Michael Gazzaniga about Mind, Brain and Free Will

Michael Gazzaniga is one of the most important scientists in the field of cognitive neuroscience. In this video he talks about the relationship between mind and brain and the problem of free will.

The relationship between body and mind

Ever since René Descartes (1556 – 1650) wrote his meditations on the foundations of philosophy, philosophers and scientists are working on the mind-body problem. Descartes employed some thought experiments in his work to find out what we can be certain about. As it turned out, it’s not much. The only thing left is Descartes’ famous phrase: “Cogito, ergo sum” – I think so I am. Descartes argued that there are two substances in the world. Matter which is extended – res extensa – and the thinking substance – res cogitans. Since one can imagine that the soul survives while the body dies, these two substances must be different from each other. But how do these substances interact? This question is the origin of the mind-body problem.

Nowadays, there are hardly any dualists who claim that the mind is a substance besides the physical. Psychology and cognitive sciences are investigating the mind, and neuroscience tries to determine the material basis of the cognitive processes. Often one reads horror stories in the news like: Neuroscientists discovered, humans have no free will. That’s why it’s nice to see how relaxed Michael Gazzaniga talks about his point of view.

In his opinion, there is a mutual influence of mind and brain. As the brain constantly calculates and generates suggestions on how to behave, the mind can make a selection that has repercussions on the brain. In addition, the term “free will” is confused anyway . What should the will be free of? Of physical forces that make everything happen in the first place? From past experiences, information and knowledge? It would be terrible if you could not use all that for your decisions.

Split brain experiments

Gazzaniga is best known for his research on split-brain patients. In these patients, the corpus callosum, which actually connects the two halves of the brain, is damaged or disconnected. Surgery disconnection of the corpus callosum is also carried out, for example, in epilepsy patients as a last resort.

Particularly well-known are two patients of Gazzaniga. Patient W.J. was a World War II soldier hit by a rifle butt on the head. After that, he began having seizures. Through surgery, the corpus callosum and the anterior commissure were severed. After the operation, the patient was shown various visual stimuli such as letters in the left and right visual fields. The stimuli that appeared in the right visual field were processed by the left hemisphere of the brain. There is also the language center of the brain. The patient could press a button and say which letter he saw. However, if the letter was shown in the left visual field, then he could press a button but not verbally report that he had seen anything at all. However, if you changed the experiment and just let the patient point to the object, there was no impairment. The condition also caused conflicts between the two halves of the brain. While one hand tried to open the car door, the other hand tried to stop it.

Patient P.S., a teenage boy, behaved similarly. However, one could find out that the boy could not make verbal statements when the stimuli appeared in the left visual field. If you showed him, for example, the word “crush” , then he was able to put with the help of Scrabble tiles the name “Liz”. Thus, even though the linguistic center is in the left hemisphere of the brain, if the form of language is nonverbal, the right hemisphere is capable of some form of language.


Philosophy Chunk #8

Here is some more stuff to read:

Here is some piece by Massimo Pigliucci about mathematical platonism, a position that never made sense to me. I just downloaded the paper by Carlo Rovelli.

One more on mathematical Platonism

There is a new website that provides a feed of articles published in philosophical journals. It is called The Philosophy Paperboy.

The Philosophy Paperboy

Ever head of Roger Penrose? He has some crazy theories about consciousness. But he seems to be an interesting person, at least in interviews.

Roger Penrose On Why Consciousness Does Not Compute

Have fun!

Science and Public Knowledge

Do you know what research is done at your local university? When was the last time you asked a scholar about his research and its implications? In an age of “Fake News” and “alternative facts” it is even more important, to provide the public with essential knowledge. knowledge

Science needs a good PR team

I am reading Philip Kitcher’s “Science in a Democratic Society” and I have to say, the problem of public knowledge and how to provide the public with scientific knowledge, so they can participate in a democratic society is a pressing one. Kitcher analyses the reigning sceptical attitude that the public has in respect to science and scientists. It is not only all the post-modernism, that was popular in the philosophy and literature departments of the past decades. In the wider public many not even noticed the “Science War”.

There are some more factors that are responsible for the skepticism. One is for example scientism itself. Scientists and philosophers proclaiming that they know everything about the world, and everyone else just has to listen closely, is often interpreted as arrogance. On the other hand, science itself made promises but could not keep them. We had the decade of the brain, that promised to help us to understand human behavior in every aspect. We had the promises of genetics to help us to prevent or cure every disease. But these projects were much too ambitious.

One more thing Kitcher mentions, is the idea that science should be a value-free endeavour. But actually, scientists are entangled in value and descriptive judgments everyday. What research is worth to conduct? Which data is important for my hypothesis? Is my research leading to practical consequences? All this are value questions, and science is not even imaginable without them. But if the scientist is entangled in values, like everybody else, how is it possible to provide objective knowledge? Here is the point where science needs a good PR team, and I think philosophers can help to do the job.

