Despite the time lag between the publication of Mario Beauregard’s Brain Wars (2012) and David A. Lieberman’s The Case Against Free Will (2016), the authors of both books, while being read side by side, seem to have engaged in an electrifying debate as if they have had each other’s views in mind before writing for and against an age-old question about whether our thoughts, volition, emotion, and behavior are governed by an immaterial mind that is separate from our physical bodies as Cartesian dualism suggests (Beauregard); or whether our behaviors and mental processes, even without our knowing most of the time, are determined by our genes and environments (Lieberman). When presenting their cases, both Beauregard and Lieberman acknowledge what the latest scientific developments and discoveries have informed us of the nature of our “mind”: both amass their arsenals from some of the same psychological experiments and load against each other with the same findings; both acknowledge the importance of neuroplasticity in explaining humans behavior; both address the implication of brain imaging and neuroscience; both ascertain the values and the crucial role played by the unconscious in our lives; both look forward to validating their own claims by further breakthroughs that Quantum Mechanics promises…and yet neither of them agrees each other’s a priori position in the least. The further they argue, the more frequent their views intertwine as if the alignment of each author’s point forms the base on either side of a double helix which keeps spiraling infinitely. Having read them like an mRNA performing “transcription”, I am going to “translate” them by juxtaposing Beauregard’s and Lieberman’s arguments which hopefully attract feedbacks from those who take the question of free will as seriously as I do.
Keep your mind open: Determinism vs. Free Will
Before presenting his case, Lieberman starts by redefining “determinism” in terms of genetics and epigenetics:
“Determinism says that our behavior is determined by two causes: our heredity and our environment. Heredity refers to the genes we inherit from our parents, while environment refers not only to our current environment but also to the environments we have experienced in the past – in effect, to all the experiences we have had from the time we were born. Determinism, in other words, says that our behavior is entirely determined by our genes and experiences: if we knew every gene and every experience a person had, then, in principle, we could predict exactly what they would do at every moment in time.” (p.4)
As though he has predicted that such an emboldened statement would certainly warrant disagreement, Lieberman hastens to add that the catch occurs in the phrase “in principle”:
“[T]hat knowing a law doesn’t always mean that we can use it to make predictions…Suppose you were flipping a coin and watching where it fell on a table. You would have to know exactly how high above the table the coin was released, with what force, with what angular spin and so on. When scientists say that something is lawful, they are saying that some set of initial conditions completely determine the outcome, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can predict that outcome.” (p.4)
He further addresses the opposing view invoked by those who “willfully” believe in free will:
“In contrast, the doctrine of free will asserts that it is impossible, even in principle, to predict behaviour. There are many different versions of free will – theologians and philosophers have debated its nature for centuries – but the essential idea is simple: that we possess some inner force or will that allows us to control our actions. Our genes and environment may push us in certain directions, but ultimately we are free to choose which of the available paths we will follow.” (p.5)
Having laid the ground work, Lieberman “determines” to construct an edifice upon determinism:
“And yet the thesis of this book is going to be that our behaviour is determined. The basis for this claim is a revolution that has been taking place in psychology, leading us towards a new understanding of human behaviour. So far it has been a quiet revolution, but it could prove one of the most important since Galileo, Darwin, and Freud…These revolutions fundamentally altered our understanding of what it is to be human, no longer at the centre of the universe but only one animal species among many, driven by irrational forces of which we had no awareness.
“And now we may be on the brink of yet another revolution. It has been taking place largely out of public view, in psychology laboratories around the world. Its implications, however, are profound. It is telling us that just as we lost our belief that we are at the centre of the universe, we may also be losing our claim to stand aloof from the material world, to rise above the laws of physics and chemistry that bind other species. Our behaviour, it suggests, is just as lawful, just as determined, as that of every other living creature.” (pp.5-6)
“And that is what I hope to do in this book, to convey a sense of how psychological research has been gradually providing us with a new understanding of human behaviour.” (p.6)
With what is being said, Lieberman produces an algorithm to show why he has concluded that our behavior MUST be lawful, hence determined:
“[N]ot that our behavior might be determined but that it must be. This claim is based on two assumptions:
- Our brains control our behavior;
- As with any biological system, the brain’s operations obey the laws of physics and are thus entirely lawful.”
“If these assumptions are right – if the brain determines behavior, and its activities are lawful – then the behavior it produces must also be lawful.” (p.81)
“The ultimate test of determinism will not be whether we can predict everything but whether we see the kind of progress that the assumption of lawfulness implies.
“A closely related point involves one of the most common objections of determinism – namely, that everyone’s behavior is different. If behavior is lawful, how is it possible that we all behave differently? One way to understand this is by analogy to snowflakes. It is said – and I have no personal reason to doubt this – that every snowflake is different. If so, does this mean that the formation of snowflakes isn’t lawful? No. In fact the formation of snowflakes is entirely lawful. Snowflakes are crystals, and the laws governing the formation of crystals are well understood. But if the process is always the same, why is the outcome different every time? Because weather conditions during the formation of each flake differ. As the temperature drops and crystals begins to form, they are blown around by the wind, and as the temperature and humidity change, so too does that shape of the snowflake, The formation of a flake is an entirely lawful process, but the outcome will differ because the conditions will differ as the flake forms.” (p.82)
“In sum, the claim that behavior is lawful does not imply that we should be able to predict everything everyone does every moment of the day. If there are underlying laws, thought, there should be some element of predictability, and our ability to predict should increase as our understanding of these laws grows.” (p.83)
On the other side of the stage stands Beauregard making ready to fire by first conjuring the spirit of towering figures in the history of psychology as his expert witnesses from whom interesting analogies spelt out:
“By the beginning of the twentieth century, this materialist view dominated science. Nonetheless, some philosophers and scientists resisted the materialist trend. In 1891, Oxford philosopher Ferdinand Schiller proposed that matter is not what produces consciousness but what limits it. In 1898, William James – the father of American psychology – pointed out the fact that scientists can only measure correlations: when brain states change in a certain fashion, mental states change too. The fact that mental functions are disturbed when the brain is damaged does not prove that the brain generates mind and consciousness.
