern neuroscience has to be a scientific project. It's far from clear why he thinks this has to be an exclusively scientific project, and it is an implausible claim, since many disciplines will have a great deal to say about personal responsibility. He does mention a couple of philosophers (Gary Watson and Janet Radcliffe Richards) who work in this area, but he shows no real awareness that this project that he is enthusiastic about has been an important part of philosophy for some time. One can point especially to the new field of neuroethics as precisely focusing on the sorts of issues that he thinks need addressing, and one can also point to long discussions in law and psychiatry and philosophy of psychiatry that go back at least a couple of decades, if not more. Unsurprisingly, there is little consensus in these areas, and this suggests that Gazzaniga's hope that science can come in and sort out the problems is overly optimistic. Nevertheless, we can agree that the project is one of great importance, and his book will help draw attention to it.
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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