No ghost in the machine

When Luigi Galvani discovered, in the late 1700s, that the application of electricity to a frog could make its limbs contract and twitch, he would have been unlikely to conclude that the whole bodily function was controlled by electricity. Yet the modern neuroscientist is inclined to believe something very similar to that. By applying transcranial magnetic stimulation to the human head it is possible to control brain action which, in turn, controls limb movement – without any input from the owner of the limb. The process is still at an early stage but it is suggested that, with more experience and refined methods, we will be able to trigger quite complex actions.

Neuroscientists seem to me to be rum folk. Thanks to new techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other scanning techniques, they are able to explore brain structures and processes associated with perception, thought and action, leading – in principle at least – to the ability to stimulate all these functions artificially.

The potential for good or evil is tremendous. But it leads many neuroscientists to the conclusion summarised by Professor Patrick Haggard in an interview he gave to the Telegraph on October 12: “As a neuroscientist you have got to be a determinist.” This, it is worth noting, is not a scientific statement but a philosophical one. As a scientist Haggard can have no fixed position; he must attempt to establish the scientific truths without prejudice.

Of course, he tells us, he often has the sensation that he is choosing freely, but this is likely to be the outcome of the complexity of multiple inputs which lead up to his action. The feeling that he could have picked up the green cup and not the blue one is an illusion. Given the initial conditions and the world as it is, he would not have been free to pick up the blue cup. That is what determinism means. There is, says Haggard, “no ghost in the machine”. His choice of words is significant. Etymologically “ghost” means breath or spirit (as in Holy Ghost). So the human being is, on ultimate analysis, simply a machine – albeit a machine so complex that it gives the superficial impression of being something more.

Distinguished Professor Colin Blakemore, in an earlier televised discussion with the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, said: “I believe that I am the sum total of all the causal influences on me at the moment.” He claimed that the metaphorical helmsman in our head is an illusion. And Professor Kagan of Harvard tells us that ego is virtually not definable in neurobiology. His best guess is that it is a brain circuit of which no one knows the chemistry or the anatomy.

There is enough truth in these claims to examine them more closely. There are, no doubt, many decisions which we believe to be freely made but are in fact determined by a range of factors resulting from our nature or our nurture. And even those decisions about which we have made a conscious choice are likely to be strongly influenced by antecedent factors. But to deny the possibility of free decision in any circumstances whatsoever is to lead us into very strange territory.

The first element to go is any concept of moral obligation. We can neither praise nor blame a machine which is programmed to act in a deterministic way. Stalin and Jesus stand side by side in the moral stakes. Indeed it is hard to give meaning to the word “moral”, when the most appropriate word is “adaptive”. That is we are locked in an evolutionary system in which adaptive behaviour leads to survival, and maladaptive behaviour leads to destruction. Is survival good or bad? Don’t ask me, I’m a machine. But I do ask myself why secular humanists make such a fuss about what they see as religious wickedness, yet respond with annoyance when it is pointed out that their principles exclude both immorality and morality.

Our legal system goes next. Currently it works on the assumption that those who are in their right minds must take responsibility for their behaviour. When it can be shown that in a particular case the accused had limited responsibility, or no responsibility at all, the law is able to recognise this in its decisions. But if all our choices are predetermined there is never any responsibility. Not that that matters because the concept of just behaviour on the part of the authorities or the malefactor has no meaning other than its chance potential effect on the survival of the species.

This leads to the standard answer to this difficulty: that altruistic behaviour evolved because it was a useful survival strategy. No one can doubt, for instance, that a mother’s love for her baby has a strongly adaptive element. But are we to assume that it can never be more than an animal instinct? Nor is the problem solved because, if evolved altruism of whatever kind determines our behaviour, it is a cause and effect response unrelated by definition to morality.

However, my views on the subject have no relevance since I was not free to write any other column; nor do the other scientists’ views on the subject have any value because these have been predetermined too.

To me, this is strange. Scientists affirm that they work from data. They have a sense of themselves as free agents, they can only operate on the basis that there is a ghost in the machine. Yet because their prejudices prevent them from accepting this data, since it cannot be measured with a micrometre or a microscope, they would rather talk themselves into absurdity.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to No ghost in the machine

  1. snafu says:

    I hate to sound a little sharp, but articles like this worry me. There are completely standard arguments against this position, briefly:

    – what you say only applies to a definition of freedom that is contra-causal, ie when I “freely choose” to type some words, nothing in the world causes that. It’s all done by some magic, immaterial component called “me”. Nothing “causes” me to move into a state of wanting to type at a keyboard. It just happens, or alternatively “me” is the causal source itself.

