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Of two minds: W&M philosophers use science in free will arguments

  • Similar state of mind
    Similar state of mind  Philosophy Professor Paul Davies and Associate Professor Matthew Haug both use findings from neuroscience and social science in their arguments. Now they are hoping to team up.  Photo by Justin Thomas/photo illustration by Justin Schoonmaker
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The methods of inquiry for science and philosophy may be different, but sometimes their questions align. And if there were a Venn diagram of both, two William & Mary philosophers would be settled smack in the middle.

Philosophy Professor Paul Davies and Associate Philosophy Professor Matt Haug both call upon scientific findings and research in their arguments, because both philosophy and science are concerned with some fundamental questions: What makes us act? Is it our intentions, or something else? What are our minds? Are they simply our brains? Or is there more beyond the physical structure?

The two philosophers are finding some fascinating results in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, which are in turn driving their own research. In 2010, Haug was awarded a $137,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

In 2008, Davies organized a philosophy conference, “The Study of the Human Self,” which, in addition to attracting relevant philosophers, also brought to William & Mary a number of panelists from the sciences, including neuroscientists and psychologists, even an immunologist.

Now the two philosophers are considering how they can work together, even though they aren’t in complete harmony.

It’s all in the mind

Davies’ current research interest dates to 2001, when Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner published a book with a decidedly philosophical title: The Illusion of Conscious Will.

Wegner’s experiments suggest our minds trigger us to assign self-causation to events, even when we clearly didn’t cause them. In now-classic experiments, subjects said they caused an action and explained why. Unbeknownst to them, the action was actually caused by the experimenters. The conscious mind is too slow and, in some cases, easily tricked into thinking it is causing our actions, Wegner concluded.

“Wegner postulated that there’s this psychological system and what triggers it is a thought about performing an action,” Davies said. “So I might think, ‘I’ll stop and pick up some wine on the way home.’ That, coupled with the perception of myself walking into the wine shop – that pair, the conscious thought or intention to do something and then the perception of myself doing it – will trigger this system. And the system’s job is to generate a causal hypothesis.”

Another philosophy colleague recommended Davies read the work of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who studies the sub-cortical basis for emotion in animals and humans. Panksepp’s work suggests that that all mammals, including humans, experience emotions like fear and rage, and that those emotions are implemented in specific anatomical and chemical pathways in the lower brain.

“What really blew me away about Panksepp’s work is the fact that the primary emotions in cats and rats appear to be implemented in evolutionarily-related structures in humans,” Davies said. “The lower brain structures that implement fear or rage in us are functionally homologous – to use biological jargon – as the structures that implement those emotions in other mammals. This neural continuity between us and all mammals took me aback.”

Davies began incorporating the findings of both scientists into his teaching. In 2005, he learned of an upcoming psychology conference and submitted a philosophy paper that was subsequently accepted. “I had read Wegner enough that I knew I wanted to object to some of the things he said,” Davies recalled. “So that’s when I first met him. Then I was sort of off to the races.”

“I’ve spent a lot of years of my life alone, reading and rereading, and then writing to people in the field … Then I got Panksepp and Wegner both to come to campus in 2008. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with both of them. Wegner has since passed away. But they appreciated someone who has read carefully their work, and they’re interested in philosophy.”

What’s he’s gleaned from the experiments of both scientists has led him to look askance at the idea of free will and claims that our conscious minds determine much of – if any – human behavior or emotion.

“Instead of thinking that consciousness is what’s doing all the heavy lifting in our mental lives, we should invert it, and think that it’s the non-conscious processes. And that consciousness is doing something else,” Davies said. “The challenge is to say what this ‘something else’ is. But I think we’ve learned enough now to be skeptical that we can know the reasons why we do at least many of the things that we do.”

Davies said that there are philosophers who argue on one hand that there is no free will, but insist that doesn’t undermine social organization. “I don’t think that’s true; I think we can find out things about ourselves that would take some serious adjusting,” he said. “It has implications for philosophical views about free will, moral responsibility, legal responsibility and probably lots of other things.”

Davies’ suspicion that our behavior, beliefs and desires can be explained now or in the future by our neuroscience places him in a group of philosophers known as physicalists, who argue that there is no mind above the brain. In their view, every mental phenomenon is a physical phenomenon, every mental state has a corresponding physical state. On their own, the mental states we attribute to ourselves and others in ordinary life – like beliefs and desires – don’t really exist; they are products of a false theory about how to explain the world. So psychological theories based on ordinary understandings of the mind have to also be abandoned.

