Guest lecture by Dick Swaab on the brain and free will
On Tuesday 11 October the second year PPLE course of Law, Justice and Morality II hosted the famous neuroscientist Dick Swaab. Swaab gave a guest lecture on the working of the brain and its implications for our cherished notions of free will and free choice.
The brain interpreter
Swaab informed his audience that the brain determines what we think and choose. A large number of experiments show that the outcome of the choices we are making is already determined by the brain, even before we become fully aware that we have a choice. The brain knows what we will do even before we know it ourselves. This ‘self’ that consciously deliberates about choice is no more than an added feature of the brain. Neuroscientists call it the ‘brain interpreter’, a function of the brain providing rationalisations for choices after they have in fact already been determined.
The make-up of the brain is already almost fully drawn up in the whomb and the first months of childhood. That means that character, level of aggression, sexual preference and even political affiliation are predetermined. When we want to know how people will behave, we need to examine their brains and not listen to what they say, was Swaab's message.
Free will? An illusion
Where does that leave our freedom of choice and our free will? Swaab's answer is bold and controversial: they are illusions created by the brain.