    – if I relax my definition of freedom to mean something more like “unconstrained”, then I can still be “free” and “determined” at the same time.

    – such a relaxed definition makes freedom compatible with concepts of responsibility and morality.

    These are not new ideas: they go back to classical times, were given a modern presentation by Hume and have been discussed at length for over 200 years. There is probably a bookshelf’s reading to do on this one topic alone; a mere blog comment is completely inadequate. However, a conservative summary would say that these philosophical ideas have not been dismissed, and some people find them convincing. (Believe me: many philosphers of mind would word it much stronger than that). I can only encourage people to look these topics up. I can’t speak directly for the scientists you mention, but I would wager that they would claim their comments apply more to the first definition than the second.

    As for neuroscientists, many of them are philosophically informed, and none of them are stupid. They know these things. What you can’t claim is that their beliefs make them pretty much daft as brushes as you do here. It’s a highly suspect argument that serves as nothing but trite apologetic.

    What you can claim is that Catholicism teaches (roughly) that dualism of the mind is true. You could bolster that by finding an active neuroscientific researcher who’s also an orthodox Catholic to expound on it at length.

    I don’t have the contacts to find such a person, but perhaps someone else does…

  2. Iona says:

    Snafu, I think you might have to look quite hard to find an active neuroscientific researcher who is also an orthodox Catholic. But I could be wrong.

    When you say “dualism of mind” are you talking about Cartesian mind/body duality; if not, could you explain what you mean?

    “Experts” do tend to see everything in terms of their own expertise (“If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). This may be why neuroscientists appear to interpret all human actions as determined by brain activity, – if indeed they do.

  3. Snafu, you are right of course to point out that “compatiblists” (those who believe that determinism and free will are compatible) are thick on the ground. It would take a lifetime to study them for the only point they appear to have in common is a general disagreement about a satisfactory explanation for this.
    We are always left with the question of how we may be morally responsible for a decision we were not free to make otherwise. (there are some interesting links to the Calvinist take on predestination here.)
    I do not know whether there are any Catholic neuroscientists; it is perfectly possible to be so. I rather carefully wrote of “many neuroscientists” in my column. Absolutes are always a hostage to fortune.

  4. Horace says:

    The first paragraph of Quentin’s post reminds me of an occasion when, in the course of fulfilling my duties as ‘Head of Department’ I looked in at the lab of one of our researchers (an FRS) and incautiously asked “how are you getting on ?”. He said “Do sit down and I’ll show you.” Forthwith he administered a 1,000volt (admittedly short duration) stimulus to my scalp just above the Rt Motor Cortex. [Ah well, ask a stupid question!] Besides as Quentin says :-” with more experience and refined methods, we will be able to trigger quite complex actions.” My reaction was indeed complex but I suspect that this is not quite what Quentin means!

    I am, I trust, an orthodox (if Jesuit educated) Catholic and although no longer an active neuroscientific researcher I used to be one (although largely in a Clinical setting) until I retired some 15 years ago. I was also for many years Senior Lecturer in Artificial Intelligence.

    Philosophy however is not my strong point !

    Consider Aquinas:-
    Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain. . . the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one. And forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will.

    and then Descartes (Cartesian dualism) [from Stanford encyclopaedia of Philosophy]:-
    Except where there are minds interfering with it, matter proceeds deterministically, in its own right. Where there are minds requiring to influence bodies, they must work by ‘pulling levers’ in a piece of machinery that already has its own laws of operation.

    We have discussed this subject before in this blog (See: Is God just the “Big Bang”? – September 11, 2008 and Evilution – February 5, 2009). I have some sympathy with the Eccles and Popper ideas about the “liaison brain”.

    For me free will is inextricably bound up with consciousness, which in turn involves memory and time.

    God created time ” . as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” From one point of view this implies determinism. From another point of view time is REQUIRED for man to have free-will; before, decision, after – much as Aquinas says. So perhaps I am a compatibilist.

    I see no conflict in studying HOW the brain works and how its structure and function supports consciousness, while at the same time declaring that “we must bring God into the picture”; just as I claim that Evolution is a credible explanation of HOW God created man but tells us nothing about WHY God created man.