“When I say, ‘I love my daughter,’ I am saying something true,” Davies said. “But what exactly makes it true? Well, my love for my daughter comprises very complicated neural processes in me – including ones described in Panksepp’s theory – plus very complicated neural processes in my daughter, and the physical relations between those processes. In general, love is a complex, messy relationship between two or more nervous systems. There is no such thing as a psychological state that is not a neurological state plus its physical relations with parts of the environment.”

Not so fast

Haug is not so sure. He’s more inclined to think there’s a close relationship between the mind and the brain, but that they might not be entirely one and the same.

“The big picture question I’m interested in is how to make sense of the mind in the natural world,” he said. “How do we make sense of ourselves as having minds and making decisions and having feelings and emotions and beliefs and the perceptual process? How do we understand that if we think that the mind is just a physical thing or that the mind is nothing over and above the brain?”

Like Davies, Haug finds interesting experimental research that suggests that humans aren’t motivated so much by beliefs, desires and conscious deliberation as by the subconscious. But he doesn’t believe that the understanding of mind as just the physical brain gets at the whole picture.

For example, two people can both hold the same belief – winter is coming – but it’s unlikely that the exact same thing is going on physiologically in both people that leads them to that belief. There seems to be no specific mental process, no preset neurochemical state that determines that a person will hold one belief over another. Put simply: There’s no “winter is coming” lobe of the brain.

Haug wants to go further to say that our commonplace understanding of motivations – stemming from beliefs and desires – has validity, even in light of experiments suggesting that an uncontrolled subconscious might most often run the show.

An analogy from another branch of science, physics, is helpful to understanding Haug’s argument. Most people know that while Newtonian mechanics govern everyday life as well as the cosmos, they don’t work at the quantum level, where a new set of laws take over.

But the fact that Newtonian laws don’t work for the very, very small doesn’t invalidate them. Indeed, it’s hard to dismiss the movements of stars, planets and whole galaxies as irrelevant.

Similarly, the “common” understanding of human behavior and motivation, along with psychological theories, might not (and probably can’t) correspond precisely to the science of chemical reactions in the brain, individual neurons, chromosomes, histones and the like without losing meaning at some point along the chain. But that doesn’t make them less true, or valid.

“There’s something in the world that beliefs and desires are tracking that is obscured or left out or not accurately represented at the neuroscientific level,” Haug said.

Circling back to Davies’ love for his daughter, philosophers in Haug’s camp concede that researchers are unlocking mysteries of the brain, as Panksepp has figured out the chemicals that lead to attachment. But they argue we can’t point to a chemical cascade in the brain and call it “love.” Something is lost.

This might all sound like inside baseball about two warring tribes of philosophers, but there are some real-world implications, Haug said, especially for mental health treatment. Which is one reason why the National Science Foundation has some interest in this discussion.

If the mind is reducible to the brain, Haug said, it suggests that its disorders are best treated physically, through chemicals, for example. But outside of a reductive physicalist viewpoint, there’s reason to pursue a wider range of solutions, and not merely because of practical limitations.

“High-level explanations or psychological theories might be objectively better than neuroscientific theories,” Haug said. “Explaining our behavior using if not beliefs and desires then something really close might capture important aspects of what’s relevant, what’s going on there, which is sort of missed when you get down into all the neural detail. Some kinds of psychological or therapeutic interventions might be more effective than going immediately to neural intervention, like giving someone a pharmaceutical.”

Where the twain shall meet

The idea for Davies and Haug to work together grew out of a shared interest in self-control, Haug said. They began talking about it in earnest in the summer of 2015, and spent last year applying for grant funding. The idea is to integrate findings from neuroscience, psychology, sociology and maybe the study of other primates in the discussion of responsibility and agency.

“Saying look, here are our best current theories, here’s the way to get them to hang together and the general view that we get out of it,” Davies said. “Once we’ve got that on the table, we’re going to argue that here’s a range of philosophical views under which you can hold somebody morally responsible. Given this general view about what we’re like, none of these theories of responsibility can be applied to us.”

The pair of philosophers are still coming at the issue from slightly different directions, Haug said, but hope to find agreement in their conclusions.

“Paul is inclined to think moral responsibility and free will are really undermined by results from psychology and neuroscience; it’s a pretty radical revision,” Haug said. “I’m more inclined to think that our common sense attributions of responsibility, freedom and agency can be shown to be compatible, that they can be saved. I think maybe ultimately those two views come together.

“So the idea might be: Look, as long as you’re not going to be a wholesale eliminativist about these things, you think that in some circumstances we do have freedom and agency, it might just be a different kind than we thought. It might be not as broadly applicable as we thought it was or the things that determine whether we have it are different than we thought that they were, or that it’s sensitive to things we haven’t accounted for or don’t yet understand. So I think that’s the big picture of where we see our potential work going forward.”