Richard J. Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology and has published more than 275 scientific papers, many chapters and reviews, and edited 13 books. He is the author of the new book (with Sharon Begley) The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Richie (as he is known to his friends) has done more to bring the study of mental well-being into the 21st century than anyone I can think of. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work.
I have noticed that some readers continue to find my argument about the illusoriness of free will difficult to accept. Apart from religious believers who simply “know” that they have free will and that life would be meaningless without it, my most energetic critics seem to be fans of my friend Dan Dennett’s account of the subject, as laid out in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves and in his public talks. As I mention in Free Will, I don’t happen to agree with Dan’s approach, but rather than argue with him at length in a very short book, I decided to simply present my own view. I am hopeful that Dan and I will have a public discussion about these matters at some point in the future.
I briefly discussed the illusion of free will in both The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape. I have since received hundreds of questions and comments from readers and learned just where the sticking points were in my original arguments. I am happy to now offer my final thoughts on the subject in the form of a short book, Free Will, that can be read in a single sitting.
The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.
Daniel Kahneman is an extraordinarily interesting thinker. As a psychologist, he received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky on decision-making. Here is what Steven Pinker, my previous interview subject, recently wrote about him:
Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind, many of which have become textbook classics and part of the conventional wisdom. His work has reshaped social psychology, cognitive science, the study of reason and of happiness, and behavioral economics, a field that he and his collaborator Amos Tversky helped to launch. The appearance of Thinking, Fast and Slow is a major event.
Kahneman was kind enough to take time out of a very busy book tour to answer a few of my questions.
The universe is filled with physical phenomena that appear devoid of consciousness. From the birth of stars and planets, to the early stages of cell division in a human embryo, the structures and processes we find in Nature seem to lack an inner life. At some point in the development of certain complex organisms, however, consciousness emerges. This miracle does not depend on a change of materials—for you and I are built of the same atoms as a fern or a ham sandwich. Rather, it must be a matter of organization. Arranging atoms in a certain way appears to bring consciousness into being. And this fact is among the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.
Many readers of my previous essay did not understand why the emergence of consciousness should pose a special problem to science. Every feature of the human mind and body emerges over the course development: Why is consciousness more perplexing than language or digestion? The problem, however, is that the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride, if traversed at all. Just as the appearance of something out of nothing cannot be explained by our saying that the first something was “very small,” the birth of consciousness is rendered no less mysterious by saying that the simplest minds have only a glimmer of it.
You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.
The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.
The full video is an hour long. Links to specific topics/questions are provided below:
1. Eternity and the meaning of life 0:42
2. Do we have free will? 4:43
3. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs? 14:52
4. How can atheists live among the faithful? 19:09
5. How should we talk to children about death? 21:52
6. Does human life have intrinsic value? 26:01
7. Why should we be confident in the authority of science? 30:36
8. How can one criticize Islam after the terrorism in Norway? 35:43
9. Should atheists join with Christians against Islam? 41:50
10. What does it mean to speak about the human mind objectively? 45:17
11. How can spiritual claims be scientifically justified? 50:14
12. Why can’t religion remain a private matter? 54:52
13. What do you like to speak about at public events? 58:09
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