Current events lately have vividly published the persistence of human violence against other human beings, which in turn has raised conversations everywhere around me in my particular circle of friends regarding issues of social justice and free will. You might be engaging in them yourself in response to Trump’s latest transgression, or the last atrocity in Orlando, or in remembrance of the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or the most recent instance of a collegiate man drugging a woman to rape her in peace. Take your pick: there are ample occasions to goad you toward thoughtful formulations of behavior.
Among my friendly conversations, the question arises whether these aggressions are necessary. Do people who want to hurt other people have any real choice in the matter, or are they compelled to aggress against others by deterministic forces–by environmental conditions and pressures, let’s say, or by genetic, hard-wired proclivities? Social violence is clearly both frequent and widespread enough to prompt outcries for just legal responses and political solutions. However, behavioral formulations are compelling not merely to political consciousness, but also to science itself with its outright investment in material causation. The aim in science, of whatever category, is to think preferentially about what determinism means: how one material entity effects another created thing: how atoms conglomerate to cause material substances, for instance, how gravity sticks us to our places, and so on. If any given person is determined to behave in a certain way–perhaps especially, though not exclusively, if the behavior is violent–, then we may want to understand the mechanisms responsible for the outburst.
Recently there have been a couple of articles in the scientific news that have introduced uncertainty into the accepted model of causative instrumentation. Historically the primary axiom has been that no effect can be created without a cause—which, on the face of it, seems a reasonable axiom to believe in. A material effect must be determined by a material cause. If something can be created without a cause, then we are in realms other than science–religion, for instance, or the paranormal, in which scientists would be admitting to the efficacy of ghosts haunting the world, miracles arising out of nowhere, and magic affecting the substrate of reality. Gandalf could be real, Harry Potter is roaming somewhere in London, and the Loch Ness Monster is still eating Scotsmen.
The trouble is, at no level has causality been determined, even as the degree of analysis sharpens, and so thus far there are no solutions to be had. Science keeps telling us that it really should be simple: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that sort of thing. It seems an easy matter to conclude that I throw a brick because the mechanical action of my arm is caused by thoughts, ideas and emotions directing me to throw it. The arm must be caused to throw, or it won’t move. Or, to be more provocative, if someone goes into a family planning clinic in Colorado to shoot the doctors, he must have motivations and ideas that caused his behavior. He is not a computer that can be taken over and controlled from without–like aliens directing his actions using bluetooth devices from their starship. (Of course, he might presumably be psychotic, but even then science would still say that the lack of reason is caused by material malfunctions among the dopaminergic neurons—but that is another conversation).
Hence brain functioning is itself laid out for exploration. The presumption is that brains are biological mechanisms that operate along recognized mechanistic principles. Thoughts arise within our minds according to functions that can be assayed: vision is intact, recognition of consensual reality is intact, and the aims of the behavior are programmed by cultural heritage, using language as its primary means of indoctrination. The programming must act upon the material substrate–we learn things–in the same way that programming a computer must act on the electrical components inside it. In examining the brain, we analyze its functions into its causative units. The mechanistic features of brain function derive from the neuronal components: a neuron releases a chemical neurotransmitter, which crosses a synaptic gap to bathe receptors on another neuron, which absorbs the flow of ions that— according to the electrical charge of the ions—then potentiates either an excited neuronal discharge, or an inhibition to excitation. The neuron is turned on or off.
Pursuing the analysis further, we have to descend another level into the neuron itself, because its functional mechanisms must be characterized too. If we want to influence brain activity, we have to know how to influence the neurons that purportedly create it. This is the basis, for instance, of the proliferation of psychoactive medications: SSRI’s to alter mood, neuroleptics to alter psychotic disturbances, anti-seizure meds to decrease kindling, neuronal hormonal function to influence sex and appetite, mood stabilizers, major sedatives, and so on.
So how do neurons manufacture their neurochemicals? How transport them? How create energy to fuel their activities? This is the level of scientific inquiry into cause and effect addressed by those articles to which I alluded above, the links to which I give here:
In them we have research—pure, hard, materialistic research published within refereed journals—that is concluding there is no simplistic determinism of the nature that science presumes to be seeking.
This new research is revealing the hidden, underlying premise of all previous brain research, which was taking as its axiomatic model the theories of classical chemistry and physics. But suddenly those deterministic models are surmounted by the non-deterministic activities of quantum mechanics. The revelation of those articles is that the classical models no longer explain neuronal function—upon which brain activity depends. This is the same theoretic disagreement to be found between Einstein (who famously states the ‘God does not play dice with the universe’) and Niels Bohr, whose work in quantum theory discovered the indeterminacy at the essence of atomic activity. Chance is at the heart of the universe, not material control.
It appears, in other words, that determinism may be a matter of the level of inquiry. I can build a car engine that–when an air/fuel mixture is introduced into the cylinder at the correctly determined time–will cause an explosion, which in turn will cause a piston to move that is connected to a drive shaft that, in its turn, is connected to a wheel. All those material things and activities derive from a use of materials at the daily level of human visibility. We can’t ask too many questions about the actual nature of those events and materials, however. We just use them. If you do keep asking, causality fades away in the process of continued analysis. It’s the difference between mechanical engineering and theoretical physics.
If brains cannot be constrained by classically deterministic models, then we at least approach another conversation about freedom of thought, and the relation between brain activity and cultural education. We need new models of brain function and its relationship to behavior; these two articles, and the world of research they imply, are opening up a theoretical space in which such models can be imagined and researched. In particular, the possibility arises for a model that escapes the simple dualism between material being and spiritual ectoplasm–between science and religion, normal and paranormal, matter and mind.
There is some urgency for such a defining conversation, given the brutalities arising daily within an interconnected world of faults and problems. There is no persuasive materialist explanation that proves, for instance, that a person is physically determined to take an automatic weapon and preferentially train it on other people—let’s say (because I think the stakes are very high here) people of color worshipping in a church, people who also happened to befriend the appalling man in their Bible study class before he pulled out his handgun. Dylann Roof was not constrained to act as he did. There was no locus of control originating outside of his own volition: no chemical imbalance, no cultural programming, no poverty, no ignorance, no aliens directing him.
Nevertheless, he did shoot those people anyway, of his own choice and planning. He was personally accountable, and the possibility of individual freedom and responsibility are perhaps not terrible concepts to reconsider in general within our culture of proliferating virtual realities and fantasy escapes. People–and the governments they populate–can do better.