“Using an elegant analogy…James explained what he meant: when white light passes through a prism, he said, the prism allows it to be broken up into all the colors of the spectrum. The prism is not itself the source of the light, but it permits us to see the light differently. In the same way, the brain may permit, transmit, and express mental events and conscious experiences that have their source elsewhere. It does not produce them. James felt that this hypothesis could also account for the effects of drugs and brain damage.
“To date, a number of scientists and thinkers have sued an updated form of James’s analogy to illustrate the mind-brain relationship: equating ‘mind’ with ‘brain’ is an illogical as listening to music on a radio, demolishing the radio’s receiver, and thereby concluding that the radio was creating music.” (p.10)
To land his first blow against skeptics who challenge the existence of “free will”, Beauregard has also recruited Wilder Penfield, whose meticulous labor helped identify sensorimotor cortex, as his aide:
“Penfield performed brain mapping in over a thousand patients during the course of a few decades. He discovered that most of the time, electrical stimulation of the brain elicits rudimentary sensations or motor responses; very rarely, it elicits hallucinated images or scenes. Strikingly, Penfield’s patients were always able to discriminate between mental events they had willed and those that were evoked by the electrical stimulation. For instance, if an electrode applied over the motor area of a patient’s brain induced a simple hand movement, the patient would tell Penfield, ‘I didn’t do it. You made me do it.’ At the end of his scientific career, Penfield concluded that higher mental functions – such as consciousness, reasoning, imagination, and will – are not produced by the brain: mind is a nonphysical phenomenon interacting with the brain.” (p.11)
So does Beauregard believe:
“Mental activity is not the same as brain activity, and we are not ‘meat puppets,’ totally controlled by our brains, our genes, and our environments. Indeed, our minds and our consciousness can significantly affect events occurring in the brain and body, and outside the body. We do have these immensely important capacities, and it is time for science to begin taking them seriously. But for this to happen, science – and all of us – must change the lens through which we view reality.” (p.209)
To draw his opponent out to a battlefield within a scientific framework, Lieberman presents evidence which he draws from discoveries in genetics, environmental studies, and above all, psychological experiments that reveal how our unconscious may determine our thought and behavior without our awareness. One example is particularly amusing since it bears a cautionary message to those government officials who have taken the negative impact of lead lightly:
“Lead is yet another substance that can seriously damage the brain – it kills neurons. It is plausible, therefore, that exposure to high levels of lead would have serious consequences for behaviours such as aggression, and there is now considerable evidence that this is so.”
“Perhaps the most startling evidence on the link between lead and crime, however, has come from ground-breaking research by Rick Nevin. To introduce it, we’ll start with a question: Why did crime in the USA began to increase dramatically in the 1960s and reach a peak in the early 1990s? And why was there then an almost equally dramatic fall? Criminologists came up with a variety of explanations. At one point, for example, it was widely believed that the fall in crime in New York City was due to new methods of policing, such as zero tolerance of small crimes (e.g. braking windows). However, similar reduction were observed in other US cities that did not implement this policy, and the fall actually started four years before the policy was put in place. So why the inexorable rise over decades and then the sharp decrease?
“According to Nevin, the answer was simple: lead. The biggest source of lead in post-war America was leaded gasoline. Its sales increased substantially after the war, then began to fall in the 1970s as leaded gasoline was gradually replaced by unleaded. If the change in lead levels and the change in violent crime over time is plotted, the shape of the two curves is almost identical. If a 23-year lag is introduced, so that the start of the lead increase is shifted so as to start in the same year as the start of the crime epidemic, then the two curves overlap almost perfectly…This close resemblance made it look as if the changes in lead levels could be responsible for the changes in crime, but why the 23-year lag before lead had an effect? Part of the answer, of course, is that one- and two-year olds don’t commit violent crimes; if lead was creating a tendency towards crime, it would be unlikely to manifest itself until the children were much older. It is not possible to say why the lag was exactly 23 years – why not 20 or 25? – but the evidence of a substantial lag is not as surprising as it might first appear.” (pp.23-4)
“There is, of course, a crucial difference between lead and vinyl LPs – research has shown that lead is a potent neurotoxin which can seriously damage regions of the brain, especially those involved in impulse control and aggression. There is thus good reason to think that lead might affect crime. Nevertheless, Nevin recognized that the overlap in the two curves did not prove a causal relationship, and so to test his hypothesis further he then examined the relationship between lead and crime in other countries (e.g. Canada, France, Italy, and Finland). If the overlapping data in the USA were just down to chance, we would not expect to see this relationship in other countries. But Nevin found that the pattern was almost exactly the same in every country he examined. In the case of violent assaults and rape, lead exposure accounted for between roughly 80-95 per cent of the year-to-year variation in these crimes in every single country.
