Cognitive neuroscience and freedom: healing the disciplinary divide


Neurociência cognitiva e liberdade: superando a divisão disciplinar



Daniel S. Levine

Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Arlington. levine@uta.edu



Aleksandrowicz/Minayo, along with Atlan who is the subject of their article, take on an intellectual challenge that is formidable but no less necessary. This is the challenge of reconciling the belief in determinism, at the basis of the sciences, with the concerns for freedom, responsibility, and ethical values, at the basis of the humanities. The split between these two outlooks is closely related to the split between reason and emotion lamented by such authors as Damasio (1994, 2003), and both splits are at the heart of the current crises of modern and postmodern civilization. If different disciplines provide windows on the same reality, it can be highly discomforting if the views from those windows cannot be reconciled with one another.

Fortunately, both Aleksandrowicz/Minayo and Atlan point to some ways out of this crisis of cognitive dissonance. And the reconciliation they provide is compatible with recent discoveries in my field of cognitive neuroscience, along with mathematical theories of neural networks that model interfaces between brain and behavior.

Atlan understands what we experience as free will as a behavioral state, to be explicable scientifically as more knowledge emerges, that carries with it a subjective feeling of freedom. He sharply distinguishes this from the literal metaphysical belief in a free will that is independent of previous exigencies; in fact, the behavioral system state he propounds is entirely compatible with scientific determinism. Yet this is precisely the sort of human freedom that Aleksandrowicz as a psychoanalyst is dedicated to promoting. It is closely associated with an increase in happiness, or what Maslow (1971) called self-actualization: the optimal development of human potential.

Are Atlan and Aleksandrowicz/Minayo justified in their faith that a scientific description of subjective freedom will become possible as scientific knowledge expands in the relevant areas? And if the answer to that question is yes, how close are those areas (neuroscience and psychology) to the necessary point of knowledge?

Aleksandrowicz/Minayo caution that the position with which Atlan is attuned does not propound that the conclusions reached by the neurosciences and cognitive sciences are sufficient to explain subjective experience and ethical dilemmas. Yet even without a direct one-to-one map between brain science and subjective states, we have come far enough in our understanding to have some speculative theories about brain patterns corresponding to optimal functioning (see, e.g., Cloninger, 1999; Leven, 1998; Levine, 2005). These theories rely on an extensive database about the prefrontal cortex and its connections with subcortical brain areas. I believe the theories will be refined to the point of being partly testable in new experiments within the next decade.

Quantitative models of neurocognitive function rely heavily on the modern mathematical theory of complex dynamical systems, including chaos, which (as Aleksandrowicz/ Minayo note) is one of the cornerstones of Atlan’s reconciliation of the sciences and the humanities. Already there are partial mathematical descriptions available of what constitutes an optimal versus a nonoptimal state of a dynamical system representing aspects of biological self-organization (e.g., Atlan, 1974; Hinton & Sejnowski, 1986; Levine, 1994; 2005).

In neuroscience (Levine & Elsberry, 1997) and in the psychology of human decision making (Reyna & Brainerd, 1995), optimality is largely out of favor as a universal description of behavior, but has retained its force as a normative prescription. And this is precisely where Atlan’s, and Aleksandrowicz/Minayo’s, subjective freedom lies. We humans are free in the sense that: (1) an optimal state, variants of which have been called happiness (Atlan, 2002), creativity (Cloninger, 1999), and self-actualization (Maslow, 1971), exists; yet (2) we are not always at that optimal state but are continuously making choices that move ourselves, and others, toward or away from that state.

Aleksandrowicz/Minayo refer to the influence of neo-Darwinian accounts of human nature, and the biases these accounts induce toward genetic determinism. Yet more recently there has been a movement toward a sort of "neo-neo-Darwinism" in which nature and nurture are not separate or in opposition; gene expression is heavily influenced by development, including both social influences and choices; and cooperation, love, and morality are at least as important as competition (Coll, Bearer, & Lerner, 2004; Eisler & Levine, 2002; Loye, 2004). In this reconstituted evolutionary theory (which some of its proponents claim is true to Darwin’s original notions), our actions are partly determined by our genes but also partly determine how the genes operate over time. This outlook still posits a deterministic "human nature" but one that is not severely constrained by genes and includes the possibility of Atlanian subjective freedom.

Aleksandrowicz/Minayo raise the specter of what other authors have called a post-biological evolution based on genetic technologies that allow us to alter our own nature or that of our offspring. Yet whatever technology we have at our disposal, the behavior of the resulting human beings is still influenced by our actions, and by our beliefs about what actions are possible. Here is where her work and Atlan’s is the most innovative. As both argue, current developments in science (including chaos, complexity theory, and the concept of emergence) provide an opportunity for creating a more human-enhancing social order than has ever been seen in history. For this to occur, as Aleksandrowicz/Minayo say, "there is a pressing need for an extraordinary effort involving a vast cooperation of interdisciplinary competencies." "Interdisciplinary" in this case encompasses much more than interactions between traditional academic disciplines such as biology, psychology, anthropology, mathematics, physics, philosophy, et cetera. It also includes the work of psychotherapists (such as Aleksandrowicz herself) and other helping professionals; social change "think tanks" (such as <www.thedarwinproject.com> and <www.partnershipway.org>); educators at all levels from nursery school to old age; religious clergy and practitioners; politicians, grass-roots activists, and nongovernmental organizations; and much more. Aleksandrowicz/Minayo call for a world-wide effort in which president, professor, and trash collector alike are participants and not spectators.



Atlan H 1974. On a formal definition of organization. Journal of Theoretical Biology 45:295-304.

Atlan H 2002. La Science est-elle Inhumaine? Essai sur la Libre Nécessité. Bayard, Paris.

Cloninger R 1999. A new conceptual paradigm from genetics and psychobiology for the science of mental health. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 33:174-186.

Coll CG, Bearer EL & Lerner RM (eds.) 2004. Nature and nurture: the complex interplay of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior and development. Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, USA.

Damasio A 1994. Descartes’ error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. Grosset/Putnam, New York.

Damasio A 2003. Looking for Spinoza: joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. Harcourt, Orlando.

Eisler R & Levine DS 2002. Nurture, nature, and caring: We are not prisoners of our genes. Brain and Mind 3:9-52.

Hinton GE & Sejnowski TJ 1986. Learning and relearning in Boltzmann machines, pp. 282-317. In DE Rumelhart & JL McClelland (eds.). Parallel distributed processing (Vol. I). MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Leven S 1998. Creativity: reframed as a biological process, pp. 427-470. In KH Pribram (ed.). Brain and values: is a biological science of values possible? Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.

Levine DS 1994. Steps toward a neural theory of self-actualization, pp. 215-220. World Congress on Neural Networks, San Diego, June, 1994 (Vol. 1). Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, USA.

Levine DS 2005. Angels, devils, and censors in the brain. ComPlexus (under revision).

Levine DS & Elsberry WR (eds.). 1997. Optimality in biological and artificial networks? Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, USA.

Loye D (ed.). 2004. The great adventure: toward a fully human theory of evolution. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, USA.

Maslow AH 1971. The farther reaches of human nature. Viking,New York.

Reyna VF & Brainerd CJ 1995. Fuzzy trace theory: an interim synthesis. Learning and Individual Differences 7:1-75.

ABRASCO - Associação Brasileira de Saúde Coletiva Rio de Janeiro - RJ - Brazil
E-mail: revscol@fiocruz.br