It wasn’t me, it was my neurons!

Neurons in the brain - illustration

Neurons in the brain – illustration
Image credit: Benedict Campbell. Wellcome Images

With neuroscience technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, scientists are getting a much more detailed view of what it is that makes our brains tick. But the deeper they go, the more they discover that our brains run mostly on chemical and electrical signals. Does this mean that we are just machines running on electricity? Do we still have free will? This is an age old question that philosopher Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Study, University of London is trying to understand, and he spoke to Julie Gould about his views on the philosophy of the mind.


What inspired your interest in the philosophy of the mind?

Science has solved so many mysteries. How do our thoughts and feelings, our moments of conscious awareness fit into the world of nature as described by the natural sciences? This is one of the great motivating challenges of the philosophy of mind and part of the quests to understand the place of human beings in the natural order.

Do you believe that humans are just machines?

…[S]o long as the question means are we more than just the well-functioning parts of a complex organism then the answer is no. There is no extra component from outside nature – nothing supernatural – that makes up human beings. And although we have made many machines that exceed our physical abilities, we have still not made anything as integrated as the embodied minds that nature has produced.

Do you work closely with neuroscientists? Do you find that you interpret their data in a different way?

I do work with neuroscientists and benefit from the many new and surprising results that challenge traditional thinking in several areas of philosophy. What is refreshing is that neuroscientists start without the traditional assumptions that have framed our ways of thinking about say perception, action, and the emotions. This enables one to approach the phenomena anew and to create new models of the way things might work in these areas. At the same time, by offering older insights it is possible to challenge interpretations neuroscientists have placed on their results and to draw distinctions that may have gone unnoticed. This often leads to new experimental designs that try to distinguish between two ways of understanding the data and so the collaborations can be very fruitful.  

Psychologists perform lots of experiments on volunteers to see how they behave whilst having different parts of their brains altered using tools such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). When their behaviour or actions change due to magnetic stimulation, do you still believe that there is such a thing as free will?

Yes, I do. But it depends on how we define free will and depends on whether free will is compatible with determinism or prior neural causes for our behaviour. Also, as the more cautious neuroscientists know, we have to be careful when we draw conclusions about normal function from what happens in unusual conditions, like having normal functions interrupted by TMS.

How do you define free will?

We can define free will negatively or positively. Negatively, we are talking about the absence of constraints: being bound, or coerced, or in the grip of a compulsion. When these are absent we count as behaving freely by ordinary standards …A positive sense of freedom can often postulate something impossible – interrupting the causal stream of events to impose my will on nature. But a more attractive, positive sense of freedom is given by the way we hold one another responsible for certain bits of behaviour and not for others.

Is there a large element of nature v.s. nurture when it comes to our actions and the way in which we behave? Do these two things affect the way in which our brain is wired?

We know now that there is much more brain plasticity than we previously imagined, and that all sorts of learning goes on continuously. That said, the rather regular course of development of certain human cognitive capacities, such as language, and the fact that infants acquire it on exposure to speech, without explicit training, by the age of two, despite differences in their backgrounds, cultures, levels of intelligence, suggests that a lot is due to a shared biological endowment.

When it comes to free will, does it depend on the number or complexity of the stimuli to which we react? If we have multiple choices, how much does free will come into play when we pick one?

Some people will say that free will comes into play when you can pick one option out of a range of choices, even when there are just two choices. It is the idea of picking one rather than being randomly assigned to one that gets at a key component of our notion of free will. Another component of the common sense idea of free will is the idea that, whichever option you choose, you can have acted otherwise… There is a sense in which you could have done otherwise – the world could have turned out a different way had things been different – but once the die is cast there is no way to alter the natural course of events. I still think that makes the action you took free in the only sense of free will worth having.

What are you working on at the moment?

My current area of research is flavour perception. It is a fascinating and complex area where we are learning more about our experience of tasting from sensory science… What we call taste is in fact the result of inputs from touch, taste and smell that combine into a single unified experience that we either like or dislike. The effects of one sense on another go unnoticed in our experience and yet finding out about these interactions is telling us more and more about how our senses combine information. We talk of something as tasting creamy or crunchy, stale or fresh, and yet these descriptions are due to texture not taste. In fact the tongue can only give you salt, sweet, sour, bitter, savoury and metallic; and yet you can easily recognise the flavour of strawberries, melon, mint, chicken, and the largest contribution to these flavours is due to smell. We even know that sound has an impact on taste. We are less discriminating when we are exposed to white noise, which is perhaps why people complain that aircraft food tastes so bad, and why noise reducing headphones are provided to Business Class customers.

Why did you decide to do this talk at the British Science Festival 2012?

There has been so much misunderstanding and quite a bit of fear of the latest results coming from neuroscience and neurobiology that it is important to look clearly and carefully at the implications of this research and to try to give people a sense of how it will change our self-understanding, sometimes for the better rather than the worse, and how it will and won’t change our understanding of the law.

Come and learn more about the connections between neuroscience and philosophy at ‘It wasn’t me, it was my neurons’ on Saturday 8 September from 10:00-12:00 in the Fraser Noble Building.


Julie Gould is the Science in Society Assistant for the British Science Association. She is starting the Science Communication MSc this autumn at Imperial College, London. She has a blog and you can follow her on Twitter @JuliePCGould.


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