My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The first thing we learn from studying our own circuitry is a simple lesson: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control.
David Eagleman’s book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain is both a mind-bending walk through the science around the the ideas of “self” and “free will” and a maddening narrative that veers off course into the realm of social justice in its second half.
The most interesting parts of the book come from the explanation of the science that seeks to answer two questions: Who am I? and How do I operate?
The book’s main argument grows from studies of the brain, in particular research on the the automated process that govern much of our lives. Eagleman compares conscious decision-making to that of the CEO of a large corporation. The executive can set the direction of the workers in a large sense, but day-to-day operations happen without his or her knowledge. By the time the CEO finds out about something that happened on a factory floor, this is nothing he or she can do about it.
With that metaphor in place, Eagleman peels back the science of the brain, revealing how our actions are largely manifestations of biological processes happening without our conscious knowledge and not “free will.” (The last chapter of the book explores how “nurture” impacts genetics, but even still in a statistically predictable way.)
The current scientific thinking about “Who I am” and “How do I operate” suggests that what I think of as me is tied to biological reactions within my body. (In spiritual parlance: Your soul is an outgrowth of your brain activity.”)
As far as we can tell, all activity in the brain is driven by other activity in the brain, in a vastly complex, interconnected network. For better or worse, this seems to leave no room for anything other than neural activity—that is, no room for a ghost in the machine. To consider this from the other direction, if free will is to have any effect on the actions of the body, it needs to influence the ongoing brain activity.
And to do that, it needs to be physically connected to at least some of the neurons. But we don’t find any spot in the brain that is not itself driven by other parts of the network. Instead, every part of the brain is densely interconnected with — and driven by — other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore “free.”
What we consider free will may be nothing more than an ability to direct our biological resources in a specific direction, much like a CEO set the direction of company. For instance: Our biological system knows it’s hungry before we take action (and thus spur us to action even though we believe we have made the decision to act), but those systems need a conscious CEO to make us settle in a geographic location that has an abundant amount of game and water. Once we are settled, the autonomous functions once again take over.
The science is deeply philosophical by nature, and Eagleman walks the reader through a variety of science, building the argument that who we are in driven more by biology than we’d like to consider.
The book veers off course in Chapter 6, which ventures into the realm of social policy and the criminal justice system. On its surface, this topic does logically arise from the idea of “free will.” If we know that certain people who commit crimes can’t stop what they are doing, this brings up deeply important questions about the criminal justice system.
However, Eagleman’s arguments present no real framework for practical discussions on the matter. He continually reminds the reader that the science is inexact, but that in the future we might be able to treat some criminals in a more effective manner using cognitive science techniques.
It’s an odd edition to a scientific book, and it was ill-argued.
Still, the first five chapters were enough to keep me interested on a Sunday. I finished the book in one sitting. It’s a great Sunday morning reading.