While scientists attempt to map the human mind in a well-funded program called The Brain Activity Map Project (BAM), theologians and philosophers wonder if that mapping will give us a greater understanding of consciousness and free will than we have now. As writer and Pulitzer prize winner, Edward O. Wilson observes, these skeptics draw a line between the machine and its product… between the physical brain and thought. (“On Free Will,” by Edward O. Wilson, Harper’s Magazine, September 2014 pgs. 49-54.)
Still Wilson makes a good case for BAM’S attempts thus far. My summary is no substitute for reading his complex article but I will put the matter as simply as I can without, I hope, too much distortion. First, we need to understand the mind filters information, searching for those details that are required to keep itself alive. To record too much information would drive us mad, given the plethora of details surrounding us. Second, the brain learns by telling itself stories:
We compare the past and the present and apply the decisions that were made previously… Then, we look forward, creating –not just recalling this time—multiple competing scenarios. These are weighed against another one another by the suppressing and the intensifying effect imposed by aroused emotional centers. (Ibid pg. 51)
Whatever “truth” we chose to accept as real is a decision made by the unconscious and transferred to conscious part of the brain. (Ibid pg. 51). Consciousness, writes Wilson is the result of this “confabulation” of stories and our “inventions” of the future. It has a material base. What then of free will which seems to lack that base? Free will, says the author, results from our ignorance. Because we do not and cannot know everything, least of all our unconscious, we have the illusion we have room to act. If we could know everything, then we would know we have no room to act. The world becomes fatalistic with all events and thoughts predetermined. Ignorance is the gift that gives us the illusion we are capable of changing events and is “necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.” (Ibid pg. 52.)
Wilson’s discussion reminds me of the argument about God and free will: If God knows everything does He will everything? Are knowing and willing the same things? Happily, I leave that argument to theologians. But I do note the irony at the center of the author’s argument: That each time we use our minds to create a story, we change the mind that alters our reality. Reality and our minds, therefore, are forever unknowable. We remain ignorant and forever free.
Mindboggling, yes. But I reject Wilson’s theory. I am not unknowable and can prove it with a simple, mind experiment. Faced with a choice between broccoli or cherry pie, I will choose the cherry pie. Is my decision is preordained or an act of free will? Well frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn. Just pass the pie.