Why Are People Afraid of Their Brain?


This is my brain.

I ask this question because I often find that people seem to be afraid to be operated by a deterministic brain. Most people act as if their brain does not really belong to them. I just can’t understand this attitude. After all, most people have no complaints about their heart or other organs that are deterministic as well.

As you might have guessed the main topic for this blog is freewill. Well, I’ll let my cat out of the bag; come on Baxter you can get out now. I think that freewill is very real, as real as any mental phenomenon. It is just that I classify it as a feeling, not a decision maker. While not the operation of the brain that makes decisions, it is very important nonetheless. I think of freewill as a starter button for our actions, without it we would never do any deliberate action.

I call freewill a feeling or an emotion (the two are interchangeable to a degree) because it is such a strongly felt human phenomenon. As most feelings our strongly felt, I think it fits in to the feeling category, rather than the rational decision category. When humans think rationally it is anything but strong; it is cool determined thought. Now, all cognition has some amount of feeling attached to it and vice-a-versa, but the rational thought component is not strong.

There is some neuroscience imaging that shows that when humans decide something the limbic area of the brain, where emotions are thought to be processed, is active. You can find more about this in Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. In other words – no feeling, no decision. This feeling I purpose to call freewill. Of course, a little bit of brain science does not make a theory true, especially a philosophical one, but I think it makes my idea on freewill at least plausible.

I also think that the brain is all there is. This is there is no independent mind as in various dualisms. The most famous of which is probably Descartes’. This belief puts me in the materialists camp. For me the mind is fully produced by the brain. In other words, no brain, no mind. How the brain actually produces the mind is not exactly known, but there are lots of bits and pieces that have been studied. I found that Touched a Nerve: The Self as Brain by Patricia S. Churchland has some of the pertinent research on the brain that provides some of these bits and pieces.

Now, the brain, as far as science can determine, is a deterministic organ. Granted, some would like to argue that there is something else that is added to the brain. They think there is some other stuff that makes up the mind. But, how do you actually investigated that stance in materialist terms. As far as the philosophical position of naturalism is concerned, there is no other way. There are two forms of naturalism in philosophy; one is methodological naturalism, and the other is metaphysical naturalism; it is also called ontological naturalism.

The methodological version limits what can be investigated to natural phenomena. This is because, while the supernatural (meaning non-natural) phenomena may exist we have no tools to investigate them. Most practicing scientist take at least this view. The metaphysical version, instead of limiting what can be investigated, claims that there is just not any supernatural phenomena to investigate. This, obviously rules out the existence of god, since by practically any definition of god, god is a supernatural being. Thus a soul given by god drops out of the picture.

My position is the metaphysical version, although I do not care for the word metaphysical, since it is often concerned with what is above the physical, which would seemingly admit something nonphysical. Ontological is probably the better of the two terms because this is just the study of what exists, whether natural or supernatural. In this form of naturalism the supernatural is not considered. But I was introduced to it under the metaphysical name brand, so that is the term I use.

I opt for metaphysical naturalism because I can find no convincing evidence for anything supernatural. While supernaturalism  doesn’t necessitate any god or gods, it usually does. The arguments for god or gods are not good enough to cause me to belief. Other evidence, such as revelation, does not have anything to back it up besides itself. Another form of evidence usually given for god’s existence is personal experience, but personal experience can be wrong. I also find the design argument to be unconvincing because the world often seems to be less than optimum. Just one example – humans can choke on their food. Couldn’t an omniscient god create humans to avoid that event. Finally, there is the problem of evil, which I will not go into.

As for the paranormal I would rather not discuss it. Not necessarily because I don’t have reasons not to believe in these type of phenomena, but because I find it uninteresting, of which I cannot say the same for religion. Although not a believer in any god or gods, except maybe cats ;-), I do love investigating religion.

So for me the brain is all there is to cause us or any creature to have a mind. While I do not have any knockout argument to provide a reason without a doubt for this, I do believe I have enough evidence to be beyond a reasonable doubt that the brain is the cause of the mind. I find reasonable doubt to be enough of a reason to believe because in the United States, as well as many other countries this is enough to send someone to the gallows, or if not that to terms of imprisonment, which would be torture in my mind if done without this degree of probability.

I am aware that under this system of justice in the United States minorities are at a disadvantage because they cannot usually afford good legal representation. This is probably the reason why they make up the majority of criminal cases ending in sentencing to prison or receiving the death penalty.

Still, as a theory of criminal justice, I find reasonable doubt to be a very good criteria. Good enough for me to accept it for what I believe. Could I be wrong at times? Sure, but I don’t claim to be perfect. It is for me a good way to lead my life when I need to decide something. I suppose that this would put me in the pragmatist camp. Loosely, pragmatism is the philosophy of what is useful is true.

Now, back to the deterministic brain, which for now I will refer to as only the brain, and why so many people seem to deny that their brain is in some way not a part of themselves or are afraid to have a brain at all.

