Who’s In Control

You’re not in charge of you. You may feel that you make decisions every day. But you’re wrong. It’s all a big hoax your brain plays on you every morning when you wake up. That’s the gist, more or less, of the third installment of the PBS documentary Your Brain: The Story of You.

The title of this particular episode is Who’s In Control. Like the first two shows, the title is the basic question that the program seeks to answer. With some nuance, the show’s host and author David Eagleman essentially answers the question “who’s in control?” with “your brain.” Throughout the program Eagleman describes the “weird ways our brains secretly control everything that we do.”

Eagleman says:

Who’s in control of what you do? It sounds like a simple question but the facts might surprise you. Almost every action that you take, and every decision that you make, and every belief that you hold, these are driven by parts of your brain that you have no access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine.

Eagleman describes how our consciousness allows for the illusion that we are a unified whole. That we are persons, something more than simply the sum of our parts. Eagleman likens our concsiousness to the CEO of a large organization, who is able to give direction and planning for all of the employees within the company, in this case our subconscious self. But the CEO analogy breaks down if you try to think of it as something independent of the brain. It isn’t.

In other words there isn’t something independent of our brain matter that truly allows for decision making. While the episode gave less attention to free will than I anticipated, it is clear, to whatever extent Eagleman truly anticipates some explanation of free will, that it will have to be grounded in a scientific understanding. The program references the work of Harvard University professor Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone to demonstrates the current inability of science to show some part of the brain associated with free will. As he says, “It appears that nothing that we can record in the brain points to choice.”

This illustrates a fundamental difference in worldviews. The Christian doesn’t believe that the human experience can be reduced to merely material explanations within the context of nature and nurture. I don’t think some part of the brain can be isolated as the free will quadrant. Any such discovery will likely be susceptible to the charge of the logical fallacy of Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, which says that A happened before B therefore A caused B. In other words, if a part of the brain can be clearly tied to choice, say it lights up with the activity of choosing, can we be certain that the brain caused the decision, or is it simply responding to the will, the immaterial quality that belongs to the soul?

Christians believe that there is a substantive element, something we call the soul, that is non-physical. It is the essence of who we are. And I believe it is what makes the most sense of the notions of mind, qualia, morality, volition, and intentionality. (Forgive the philosophy references). To deny it, in favor of exclusively physical explanations, may come with a great cost: the cost of the self.


Here’s some quick links to my summary and brief response to each episode: