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Brains & Minds

Consciousness, Freewill and Language

Michael Langford talks about the language we use to talk about the mind and brain.

Rejections of freewill have been common in recent philosophical debate (e.g., in Norman Bacrac’s article ‘Epiphenomenalism Explained’ in Philosophy Now 81). The question is, are the choices we make really free, or are they predetermined consequences of the laws of physics? If I knew enough about you and your environment, could I in principle predict your choices? (And would this mean you had no freewill?) Increasingly the freewill argument has been linked to different philosophical views about the nature of the mind.

One frequent version of the anti-freewill argument goes like this: modern neuroscience shows us not only that thinking is accompanied by neurological activity, but that this activity should be understood as the sole cause or explanation of all thought. If all thought is caused by fixed physical laws, then it cannot be caused by something else, such as one’s choice of what to think. So freewill is an illusion.

Prior to arguing against this position, some initial clarifications are essential. In what follows I am arguing from within a version of physicalism. This term covers a variety of views, but all of them accept the idea that there is no thought without neurological activity. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this activity is the sole cause of all thought (a position called neurological determinism), for reasons that I hope to make evident. For example, the philosopher Donald Davidson (1917-2003) espoused a ‘non-reductionist’ version of physicalism. However, this still leaves open the question whether all our thoughts are determined by brain activity according to physical laws (or whether there is, on the contrary, room for choice by the mind). Next, I am not necessarily rejecting epiphenomenalism. Once again, this term covers a range of views, and does not necessarily commit one to the causal determinism against which I propose to argue. Further still, in what follows there is no dependence on theism. Although I am not myself an atheist, if I were to become one, I would not see any need to change the following argument for that reason.

Linguistic Difficulties

Let’s start by considering what may look like a merely semantic point. Suppose I decide to ask Jane to come on a date, and then plan a series of manoeuvres to get her to agree. This is a classic example of having an intention. Could our intentions be completely explained by neurological activity? If this means “Could language about neurons simply replace language about intentions?” some determinists would say “No.” Not all physicalists are hard-line reductionists, and some allow us to speak about the ‘inside’ of mental processes; and to do this we need the language of, for example, intentions. However, let us note how different the language of intentions is from the language of neurological activity. In ordinary language, we would say that the cause of my manoeuvres was my intention to date Jane. Can we claim that the intention is itself totally explained or ‘caused’ by neurological activity? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then we have what I call ‘causal reductionism’.

This form of reductionism may seem plausible, so let us suppose the equally possible, although perhaps rarer case of my intending not to date Jane, despite my strong desire to do so, because if I were to do so I would endanger my relationship with my wife. Although it is possible to claim that this intention and its subsequent activity (say, avoiding Jane) should still be seen as totally caused by neurological activity, this way of thinking does violence to the ordinary way in which we think about our intentions as themselves the cause of our activities. Our intention determines our action, not the state of the brain which is the material cause of the intention’s existence. This does not by itself amount to a disproof of reductionism; but it does invite us to look for another account of intentions that avoids this tension.

A similar problem arose a few years ago with the ancient distinction between the mad and the bad. For instance, if someone commits a horrific murder because of their state of mind/brain, are they insane, or evil? Barbara Wootton notoriously denied the validity of the distinction, while my first philosophy tutor, H.L.A. Hart, defended it. However, Hart’s defence, in Punishment and Responsibility (1968), was essentially pragmatic, based on the dangers to human liberty of removing the distinctions between hospitals and prisons. I am seeking a more substantial ground for maintaining the distinction between intentions and neurological activity.

Determinists can, and often do, give meaning of a kind to the distinction between mad and bad, because it’s a socially useful distinction (because moral language may help to effect social change, for example). However, we pay a price – and I think a heavy price – for framing the distinction between intentions and neurological activity in a deterministic way. If all intending is totally causally explained by neurological activity, our intentions do not have the significance we usually assign to them. They’re just an impotent add-on to what the brain was going to do anyway. I would further argue that the awareness that this is so may have undesirable consequences: If I believe that I am not ‘really’ guilty, because the attribution of guilt is not now based on an (illusory) ability to really choose, but is instead only an element in the armory of social engineering, I might be much less worried about acquiring guilt. A recent article in the New Scientist (Dan Jones, 16/4/2011) describes research suggesting that not believing in freewill has an impact on some people’s sense of empathy. However, these are grounds for exploring the possibility of finding an alternative account of human thinking: they are not by themselves adequate grounds for rejecting determinism. An uncomfortable truth is still a truth.