  5. RMBlaber says:

    ‘Substance dualism’, the idea promoted by Descartes that there are minds (which constitute one type of substance) and bodies, or matter (which constitute another), and that these two different substances are nevertheless capable of interacting with one another, may have support from at least one of the interpretations of quantum mechanics (QM).

    The Copenhagen Interpretation (CI) of QM is the one formulated by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, et al, and opposed by Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger. Essentially, what it says is that only what is observable counts in experiments, and therefore the peculiar state of affairs that prevails before a measurement or observation of a quantum mechanical object takes place, when that object is subject to what is called ‘quantum linear superposition’ (QLS) is irrelevant.

    QLS is peculiar precisely because it leads to paradoxes like Schrödinger’s famous dead/alive cat. The Copenhagenist would point out that the cat is in its (closed) box in the dead/alive state, and is therefore unobservable. What matters for him/her is not the cat’s state in the box with the lid shut, but its state once the lid has been opened, when it can clearly be seen whether the cat is alive or dead.

    To put this in mathematical terms, for the Copenhagenist, what matters is not the wave function (in the Schrödinger wave equation), which is dismissed as an abstraction, but the square of its modulus*, which gives a probability for a particle to have a given position, spin (polarisation, if we are talking about photons/light waves) or momentum in a particular region of space.

    What is variously called ‘the collapse of the wave function’, ‘state vector reduction’ or ‘quantum decoherence’, however, presents QM with a problem: the measurement problem. The CI is forced to introduce what appears to be an irreducible subjective element into physics by putting centre-stage the role of the Observer. It is the Observer, and his or her consciousness, that makes the observation or measurement that brings about ‘the collapse of the wave function’, and allows the appropriate probability to be determined. (It is still only a probability, of course, because Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle applies.)

    QM also ensures that, at the molecular level downwards, the tidy determinism of Newtonian mechanics does not prevail, just as it does not in practice in many instances at the macroscopic level because of chaotic (non-linear) dynamics. However, at the QM level, the indeterminacy is more fundamental. It is not merely a question of ignorance and unpredictability, although those are involved, but the fact that there is no way, even in theory, to overcome these obstacles.

    Could it be, then, that the CI of QM presents us with support for the freedom of the will, as well as a possible basis for constructing a theory of consciousness, in which it plays such a central part?

    *The wave function, ?, is a complex number, that is a number taking the form a ± ib, where a and b are real numbers, and i = ?-1. The squared modulus, |?|^2 = |a ± ib|^2 = a^2 ± b^2 = P ? 1, where 1 is certainty (0 is impossible).

  6. Horace says:

    Following on from RMBlaber’s comment above it may be of interest that Eccles (Eccles J C [1994] “How the self controls its brain” Springer-Verlag, Berlin) has argued for the importance of quantum effects in explaining the action of nerve synapses.

  7. Superview says:

    I should like to say that I agree with RMBlaber, but to do that I would have to follow his infinitely superior physics, which I cannot. I recognise the names – Descarte, Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Newton, Heisenberg – but I feel much like Eric Morecambe in his encounter with the piano in the presence of Andre Previn, I might be able to play the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.
    If I can attempt to simplify for my own benefit, can it be that we are talking about determinism requiring cause to be conditional upon information, and all possible options/effects to be constrained by that information, and therefore a condition that was truly random/chaotic and without information/explanation cannot be deterministic?

  8. Iona says:

    RMBlaber’s post sent me off to Wikipaedia, where I spent a happy half-hour wandering around the Copenhagen Interpretation and its alternatives.

    If you make a decision freely, your decision must be neither completely determined nor random/chaotic.

  9. claret says:

    I’m pleased that Iona spent a ‘happy half hour’ in research as it partly makes up for the time I have spent in trying to make any sense of weird looking equations and rambling explanations (to me anyway,) for what can be found most simply, and adequately put, in the Book of Genesis.
    I am reminded of the quotation, “By endeless statutes men, only confuse what good acheived in ten.” Which nicely brings me to my final point that after reading Genesis then try the ten commandments. All will be made clear.

  10. claret says:

    Should have read ‘God’ and not ‘Good’ !

