Has Neuroscience Ended The Free Will V. Determinism Debate?
This blog today comes to you in the form of a book review. Recently, I was invited to offer some remarks on a work called: Overloaded, How Every Aspect of Your Life is Influenced by Your Brain Chemicals.
It was authored by Ginny Smith. And while the answer to the question posed in the title of this article will remain unanswered – in fact, even dashing our hopes that neuroscientific inquiry ever could rise to such an expectation– it has, nevertheless, not been a completely fruitless pursuit. We still grapple with this old riddle, but neuroscience has certainly expanded the conversation and at least made the discussion more fascinating.
Anyway, here is what I wrote about the book, and how it has sophisticated our dialog on the philosophy of free will and causal determinism.
Overloaded by Ginny Smith
A seriously gifted presenter of science. Ginny Smith has an uncanny ability to make state-of-the-art medical insight simple, while retaining subtlety – and not going beyond what the research suggests. Her playful narrative style distracts with coaxing tributes to snacking (damn you!), peppered with folksy Britishisms and l’appel du vide — which is sure to amuse.
The influence of neurochemistry on our daily thoughts, emotions and behaviours are undeniable. Our interaction with reality being fundamentally chemical should make anyone nervous. There’s simply no getting around the fact that the unique mixology our bodies serve up, determines what we will do and who we will be. And it can be even more frightening than that, because it always has without our being consciously aware of it.
This was the tach I was expecting Ginny Smith to take throughout. After all, it’s not a terribly uncommon or mysterious interpretation of what’s happening, when you begin developing a penchant for neuroscience. I was delighted this didn’t represent the bulk of her exploration, though.
While she does draw this relationship between neurotransmitters and Parkinson’s, OCD or Depression, say, Smith is perceptive to point out that vastly diverse medical diagnoses — and forms of mentation — share strikingly similar biological signatures.
What is the physiological difference, for instance, between early cupidity (infatuated preoccupation) and full-blown, clinical OCD? What separates thrill from terror? Or how can a certain neurotransmitter acting upon one brain region, or on different types of receptors, manifest sweeping experiential range?
These kind of inquiries spark immense philosophical speculation. Is our biology in control? Are our minds? Or is it both? Plotting the arrow of causation is the cartograph of a mirror maze.
Ginny Smith carefully navigates the topic without resorting to lifeless determinism or the victim-blaming so common among free will absolutists.
The rating of this book will clearly depend on your interests. For the sake of honesty, I’m giving it 4 stars. I’m not knocking the author. It’s a fantastic work! I’ve read voluminously and if I gave 5 stars for every great book I enjoyed…the rating would soon be meaningless. Thank you for the advanced reading copy.