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We Need More Than One Language To Talk about Choosing

I am a determinist, in the sense that I cannot conceive of a cause of my actions that originates from somewhere other than this world of nature. I see no evidence of and cannot grasp the notion of, for example, an extra-natural cause like a disembodied mind or soul. As far as I can see, my actions emerge out of myriad, interacting, and ever-changing determinants, including genes, hormones, neurotransmitters, family, friends, work, neighborhood, schooling, income, class, geography, and history.

The language of science – perhaps especially genetic science and neuroscience – is incrementally helping us talk about the role that some of those determinants play in the emergence of objects like us. But that language does not help us talk about the experience of being objects like us. It does not help us talk about our “subjectivity”: about being in love or being angry, feeling pride or shame or alienation, or making choices. For that, we need the everyday language of experience. Forgetting that the language of science and the language of experience allow us to talk about ourselves from equally important but deeply different perspectives can produce confusion.

Unfortunately, our excitement about what science is teaching us seems to encourage that forgetfulness. Recently in the New York Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen reflected at length about the effect that new neuroscience might have on our conception of our selves as agents who make choices and are held accountable before the law.1 Rosen ends up with a perfectly reasonable and complex position, one that has room for what I’m calling “two languages.” But, as frequently happens in articles for mass-market publications, he gets there only after airing the fantasy that we might jettison the language of experience and replace it with the language of science.

In his altogether reasonable conclusion, Rosen observes that, no matter how sophisticated our scientific understanding of the brain, we will continue to make what we experience as choices – and we will continue to speak of “choices.” In our courts and legislatures, for example, we will have to make choices about which acts are bad enough to warrant censure. We will have to choose which scientific insights we will emphasize in which cases. We will have to choose when to punish and when to try to rehabilitate people who commit the acts we choose to censure. We may even have to choose, as Paul Wolpe points out to Rosen, “how far we are willing to go to use neurotechnology to change people’s brains we consider disordered.”

All of those choices – exactly like the choices of those who commit acts we censure – will have neural correlates. That is, the people who make them wouldn’t be able to make them without their brains working exactly as they did at the time of the decision. (As Stephen Morse tells Rosen, brain imaging technologies make that point in an especially vivid way, but the point itself is hardly news.) Moreover, all of those choices will have all of the sorts of determinants I mentioned above, from genes to social class. And the discoveries concerning those correlates and determinants will be as fascinating as the ones Rosen already reports on.

Unfortunately, in the course of communicating excitement about those discoveries, Rosen gives space to claims like, “even someone who has the illusion of making a free and rational choice between soup and salad may be deluding himself, since the choice of soup over salad is ultimately predestined by forces hardwired in his brain.” Of course, there is a sense in which that statement is true. The choice for soup or salad is determined by myriad variables, beneath or outside the consciousness of the person who decides, including her genome, the level of her blood glucose, the temperature of the room, the nature of her relationship to her lunch partner, and what she read in the Times that morning about the nutritional content of soup versus salad. Insights about determinants can be helpful for deflating the naïve view that choice can adequately be understood as the result of rational calculation – a view that some who made or practiced law may once have believed.

And there is a sense in which that statement can be salutary. If, for example, one wants to rehabilitate rather than punish people who act in ways we don’t like, we might emphasize the respect in which we do not choose to do what we do. But if we leave it at that, if we settle into using only the language of science, we pay a hefty price: we cease to remember the reality of the experience of choosing. The conscious experience of choice is as real as anything in the universe. It doesn’t become less real when we can describe its determinants and neural correlates. To say that the experience of choice is illusory because we understand its determinants and correlates is like saying that the experience of listening to music is illusory because we know its determinants and correlates.

It is true that music is sound waves being processed in the brain, and it is equally true that much can be done to document the processing of that information, and it is even true that much can be done to give an account of the neural mechanisms by which that processed information produces what we call pleasure. As important and interesting as all that it is, however, it is not yet an adequate account of what the experience of listening to music is for a person. Such a partial account might be exceedingly helpful if, for example, one wanted to build a cochlear implant. But it isn’t helpful for understanding a given person’s experience of listening to Bach or Bird or the Beatles. For that, we need a different language, one that allows us to say things like, “I find this music beautiful or ugly, uplifting or energizing, soothing or disturbing.”

What I’ve been calling the languages of science and experience are useful for considering the same natural phenomenon from different perspectives. Neither alone suffices if one wants anything like an adequate account of personhood. It may be that keeping in mind the importance of both ways of speaking about our lives is a tall order for any of us, much less those of us trying to hold the interest of sleepy readers of the Sunday New York Times. But as we understand more about the correlates and determinants of our experiences, it will be all the more important to figure out how to do just that.

– Erik Parens
1 Jeffrey Rosen, “The Brain on the Stand: How Neuroscience Is Transforming the Legal System,” NYT Magazine March 11, 2007.

Published on: March 23, 2007
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology, Science and Society

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