“A paper by Jessica Reyes took this correlation even further. She discovered that the rate at which leaded gasoline was phased out varied in different American states. If lead causes crime, we should expect to see corresponding differences in the rate at which crime changed in these states, and that is what she found. If lead was phased out sooner in a state, then violent crime began to fall sooner; if the change was delayed, so too was the change in crime. All of these data are correlational, none of them prove causation, but the uniformity of the correlation is striking. The relationship even exists at the level of neighbourhoods: some neighbourhoods within a city have much higher lead levels than others, and crime rates closely mirror these differences. Wherever you look, crime levels seem to track lead levels.” (pp.24-5)
“There has been a long discussion, and, because some of the data are correlational, we cannot be absolutely certain that exposure to lead causes crime. The correlation, thought, is very strong and very consistent, and, when combined with known facts about the toxic effects of lead on the brain, very plausible. If Nevin is right, he has discovered a remarkably simple explanation for the otherwise baffling rise and fall of crime over decades, and for the substantial differences in crime between neighbourhoods that in all other respects look identical. We are used to thinking about the causes of crime in terms of social factors – poverty, unemployment, unwed mothers and so on – but exposure to lead may be more important than any of them. If so, one counterintuitive implication is that the most cost-effective way to reduce crime even further might not be more police or more prisons but the removal of residual lead from the environment.” (pp.25-6)
To meet his opponent on the same scientific ground, Beauregard starts by giving examples of eerie placebo and nocebo effects which, drawn from clinical observations and numerous experiments, have been found in those who, Beauregard argues, were healed or getting worse physically purely because of their beliefs which could never have been a product of their brains but might eventually reshape their brain structures . For those who are not familiar with both terms, Beauregard also enlightens us with the nature and origins of both terms:
“Placebo is a Latin expression that means ‘I will please,’ It appeared in the Bible following Saint Jerome’s mistranslation of the first word of the ninth line of Psalm 116. Instead of translating the Hebrew ‘I will walk before the Lord,’ he wrote, Placebo Domino in regione vivorum (‘I will please the Lord in the land of the living’). In fact, the first placebos were people, not pills. In the Middle Ages, when professional paid mourners waited for Vespers for the Dead to begin, they often changed the ninth line of Psalm 116 and so were called ‘placebos’ to describe their fake lamentations.” (pp.20-1)
“Unfortunately, the administration of an inert placebo does not always elicit this self-healing capacity. It can sometimes lead to unpleasant and undesirable symptoms. This is called the nocebo effect, and it can happen when our expectations of treatment are negative rather than positive.” (p.31)
“The term nocebo (Latin for ‘I will harm’) can also be used whenever symptom aggravation follows negative beliefs and expectations without the administration of any inert treatment. This term was originally invented to distinguish the detrimental or distressing effects of a placebo from its beneficial, therapeutic effects. As with placebo effects, nocebo effects are influenced by the patient’s perception of the treatment.” (p.32)
Having cracked open the stronghold of classical science by pointing out its limitation in explaining the efficacy of placebo and nocebo effects, Beauregard carries on to examine established benefits of biofeeding and neurofeeding which has been widely adopted to modify behavior of the paralyzed, children with ADHD and autism, and even to enhance the performance of athletes. All of the cases quoted seem to show that bodily functions, such as heartbeats, brain waves, and sensation of pain, can be controlled “intentionally” and “arbitrarily” which cannot have been possible without a priori condition of having “free will”.
Believing his audience has been warmed up, Beauregard summons the relics of much wilder phenomena that, including focuses of psi studies, such as extrasensory perception (ESP), telepathy, precognition, seemingly have been exorcised from mainstream scientific arena. After reviewing a number of meta-analyses on experiments which were conducted to explore such phenomena, Beauregard believes that the significance of some of the results might have rejected the null hypotheses that those phenomena existed by chance. They have been, he argues, underestimated. That’s why he believes:
“Our minds can be extremely powerful – far more powerful than we thought only a few decades ago.