An Alternative View

In Aristotle’s account, with the emergence of self-reproducing organisms, new kinds of being arrive in the world; beings that require new concepts to describe them – for example, ‘death’. I suggest that a comparable situation arises when nervous systems reach a certain level of complexity, and self-aware thought emerges. A new kind of language is required to adequately describe this new level of being. This language involves the introduction of a cluster of inter-related concepts, such as freedom, creativity, self-awareness, rational reflection, empathy, love. None of these – I am suggesting – can be fully understood without reference to the others. I am also suggesting that although no physical laws are broken, reflective thought cannot adequately be explained or described purely in terms of neurological activity.

The way in which the new level of being is related to what went before can be characterized by the notion of ‘transcendence’. Just as organic life ‘goes beyond’ or transcends the kind of being constituted by a pile of stones, so a reflective human person ‘goes beyond’ or transcends the vegetative and sentient (ie, merely sense-perceptive) levels of evolution. Unlike Aristotle, I am not committed to any absolute distinction between humans and other animals. Similarly, I am not denying that there could be intermediate beings (perhaps some higher mammals, babies, the severely mentally disabled, etc) that have, as it were, flashes of interior, self-conscious, life. However, I am claiming that causally-reductive accounts of consciousness are highly problematic, and often question-begging.

Why do I use the term ‘question-begging’ for some of the arguments which want to reduce the mind to the brain’s activity? If I was a hard-line determinist, and I was describing the activity known as ‘choice’, I might compare the act of choosing with the balancing of weights on a scale, until one side or the other (one option or the other) inevitably goes lower, in accordance with strictly physical laws. On this model, human motives are analogous to weights hanging on the balancing bar. However, the very employment of this model ensures the determinist’s conclusion, because the model already assumes a mechanistic form of determination. Here, if one asks, ‘On what basis is this choice made?’ anything that would count as an answer would only indicate a cause that was ultimately neurological.

The bias in this way of framing the issue can be illuminated by examining analogous defences of psychological hedonism – the theory that we are so constituted that we can only choose what is in our apparent best interests. (This is the explicit position of both Hobbes and Bentham. However, Hobbes includes some observations that sit uneasily with his purely egoistic account, for example, in his account of friendship in De Homine, and of justice as a virtue in Leviathan.) I do not think that neurological determinists’ account of causation and the theory of psychological hedonism are identical. It is possible to expound a neurological theory of intellectual causation that allows, or even demands, that some actions are purely altruistic. Nevertheless, the two positions are often held together. To see the potential close connection between neurological determinism and psychological hedonism, consider another question: “How can the will fail to be determined by what one wants at the moment?” But also consider the case of a soldier who gives up his life to rescue a comrade. On his deathbed, he says, “I didn’t want to do this, but I did what I felt I ought to do.” His interlocutor then says: “Oh, but in a deep sense you still did what you really wanted to do, because you wanted to save your friend more than you wanted to save your life.” The soldier replies (perhaps having read John Locke’s distinction between willing and wanting) “No, no – I really didn’t do what I wanted to do!” To this the reply comes: “But you must have really wanted to do what you did, for otherwise you wouldn’t have done it!” Here the circular or tautological nature of this deterministic argument is evident, especially in the use of the word ‘must’. What we ‘want’, in the perfectly straightforward sense of ‘that which accords with my personal search for happiness, as this is presently perceived’, does not necessarily represent what we actually choose to do. Thus the psychological hedonist conflates the concepts of ‘wanting’ and ‘choosing’ in a way that systematically begs the question. (Unlike Bentham, J.S. Mill saw this, and held that genuine, chosen, selfless, altruistic action was both possible and commendable.) As with this example, the first part of my argument for the true freedom of the will is to question the validity of arguments which ask questions in a way that already assumes a mechanistic model of human thought and activity.

I also want to put forward two more positive argumentsfor what I would call ‘the transcendence of reason’. The first argument is the need to find an account of reflection that does justice to the nature of scientific rationality. Let us suppose that two scientists are reflecting on the evidence for the phlogiston theory of combustion, one concluding that it is correct and the other (rightly) that it is not. The natural way of describing this disagreement is to say that one made an error while the other did not. However, if we say that the cause of the thinking in both cases is totally neurological, we eliminate the notion that the recognition of error itself becomes a cause of new thinking – rather than, say, the logic of the brain’s computations being the cause.