We need to talk about the epistemic division of labor

Lets pretend you want to get some solar panels for you house. What you do is to call an expert. Not everybody can learn every skill there is on the world. The same goes for knowledge. The amount of knowledge nowadays is so big that we need experts for different areas. Philip Kitcher calls this the epistemic division of labor. Also, there are some questions everybody should have his own opinion. That are usually important ethical and political questions about how we should organise our society.

But to build yourself your own opinion in these regards you need access to the knowledge you need to know to answer these questions. What will you do? You cannot do the research all by yourself and you cannot read all these research papers by yourself. You need someone who channels the information. That is what public knowledge is good for. It provides you with up-to-date knowledge about the world. Here it is important that you know who to trust. That is another part where philosophers can help. They can try to help teach people how to differentiate between genuine science and pseudo-science, between knowledge and manipulation.

Of course that means scientists and philosophers need to provide resources that can be channeled by the media. We need good popular science writing!

Thomas Kuhn and documentary film

I just listened to the new episode of Hi-Phi Nation podcast by Barry Lam. It is called “The Ashes of Truth”. Barry Lam tries to connect story telling with philosophy and does a great job. In this Episode you hear a story about Errol Morris a oscar winning documentary filmer. Before his career as film director he was a pupil of Thomas Kuhn.

Thomas Kuhn vs. Errol Morristhomas_kuhn

I always like hearing about big names and what kind of person they were. As it seems, Thomas Kuhn was not a very kind person. Even though he was well known for this sceptical arguments about the progress of science, he was a very dogmatic person, Morris says. Morris quit his career as a philosopher because of some trouble with Kuhn and became a film director.

The episode is interesting, not only because you can hear some stories about Kuhn as a person and about his theory, but also because it shows that a documentary film director has some problems of a similar kind as a philosopher of sciene. Do our scientific theories really represent the world as it is? Or does the fact that every scientific theory has a specific perspective lead to scepticism and anti-realism.

Realism vs. anti-realism in science and other fields

When the film director of a documentary tries to tell a story about a specific event in the past where she was not part of, and the only evidence she has are the statements of the interviews she takes, does she depict the event as it really was? Or does she just represent the memories of the interviewed people? Can a documentary depict an event as it really was? Can we be realists about documentary films?

Morris think we can be realists in documentary as we can be realists in the philosophy of science. He things Kuhn was wrong and Kuhn was a bad person (he uses some more offensive description of Kuhn as I want to state here). I don’t know about Kuhn as a person, but I will try to get a good picture of his theory. ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is lying on my table right now.

Philosophy Chunks #7

A Material World?

A great little article by John Heil. He starts with an illustration of the problem that haunts philosophy these days, that I often use myself and which is borrowed by Wilfrid Sellars. There are two pictures we have of the world: The manifest image, which is the image we use in everyday life, that includes sensations, feelings, chairs and all these things; and there is the scientific image of particles and relativity and whatever the natural sciences postulate to explain phenomena.

Both pictures seem to be complete and of the same complexity. But how can we fuse both pictures to a “stereoscopic picture”? Dualism and reductive materialism think these pictures are irrenconciable. But that is not what Sellars aimed for. He wanted both pictures to be reconciled in a stereoscopic vision. John Heil puts forward some good points, which help to achieve such a stereoscopic vision.

I would just add one thing: why can we not translate and reduce talk about the manifest image to talk about the scientific image? The manifest image has evolved over some ten-thousands of years. It fits the purpose of making our everyday life possible. The scientific image, on the other hand, is only some hundred years old (or if we start in ancient greek some thousand years) and has the purpose to help us explain the universe. That is a gap that cannot be expected to be closed easily.

Taking Public Philosophy Seriously

Public philosophy is a subject I think is important. I really would like to write some public philosophy, but I actually don’t know how to get started. Do I just send articles to random newspapers? Here in Germany public philosophy has an even worse reputation. Not only is it not taken seriously by the professionals and does not count for job promotion but some philosophers also think, a philosopher who does public philosophy is not really a philosopher. I mean sure, there are some bad examples of public philosophers whose thinking isn’t very deep. But still, I think there is a need for public philosophy and science and it does not help if you are not taken seriously if you do public philosophy.

Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?

I think the analysis is right: the revolution of critical thinking and post-modernism devoured its own children. But I dont think we get out of this dilemma if we just talk more about fabricated facts. There is objective knowledge of facts in the world. Climate change is one of them. Philosophy should help demonstrating how objectivity is possible, how we come to knowledge and who we can trust, when they make some knowledge claim. If somebody states some alleged fact — for some political reasons — and the evidence shows the opposite, we don’t have two facts — the one without evidence and the other with evidence — but only one. The first one never was a fact. It was just a falsehood — in the worst case a lie.