  11. Superview says:

    I guess another way of approaching the question is to identify what is generally agreed to be the opposite of determinism, and then see whether it corresponds to what we might understand as free will. Having asked the question, and hoping it was as simple as ‘free will’, I’ve just gone to Wikipedia to see what the answer might be – but obviously life is not that simple, well not when the philosophers get involved. The term ‘indeterminism’ is offered (leaving aside compatibilism for the moment), but then the only attempt at defining it seems to be by reference to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which is too rarefied for me.
    In these circumstances I’m inclined to take up Quentin’s reference to our legal system. In it the attempt is made to assess how much responsibility a person has for his or her actions, and then to determine an appropriate and proportionate outcome. Isn’t this the process that we all follow on our good days to determine our actions according to our own knowledge and moral principles? And isn’t this good enough?

  12. Horace says:

    Some comments have mentioned Chaos.
    Chaotic systems (as far as mathematics is concerned) are not random but are deterministic. However they are very sensitive to initial conditions and hence APPEAR disordered and random.
    Infinitesimal variations in the initial conditions of a chaotic system cause very different behaviour, therefore in practice (because initial conditions are impossible to determine with complete accuracy) such systems are unpredictable (see; the Lorenz Attractor – relevant to weather forecasting) but note that although the detailed behaviour of a chaotic system is unpredictable the overall behaviour of such systems is in general consistent.
    Brain activity, as seen in the EEG can be described in terms of chaos theory. (see; Walter J Freeman)
    Attempts have been made to use chaos to reconcile ‘free will’ with ‘determinism’ but are, to me at least, unconvincing because they depend on the assumption that the “illusion of free will” provided by chaos is equivalent to “free will” itself.

  13. Iona says:

    Unconvincing to me too. It seems to me that there simply is no interface between the everyday experience of choosing to do one thing rather than another thing, and the determinist view (which also encompasses “chaotic” brain activity) that free will is an illusion.

  14. RMBlaber says:

    I find that I was hoist with my own petard, and in two ways. Firstly, my explanation of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics sailed over at least some people’s heads (and my ‘psi’s’ – as in wave functions – turned into question marks, for some strange reason). Secondly, I find that I neglected to point out that ‘chaos’, in the mathematical sense, does not mean what it does in ordinary parlance, but – as has been pointed out by Horace – is deterministic.

    In fact, a non-linear wave equation, such as the one to be found here:, or any non-linear partial differential equation, is one where a small change in the independent variable can produce a relatively large change in the dependent one. Horace mentions the Lorentz Attractor, and that is a very good example. The so-called ‘butterfly effect’, whereby the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon rainforest produces (by an obviously very indirect route, entailing larger and larger positive feedbacks) a hurricane in Texas, is an illustration of how the Lorentz Attractor works in practice.

    I have now had further time to reflect on all this. I have also seen (and I recommend it, if you haven’t seen it already) the Christopher Nolan directed film, ‘Inception’.

    In the film, Leonardo di Caprio and his co-stars play a group of hi-tech criminals who steal secrets directly from the unconscious minds of big businessmen (and women, too, presumably), by tapping into their dreams. Then an oil magnate called Saito (played by Ken Watanabe) offers them an enormous challenge – not stealing a secret (‘extraction’, in their jargon) – but the reverse, planting an idea in the mind of a rival businessman, that will result in him splitting up his corporate empire. This is inception: the ‘downloading’ of an idea into someone else’s unconscious mind, using their dreams.

    Since Freud and the development of psychoanalysis, we have got used to the idea of the unconscious, and the subconscious. We are blissfully unaware of a great deal of what our brains do – for example, in running the autonomic nervous system, keeping our heart and lungs going, and so on. Our brains can carry out complex mathematical calculations in fractions of a second when we are, say, playing a game of tennis, enabling us to be in precisely the right place, and with our rackets in the right place and at the right angle to hit the ball – even if, when it comes to sitting down and trying to do algebra on paper we consider ourselves duffers.

    Jung and his followers have made us aware that the res cogitans of Descartes is not the simple, undivided thing the French philosopher believed it to be, but a complex, multi-layered entity. All of us carry within us both male and female principles, animus and anima, and we all have our Shadow (or negative) selves, the parts of us that we would rather not acknowledge, but which we deny at the risk of psychic injury to the whole.

    However, that said, it only adds to the mystery of what the psyche, both the conscious and the unconscious parts of it together, actually is, and the fact that this mind, or soul (the Greek word psyche covers both ideas), inhabits and interacts with a human brain and body. And yes, this psyche is endowed with free will – I can, in the end, only affirm that as an article of faith – but how can you, for example, have a legal system in the absence of the concept, given that the concept of moral, and therefore legal responsibility is based on that of free will?

