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My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility Paperback – March 23, 2010
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"My Brain Made Me Do It is a fascinating and subtle account of the mysteries of free will, moral responsibility, and consciousness, topics that are among the most challenging facing neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers." --Joseph LeDoux, Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry New York University, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self
"At some point in our lives, we get puzzled about how we can be held responsible for actions seemingly initiated by brain chemistry. My Brain Made Me Do It is a terrific guide for those who are ready to confront this puzzle in its full scientific and philosophical complexity. It clearly explains the fascinating scientific advances in our understanding of the brain-behavior connection, and carefully considers their relevance to the free will question making these complicated theoretical issues come alive in vivid case studies." ----Jerry Samet, Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Brandeis University
About the Author
Eliezer J. Sternberg, MD, is a resident neurologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital. With a background in neuroscience and philosophy, he studies how brain research can shed light on the mysteries of consciousness and decision making. He is the author of Are You a Machine? and My Brain Made Me Do It.
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Top Customer Reviews
"My Brian Made Me Do It" by E J Sternberg (Prometheus Books, 2010 )
ISBN 9781616141653 RRP $35.95
Philosophers and theologians have been debating whether human free will exists for centuries. There has been no agreement among them. It is an issue that has profound religious and moral/ ethical implications as well as implications concerning the law and its just administration. Associated with this issue is the question whether humans are really accountable for their actions, leading to further issues as to the consequences that should flow from any such accountability. Thus if a person commits a serious crime, the consequences that flow from that crime, be they moral, legal or otherwise, depend in large part upon the answer to the question whether free will really exists.
Scientists of various disciplines have now intruded into this debate, based on various modern scientific discoveries. To a very large extent, these scientists have adopted a deterministic approach, which in broad terms holds that all of the choices humans make are caused by events and facts outside their control, whether they be things external to the person or physically internal to them such as brain chemistry. This has to some extent been affected by modern theories of quantum physics, which view happenings at the sub-atomic level in terms of probability rather than of causal certainty and predictability. But Stephen Hawking, for example, has still taken the view that humans are merely complicated biological machines and that free will is an illusion even if human behavior is impossible to precisely predict.
Into this debate it is refreshing to consider a different view of a younger scientist, the writer Sternberg in this month's book review, expressed in terms that are quite readable. This engaging book asks whether humans are really in control of themselves, or whether they are some sort of automaton. In doing so, it rejects the chemical determinism of many mainstream scientists. At the same time, he rejects the view that human actions can be purely random, otherwise we cannot be morally responsible for our actions.
He postulates that there is a third category of human decision making and action that is neither determined nor random. He argues that this category lies in the special nature of human consciousness, a non-material aspect of the human condition that is largely beyond scientific understanding. It is this that in his view gives rise to moral agency and accountability, by allowing each person to transcend the bounds of determinism, to consciously examine the available choices in any situation and to make real free choices. In what the author describes as a "triumph of evolution", he says:
"..we gained the ability to question ourselves, to reflect on our mistakes and successes, and choose a better future based on the wisdom gained from our experience. The mind is what endows us with moral responsibility.."
But the author ends by noting that we still don't know how the brain makes all this possible, to him the greatest scientific mystery of all time.
Interestingly, some other religions postulate a somewhat similar middle doctrine, one in which there is neither absolute free will nor complete determinism. In this middle ground, there is a degree of free will and moral accountability. Thus there are sacred teachings as to which actions are "good" and which are not, with freedom to choose between them. This view is often associated with the concept of karma. Equally there are other actions to which humans have no choice but to submit, such as sleep, sickness and death, etc. The existence of a supremely powerful Deity or Cause (however named or described) is not seen as being inconsistent with the existence of such a degree of free will - rather, that Deity or Cause is seen as the ultimate source of the power of choice. Humans have, on this view, been brought into existence with the necessary powers of will and understanding to be able to exercise their moral and spiritual choices.
Sternberg does not approach the subject from a spiritual perspective. But you cannot but suspect that this is the path towards which he is heading. That is, beyond the physically observable and scientifically measureable to the metaphysical. This is a very interesting book.
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Sternberg covers a lot of ground in terms of fascinating studies and observations, from Mike Gazzaniga's split brain patients with 'dual consciousness' to the defense lawyer Clarence Darrow's brilliant oration that the two privileged young men, Leopold and Loeb, cannot be held morally responsible for their premeditated murder of a friend, because they were biologically predestined to do it. In terms of anecdotes and 'evidence', this book is very interesting. Sternberg cites his sources well and follows up with a reading list.
However, Sternberg, with just a bachelors degree in philosophy under his belt (which is all I have, I should add), makes assumptions that are at times glaringly obvious and occasionally insidious. Unfortunately, that is no small problem for this project, which uses the empirical evidence to construct rational arguments made for and against an enduring concept of free will.
The most frustrating assumptions Sternberg makes result from his drawing a hard line between the brain and the mind. He begins the book by defining the mind as neuroscience is coming to understand it, but his arguments use the folk concept of the mind (as some sort of non-physical, spirity-type thing); that is, of course, incoherent with the scientific view. Toward the beginning of the book, it seemed as though there would be no way for free will to exist without a non-physical cause - which I think is an extreme version of the common sense idea of free will. The modus ponens and modus tollens arguments he sets up lead to seemingly significant conclusions, but have very questionable premises. Despite several transgressions of this sort, this book is very well researched, generally well-reasoned, and overall a very interesting read.
This book will certainly validate most readers biases. Those readers, however, with an interest in argumentation and effective reasoning, even with a bias in favor of the defendant, will object that the defense makes limited attempt to reduce ambiguity of terminology. (A short glossary would have solved that.) Finally, any reader who has any acquaintance with the study of complex adaptive systems will be puzzled by Sternberg's brief closing statement that, "I think the answer lies in a special case of what's called emergence, or emerging properties...." Daniel Dennett, I believe a colleague of Sternberg's at Tuffs University, dedicated a book, "Freedom Evolves" (2003), to that very answer...and it's referenced in the bibliography. I am puzzled as to why Sternberg didn't devote significantly more effort and space to reviewing, crediting, explaining and arguing his proposition. He leaves us hanging.