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Dr. David Eagleman and friend (Sharon Steinmann/Sharon Steinmann / Houston Chronicle)
Dr. David Eagleman and friend (Sharon Steinmann/Sharon Steinmann / Houston Chronicle)

Review: Non-fiction

Free will is an illusion. Get over it Add to ...

I love this book, though it is the sort of book professional experts on human nature love to hate, especially when its author, the prodigious David Eagleman, says things like "criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise."

No one is more certain than the professors who teach us what we are and should be that each and every one of us is free - including criminals. Freedom is our most treasured possession, and loss of freedom our standard legal punishment.

Thus Eagleman throws down the gauntlet to the likes of Steven Pinker, who says a "human being is simultaneously a machine and a sentient free agent" ( How the Mind Works). Eagleman's book denies any room for such simultaneity.

I love the book precisely because it reveals so many of the strings and levers of human nature. I am a "Know Thyself" junky, a philosopher of the ancient Greek stripe. As I (and everyone aforementioned) see it, the march of science has revealed us for what we truly are: bio-robots. Not divine, but engineered by evolution's Richard Dawkins-dubbed Blind Watchmaker.

Eagleman's book is clearly a fusillade at those who, like Pinker and other defenders of our freedom-based moral/social/political/legal order, want to strike a compromise between the status quo and the bio-robotic humankind gathering on the horizon. Thinkers of Pinker's stripe offer a compromise (we are free robots). Intellectual compromise, though rare, is not a new tactic, as proved by Tycho Brahe's compromise (his planets circled both sun and Earth), which long ago failed to thwart the coming scientific revolution.

Our current revolutionary order embraces the undeniable history of both our biological (genetic) and cultural (memetic) evolution. To all of us living within the reign of the politics of freedom, this book is a missile barrage blasting at our cultural taproot.

Intellectual leaders of all sorts will attack the inconsistencies in Eagleman's philosophy of human nature. He portrays accidental aspects of human nature as viewed through cherry-picked scientific investigations into human neuro-mechanisms, their functions and their malfunctions. These numberless aspects disagree with each other, so the result is messy, inconsistent and hopelessly incomplete, leaving us no human essence to grasp. So the verdict of the chattering classes is foregone: Ignore it, and carry on!

I love the book's elegant meta-consistency and meta-completeness (the new logic is not deduction but simultaneous satisfaction of conflicting constraints). Our conscious selves are composed, Eagleman says (and not just he), of a multitude of "zombie" neural sub-systems that are both unconscious and beyond conscious control. Thus, "the conscious you is the smallest bit-player in the brain".

Consciousness is but one of hundreds of motley mechanisms that have become entangled in the human organism through the long process of evolutionary happenstance. So our endless struggle with the cruel world outside has come to be mirrored inside by an internal struggle between neural sub-routines for control of the organism itself. "Most of what we call thinking happens well under the surface of cognitive control," Eagleman tells us. So any consciously-held philosophical view, no matter how logically consistent, is merely a tidied-up epiphenomenon floating on the surface of unconscious contradictions. No matter how virtuous we may truly be, our evil zombies still prowl the ghettos of our heart.

The keystone of any philosophy of human nature is its explanation of human evil, and surely Eagleman's has a ring of truth. Mel Gibson's violent anti-Semitic outburst, for example, was due to alcohol inflaming his bigoted internal zombies to riot.

And none of us is any different, as any one of Eagleman's bits of scientific lore tends to show. Suppose, for instance, you sit in front of a computer screen on which various images are flashed, say of people of various races (weights, beauty etc.). When an image is flashed, you steer a cursor from the bottom of the screen to either the word "like" or the word "dislike" at the top of the screen. The path followed by your cursor is not always straight. Often the cursor starts out toward "dislike" before curving towards "like" - or the reverse. The first direction of the cursor is the result of faster neural mechanisms operating below the level of consciousness, while the ultimate direction results from slower conscious mechanisms. When they do this experiment, many ardent anti-racists are shocked to discover they have unconscious racist instincts, many religiously heterosexual people are shocked to discover they have homosexual drives etc.

Before we head to the barricades, I would point out that if we really are bio-robots, then our behaviour over longer periods of time cannot be predicted with scientific precision, and so there will always be conceptual room for those of us who wish to live the life of freedom and responsibility. But the writing is on the wall, as proven by everything from our accommodation of learning disabilities to the legal exculpation of mass killers suffering from tumours. Revolution or evolution, a new day dawns.

Jeffrey Foss teaches philosophy at the University of Victoria, and is author of Science and the Riddle of Consciousness: A Solution.

 

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