October 2012

Top of This issue Current Issue

Free will and morality

By Carmine Gorga

This is a tale of how the brightness of neuroscience is being misused by the dark side of Rationalism. Let me explain.

Rationalism, the reigning philosophy of the Enlightenment and the modern age, is a topic to which we will have to return. For the time being suffice it to say that, for all its strengths, there is a dark side to Rationalism. Its inherent weakness—its nemesis—is its tendency to linearity, reductionism, and imperialism.

Today I would like to make this case specifically in relation to the misuse of one tentative conclusion of neuroscience. Given time and need, I might be able to discuss concrete cases in many other sciences—such as biology in fisheries development or agribusiness and even physics at the service of nuclear power plants. The general case of course is economics, where all three forms of the decease are so rampant and blatant that they do not need to be restated.  

Rationalism explores everything possible that stands in its line of investigation, and many times it goes back and forth because it discovers new—even contradictory—explications of the phenomenon under investigation. While Rationalism is engaged in the noble pursuit of trying to ascertain the truth of any proposition, at times it does not realize that it has become blind to the reality of everything that surrounds its line of analysis. If we conceive of life as a sphere, we realize how Rationalism, by its method of analysis, can become naturally blinded to the richness of life.

This is not a set of hypothetical propositions. The mortal combat between the forces of life and death—good and evil—into which Rationalism is unavoidably and irresistibly locked becomes evident in the small example of its sorry fall at Compiègne, where, allying itself with the fury of French Revolutionaries, it justified bringing Carmelite nuns under the guillotine; the stated goal was to give the nuns freedom to leave the convent. In the large picture, we have seen this combat in the rationalizations of Communism and Fascism: Both the right and the left of the political spectrum equally fall victim to the rationalizations of Rationalism. The middle of the political spectrum does not eschew the trap either: We saw it in the American behavior in Vietnam, when a town was destroyed “to save the town”—for democracy!

Rationalism is not always consistent in recognizing all that it encounters on its line of investigation either. Due to the natural narrowness of human nature, some rationalists are liable to reduce their investigation to one point: their own point of view, their own position—no matter how wrong either by themselves or by others were they proved to be. That is the meaning of reductionism; that is the reduction of the line to one point.

Just consider that the head of a pin becomes blinding as you bring it closer and closer to the pupil of your eye. Evidently, the worst—and all too frequent—case of reductionism is that controlled by ideology. Then the minions come out of the woodwork to flood and confuse the discussion.

Let us meet the other half of our topic: the brightness of science. Whatever true science touches, it illuminates. We have been able to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth, because of the prodigies of science—science married to technology.

If that is somewhat removed and remote science by now, let me extol the praise of the Internet. So long as its operations remain mostly free and democratic, this marvel is going to make our lives easier and richer in a myriad ways. I cannot imagine life without it; I can no longer live without it.

Lest these be seen as highfalutin cases, let me mention Clarence Birdseye’s development of the frozen food industry right here in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He extended the life of fresh fish and meat and vegetables. Thanks to his successful mixture of science and technology, today the whole world can have healthier and cheaper foods.

However, just because of its extraordinary power, science—as the privileged daughter of Rationalism—is often tempted and at times falls prey to misuse. The temptation is an old one: the desire to please power. Then science degenerates into any of the variegated forms of scientism. Upon careful consideration as we shall see in a moment, it appears that the fantastic tools of neuroscience, our newly discovered ability to look into the behavior of the brain, might be misused in a particularly important case.

Let us start at the beginning. The understanding of morality today is in a sorry state of confusion. The latest nail in the attempt to seal the casket of morality comes from a misuse of neuroscience. The attempt is one of the latest unexpected consequences of the urge to reduce everything to science, the urge to accept anything only when put under the microscope of scientific investigation.

In this state of mind, the dark side of Rationalism pretends “to elevate” morality to the status of science and expects morality to produce steady and immediate results. Rationalism fails to find such results; hence, it properly declares morality “unscientific,” and goes to the deep end of declaring morality worthless as a guide to action.

What is going on? Much of the discussion hinges on the confusion determined by the unwarranted leaning of Rationalism toward imperialism. As a counterbalance to reductionism, this type of corrupted science wants to cover the whole of life! To use Goya’s expression, this is a dream of reason that produces monsters.

