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Who's In Charge? : The Book Report

Updated on November 26, 2012

Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Author: Michael S. Gazzaniga, Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of several books about neuroscience.

Publisher: HarperCollins 2011. Hardback $27.99US. 220 pages exclusive of notes and index; 260 total.

Author's stated purpose: "My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context. Human nature remains constant, but out in the social world behavior can change." (Page 215)

Description: The book discusses brain development and organization from the perspective of organizing principles, with examples from specific research. Written by an acknowledged expert in his field, the book is full of detailed scientific explanation, as one should expect. It may be viewed as written just a step or so above a scientific journal publication, or a step or two below expert philosophical writing, however. Thus, although written for the lay person, it can be slow going in parts.

Discussion: The book may challenge your analysis of reality as a matter of rational philosophy. That is, if we know so much about brain mechanics, why do we still think about "free will" or a "mind" that is something more than a brain? In this respect, Chapter 4, Abandoning the Concept of Free Will, is particularly interesting. In Chapter 4, the concept free will is analyzed in the context of individual behavior driven by choices to be responsible for and accountable for membership in society. Thus, "free will" is formed by the interface of biology, that is, what an individual can do, with the desire to behave in a variety of ways related to functioning with others, that is, what an individual may do, in the continuum of events that is an individual human life. See also Chapter 6, We Are the Law. This reader found the concepts somewhat Buddhist, if not morally relativist: the point facially is that human beings cannot free themselves from membership in the species.

Rating: Readability: Technical/expert/conversational. Achievement of purpose: Achieved. Recommendation: Good for the psychology/philosophy/neurology junkie.

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