Philosophy Chunks #6

Here are some reading suggestions for you:

Learning styles are a neurobiological myth, it seems:

No evidence to back idea of learning styles


Karl Popper has still some things to teach us. For example how we handle the science vs. relativism debate:

In Search of a Better World: Karl Popper on Truth vs. Certainty and the Dangers of Relativism


Great, long and fascinating feature about Daniel Dennett:



Can academics influence public opinion? If they start to do it they may:

Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers


Why do we believe in obvious untruths? Answer: The distribution of knowledge:

Why We Believe Obvious Untruths


Have fun getting a bit smarter!

On misunderstanding Dennett

Dennett’s new book From Bacteria to Bach and Back Again is producing some headlines these days. Some of them are rather positive but there are actually the headlines (again) that Dennett says consciousness does not exist. Take for example this video of Massimo Pigliucci and Dan Kaufman. They have a great talk about the underappreciated philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars. In the discussion of the distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image they are also talking about Dennett’s theory of consciousness.

They think Dennett says that consciousness does not exist. But I think they are just wrong. True, Dennett says that consciousness is like an “user-illusion”. But, first of all, also illusions exist and have effects on us.

They cite the analogy of a desktop PC and it’s user interface. Take the folders you see on your desktop. You put files in it and you can look inside them and so on. But if you look into your computer you won’t find anything that corresponds to the folder, you cannot look into anything that is like a folder and so on. The graphical interface is an useful illusion. Kaufman and Pigliucci agree on this.

On the other hand, they say, consciousness is nothing like that. To say that consciousness is an illusion is like ignoring the data. We know that there is consciousness and cannot just say it does not exist. But Dennett says nothing like that. The user interface also exists but some of its properties are just useful illusions. The same goes for consciousness Dennett’s view, I think. There is consciousness, it is a real phenomenon. I cannot see anywhere that Dennett denies this. But he says, some of the properties we think consciousness has — like infallibility of first person access etc. — especially those that let philosophers think consciousness cannot be a natural phenomenon, are just illusions.

So what does Dennett? He takes our philosophical thoughts about consciousness that come from the manifest image and hinder us in achieving a scientific understanding of the mind and explains how we came to these beliefs and how we can explain them, why they are so compelling. He does not try to eliminate the manifest image of the mind or something like that. He tries to build bridges from the manifest to the scientific image of the mind and in so doing laying some foundations for cognitive science.

The Manifest Image: How our common sense ontology is fake (sometimes)

Wilfrid Sellars framed the conflict between common sense and science, that arouse since the flourishing of the natural sciences, with the concepts of the manifest and the scientific image of man in the world. The manifest image is our common sense image, which includes colors, chairs, institutions etc. The scientific image is what the natural sciences tell us the world is like. These images can sometimes contradict each other.

For me, the aim of philosophy is threefold: 1) We should try to critically accompany the sciences and try to connect different parts of our scientific image. (Which means also parts in the scientific image can be in tension.) 2) We should connect the scientific image and the manifest image as far as we can. (How is it possible to connect folk psychology and neurophysiology?) 3) We should inspect the manifest image. What is worth having in our manifest image (folk psychology, for me at least) and what not (racism for example).

So philosophy is wedded to the scientific image as well as to the manifest image. Both images have their own problems and both have their own merits. A lot is written about our scientific image. But actually not so much explicitly about our manifest image. I will try to examine some traits of our manifest image in some posts to follow.

Let’s make a start. We hold often some beliefs of our common sense ontology that seem so obviously right that we do not even question them. At least, until someone comes with a crazy, astonishing experiment. For example, I think it is natural to think that the sound a balloon produces when he gets popped is to a large degree an internal property of the balloon. If you pop a balloon it is just loud. But watch this video, which shows what happens if you pop a balloon in an anechoic chamber:

An anechoic chamber is a room that is designed to completely absorb reflections of sound. And if you pop a balloon in one of these chambers it produces barely any sound at all. So the loud sound of a popping balloon is not an internal property of the balloon. What makes the sound so loud are the properties of the surroundings.

So you can see that some beliefs of our common sense are just mistaken. Of course that does not mean that they are not useful. Under normal circumstances popping a balloon produces a loud sound but that is actually not the balloons fault.

Philosophy Chunks #5

Actually, I want to write more on this blog. But for now there are just some more reading suggestions.

A long but very interesting interview with Martha Nussbaum. Fascinating woman.

On Anger, Disgust, and Love

Another great interview with a great philosopher. Daniel Dennett on his new book and Trump and stuff.

Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’

A little bit older but a great read. And a reason why not to show overconfidence in science.


Guest contribution at Grasped in Thought

You may have realized that I did not write much here lately. Other than that I am working for the planning of my PhD thesis I was writing an article for the Grasped in Thought blog. There I try to draw some connections between the american pragmatist tradition and the form of liberal naturalism that I have in mind.

Check out my article here: Pragmatism and Two Forms of Naturalism

Check also the blog in general and other contributions to it and the podcast.