True science always recognizes its limits: Science is the master of matter and energy; it knows nothing of matters of the spirit—unless we get into the esoteric world of science of the spirit.

Matter and energy behave in predictable patterns; spirit is free, creative, unpredictable.

No freedom; no morality. It is here that the issues of free will and morality are joined at the hip. It is here that some neuroscientists as well as some interpreters of neuroscience try to interject themselves into the discussion and allow themselves to build a wedge between consciousness and free will.

The 300 millisecond controversy. A modern cannonade from the assault brigade against morality and the virtues comes from the base of a discovery of neuroscience. For some, the understanding that there is such a thing as free will has been destroyed by the scientific discovery that there is a 300 ms delay between activity in the brain and our awareness of this activity.

The brain rules; the material brain rules. Free will does not exist. Case closed—at least in the more or less firm imagination of some people like Benjamin Libet, Susan Blackmore, and Sam Harris.

One moment of attention, please. I would like to repeat a number of well-known alternative explanations for this gap that, if singly or jointly, are finally and unquestionably proved valid will restore free will to its ancient glory (admittedly, an unlikely event since there are always people who like to go over well trodden ground to stir up old controversies).

  1. Shoot first, ask questions later: Are we sure that our jungle instincts do not fire up the brain automatically so that our consciousness can become operative? I mean, as an action that is wholly automatic and systemic, which wholly avoids the post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, because of this) fallacy. In other words, are we sure that the reality is not the reverse, namely that our consciousness does give a stand-by order to the brain to start functioning ahead of its specific intervention?

  2. Another possibility. Are we sure that our consciousness does not give an ad hoc order to the brain that is physically imperceptible? In this case, the chain of actions might be this: a. consciousness gives a physically imperceptible order to the brain (an order, which would re-establish the primacy of the will); b. the brain obeys; c. consciousness visibly responds;

  3. Conversely, are we sure of the content of the automatic action of the brain? I mean, is the firing of the brain leading us to an action that is systematically either in agreement or disagreement with our will?

  4. Also, if there is such a thing are we sure of the direction of the automatic action of the brain? I mean, is the firing of the brain leading us to an action that is systematically either in agreement or disagreement with our will?

  5. Is the action taken by the brain immutable?

  6. Conversely again, can consciousness trump the automatic action of the brain?

  7. Remain within the world of physics. You start the engine of a car, and the engine takes more than 300 milliseconds to start moving the car. Equate engine with will, and you end up postulating the primacy of the will as against the automatic action (=moving) of the brain. Briefly put, is our consciousness simply too slow, sly, and sluggish (this certainly seems to be a good description of “my” consciousness); and, if it is, what does that mean?

Assume that all these and likely other objections are proven to be scientifically wrong, what then? Assume that neuroscience establishes—not just in a few persons, but in everyone on earth—the primacy of the brain, then what? Are we all going to behave like robots, whether or not willfully injected with some form of socially conforming drug? Are we all going to become zombies?

That is a distinctive possibility. However, I like to believe in the possibility of alternative outcomes. Once we are controlled by the brain, rather than free will, we will give some serious attention to the brain. Surely we cannot be so simplistic as to assume that the brain will make us all commit immoral acts—about which we shall rejoice and not feel culpable.

No, so long as we are left with a scintilla of intelligence—read brain redux—there is no such thing as a morally neutral action. No, there is no such thing as a psychologically neutral action. Vegans have accustomed us to believe in the pain inflicted to animals. I am in full agreement with them. In the age of brain-controlled actions, we will not be able to eschew pain; hence, we will not be able to eschew morality.

But I am an ultra vegan. I tell you, if you hurt a stock of wheat, the whole field of wheat feels pain.

And I have deep reasons to believe that through the equivalence of matter to energy and to spirit even if you consciously hurt a stone, the whole universe feels pain.


That is a whole area to explore: Will we ever integrate feelings and thoughts?


Re: Theology. I am not a theologian and I am not going to attempt to resolve the Pelagian controversy in a few strokes. I sympathize with the attachment that secular humanists have for the preeminence of free will in our human nature.

As a believer, I do not see the exercise of human free will as a necessary denial of God’s will; I see interdependence.

Thus, I am free to say no to God; and when I say yes, I do not destroy either the independence of my free will or the preeminence of God’s will. To understand it, is a process of discovery—at times a very hard process. God’s will is there for the asking; it is available every time to everyone everywhere.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at and