“The effects of the mind and mental abilities are not limited to the confines of the body. For instance, psi studies show that we can sometimes receive meaningful information without the use of ordinary senses and in ways that transcend the habitual space and time constraints. Still other psi research demonstrates that we can intentionally influence – at a distance – not only random number generators but living organisms, including human beings.” (p.208)
The argument is then followed by a number of anecdotes of near-death and out-of-body experiences in which those who had had such experiences reported what they had seen during the experiences that amazingly collaborated with other eye-witnesses’ accounts on objects or events that the “nearly-dead” or “zoning-out” persons shouldn’t have been able to know. Given the temporary shut-down of heart and brain medically, these people, Beauregard argues, become the living evidence of the existence of immaterial “mind” and “free will”:
“NDEs (Near-death experiences) studies show that people…can have veridical perceptions – corroborated by independent witnesses – during OBEs (Out-of-body experiences) triggered by a cardiac arrest. These perceptions concern events that occur while the heart is not functioning. We know that the activity of the brain ceases within a few second following a cardiac arrest. Given this, the findings of NDE research strongly challenge the idea that mind is ‘only’ a product of brain activity, giving rather more credence to the view that mind may be dependent on the brain ‘much as a radio transmission is dependent upon a receiver and broadcast unit.’ Additionally, the mystical (or transcendental) component of NDEs occurring during a cardiac arrest supports the idea that the brain usually acts as a filter that prevents the perception of what could be dubbed other realms of reality. This aspect of NDEs also corroborates the idea that we are more than our physical bodies.” (p.208)
Lieberman, however, does not budge. To him, the tall tales that Beauregard has told are no better than superstition and that they only serve as a circular argument:
“It is a bit like the medieval belief that people who behaved strangely were possessed by demons – the strange behavior was attributed to demons, but the only evidence for the existence of demons was the strange behavior.” (p.153)
Then Lieberman gives chase and produces his trump card of conundrums given rise by split-brain patients:
“In a classic experiment, Michael Gzzaniga showed split-brain patients two pictures, one to each hemisphere. The left hemisphere saw a picture of a chicken claw, while the right saw a picture of a snowman. Gzzaniga then showed both hemispheres four pictures and asked them to point to the one which they felt best related to the picture they’d seen earlier. The hemisphere that had seen the chicken claw used the hand it controlled to point to a picture of a chicken, while the hemisphere that had seen the snowman used its hand to point to a snow shovel. Gazzaniga then asked the patient to explain why he had pointed to each picture. The left hemisphere controls speech, and the patient was easily able to explain why, having seen a chicken claw, he pointed to the chicken. However, this hemisphere had not seen the snowman and had no way of knowing why the other hand had pointed to the snow shovel. Instead of just saying he didn’t know, however, he provided an explanation: ‘Oh, that’s easy…you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.’” (p.146)
“– In the first months after her operation, Vicki found shopping torture. She would reach for something she wanted with one hand, only to have the other hand intervene to stop her. Shopping was sometimes a two-to-three-hour nightmare. This problem dissipated over time, as the two halves of her brain seemed to come to a modus vivendi, learning to cooperate.
- On one occasion, another patient attempted to strike his wife with his left hand and the right grabbed it to stop him.
- One of the most interesting patients was a boy named Paul. He was almost unique in having a fully developed linguistic capability in both hemispheres, making it possible for each half to answer questions. When his right side was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he said he wanted to be a racing driver. When his left side was asked, the reply was draftsman. On another occasion in a conversation about politics, his left hemisphere said that he liked Nixon while the right hemisphere said that he didn’t – two entirely separate personalities sharing one body.
“Findings like these are fascinating in themselves, but they also pose a devastating challenge to dualist conceptions of free will which assume that mind and body exist in separate realms. In the dualist view, we have one mind, and it is the fact that it exists outside the physical realm that means it can live on after we die. If the mind exists outside the body, though, it is very, very difficult to understand how splitting the brain also seems to split the mind.” (p.147)
But it is exactly this materialistic approach to neuroscience that enrages Beauregard. Instead of confronting the split-brain issue, however, Beauregard tauntingly remarks on how some neuroscientists have mistaken brain imaging data:
“In brain imaging studies, correlations – statistical measures of association – are established between the cerebral regions activated and changes in the mental activity of the individuals being scanned. Such correlations do not allow neuroscientists to make causal conclusions. In the case of our fMRI studies, this means that we cannot affirm that the activation in the various regions identified was actually the cause of the spiritual experiences reported by the nuns and the NDEs (Near-death Experiences).
“Obviously, these brain imaging studies cannot prove or improve the existence of a ‘Higher Power.’ Certain researchers and journalists have argued that the fact that spiritual experiences are associated with neural correlates suggests that such experiences are merely delusions – ‘nothing but’ brain activity. This is a mistaken view, equivalent to assuming that the painting you are contemplating is an illusion because it is associated with identifiable brain activity in the visual portion of your brain.” (pp.198-9)
As if to add insult to injury, Beauregard recounts the disputed and unsettled case of “God Helmet” with which he ridicules many materialistic scientists for being afraid of discovery that may run contrary to their established world-view, hence shaking their positions:
“Michael Persinger is a controversial neuroscientist working at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. This self-proclaimed atheist materialist has proposed that small, transient, electrical seizures within the temporal lobes can account for OBEs (Out-of-Body Experiences), visitations by spiritual entities, alien abductions, religious experiences, and mystical vision. Persinger also speculated that it is possible to experimentally induce spiritual experiences by stimulating the temporal lobe with weak electromagnetic currents. This hypothesis led to the creation, in the early 1980s, of the ‘Koren Helmet’ (after its inventor, Stanley Koren, a colleague of Persinger’s). This modified snowmobile helmet contains magnetic coils placed over the temporal lobes. The coils are designed to stimulate electromagnetically this part of the brain. Journalists began calling this device the ‘God Helmet’ after it appeared in several TV documentaries.
“Since the 1980s, Persinger and his colleagues have conducted a series of studies, using this apparatus, to test the hypothesis that spiritual experiences can be triggered by temporal lobe stimulation. In one of those studies, weak, pulsed electromagnetic fields (not much stronger than the ones generated by a cell phone or a computer monitor) were applied over the temporal area for twenty minutes while participants – psychology students – were wearing opaque goggles in a very quiet room. Another group of students was expected to a sham field condition – that is, they were not exposed to an electromagnetic field, although all participants were instructed that they might be. Under the influence of the electromagnetic fields, two-thirds of the participants reported a ‘sensed presence’ – the sense that someone else was with them. But 33 percent of the control (sham field) group also reported a sensed presence to a ‘spirit guide’ or a deceased member of the family.
