Understanding biological influences on behavior often makes me pause. It is so counterintuitive and interesting to think that the brain underlies our thoughts, feelings, and actions. If someone suffers from some serious brain damage, they often will experience a profound change in thoughts, feelings, or actions, for example. When researchers have manipulated the brain, they find that individuals will experience new and sometimes unexpected thoughts, feelings, and activities. This has led many biological scientists to conclude that the brain determines thoughts, feelings, and actions. I can totally understand why someone might draw this conclusion.
However, I often have wondered how to reconcile the biologically deterministic view with the idea that we are free to choose our thoughts and actions. One way that I have framed this in my mind is to question whether there is a mind separate from the brain. That is, is there a non-physical part of us (mind, soul, or spirit) that is capable of choosing our thoughts and actions, separate to some extent from the brain? Clearly, this part of us does not exist entirely separate from the brain, as suggested by brain science, and as mentioned above, but might there be a mind that is connected, but not completely reducible to, a brain?
David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves, in their excellent book “Psychology through the Eyes of Faith,” write about this issue as well. They note:
“Monism, sometimes called physicalism, holds that humans are one and only one substance – that is, a physical body. Typically, however, the concept has been associated with reductive materialism and determinism. . . Recently, Warren Brown and his colleagues have suggested an alternate version of monism. . . They call it nonreductive physicalism. They agree with physicalizing about the biological nature of humans. Yet by qualifying this physicalism with nonreductive they want to assert that conscious decisions are real phenomena effective in exerting ‘top-down’ causal influence on the brain’s neurophysiology. This view agrees that thinking and deciding depend on lower-level neural processes, but claims that they are causal in their own right – that is, that they have top-down causal influence on the lower-level processes.”
With this, I agree. However, then Myers and Jeeves ultimately go in a different direction, which perhaps reflects the scientific consensus on this matter:
“When we bring together evidence from studies of brain-damaged people. . . the one thing that emerges repeatedly is the interdependence of what we think, remember, and see, and how we feel and express our feelings, with what is happening in our brains. Indeed, the interdependence is so all pervasive that we could label it as an ‘intrinsic’ interdependence, meaning it is the way the world is as regards the links between brains and cognitive behavior. . . Thus we see mental activity ’embodied’ in brain activity. The link is not a causal one in the most common way of using causal in science, with one physical force causing another. The relationship is between two interdependent levels. Description at both levels is necessary to give a full account of what is happening. . . So far as we can tell, mind is not an extra entity that occupies the brain. As Roger Sperry emphasized, ‘Everything in science to date seems to indicate that conscious awareness is a property of the living brain and inseparable from it.'”
Part of this makes sense to me. The brain definitely is dynamic, interacting with the environment in many counterintuitive ways. For instance, research shows that individuals going through psychotherapy often achieve the same changes in the brain that medication produces (but that the effects last longer). In this way, the brain seems to act like a muscle, growing stronger and weaker depending on how it is exercised.
However, I do not understand the basis for the conclusion that “conscious awareness is a property of the living brain and inseparable from it.” Consider, for example, what the Dalai Lama says about this issue in “The Art of Happiness:”
“. . . Underlying all Western modes of analysis is a very strong rationalistic tendency – an assumption that everything can be accounted for. And on top of that, there are constraints created by certain premises that are taken for granted. For example, recently I met with some doctors at a university medical school. They were talking about the brain and stated that thoughts and feelings were the result of different chemical reactions in the brain. So, I raised the question: Is it possible to conceive the reverse sequence, where the thought gives rise to the sequence of chemical events in the brain? [The scientist replied,] ‘We start from the premise that all thoughts are products or functions of chemical reactions in the brain. . . I think that in modern Western society, there seems to be a powerful cultural conditioning that is based on science. But in some instances, the basic premises and parameters set up by Western science can limit your ability to deal with certain realities. . . But when you encounter phenomena that you cannot account for, then there’s a kind of tension created; it’s almost a feeling of agony.'”
In other words, science is based on certain assumptions such as determinism, reductionism, and naturalism. These assumptions have taken us a long way. However, I think it’s important to recognize that these assumptions bring with them certain limitations. In this case, if we’re talking about an entity that is free from biology, then perhaps this is not a scientific issue. I always have thought that science is the best way of knowing for understanding measurable phenomena, but the question of a mind seems beyond this because, by definition, it involves something unmeasurable.
If the brain influences our thoughts, feelings, and actions, must it necessarily be the case that there cannot be a separate part of us that also can influence the brain? Might the relationship between biology and cognition not be one-directional, but reciprocal? This is the way most relationships concerning human behavior seem to work. If free will exists, it seems that there must be some entity that has a top-down influence on our biologies that, at least sometimes, has a primary causal role.
Of course, this leaves the question of why it should be assumed that freedom does exist. To a large extent, this is a philosophical or perhaps religious question that is beyond the scope of my expertise. Clearly, it is the assumption of most people and all religious systems that people have free will. My larger point here, though, is that science cannot disprove it as easily as most are lead to believe. This has many implications, including the recognition that individuals can choose different thoughts or environments to improve their lives. Thus, biological problems do not necessarily require biological remedies in every instance.