Now, think of all those things the brain is responsible for that we barely notice, if at all. The first is the reflex action, probably the most unnoticed until it is over with. Also, there are actions we perform without much notice, like riding a bicycle. We just do not consciously operate things were familiar with. One that is so puzzling to me is how we most often just speak or write with out consciously picking out the words, or the grammar, or how our different sentences hang together. This last is one strong reason I think we do not think in language.

I like to mention one more bit of neuroscience. I mentioned before that the emotional center of the brain is active when we decide what to do, but brain science also shows that we make our decisions before we our consciously aware of actually making them. This study, however, can be criticized.* This is also reason to possibly think that decisions are fully determined.

One thing that people, smart people even, suggest is that quantum mechanics actually saves the day for the traditional view of freewill. This is we somehow direct our decisions without being determined to do so – hence our freedom to decide what it is we want to think or do. Well, this just doesn’t work because in the quantum realm acts are uncaused. This is we are forever forbidden to find the cause of a quantum action; we can only determine things probabilistically. So by this view, our decisions are not caused, (i.e. they occur out of randomness). Randomness does not equate with a deliberate decision which freewill is suppose to provide. By the way, the equations of quantum mechanics are in themselves deterministic. It is just that they act on a large set of occurrences rather than on just one act. Otherwise, there is only an exact solution when a measurement is made. Then the wave equation that quantum mechanics uses is said to collapse.

As you can see, quantum mechanics does not save the day for traditional freewill. This despite the very smart physicist, Roger Penrose’s theory that microtubules in brain cells, actually all cells (he doesn’t mention this in his book The Emperors New Mind), when they divide move into action, displaying quantum actions. This is if I understand him. One mistake here is that it would require the division of cells in the brain when we decide something. This cannot be right because after the brain is fully developed, there isn’t any cell division going on in the brain, or at least it doesn’t happen very often. Seeing that we make decisions almost constantly–consciously or unconsciously, this idea just does not seem right.

Now, on to a major objection to not having traditional freewill. This is if we are fully determined we cannot be responsible for our actions. Thus, we cannot be blamed or praised for our actions. One thing I could say rather flippantly is so much for blame or praise.

But, there is one particular area where it is deem very important; this is criminal justice, not to ignore other actions that people do. How can one convict the guilty if they are not to be blame for his or hers actions. Well to start, it is the individual who preforms bad or good acts. And, just because the brain causes the actions, it cannot negate that the individual performed such acts; it is their brain, and only, their brain that caused their acts. This sounds repetitive, but the only way out that I can see is to deny the brain its due rights. The brain is the doer of all are mental life and behavior. People don’t seem to mind so much when they enjoy a good book, so why do they mind if it is the doer of good or bad.

Lets get back to criminal justice. Is convicting a person of a crime possible if freewill is a feeling. There are crimes of passion that might bring a lesser charge only because it is not premeditated, but the person is still convicted for the crime nonetheless. Now, crimes of passion are charged through and through with strong emotions, so if I’m correct in my understanding of freewill, how is this different from crimes commit with passion? They are both feelings. Regardless of who is in charge, so to speak, it is the person, the whole person who is convicted. There is no further discussion under naturalism of which ever stripe you considered.

By the way, or not, I would consider freewill as a very strong emotion. Maybe one of the strongest feelings we can have, since we darn right consider that we have it. I deliberate. I choose. I feel. I act. Freewill doesn’t seem to be very strong when we do actions that we know how to perform. I might decide to call someone that I know his or hers phone number, but pushing the buttons seems to flow without freewill. It’s not deliberated upon. This means that freewill is at its strongest when we have weighed our options and decided to carry out a particular action. The feeling that prompts an action is freewill.

My view on freewill and the deterministic brain is a form of compatibilism–another term from philosophy. The basics of which is “. . . that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent. Compatibilists believe freedom can be present or absent in situations for reasons that have nothing to do with metaphysics [the other kind, not naturalism].” This definition is from wikipedia at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compatibilism. A more through but definitely a better and fuller discussion, but much more difficult to wade through can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/.*

I believe my version of compatibilism is more true than other versions because feeling and thought are two separated entities. This is even so when you take in to consideration that they go together like peanut butter and jelly. They are under control of two different brain systems, or areas. Others try to dovetail freewill and determinism without really saying how they are not in conflict with each other. I mean they don’t purpose any mechanism that works. It all seems whether semantic. This is what I have gather from what I have read. I admit to not having read much of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on compatilibism, were some explanation of any purposed mechanism could possibly be found. So my version of compatibalism is the best form it can take that I know of.

So, I have freewill, and so do you, and I suspect all animals with a cortex do as well. After all, I believe that animals think and feel emotions. I have come  to think that freewill is an emotion, and a strong emotion at that. Without it we would not act at all. To deny this role of an emotion is like denying a part of you. Under metaphysical naturalism it is the brain that determines our decisions from previous causes, not any other stuff (soul or otherwise). Finally, we all deserve praise for our good acts and blame for our bad acts because our brain is us. There is no other cause.

After this summation of my feelings and thought on freewill, I would like to, briefly, get back to the actual title of this blog. Why do most people, or at least some, deny their brain its due, and why do they seem afraid of it? Or, afraid to have the brain in control of all they think, feel, and do.

