Edited Transcript:

There are people who would argue that your freedom of choice is an illusion. In fact, a colleague of mine, Daniel Wegner at Harvard in the psychology department, has written a book recently called The Illusion of Conscious Will.

So here is where we have to make some fundamental distinctions. It is true that we could consider the choices that we make – your choice to be here with me rather than the choice to be with someone else – we could consider that part of a larger determined system and we could try to reduce it to physics. We could try to say, “Okay, that choice that you made in your brain to be here today rather than with someone else, we can understand that because of your interactions with your boss and your job and schedules and the fact that ultimately you want this paycheck and you could not quit this job, so you had to do this.”

If we want to we could, in principle, try to write equations for all of that based on physics. We could try to say, “Aha! You know, he really did not have any choice.”

Now my problem with that – with taking the reductionistic enterprise seriously – is once you write all the equations and try to reduce the interactions of people to systems of equations, you now ultimately have a physics-style explanation. Physics is good at certain things: it is good at predicting the motions of atoms, basically. That is what physics is about: it is about mass, it is about velocity, it is about momentum, it is about probabilistic descriptions in the end. We can predict those things. But once we have reduced all your interactions to the physics level of explanation, the physics has lost the whole idea of persons. It has lost the whole idea of cells. It has lost the whole idea of emotions and responsibility

So what I am trying to say here is that, in principle, you could perhaps reduce all these interactions and your choice to a physics-level explanation. But once you go down to the physics, the physics it turns out is impoverished. Physics knows nothing about predator-prey relationships. Physics knows nothing about personal ambition. Physics knows nothing about jealousy. Physics knows nothing about purpose. The odd thing is: if you go down to the physics level, you lose all those rich levels of meaning that we have at the higher levels and you find yourself having to go back up to the higher level.

When I go back up to the higher level, then I am faced with the fact that you are here, rather than somewhere else. And you made a choice. Fundamentally, I do not think that the total reductionistic project – ignoring for a moment the big practical obstacles to it – is desirable. I do not think it is desirable to try to say that all your decisions are determined in that larger social sense, social structure, to reduce it to physics. It does not give me the kind of knowledge I want in the end. It is not the kind of truth that I want in the end, and I do not think it is useful for understanding complex systems.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe that human beings have free will or are all our decisions determined by our environment and circumstances? Why or why not?
  2. Bill Newsome suggests that the reductionist method of explaining all human behavior by appealing to the interactions of neurons fails to capture the “rich levels of meaning” that can be engaged when we understand people as human beings with important relationships, motivating desires, and purposeful intentions. How do you think about the relationship between these “higher levels of meaning” and the lower levels of meaning that appeal to brain structures and chemistry? How might the two levels interact?
  3. What sort of knowledge is most helpful for you – “higher levels of meaning” or more reductionistic explanations?