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.

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 #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.


Philosophy Chunks #4

Here is some crazy philosophy and science stuff for you to read, yeah:

If you want to know what it is all about that Westworld is so philosophical and stuff, check out this article about the philosophical ideas in the series:

Westworld and the Meaning of Life

There is a saying that we are actually all made of starstuff. You know the Big Bang and stuff. Jennifer Johnson now has made a periodic table that shows where all the stuff in the universe comes from.

This awesome periodic table shows the origins of every atom in your body

If you are interested in logic and where it comes from, this is for you. Kant thought the logic he knew and learned from Aristotle is all there is to know. But actually logic has a significant history of changes nowadays.

What is logic?

There is a debate if serious science can do without evidence. Mostly, because there are some physicists who say that there is no evidence for String Theory to have and that is not a problem for physics. Here is a debate between Massimo Pigliucci, Tara Shears and Rupert Sheldrake.

Missing Evidence – Does physics still need experiment?

By the way, Sheldrake is complaining about, that researchers who do investigate telepathy do not get any funding anymore. Maybe that is not because the scientific community is dogmatic and ignorant about the subject, but because research that was done in that field was showing that telepathy is not a thing?! Just guessing so…

The Edge 20th Anniversary Annual Question: Introduction

Every year Edge poses a question to some of the most important scientists in the world. The question and the answers should help to popularise scientific concepts. This years question is: What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

I really like the introduction of John Brockman. He emphasis, that often sciences is only understood as the hard natural sciences, like physics, chemistry and molecular biology. This happens because people think science is only where experiments are made. But you cannot do experiments in every branch of science.

He, therefore, tries to sketch a broader view of science. As Massimo Pigliucci he mentions the latin word “scientia” which means knowledge. Knowledge acquisition is different for different sciences. In physics you can do experiments and mathematical modelling. In the social sciences often you cannot do any experiments that are similar in reliability to these of physics.

So we should adopt a broader view of science. A view that endorses all reliable ways of knowledge acquisition. That includes psychology, social sciences, history and maybe even philosophy. By the way, that is also the reason why I think naturalists should abandon epistemological naturalism. First, that sounds paradoxical but if you have to adopt such a broad view of science, including other sciences than only the natural sciences, where is the “natural” in “naturalism” gone, when it does not refer to the natural sciences? So I propose: As a naturalist. we should be liberal scientists, not epistemological naturalists.

I will read the contributions to the question and maybe make some further posts about the answers.

Christmas Philosopyh Chunks #3

As a philosopher it is always hard to make people understand what this business is all about. Why are we doing philosophy? What is it good for? If you can at least convince someone that it is not a total waste of time, it is hard to suggest a reading that is understandable and introduces into philosophy the right way. Here are some tips for first readings by Patrick Stokes:

Where to start reading philosophy?

Steven Weinberg has put together some of his favorite science books for the general reader:

Steven Weinberg: the 13 best science books for the general reader

As talking of physics: Should physicists abandon the hope for first principles that explain everything? The author of this post suggest physicists should take seriously that they cannot explain why the physics in our universe is exactly as it is.

Physics and the search for fundamental laws: Is physics turning into biology?

Thcmb_timeline300_no_wmapere is a theory of gravity that does not take gravity as a fundamental force but as a emerging epiphenomenon. Verlinde’s new theory passed now the first test. The advantage of the theory: no crazy Dark Matter needed to explain gravity.

Verlinde’s new theory of gravity passes first test