Consider this: you have epilepsy. You suffer from epileptic seizures. You get brain surgery to remove the part of your brain causing the seizures and all goes as planned—no more seizures. A few weeks later, you begin to notice a change in appetite, and then an increased libido. Still no seizures, though, and more food and sex feel like good problems to have. But then an odd and unusual desire grips you, one you know is wrong, but that’s there nonetheless. For some reason you want to search for child porn. Now I’ll stop the hypothetical here to avoid getting too grotesque, but this is the actual case of a man we’ll call Arthur. Arthur is on probation now after serving a reduced sentence for possession of child pornography—reduced because of testimony from his neurosurgeon that his disease directly stems from alterations made during his surgery and is easily treatable.
Arthur’s situation may seem cut and dry: the man committing the crime wasn’t him. It was a fault in his biology, not his character. But as we develop newer, more precise tools with which to measure brain chemistry, how thin will that line between us-ness and biology get? In other words, if our tools allow us to see the minute, but significant alterations caused by unfortunate upbringings and traumatizing experiences, will all criminals eventually be let off the hook, victims of nasty and malicious brains they could do nothing to resist?
I’m not suggesting in any way that Arthur should have served a full sentence for a crime he has next to no chance of committing again. My angle has nothing to do with his sentence at all, actually. Rather, his case is illustrative of a messy and difficult question that stretches beyond the courtroom: namely, what, if anything, separates us from our biology? Is free will an illusion, a byproduct of a theoretically predictable series of neural firings? Or is it, as Vonnegut put it, that disparate “‘I am’ to which all messages are sent?”
Neuroscientist David Eagleman sides with the former. On an episode of the wonderful podcast, Radiolab, he pointed out that scientifically, there is no ‘you’ separate from biology. “It’s all one system,” he argued, “what would it even mean to make a choice completely independent of your brain?” He made clear that every decision we make is a product of our neural wiring, which is in turn a product of past experiences, which are in turn products of decisions, which are products of previous neural wirings—again and again all the way back to conception. With this framework, free will has no place; if we could diagram, map, and measure every atom of a person’s existence from the moment of their conception on, we’d be able to predict with 100% accuracy every decision they ever make.
This is an admittedly gloomy outlook. It feels like giving up something we’ve wrestled for thousands of years as a species to realize. But without dipping indulgently into the spiritual, there doesn’t seem a way to circumnavigate the science. It’s an airtight, logical argument—dare I say, a fact. That is, unless there were more science…and considering I’m not an anticlimactic bore, I have just that!
A burgeoning field of science is the science of emergence, which deals with systems in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Examples include synchronously flashing fireflies and the mysterious social intelligence of ants. In these systems, all the pieces together exhibit characteristics that can’t be traced to the individual pieces themselves (fireflies don’t have any internal mechanisms capable of synchronizing their flash and ants are almost brain dead on their own).
Relevant to our purposes, however is the emergence of consciousness in the brain. Self-awareness exists only in the collection of neurons as they interact with one another; no individual neuron shows any evidence of conscious behavior or of any characteristic that might contribute to the creation of conscious behavior. Consciousness, then, is effectively more than the sum of its parts—more than it’s biology.
But this doesn’t completely solve the problem. You may be thinking (rightfully so) that this property still emerges only from a specific configuration of neurons. If we knew exactly in what way they were structured, we could replicate the structure and predict the actions as we did before. It’s a step in the right direction, but it still leaves much to be wanted in the way of human-ness and a sense of independent, free thought. Luckily, the emergence of consciousness doesn’t abide by the same rules as other forms of emergence. In a 2011 paper on brain complexity, University of Pennsylvania physicist and neuroscientist Danielle Bassett explained:
Emergence is characterized by a higher-level phenomenon stemming from a lower system level; that is, emergence is upward. However, an important property of the brain, as opposed to some other complex systems, is that emergent phenomena can feedback to lower levels, causing lower level changes through what is called downward causation. The combination of upward emergence and downward causation suggests a simple bidirectionality or more nuanced mutual complementarity that adds to the complexity of the system, and underscores the fact that the emergence of mental properties cannot be understood using fundamental reductionism.
What this means in layman’s terms is that the gap between the physical brain and the mind is a two way street, with each side influenced by its neighbor. Conscious behavior cannot be predicted when only working from one side of the gap because it affects the side affecting it.
In the free will debate, this means light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t understand this mind-brain divide, but we know the divide is there, and we know it’s too complex to be reduced to simple physical components. Our minds are highly dependent on our brains, but they are fundamentally separate things. So maybe there is a “you” distinct from the biology that created it. Maybe we do hate and wish and hurt and love on our own accord not despite science, but because of it. Or maybe we don’t. But at least there’s still a maybe.