Who’s In Charge?

Rounding up my reading of Michael Gazzaniga, his 2015 “Tales From Both Sides of the Brain – A Life In Neuroscience.” in particular, though having completed and enjoyed it I went back to his “Who’s In Charge” for a second go. Previously, newest first:

Who’s In Charge (WIC) first: I went back to after initial doubts because Tales From Both Sides turned-out pretty good. I see now it is the transcripts of his 2009 Gifford Lectures, so tailored to a particular kind of message for a particular audience. His sub-title is “Free Will and the Science of the Brain” and he gives a good overview and summary of the known science and positions, but ultimately is non-committal on what he really believes. The chapter “Abandoning the Concept of Free Will” is disappointing because I’m pretty sure he hasn’t abandoned it, he’s just providing the orthodox science story on why scientific determinism says “it can’t be real” despite our (his and my) strong sense of responsibility for actions in ourselves and others.

It’s much clearer in TFBS, the later book which, despite being essentially an autobiography, is much more bullish on what he really believes about the science – putting his money where his mouth is.

[What follows is more notes than a review
– it sparked off so many linked avenues

Free will is real all right, we just need to upgrade our take on what causation means to the deterministic science of reality. As I’ve said before “Super-Determinism Sucks”. At the beginning and end of the offending chapter he makes a reference to John Doyle and his hardware<>software systems approach, but doesn’t elaborate nearly as much as he does in the later book.

Doyle is (I think) new to me, but he clearly holds pretty much the same many-layered complex adaptive system view as I do on why real conscious agency evolves in the higher layers. The evolutionary view is crucial to both the brain and mind stories, hence Dennett, hence EES.

TFBS emphasises that the core debate in brain-mind science is about supervenience vs supersession between layers. WIC doesn’t even mention them. Talking simply in terms of physical and mental as two layers as opposed to the real multiplicity I call onion-skins, Gazzaniga quotes Donald Davidson:

“Supervenience might be taken to mean that there cannot be two events alike in all physical respects but differing in some mental respects, or, that an object cannot alter in some mental respects without altering in some physical respects.”

Quoting Sperry, Gazzaniga’s one-time boss, he refers to lower layers being outclassed or superseded by higher layers:

“where level-n floats freer than level-n-1″

Although as he puts it:

“unrepentant reductionists see a sleight of hand here.”

Super-determinism sucks, as I say.

Although I’ve given up in recent years being overly precious about the definitions of supervenience and supercession, the important question is whether an evolved state in a lower layer uniquely determines the evolved state in a higher layer or whether state and causal relations between states in the higher layer can be in any way independent or free of a given state in a lower layer. If the latter, clearly interesting questions of identifying “cause” arise in the higher layers. As I say precise definitions here, still boil down to what we mean by cause, and this is very much Doyle’s point.

As he goes on to say, Sperry is talking about causation being something more than neuronal firing. As Gazzaniga has already elaborated at this point, there is something like downward causation, although he rejects calling it that and, wrongly in my view, brings in a sort of quantum complementarity and uncertainty for some kind of indirect causation (See footnote).

Long story short, there is some kind of causation in higher layers that is independent of lower layers. It’s about evolutionary and current time-scales – learning and action are circularly related. Also as Gazzaniga shows there are many cueing relations beyond communication by neuronal firing that contribute to cognitive and motor processes – somatic and propriocentric. Decision-making loops pass through many of these layers and many are gamed between anticipatory and subconscious guesses and both subconscious and conscious reactions to new information (hence why Libet is wrong, he agrees).

After all this, in WIC, Gazzaniga still makes the illusory free-will claim that it’s just what our “interpreter” left-right brain integration wants us to think. (For me this suffers the infinite regressive humunculus problem, that for the interpreter to “claim” it needs will to cause. Again as I’ve said before this regression is not infinite, it resolves into layers. I think I may have to read the original Doyle?)

Towards the end of the final “Layers and Dynamics, Seeking New Perspectives” chapter of TFBS he gets very close to saying that the evolutionary engineering take on layers of causation in a complex adaptive system that provides the agency in the mental layers. Layers note, not layer.

The left-right cortex, corpus-callosum and sub-cortical distinctions – which fill the majority of the content of TFBS – clearly support the permissive supervisory control aspect of a many-layered complex adaptive system. Even if the willful control is itself a complex problem of guessing and gaming, feed-forward and feed-back, there is no mystery – for me. No quantum weirdness necessary.

Very interestingly Gazzaniga, just before winding down from his story so far at this point makes reference to “very recent work” by Giulio Tononi. He also makes positive references about work at Santa Fe. I’m already there with Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) and Integrated Information Theory (IIT). Doubly interesting, I picked-up Tononi from Chalmers who I think was largely responsible for so much of the hard-problem, subjective-agency and supervenience doubts. Wonder if he’s progressed too?)

So, do I read the even later Gazzaniga in his 2017 The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind or do I find some original Doyle? Has 2017 Gazzaniga progressed since 2015?


[Footnote : Note also, Damasio is part of Gazzaniga’s story and is part of this Dutch session on “feelings”. He makes a big thing of life as homeostasis – working to achieve active energy surplus to re-invest in flourishing (*2021), as opposed to some simple equilibrium or static balance to “stay alive” – which is death of life of course. He also makes a big deal of the layering conscious / subconsciousness, cortical / sub-cortical in the mechanisms of feelings arising and being felt consciously as a state, a “quality of life”. The first question after Damasio’s talk is Q – “is that energy of homeostasis the surplus needed to counter entropy?” A- “Yes.” Asked by Eddo Rats, a friend who shares the multi-layered complex-adaptive-systems evolved-engineering view – yet still holds the need for Penrose-Hammeroff quantum coherence to explain the “downward causation” of mental-agency. For me it’s much simpler and the “entropy” is the clue. Information – an entropy-complementarity – is more fundamental than both physical and mental – hence IIT and relational-information – a pre-conceptual quality – metaphysics. Eddo’s interest is more psychological and psychiatric than metaphysical, but for psybertron there is no difference.]

[Post Note: Researching John Doyle I find this Caltech page, but no general readership book publication, and no obviously directly relevant papers to which Gazzaniga might be referring. And, there are no specific bibliographic references in Gazzaniga?]

[(*) Post Note Dec 2021 – in “conatus” we now have a word for this, a teleological life drive based on “grasping” reality. Spinoza meets McGilchrist.]

4 thoughts on “Who’s In Charge?”

  1. The mention of “static balance to ‘stay alive'” reminded me of yet more Whitehead (sorry):

    “. . . when the species refuses adventure, thee is relapse into the well-attested habit of mere life. The original method now enters upon a prolonged old age in which well-being has sunk into mere being. Varied freshness has been lost, and the species lives upon the blind appetitions of old usages.”

    This quote is from _The Function of Reason_, Chapter One. Whitehead is arguing for the importance of the Aristotelian “final cause,” and critiquing modern science for deliberately eliminating it from consideration. As he says wryly in passing, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless consititute an interesting subject for study.”

  2. No need to apologise. Increasingly, everything is hanging together for me and more and more the good “new” stuff turns out to restatements of old wisdom from many previous generations.

    Love that quote “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless consititute an interesting subject for study.” – very much part of this “one closed system from the inside” perspective on “nature”.

    Also increasingly, feeling I need to read (and comment) less and attempt to write something more definitive. References to sources I may never have seen (yet “know” already exist) is valuable to me. Thanks.

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