Many practitioners of modern-day neuroscience are contending that the biology of our minds determines our decisions, says Eliezer J. Sternberg in his new book, My Brain Made Me Do It. Studies of behavior and of the inner workings of the brain (using both intrusive means such as probing with electrodes into brain tissue and less intrusive views such as fMRIs) seem to be proving that we as conscious beings don’t truly have the moral agency or free will that we have always assumed we have; instead, our chemistry, biology and neurological connections seem to be hard-wired, leaving us with just an illusion of free will.
Sternberg, who graduated from Brandeis University and majored in neuroscience and philosophy, uses his philosophical background to analyze and argue the case for free will. He contends, in a nutshell, that scientists are making a huge leap of faith from studies that are still based on very simple, and certainly not what we would consider “moral,” behavior to assert that we have no free will.
I went into this book expecting it to be heavy on neuroscience and scientific case studies. Instead, it is a philosophical treatise analyzing a few scientific case studies to see if their grander claims hold up when walked through logical proofs. So I was initially disappointed; however, the concepts are thought-provoking and provided a window into the long-term ramifications of the science: how is our greater understanding of the workings of the brain affecting our view of ourselves as human beings, as beings with consciousness and moral agency? How might it change how our society works, or how the law works, for instance? Sternberg makes it clear that despite how many advances are being made, the neurosciences are still truly in infancy in terms of how much we really understand. There is a long road ahead, and surely our greatest triumph as sentient beings will be to come to an understanding of our very selves. If you love neuroscience, this might not be the book for you, but it is definitely a thought-provoking work that allows us to think again about who we are and how we act.