“A few years ago, a research team at Uppsala University in Sweden, led by psychologist Pehr Granqvist, attempted to replicate the work of Persinger and his colleagues. The Swedish team used Persinger’s equipment and consulted Persinger’s collaborator Stanley Koren to make certain that conditions for replication were flawless. Granqvist and his co-workers ensured that their experiment was a double-blind by using two experiment conductors who were not told about the goal of the study. The first experimenter interacted with the participants while the second experimenter switched the electromagnetic fields off or on without advising either the first experimenter of the participant. In this way neither the participants nor the experimenters knew who was being expose-d to the electromagnetic fields.
“Study participants included eighty-nine undergraduate psychology and theology students. They were told that the study sought to examine the influence of weak electromagnetic fields on experiences and feeling states. Participants were not aware that there was a sham-field (control) condition. So the researchers could evaluate the impact of personality traits on the results, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire after they completed the experiment.
“No evidence was found for an effect of the weak electromagnetic fields. Personality traits – in particular, suggestibility – were the best predictor of the outcomes of the study. Of the three participants who reported strong spiritual experiences, two were members of the control group. Of the twenty-two who reported ‘subtle’ experiences, eleven were members of the control group. Those participants all scored high on the suggestibility trait. Granqvist and colleagues attributed their findings to the fact that they had used a double-blind, randomized, controlled procedure. They also argued that Persinger’s team’s studies were not really double-blind, since the persons conducting the experiments knew what sort of results to expect. The Swedish researchers also concluded that psychological suggestion was the best explanation for the results of the investigations headed by Persinger.
“As expected, Persinger contested the findings of the Uppsala research team. He contended that they did not use the helmet properly or for an adequate period of time. Granqvist rejected these arguments by saying that Persinger had agreed to all the details of the stimulation procedures.
“The brief descriptions of the experiences reported by the participants in Persinger’s studies bear very little resemblance to genuine spiritual experiences by applying weak electromagnetic fields over the temporal lobes. Such a conclusion should not come as a surprise given that studies involving direct electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes in epileptic patients have failed to produce spiritual experiences. As a matter of fact, direct electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes very rarely elicit any mental response, such as sensations, images, thoughts, and emotional feelings. This does not mean, however, that that the temporal lobe is not implicated in the neural mediation of the spiritual experiences.” (pp.192-5)
With this example, Beauregard reasserts:
“The scientific evidence you have read about…makes two things clear: scientific materialism is just plain false, and we humans are not powerless, biochemical machines…We are no longer at the mercy of Big Pharma: in many instances we can willfully choose to positively influence our health and mental functioning by being aware of our thoughts and emotions, and by training our brains.
“Scientists, free of the materialist box, are now invited to embark on research into the whole gamut of psi phenomena, expanded and altered consciousness, and spiritual experiences.” (pp.213-4)
But, Lieberman has not given up just yet. He also has a word to say about how science should work and satirically accuses those who try to reap what they expect by manipulating conditions in experimental designs or cherry-picking what result that may fit their theories:
“Let’s…suppose that we have two plots of corn, but…we’ll assume that each plot contains a variety of kinds of corn. And let’s further suppose that one plot has excellent soil and the other has terrible soil. Because all the plants in the good plot have the same soil, any variation in their heights can only be due to the differences in their genetic makeup; the soil will have no effect. Similarly, because all the plants in the second plot will have the same poor soil, any variation in their heights will again be due to solely to their genes. If we calculated heritabilities for each plot, they would be 100 per cent in both cases; soil would appear to have no effect. And yet if we compared the two plots, it would be immediately obvious that soil quality is hugely important: corn planted in enriched soil would grow far higher than corn planted in poor soil. The problem is that if we restrict our attention to corn grown in just one environment, the environment will appear not to matter.
“The same is true for personality. If children all grow up with exactly the same kind of parenting, parenting will appear not to matter, even if it is actually crucial.” (p.71)
With his response to behaviorist William MacDougal’s argument over an acquittal of a murderer whose heinous behavior was genetically predisposed and coupled with environmental triggers that made his killing inevitable, Lieberman does not only make a sound defence of determinism but also speaks of enlightenment that deterministic view may bring us:
“The problem is that MacDougall is confusing determinism and fatalism. Fatalism says that your fate is sealed before you are born and there is nothing you can do to alter it. Kismet, it is written; there is a bullet with your name on it. Determinism says nothing of the kind. According to determinism, it is your behavior which is determined, not events. If someone fires a gun at you, it is not inevitable that the bullet will hit you – if you have time to duck, it will miss. The future is not preordained; if you change your behavior, your future will also change.
“The distinction between determinism and fatalism can be difficult to grasp – MacDougall was one of the most eminent psychologists of his time but still found it elusive – so it may be worth some repetition. Determinism says that your behavior is determined; it does not say that your behavior has no effect or cannot alter the course of events. Even if your choices are determined, they still matter; depending on the circumstances, they may profoundly alter the course of your life.
