Neuroscience and Physical Determinism

In recent years, neuroscience research has increasingly suggested that our freedom is an illusion and that determinism in one form or another is the best explanation of human agency. How does process thought respond to these neuroscientific claims?
Publication Month: 
December 2011
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.

There is one element of this question about which I am doubtful. It states that neuroscience has “increasingly” suggested that our freedom is an illusion. My experience with neuroscience is very limited, but it has given me hope that there is a strong counter trend within it. In any case, I would say that science as a whole has long implied that our freedom is an illusion, and the physiological psychology that has evolved into neuroscience was, from its beginning, committed to demonstrating physical determinism in the relation of the brain to subjective experience.

Since the idea that all subjective experience could be explained by physical events in the brain has been around a long time, we do not have to speculate about the response of process thought. The physicalist bias of modern science was very much in view from the beginnings of process thought. Whitehead has a very specific suggestion. Since physiological psychology was a study of how physical events cause psychological ones, he suggested that there be another discipline, psychological physiology, devoted to studying how psychological events affect physiological ones.

What has encouraged me in recent years is that, although the great majority of neuroscience continues to focus on the traditional scientific task of showing how physical events affect psychological ones, a number of neuroscientists have engaged in the study that Whitehead called psychological physiology. What I am chiefly aware of are studies of what happens to the brain in meditation, with Buddhist meditation especially prominent. These studies have established that the physical brain changes as a result of such meditation.

Of course, one who is committed to physical determinism can argue that the decision to meditate and the actual meditation are all in fact products of brain activity not affected by what goes on subjectively. Once one is completely committed to a metaphysics of this kind, one can have faith that all apparent counterevidence can be explained in a counterintuitive way as conforming to one’s metaphysics. But if one begins by regarding the question of how subjective experience and events in the physical brain relate as one to be investigated rather than decided metaphysically, then the evidence for the influence of conscious decisions and psychological disciplines on the physical events is overwhelming. Of course, it continues to be ignored by mainstream scientists, but the number of exceptions and their standing in the community bode well for a paradigm change in neuroscience that would have vast implications for scientific thought generally.

Outside of the technical scientific community, the fact that psychological events affect physical ones is largely taken for granted. The vast majority of doctors believe that the attitudes of their patients play a supportive or negative role in the process of physical healing. This causality is officially recognized in the way experiments are conducted on new drugs. That there are psychological concomitants of taking a pill is so evident that the use of placebos is required in such tests.

I would feel sorry for those in the mainstream of science whose metaphysics requires them to be physical determinists if they were not so powerful in the academy and if they did not continue to use their power to exclude so much relevant information. It is evident that in the practical application of science in medicine, their assumptions must be set aside. The study of the subatomic world has rendered their metaphysics inapplicable at this level. Now rigorously controlled experiments show that what their metaphysics declares impossible is entirely actual in the relation of subjective human experience to the neurons. It seems to me that nothing is left them but blind faith.

Nothing I have said is intended to deny that physical events, especially at the neuronal level, play a very large role in subjective experience. There is still plenty of room for more scientific study in the field of physiological psychology as Whitehead understood it. The point is only that there is also a very large, and still almost unexplored, field of psychological physiology that now may be getting its foot in the door.

The physicalist determinism that I am criticizing has many other problems. Even those who assert it don’t really believe it. If it were true, then it would be meaningless for them to assert it, since the act of asserting something would have no relation to truth or falsehood. A machine can be equally well programmed to assert falsehoods as truths, and since they have declared themselves to be machines, we would have to consider their statements in that light. Since that is not what they seek, it is clear they do not believe what they say they believe. No one really believes that she or he is a zombie.

Process thought does not content itself with showing the absurdity of the dominant metaphysics. It offers a different one, elaborately developed. According to this different metaphysics, the world is composed of events each of which is largely determined by the world out of which it arises, but never completely so. An element of self-determination is found everywhere. Some of the events are neuronal; others constitute subjective human experience. All influence other events that succeed them.

This vision allows vast scope for physiological psychology and that part of neuroscience that continues it. But it also calls for the sort of investigations of psychological physiology that some neuroscientists are now pursuing. In the long run it calls for a merging of these disciplines so that experiments may take place with complete openness to the causal influence of both psychological and physical events. We believe that open-ended investigation of this sort would be more truly scientific than the metaphysically-inhibited studies that are now pursued under the rubric of science.