According to Sam Harris, noted neuroscientist and atheist, we are all “biochemical puppets.”
Obviously, this precludes our having free will. It precludes our being capable of making rational decisions. It absolves us of responsibility for our actions.
We are left with what, exactly? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Harris sees human beings as mindless, amoral monsters.
To my knowledge, he does not ask a salient question: if we are all puppets, who is the puppeteer? Surely, we are more than a bunch of biochemical processes responding to stimuli. If there isn't a puppeteer, what makes your actions yours? What does it mean to say that actions are yours if you are a biochemical puppet?
These are complicated, difficult and important questions. That being the case, addressing them seriously is an achievement.
So, our compliments to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom for an excellent article where he shows that neuroscience need not make us into “biochemical puppets,” devoid of free will, reason and responsibility.
Of course, Bloom is obliged to go beyond neuroscience. He argues that even if we suffer biochemical influences, that in itself does not preclude our making a free and rational choice and being responsible for it.
The deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences. These processes are at the core of what it means to say that people make choices, and in this regard, the notion that we are responsible for our fates remains intact.
The universe might be deterministic, but if, for example, you are playing chess, the outcome is not predetermined. When playing chess, as Bloom notes, we analyze options, construct argument, reason through different alternatives and make our moves. We may develop a winning strategy. We may not. In neither case can we say that we are merely biochemical puppets.
Some neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, argue their points by referring to tests that show how the mind can be influenced by external stimuli.. If you see someone wearing a hat or strumming a guitar, you are more likely to react in a certain way.
Yet, the fact that we are subject to influence does not mean that our decisions are irrational. If you are exposed to two ads for detergent they are both attempting to influence your decision, but when making a decision you will normally weigh them along with other considerations, like past experience and recommendations. Even if you decided to go along with the ad that has the fashion model or the one that has the pile of clean clothes, you have still chosen to follow one set of influences, and not another.
Bloom explains the point well:
Just because something has an effect in a controlled situation doesn’t mean that it’s important in real life. Your impression of a résumé might be subtly affected by its being presented to you on a heavy clipboard, and this tells us something about how we draw inferences from physical experience when making social evaluations. Very interesting stuff. But this doesn’t imply that your real-world judgments of job candidates have much to do with what you’re holding when you make those judgments.
It’s relevant that people whose polling places are schools are more likely to vote for sales taxes that will fund education. Or that judges become more likely to deny parole the longer they go without a break. Or that people serve themselves more food when using a large plate. Such effects, even when they’re small, can make a practical difference, especially when they influence votes and justice and health. But their existence doesn’t undermine the idea of a rational and deliberative self. To think otherwise would be like concluding that because salt adds flavor to food, nothing else does.
He also adds this point:
Yes, we are physical beings, and yes, we are continually swayed by factors beyond our control. But as Aristotle recognized long ago, what’s so interesting about us is our capacity for reason, which reigns over all. If you miss this, you miss almost everything that matters.
Obviously, this is not merely a theoretical exercise. It aims at defining a notion of moral responsibility. Are we inclined to do the right thing? Will rational deliberation be more likely to lead us to do the right thing? At what point are we no longer responsible for our actions?
If we are biochemical puppets, how do we know right from wrong? How do we, Bloom argues, learn to improve our moral principles? We might say that we do it by trial-and-error, but still, what gives us the first principles and why do we believe that trial-and-error is better, say, than inspiration?
It ought to be well enough known, thanks to David Hume, that science does not tell us what we should do. It tells us what is.
When people take action in the world, Bloom continues, they make plans and implement those plans. These plans are purposive.
Our capacity for rational thought emerges in the most-fundamental aspects of life. When you’re thirsty, you don’t just squirm in your seat at the mercy of unconscious impulses and environmental inputs. You make a plan and execute it. You get up, find a glass, walk to the sink, turn on the tap. … Making it through a single day requires the formulation and initiation of complex multistage plans, in a world that’s unforgiving of mistakes (try driving your car on an empty tank, or going to work without pants). The broader project of holding together relationships and managing a job or career requires extraordinary cognitive skills.
It is worth mentioning that when you feel thirsty and get up to get a drink of water your behavior is more likely to feel automatic than planned. This does not make it less rational. It makes it less directed. The fact that we can analyze the act of getting a glass of water into a series of cognitions and gestures does not necessarily mean that we performed all of them in our minds before turning on the faucet.