“Though MacDougall’s misunderstanding of determinism was extreme, there is a real difficulty here. If our choices are determined, doesn’t this mean that there’s nothing we can do the change them, and thus that we really are helpless? In large measure, this is a problem of perspective. From the standpoint of an omniscient God, the outcome of your deliberations are predictable, and in this sense there is nothing you can do to change the path you are on. From the individual’s perspective, though, that is not at all the case. Suppose you were a student facing an exam and had to decide whether to study for it or go out with friends. You don’t know what your genes and experiences are going to lead you to decide; all you can do is think about the decision, weigh the consequences of the two options, and choose the one which seems best to you. And your weighing of the options will matter – people who spend time thinking about a decision often reach different conclusions than those who don’t. So, not being omniscient, you just have to do the best you can. It is worth thinking, it is worth trying; doing so will give you the best chance of achieving your goals.
“So, determinism does not mean that we are helpless. Indeed, in some respects, determinism implies a greater capacity to control over destinies. Consider McDougall’s example of trying to prevent the outbreak of a new world war. To the extent that people have free will, there is nothing we can do to change their behavior; no matter what environment we try to arrange, they will still do exactly what they want. Insofar as behavior is determined, however, by changing the environment we have the possibility of changing that behavior. If we want to prevent a war, it is determinism that gives us the strong grounds for thinking that our planning and striving might actually succeed.” (pp.151-2)
Lieberman also discusses the pragmatic aspects of determinism in resolving legal dilemma such as criminality concerning a murderer who is low in MAOA genes and has a history of childhood abuse which may implicate his inevitable deviance:
“If you believed in determinism, what would you do?
“The short answer is that you might still send him to prison, but it would be on practical grounds rather than moral ones. Determinism does indeed say that people who commit crimes do so because of their genes and experiences, and thus there is no point in blaming them for acts they could not avoid. However, you might still send someone to prison for practical reasons. You might send a murderer to prison because he could not commit further crimes while incarcerated, or because the punishment of a prison term might change his future behavior, or because sending him to prison might act as a deterrent to others. Within determinism, there are still many reasons why you might send someone to prison; determinism simply removes one reason: that the person is bad and deserves to suffer.
“To explore the implications of this view further, suppose a wife was repeatedly abused by her husband, that over the years he sadistically dominated and beat her, often requiring her to go to hospital for her injuries. One day she decided that she had had enough, and began to plot how she could obtain a gun to kill him. She finally managed to obtain one, shot him and was convicted of murder. (Because she had acted with premeditation rather than on the spur of the moment, she could not claim a provocation defence.)
“Suppose we knew, with certainty, that if released she would never commit a crime like this again. And suppose we further knew what imprisoning her would not act as a deterrent to anyone else in the future. Would it really be right to send her to prison if it would not prevent any future crime? According to determinism, the answer would be no. She had suffered for years; there would be no point in adding further to her misery.” (p.157)
Besides, Lieberman does not think adopting deterministic view will deprive human of his dignity or ethical values since all such constructs are products of evolution and developed through natural selection. Altruism, law and moral codes will still prevail as long as they ensure humans’ survival.
On the contrary, Beauregard’s vision of morality composes of grander dimension which he draws from brain imaging performed on those who were praying, meditating, and even having mystical experiences (MEs):
“I agree with Henri Bergson and Aldous Huxley that our usual states of brain activity produce a filter function that generally renders us unaware of the Ground of Being. The neuroscientific studies presented…suggest that alterations in electrical and chemical activities in the brain are necessary for MEs (mystical experiences) to take place.” (p.204)
“MEs, especially of the introvertive kind, teach us a number of crucial things that fly in the face of the scientific materialist worldview. These experiences tell us that contrary to appearances, we are not encapsulated within our brains and bodies and separate from each other but, rather, ‘organically’ connected with all others and with everything in the entire universe. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, one of the founders of transpersonal psychology, notes that the experience of the farther reaches of the human psyche reveals that mind and consciousness are fundamental features of all existence, and they are closely intertwined with the physical world. MEs also suggest that just as the drop of the ocean is the ocean itself, we are part of an infinite cosmic intelligence that pervades everything in the whole universe, beyond time and space.
“In mystical states of consciousness, we can transcend the illusory boundaries of our ‘little self’ and experientially connect – within the innermost level of the psyche – with this intelligence, the Ground of Being, which is our ‘true self’. During such states, the drop realizes she is the ocean. In the conclusion of this book, I present an emerging model of reality that goes far beyond the materialist worldview to encompass the drop and the ocean as part of the same boundless world, making sense of what dogmatic materialists call nonsense.” (pp.204-5)
Quantum Question and Unconscious
In an attempt to bring the classical scientific deterministic view to its head, Beauregard bids for quantum theories to his aide:
“Fortunately, the scientific enterprise (as a method, not as materialist ideology) allows for all of these possibilities, and infinitely more. Materialist science, based on the classical Newtonian physics, took science out of the Dark Ages, showing us a world no one had ever seen before. Now there is another heretofore invisible world for us to see, one that the dogmas of materialist science obscure but that is brought into focus by the discoveries of quantum physics.
“Toward the end of the nineteenth century, it became obvious that classical physics was limited; it was just not able to explain certain phenomena at the atomic level. The acknowledgment of these limitations led to the development of a revolutionary new branch of physics called quantum mechanics (QM), which smashed the scientific materialist worldview. In the words of theoretical physicist Amit Goswami, QM is ‘a new paradigm of science based on the primacy of consciousness…The new paradigm resolves many paradoxes of the old paradigm and explains much anomalous data.’