    I suspect that Horace and Iona may be right in thinking that there is no ‘interface’ between chaotic behaviour at the classical level or indeterminacy at the quantum level and free will. However, that said, the role of the Observer in the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM is crucial, particularly in Wigner’s subjectivist version of it. In the Many Worlds Interpretation, free will does not arise – in fact it is explicitly excluded, because all outcomes are present. The man who decides to murder his wife in one parallel world just divorces her in another, and they are reconciled in a third. In that sense, therefore, CI may be a conditio sine qua non of free will, even if it is not sufficient. (The same objection applies to the ‘Many Minds’ Interpretation.)

    Can I take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year?

  15. Iona says:

    “Many Minds Interpretation”?

    (Maybe I’ll Google it)

    Happy Christmas to you too, and to all contributors and readers.

  16. RMBlaber says:

    The ‘Many Minds’ Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is the work of Professors H. Dieter Zeh of the University of Heidelberg, David Z. Albert of Columbia University, New York City, and Barry Loewer of Rutgers University, New Jersey. it first appeared in a paper by Zeh in 1970, and was elaborated in a book, ‘Interpreting the Many Worlds Interpretation’ (1988) by Albert and Loewer. An account of it can be found at

    Briefly, it argues that instead of there being a ‘multiverse’, consisting of an infinite number of parallel universes, each one of which contains all the possible histories of every single quantum particle in conventional space-time, and thus all possible outcomes of every single quantum experiment, there is an infinite number of Observers, or Minds. This infinity is divided into a finite number of subsets, each containing an infinite number of members. Thus, there is an infinite number of RMBlabers, an infinite number of Quentin de la Bedoyeres, and so on. Each one of these perceives a different ‘reality’ – but the ‘reality’ is a quasi-Kantian phenomenon rather than a noumenon: it exists purely within the mind of the Observer, like the dreams experienced by the protagonists in ‘Inception’, or indeed, like the dreams we have all experienced.

    The authors of this interpretation have clearly ignored William of Ockham’s sage advice: entia non sunt multiplicandur quaerens necessitatem. They have also combined the worst feature of the Copenhagen Interpretation, its subjectivism, with that of the Many Worlds Interpretation, its determinism. I am sure other contributors can think of other objections, but I suspect these are damning enough.

  17. tim says:

    Very interesting discussion – I wish I could follow one-tenth of it. I am no philosopher (my wife believes it rots the brain). But you have to start somewhere. In a mathematical system, you have axioms. As I understand it, you choose these to suit your own taste. If you pick the right ones, you can construct a system that maps aspects of reality more or less well. Personally one that I would start with would be an Axiom of Choice – not the mathematical one, but one that stipulates free will. This allows me to make sense of the moral world. Determinists, I imagine, suppose that the Natural world is absolutely uniform, subject to universally binding rules and that there is nothing else? If that’s where you start from, then all your actions are determined, because there is no other possibility. But (leaving aside quantum mechanics, where apparently causality is only statistical) such a position results not from observation but from the basic axiom chosen. Much of the time we observe Nature following repeatable rules. When we observe an anomaly, we repeat the experiment, and usually it comes out right the second time. But science deals only with repeatable events, not unique ones.

  18. michael horsnall says:

    There is a well regarded Neuro scientist by the name of Antonio Damasio who has written a number of books among them “Looking for Spinosa (Joy ,Sorrow and the feeling brain) It is well worth a look. Damasio basically puts forward the thesis that reflex behavior also includes emotional states. That is to say a variety of neuro chemical triggers will cause reflex webs of activity to be activated and some of these will culminate in the experience of feelings. I am an osteopath by trade and have held
    increasingly over the years that there is a machine which is man-its very difficult to work through basic neurolgy and then practice clinically for years-and not come to a similar conclusion-one sees the same web of pain anguish, nausea, depression frustration in response to changed bodily states constantly. However the point would seem to me to move towards the likelihood that we are in our make up embodied spirits. Certainly our bodily and biochemical make up defines our humanness but the mistake of automatism is to conclude that all intellect and will is located somehow in ‘the mind’ which structure does not exist. I don’t think that seeing ourselves as body and spirit offends Catholic theology at all as far as I can see and it certainly explains a lot of things.

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