It seems that few people actually think about freewill unless challenged that they do not have freewill (the traditional kind). On my view they do have freewill. It is just not the decider that most people think, so it is just as much of a challenge as the familiar view of freewill.

For me I am perfectly content to have a brain that directs my self. My brain has created an intriguing life for me. My life has not always been good, having its share of crap, but it is what has made me me, and it continues to do so. With my brain I am in full control and nobody else, and I have all the freewill I care to have. It’s as real as any other mental phenomena.

So, how is it that many other people don’t share my ownership of and happiness with their brain. It probably has to do with the brain’s determination of their choice, which they choose to not like. But, as I maintain, everybody is in complete control, and the sense of freewill is real. I think it is time for people to give up their qualms about their brain and celebrate having such a magnificent organ, which plays the tune of life with all its harmonies, symphonies, and yes, cacophonies.

*Sorry I have no exact reference for this, but I will search for one if you ask me.


This my brain on philosophy.


8 thoughts on “Why Are People Afraid of Their Brain?

  1. Hi Steven. As always, your superior knowledge of philosophy and familiarity with the finer points of some of its myriad arguments far outpaces my own meager understanding, so I can’t offer intelligent comment on most of your post. But I’ll try to contribute a little since your efforts deserve it.

    I don’t think I understand your claims that “MOST people act as if their brain does not really belong to them” and “people seem to be afraid to be operated by a deterministic brain”. It seems to me you’re talking about a relatively small group of people, that is, SOME of the philosophers and thinkers who spend a majority of their time thinking about, studying, and writing about cognition, free will, etc., and that group must surely constitute only the smallest minority of the world’s living population at any given point in time. I think most people are, in fact, quite willing to admit that their brain is in control much of the time but that it is always influenced, in varying degrees, by their feelings. I’m excluding from this group religious conservatives & fundamentalists, who constitute a somewhat larger minority than the aforementioned philosophers & thinkers and who are much more inclined to attribute actions to a higher power than to free will or independent thought.

    As for free will being a feeling or an emotion, I dispute that idea. Rather, I consider it a capacity of the brain. Certainly our decisions and actions are often operated on by feelings but not always. I fall firmly in the camp of those who believe we have free will, but I’m prepared to admit there may be limits on free will, imposed by heredity, experience, and environment, so if I understand the argument, that puts me in the camp of the compatibilists. Even if in a given situation one’s available actions are reduced either to do or not to do, one still has the freedom to choose one or the other.

    Please forgive my lack of sophistication and feel free to correct any obvious misunderstandings my comments reveal.


  2. Denny,

    To start I would like to thank you for the nice compliment you gave me on the overall blog.

    First, I would like to say that I think it is far more than a small minority that cannot except a deterministic brain. It is just that the majority hardly, if ever, think or are challenge about it. From what you wrote it seems like you still give a role to some non-brain stuff, where your brain is not fully in charge of making at least some of your decisions. I just do not believe that. I think it is deterministic all the way. But, I still feel that just because it is my brain that is responsible for my thoughts, feelings, and behavior that it is still very much me who does these things. It is still me who decides what to do, not anyone else. Granted, at times other people or situations will limit the options I have, like when I was ill. I just could not decide and get up an take a walk. Or, I might have decided to do it, but just could not follow it through, which some would say is not a real decision.

    Now, I could be wrong with my views on freewill, but I feel that my beliefs where freewill is concern has enough justification for me to make the claims I do about it.

    I do not think you fully grasp compatibilism, which may be my fault for not explaining it better. I probably should not have quoted wikipedia at all, and relied on some statement from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but I felt that the wikipedia quote was simpler. Compatibilism is were freewill is not the same as free choice. In it choices or decisions are deterministic, and what makes freewill compatible with these determined choices is that freewill is being define in a different way than is usually thought of. One view has freewill as a reality because if our decisions or actions are not coerced than are actions are free. This fits the legal definition in United States law.

    My version of compatibilism i think still fits the this scheme. It provides a rational for freewill that is different from free choice. Freewill as an emotion does not logically conflict with determined choice. Now here is the rub: freewill is still determined buy the brain, just like all our emotions. This, I feel, does not sit well with people who do not believe that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are not determined, at least in part. I still feel my version of compatibilism is better than others I have come across because it gives a bona fide roll for freewill, not just a different definition. And, it fits what people adamantly believe – that they have freewill. If you notice, adamantly is a very strong emotion, at least in my opinion.

    You absolutely do not need any forgiveness for your comments. They were very intelligible, and that is what counts. Just because you feel you lack a familiarity with philosophy does not make what you say any less understandable or any less important. There are plenty of people out there who are capable of spouting philosophical jargon without any substance, I just hope I am not one of those people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your compliment.

      I firmly belief that philosophy should be in agreement with science when it matters to the subject matter at hand. This is particularly true in philosophy of mind. This is even so in areas such as ethics, where one cannot in general derive “ought” from “is.” But, the best way to find out what “is” is to use science. And, if you want to find out the best way to accomplish a particular ethical action should be once you have decided on the moral path to take is to examine the evidence, where much can be learned from scientific investigation.


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