“The work of QM has effectively dematerialized the classical universe by showing that it is not made of minuscule billiard balls, as drawings of atoms and molecules would lead us to believe. QM has shown that atoms and subatomic particles are not really objects – they do not exist with certainty at definite spatial locations and definite times. Rather, they show ‘tendencies to exist,’ forming a world of potentialities within the quantum domain. Werner Heisenberg, winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics, explained, ‘The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real, they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.
“The quantum world appears different from the physical world, but some elements may sound familiar. For example, a central feature of QM is called the observer effect: particles being observed and the observer – the physicist and the method used for observation – are linked, and the results of the observation are influenced by the observer’s conscious intent. This effect implies that the consciousness of the observer is vital to the existence of the physical events being observed. In other words, QM acknowledges that the physical world cannot be fully understood without making reference to mind and consciousness.
“In QM, the physical world is thus no longer viewed as the primary or sole component of reality. Most contemporary physicists agree with Wolfgang Pauli – one of the founders of QM – that the physical and the psychological, physis and psyche, should be recognized and embraced as distinct but complementary aspects of one reality. Regarding this issue, the mathematician and physicist John von Neumann raised the possibility that mind and consciousness constitute not an emergent property but rather a fundamental component of the universe. Regardless of whether it is the case, QM teaches us that we must consider mind and consciousness if we are to reach a more adequate conception of nature and reality.
“Nonlocality (or nonseparability) – which Albert Einstein memorably referred to as ‘spooky actions at a distance’ – is another remarkably discovery of QM. This concept is based on entanglement, the instantaneous connections that persist between particles (such as photon, electrons) that interacted physically and then become separated. These connections remain even if the particles are separated by enormous distances (for instance, billions of light-years). This counterintuitive aspect of nature has been demonstrated experimentally in a number of labs since the beginning of the 1970s. Nonlocality and entanglement suggest that the universe constitutes an undivided whole.” (pp.208-211)
Indeed, Beauregard, in his and Denyse O’Leary’s earlier book The Spiritual Brain (2007), has already argued that synaptic activities between our neurons could only make sense in terms of quantum physics:
“This area of physics, quantum physics, is the study of the behavior of matter and energy at the subatomic level of our universe. Briefly, the synapses, the spaces between the neurons of the brain, conduct signals using parts of atoms called ions. The ions function according to the rules of quantum physics, not of classical physics.
“What difference does it make if quantum physics governs the brain? Well, one thing we can dispose of right away is determinism, the idea that everything in the universe has been or can be predetermined. The basic level of our universe is a cloud of probabilities, not of laws. In the human brain, this means that our brains are not driven to process given decision; what we really experience is a ‘smear’ of possibilities. But how do we decide between them?” (p.32)
“One quantum mechanics discovery that may help us understand how we decide is the quantum Zeno effect. Physicists have found that if they observe an unstable elementary particle continuously, it never decays – even though it would almost certainly decay if it were not observed. In quantum physics, it is not possible to separate the observer entirely from the thing observed. They are part of the same system. The physicists are, essentially, holding the unstable particle in a given state by the act of continuing to measure it. In the same way, experiments have shown that, because your brain is a quantum system, if you focus on a given idea, you hold its pattern of connecting neurons in place. The idea does not decay, as it would if it were ignored. But the action of holding an idea in place truly is a decision you make, in the same way that the physicists hold a particle in place by deciding to continue to observe it.” (p.33)
“Not only can we make decisions by focusing on one idea rather than another, but we can change the patterns of neurons in our brains by doing so consistently…According to the model created by H. Stapp and J. M. Schwartz, which is based on Von Neumann interpretation of quantum physics, conscious effort causes a pattern of neural activity that becomes a template for action. But the process is not mechanical or material. There are no little cogs and wheels in our brains. There is a series of possibilities; a decision causes a quantum collapse, in which one of them becomes reality. The cause is the mental focus, in the same way that the cause of the quantum Zeno effect is the physicists’ continued observation. It is a cause, but not a mechanical or material one. One truly profound change that quantum physics has made is to verify the existence of nonmechanical causes. One of these is the activity of the human mind, which…is not identical to the functions of the brains.” (pp.33-4)
To strike back, Lieberman argues:
“There are two points to note about this conclusion. The first is that although quantum physics does suggest a level of unpredictability in the universe, it does so within the context of mathematical formulae that describe that universe in remarkable detail. In our particle example, the theory does say that we can’t be certain whether a particle is at location X, but equally it says that the probability of its being there is 0.70 – not 0.69, not 0.71 but exactly 0.60. So one of the many paradoxes of quantum theory is that it predicts uncertainty with absolute certainty.
“More importantly, even this limited level of uncertainty exists largely at the subatomic level, not at the macroscopic level of visible objects. If a physicist held a bowling ball in their hand and then released it, neither they nor we would have any doubt about the outcome, and if [Niels] Bohr (one of quantum theory creators) were there, we can be pretty sure he would keep his toes well out of the way. It may well be that there is a fundamental level of unpredictability at the subatomic level, but that has not prevented scientists from using the laws of physics to transform our world.” (p.163)
Besides, Lieberman cautions us of the power of unconscious which may delude us to think that we have free will or have a mind that is free from any predetermined factors. Feeling free, he argues, does not mean that we “are” free. As Spinoza famously remarked, “Men believe that themselves to be free simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes thereby those actions are determined.” The interplay between conscious and unconscious may shed a light on why we have that kind of feeling of being free:
“The claim here is not that conscious processes are unimportant but rather that they rest on a massive foundation of unconscious processing. When we decide we like someone, or choose pancakes for breakfast, our choices feel free, but this stems at least in part from our lack of awareness of the unconscious processes that have guided them.
