Essay — From the September 2014 issue

On Free Will

And how the brain is like a colony of ants

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Philosophers have labored for more than two thousand years to explain consciousness. Innocent of biology, however, they have for the most part gotten nowhere. I don’t believe it too harsh to say that the history of philosophy when boiled down consists mainly of failed models of the brain. A few contemporary neurophilosophers, such as Patricia Churchland and Daniel Dennett, have made splendid efforts to interpret neuroscience research as it has become available. They have helped to demonstrate, for example, the ancillary nature of morality and rational thought. Others, especially those of poststructuralist bent, are more retrograde. They doubt that the “reductionist” or “objectivist” program of brain researchers will ever succeed in explaining the core of consciousness. Even if it has a material basis, subjectivity in this view is beyond the reach of science. To make their argument, the mysterians (as they are sometimes called) point to the qualia — the subtle, almost inexpressible feelings we experience about sensory input. For example, “red” we know from physics, but what are the deeper sensations of “redness”? And if we can’t answer that, then what can scientists ever hope to tell us on a larger scale about free will or about the soul?

Cerebral Landscape, a painting by Charles Seliger. Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alexis Zalstem-Zalessky. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York City

Cerebral Landscape, a painting by Charles Seliger. Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alexis Zalstem-Zalessky. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York City

Neuroscientists, to their credit, have no illusions about the difficulty of the task. They agree with Darwin that the mind is a citadel that cannot be taken by frontal assault. They have set out instead to break through to its inner recesses with multiple probes along the ramparts, opening breaches here and there; by technical ingenuity and force they hope to enter and explore wherever they find space to maneuver.

You have to have faith to be a neuroscientist. We don’t know where consciousness and free will may be hidden — assuming they even exist as integral processes and entities. Meanwhile, neuroscience has grown rich, primarily because of its relevance to medicine. Its research projects are growing on budgets of hundreds of millions to billions each year (in the science trade it’s called Big Science). The same surge has occurred in cancer research, in designing the space shuttle, and in experimental particle physics.

Perhaps, then, a direct assault is possible after all. The Brain Activity Map (BAM) Project, led by the National Institutes of Health, has the goal of generating a map of the activity of every neuron in real time. The program, if successfully funded, will parallel in magnitude the Human Genome Project. Much of the technology will have to be developed on the job.

The basic goal of activity mapping is to connect all of the processes of thought — rational and emotional; conscious, preconscious, and unconscious; held still and moving through time — to a physical base. It won’t come easy. Bite into a lemon, fall into bed, recall a departed friend, watch the sun sink beyond the western sea. Each episode comprises mass neuronal activity so elaborate we cannot even conceive of it, much less write it down as a repertory of firing cells.

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is the author of more than thirty books, including two Pulitzer Prize winners. His new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, will be published in October by Liveright.

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