Post 2: The Psychology of Free Will

Since my last post I feel as though I have done a lot of work, but had little success. I started to read Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennet, but have since taken a break from it. To be fair, I thought I would give it a go as a beach read, so perhaps it was my setting that failed to prepare me for the density of this book. Regardless, I struggled to read it. The first 100 pages of this 460 page book was simply him setting us up for this apparent revolution to the way we look at consciousness that he was about to bestow upon us. As it is, the use of and cause of consciousness is a little bit off the mark from where I intended my research to go, so when he couldn’t even provide anything helpful in the first fourth of the book, I decided it was time to take a break.

I moved on to read Who’s in Charge? by Michael S. Gazzaniga. I had read this book first semester for my freshman seminar, Chemistry of Emotion. However, reading it again after taking two psychology courses, another philosophy course, and having read a couple other books on free will makes it seem like a whole new book. My favorite part is when he talks about different parts of the brain or different studies that have been done, and I actually know about them already. It really shows that I am starting to build a substantial background of knowledge on the topic, and that it has come about in only the six short months since I finished the seminar. Overall though, this book had its ups and downs for me. The biggest positive from reading this book was that he provided loads of examples of how different tweaks in the brain can lead to change in a persons actions and beliefs, and furthermore how even a normally functioning brain is full of biases and can take actions and make decisions that we must then struggle to explain post hoc. One of his more famous examples he gives is from his work with split brain patients. A split brain patient is a patient whose corpus callosum has been severed, so the two hemispheres of their brain are no longer connected. This surgery is one that was often done on those with uncontrollable epilepsy to help prevent their seizures from spreading throughout the body. Anyway, once this surgery is performed the left brain, which controls the ability to speak, loses access to the information received by the left half of the body because this information is sent to the right brain. What Gazzaniga would then do is he would flash a picture of to both the right and left visual fields and ask the patient to point to the picture that had just been flashed. When a chicken claw was flashed to the left brain and a shovel to the right brain then the left hand pointed to the shovel picture and the right hand pointed to the chicken. However, since the left brain did not know that the right brain saw the shovel, when asked why they were pointing to the shovel the patient responded that you would need a shovel to clean out the chicken pen. This make sense, but it is clearly not the reason the patient’s other hand is pointing to the shovel (Gazzaniga 84).

Examples like these play an interesting role in the quest to discover if we possess free will or not because they show how even though we may think we know why or how we do something, we can often be mistaken. The question becomes how often are we mistaken? Do incidents like the one described above happen all the time and all our consciousness is is a running explanation to try to make the world and ourselves into something that can be understood? But why is it necessary at all then? These questions are the type that were supposed to be explored in Dennet’s book, so if there is time left or just on my own I would like to go back and try to continue to read this book. However, I am just about ready to delve into the essay portion of my project now.

To create a starting point for my essay I have defined five questions that I will provide each author’s answer to and then using their ideas and examples will attempt to concoct my own answers to. I know the questions are questions that people spend their whole lives studying and I acknowledge that I have only just scratched the surface of the literature out there on them, but my goal was to create the type of background in the material that two weeks will allow and I am simply trying to verbalize what I have found in this limited time. With that in mind, the questions are as follows:

What is free will?

What are the arguments for/against free will?

What studies support a lack of free will?

What are criticisms of these studies?

Why do we need free will/what would a world without free will look like?

Wish me luck!