“One way to think about the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious is by analogy to one computer (consciousness) supervising a large bank of specialized minicomputers. Each minicomputer processes an enormous amount of data – billions of neurons conveying information from each of the senses and from memory – and then feeds its interpretations of this data up to consciousness. (‘That’s a fly on the table’; ‘Be careful, this situation feels dangerous.’) And the main computer can ask the minicomputers for more information if it needs it. (‘How much money do I have in my bank account?’) The minicomputers, though, only pass on their conclusions; the main computer has no inkling of all the processing that went on to generate them.
“The main computer clearly plays a critical role in this system – it integrates all the information it receives in order to generate a plan of action – but it is based on a massive amount of processing at a lower level that is hidden from view, and each step in thought itself lawfully guided by the preceding steps.
“One final point. Our feeling of possessing free will is particularly strong in situations where we have great difficulty in making a decision and mentally go back and forth between the options. Suppose, for example, that you can’t decide whether to buy apple pie or chocolate fudge cake at a bakery. You stand transfixed in front of the display cabinet, first thinking about one, then the other, then the first. It feels as if you could go either way; the choice is really open. Another way to think about this situation, though, is that when two options are similar in attractiveness, we think about one, feel its reverberations in our subconscious as we remember past experiences of it, then think about the other and feel its echoes, possibly bring in separately stored information about the choices (calories, cholesterol) until the margin between the two choices widens sufficiently that we finally opt for one. Interestingly, rats appear to do the same thing. When a rat is trained in a maze where there are two paths open to it, one leading to food and the other not, after several experiences in the maze it will pause at the point where the two paths diverge, look first one way, then the other, then back to the first, and so on, until it finally makes a decision. This behviour is so pronounced that it has actually been given a name: vicarious trial and error. When we hesitate between two choices, first imagining one, then the other, we may be doing exactly the same thing as the rat in the maze. The choice feels free because at any moment in time we have the impression we could go either way, but in fact we are retrieving stored information until one option finally seems clearly better than the other.” (pp.148-9)
In addition, Lieberman anticipates attack from other front, chaos theory, and reacts thereof:
“First, chaos theory does not apply to all systems – as we’ve already noted, the path of a bowling ball is not exactly chaotic. Second, chaos theory does not deny the lawfulness of nature. Quite the contrary: the theory assumes lawfulness. It was through the analysis of these laws that chaos theorists were able to identify the hypersensitivity of some complex systems to initial conditions. In other words, chaos theory is not a challenge to lawfulness but rather a warning that in some lawful situations precise prediction is difficult. And as with quantum theory, the existence of limits to predictive accuracy has not stopped scientific advance. Weather, for example, is a prime example of a chaotic system, and our ability to predict the weather will never be perfect, but that has not stopped meteorologists from steadily improving the accuracy of their forecasts.” (p.164)
“The more important point in the present context, though, is that adopting either theory would not save free will.” (p.164)
Different though their views may have been, both Beauregard and Lieberman have painted a rosy picture according to their own positions.
“Together with exciting possibilities of the quantum universe, this evidence tells us that it is time to enlarge our concept of the natural world to reintegrate mind and consciousness.
“This emerging scientific model of reality – this new paradigm of what is possible – has far-reaching implications. Perhaps most important, it fundamentally alters the vision we have of ourselves, giving us back our dignity and power, as humans and as scientists.”
“Last but not least, the new paradigm fosters positive values such as compassion, respect, and peace. By emphasizing a deep connection between ourselves and nature at large, it also promotes environmental awareness and the preservation of our biosphere.
“When mind and consciousness are recognized as one, we are again connected to ourselves, to each other, to our planet, and to the universe.
“A great shift in consciousness has begun, bringing with it a profound transformation of our world.” (pp.213-4)
To argue otherwise, Lieberman anticipates that thorough understanding of determinism will be the only way to set us free:
“Finally, we’ve suggested that the implications of determinism are not as dire as they might first appear. If behavior was determined, this would not mean that we would be helpless – on the contrary, determinism implies a greater potential for changing our behavior. If we lack strong willpower, there isn’t much we can do about it, but insofar as behavior is determined by the environment, then by changing that environment we can change that behavior.
“Nor would a belief in determinism eliminate morality. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have engrained in us feelings of empathy for people in distress and a hatred of injustice. These powerful emotions would not suddenly disappear if people began to believe in determinism.
“In sum, there is compelling evidence that our genes and experiences powerfully influence our behavior. Is this determination total? The evidence that our brains control our behavior suggests that the answer might be yes. Our brains determine what movements we make, what thoughts we have, even whether we are conscious at all. If the brain’s operations are lawful – if the firing of neurons obey the laws of physics – then the behavior produced by the brain must also be lawful.
“In the words of one critic, a belief in determinism ‘would require a revision…of our understanding of what it means to be human’ (Charney, 2008). If that revision led to greater tolerance and sympathy for others, though, and a greater focus on how we can change the environment to improve people’s lives, might it be a revision devoutly to be wished?” (pp.169-170)