So we come to the last column in this little series on neuroscience. Of course we will return to this subject from time to time. After all, the 21st century has been called the century of the brain. But a couple of questions need to be addressed. The first concerns the extent to which our choices are influenced by factors of which we may only be dimly aware.
During the series we have seen that there are a number of sources for this influence. The most immediately accessible is the strategy used by our brains. It works by habitualising past experience, and only bringing attention to bear on new experiences. This means that, while our brain is very efficient, many of its conclusions are not under conscious control.
A second source is the influence of our nurture. This can range from, say, the conditions we experienced in the womb to later occasions which may influence us still, but some of which we don’t remember.
We may have some clues to our influence from genes by looking at our close relations but, for the most part, we have no means of knowing. An important subsection here is the primitive responses we receive from our ancestors. I have in mind such factors as fear of heights or our instinctive recognition that it is safer to run with the herd.
We may hope that a greater awareness of such influences will save us from being guided in wrong directions. We can do little when we are unaware. But there is much information to be had from psychologists who have carried out numerous studies of human nature in general, and over many years. A couple of trivial examples might be our ready stereotyping of people by their accent, or the importance of physical attractiveness for attracting both votes and credibility. Knowing such things at least helps us to be on our guard.
I do not know what precise weight we should give to the often quoted verdict that 95 per cent of our mental activity is not under our control, although any way of reducing the percentage would be welcome. But the second question concerns our degree of moral freedom. The message of neuroscience – that we are much less free than we tend to believe – is clear. Many neuroscientists go further: they tell us that all choices that we think we make are in fact determined. We simply have no freedom whatsoever.
A representative example comes from Wolf Singer, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, who was chosen by the Royal Society to describe this view. He tells us that all the higher functions, such as those we associate with the immaterial aspects of the soul, are controlled by the brain. “It follows from this view that mental phenomena are the consequence and not the cause of neuronal interactions.” He accepts that the law must continue to act in order to protect the public but nevertheless “there must have been a neuronal cause for the deviant behaviour whatever its exact nature”.
Singer does not explain why we should accept his views since, by his own statement, these are determined by a long chain of, mainly, arational causes, and thus can have no claim to truth. I prefer the statement of a much greater scientist, Erwin Schrödinger, who wrote: “My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the laws of nature, yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions… in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.”
I accept this honest paradox. And, although I have written about this before, it may do no harm if I describe again the solution as I see it. I take the view that, at the time of our choice, we may have no way of assessing its freedom. It may be free, partly free, or determined by its causal antecedents. But, even in determined cases, we are normally responsible.
We are responsible because we are responsible for the sort of person we have become. Our vocation is not to do this or to avoid doing that. It is quite simply to conform ourselves to Christ. How we behave – the choices we make – are the dividends of the sort of person we have chosen to become. At the moment that I snap at my wife (and, believe me, it happens) I may not be free. But I was free to cultivate my love, and to curb my unloving habits, so that such an offence would be less likely – and I failed to do so.
When Christ tells us how we should be, he gives us the Sermon on the Mount. When Paul does so, he speaks directly of the nature of charity. St John (I am told) was reduced in his senility to one phrase: “Little children, love one another.” They all tell us that if we get the love right, everything else clicks into place. So it’s back to the virtues. Aquinas tells us straightforwardly: “Virtue is a habit by which we live righteously.” And, in looking at neuroscience, we have seen that our brains are adapted to cultivate habit. God has given us the biological and spiritual equipment to develop the habits of faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. And thus our choices, whether free or not at the time that we make them, are the product of the habits through which we live righteously.
Link to Royal Society paper (section 2.4 applies)