This is really the crux of my argument. There is a difference between observing in experience, say, a historical fact, and the brain’s processes ‘discerning’ a necessary connection in a logical or mathematical computational process.

This argument invites us to consider non-deterministic models of decision-making. Moreover, a thought experiment can illuminate the difficulty here for the neurological reductionist. Consider a neuroscientist who, at the same time as she observes images of her own neurological activity on a screen, observes her young son on a nearby screen as he does his maths homework. At one point she observes that the boy has made a mistake. My question to her is, what, on the screen showing her brain activity, is her discernment that he has made a mistake? If discernment of error is marked, say, by a particular pattern of neurological activity, how does she know that this pattern is the discernment of an error? To insist that the cause of her discernment is totally explained or described by neurological activity is at best problematic, at worst, purely dogmatic.

The second positive argument returns to the classical theme of finding an account of human thinking that allows us meaningfully to refer to humans as moral agents. Suppose we want to entertain my suggestion about the ‘transcending’ nature of the human intellect, and that we hold that the determinists have not succeeded in proving that their position is the only rational one. There is no thought without neurological activity; but, like Descartes, we can maintain that in the developed human brain thought has a reality and a transcendence that enables both scientific rationality and moral virtue to exist as more than polite fictions. Given this situation we can have a strong reason for preferring the view that there is good and evil of a ‘real’ kind, and not just as fictions that are useful for social engineering.

The experience of creativity can lead to another kind of argument. In 1905 a Newtonian rejects the very possibility of Relativity Theory. We know, in general, how nature works, the Newtonian says; and Einstein’s radical suggestion is just outside the model that good scientists must use. Another physicist in 1926 abhors the first papers on quantum mechanics: “This is wild nonsense!” she says, because it totally undermines the law-like nature of physical reality. A faith in neurological activity as the whole explanation of the nature of consciousness parallels the faith of those physicists in 1905 and 1926 who refused to consider the possibility of more complex models; and moreover, of models that require the introduction of a cluster of interrelated concepts, such as love, choice and perceptions, which can’t be conceived in terms of the primitive, purely-neurological models.

This last point tempts me to a third line of positive argument. Concepts such as ‘quantum entanglement’ require an extraordinary degree of creative imagination (a capacity linked to the search for the beautiful). This is true whether we are thinking of physics or art; complex creativity amounts to a kind of ‘going beyond’ what was earlier conceived, indeed, as a kind of ‘transcendence’. Can adequate explanations for the originality of a Niels Bohr or a Franz Schubert get far without some kind of transcendence of consciousness? Certainly, the discernment of a revolutionary scientific hypothesis, or of a revolutionary form of music, has a neurological counterpart within the brain; but it would require an act of faith to believe that neurological activity is a sufficient cause and explanation of a Schubert symphony.


Both determinism and freewill are notoriously hard to define, the former because it is not identical to the notion of ‘predictability’, and the latter because, as indicated, it is not a ‘thing’, but an integral part of an adequate account of human thought and action. Perhaps, once again, there is ammunition in Aristotle. His claim that causation has to be understood in terms of a number of ‘causal factors’ (aitiai) is helpful. If we ask ‘Why did John do x?’ it is often appropriate to give a list of causes, aitiai. (In a similar way, good historical explanations are rarely monocausal.) In many cases in talking about the mind and the brain, one of these causal factors should be John’s discernment of a particular truth or error.

It is odd that many determinists are prepared to accept the viability of a whole range of inter-related factors in modern physics, of which they often have only the haziest of ideas, because together they help provide an explanation of physical phenomena, while they are not prepared to consider the viability of an analogous range of mental concepts that help describe and explain the phenomenon of consciousness. Thus, although no simple definition of freewill can be offered, it is, I hold, a concept that is necessary for both science and morality.

© Michael Langford 2011

Michael Langford is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at The Memorial University of Newfoundland, and (in semi-retirement), an affiliated lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. Among other publications, he is the author of Unblind Faith, an introduction to Christianity for the reflective person, now in a much revised and enlarged edition by Parapress.

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