I am often irritated by reading about how scientists have found a “physical explanation in the brain” for a given behavior/personality trait. It is treated as if this discovery means that the trait, which was previously considered as under the control of the possessor or completely part of their genetic make-up is now in this weird third state where it’s not under the control of the possessor, but neither is it natural – it’s caused by something, but no one knows what because we don’t understand how the brain develops. A few examples:
- Suicide linked to brain changes
- Brain tests show child wealth gap
- Evidence of risk-taking brain
- Obesity ‘controlled by the brain’
It’s not that I think there is something wrong with any of these findings in particular. It is that I think the fact that this is how we present the findings – they’re all cast in terms of discoveries about how the brain is linked to our behavior – is wrong. Of course people who commit suicide will have a different brain structure than people who don’t; they’re thinking in a different way, and thinking differently is synonymous with having a different brain structure. And we already know children from poor families do worse in school on average than children from rich ones; why would it surprise us that their brains look different as well? The same with the article about the risk-taking brain. The obesity one is different; it talks about how, because what is controlling obesity is in the brain, not the glands, it is under the control of the possessor in a way it was not when it was glandular.
All of these, I think, reflect a kind of dualism. The first three represent a mind-body dualism, where if something is present in the body (which includes the brain), it means it’s not present in the mind, and free will does not apply to it – rather it acts as a constraint on the mind, one beyond the control of the mind. The last one represents a brain-body dualism, which functions similarly to the mind-body dualism except that the brain is the mind.
Now, I tend to think all such dualism is fundamentally flawed (mainly because of my extremely anti-dualistic Phil of Man class I had in Rome). Why are they popular then? I think because they let people shuffle off responsibility… if there is something in their brain that makes them want to take risks/commit suicide/be stupid, then their desire to do so isn’t their fault; their brain made them do it. And since if you look hard enough the brain will be different according to every change in personality, you will always be able to blame your brain.
What people don’t realize is that this removal of responsibility also removes free will. If what is in our brain is not our fault, it also is not to our credit. And since there would be evidence for everything we do in our brain (whether or not it is the ’cause’ is another story), we wouldn’t have free will at all. This doesn’t seem desirable.
Of course free will is a complex question, and it is really difficult to find a philosophic position that makes sense of it, but I think the dualism reflected by these BBC articles is worse than most. If we really were Cartesian points floating above our head controlling our actions through the pineal gland it would make sense, but the truth is we’re not, and the brain either controls or reflects (I’m not even sure there’s a difference) all of our actions and personality traits, so this kind of dualism makes nonsense of free will (because the Cartesian point would control nothing).
So… what are the chances we’ll ever stop seeing it in popular culture? Probably slim to none. The ghost in the machine is a powerful concept.