Brain, Mind and Free Will


“ Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity. ” Democritus (ca. 460 – 370 BC )

Whereas the Dalai Lama, tackles the “ body – mind ” problem in a dualistic way, observing that each one of us is both mind and body, the holistic approach depicts the world, including our bodies, as consisting entirely of physical particles in fields of force.

But how, if that is the make up of the brain, can such a brain create an entity abstract as the mind? Are we, in other words, free to choose our own destinies, or are we inextricably bound to the interactions between our genes with their environment? As we do not actually understand the brain very well, we have often sought to harness the latest developments in technology to create a model to try to interpret the brain’s behaviour.

The Ancient Greeks thought the brain functions as a catapult, the philosopher, Leibniz, compared it to a mill, and Freud described it in terms of hydraulic and electro-magnetic systems.

More recently C. S. Sherrington, Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine, declared that the brain worked in a manner of a telegraph system. Nowadays, obviously, the metaphor of choice is that of a digital computer, the mind being seen as a series of software programs implemented in the brain. The philosopher, R.S. Searle, says that mental phenomena are just part of nature, and that consciousness and intentionality are simply parts of the natural world, much like photosynthesis or digestion.

Thus, culture as a product of mental processes, is viewed by him as the form life takes on in different biological communities. The neurobiologist, M.S. Gazzaniga, adds that we are wired to form beliefs, and we form beliefs based on our cultural influences, i.e. our environment.
The brain being a biological machine with over 100 billion neurons, and each neuron having synaptic connections with other neurons, ranging in number from a few hundred to many tens of thousands, we do not yet know very much about the way the human brain functions with its different neural circuits and different local environments.

Biological evolution has been distinguished by newer and newer environmental challenges, stimulating newer and newer forms of life. M. Maeterlinck, polymath and Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, has illustrated in The life of the bee how this insect reacts in the most practical of ways to any dramatic changes of environment so as to ensure the survival its community.

Since the beginning of history, however, the intention has never been for mankind to survive solely in the biological sense.

There has always been the desire that one’s vision of life, i.e. culture, should live on even after one’s own passing away.
As far as our human species is concerned, the primitive interaction between the brain and its physical environment has been eroded and altered by the progressive encroachment of a third factor, “ cultural evolution, ” which has been playing an ever greater role in brain evolution.

Thus, our brain’s mass has constantly been increased subject to the constraints of: i ) chance, any kind of change in its social environment; ii ) necessity, rooted in the history of our genes.

It is well known that some of our attitudes and emotions will have been imprinted in us while we were yet in the womb, but this still fails to explain in biological terms those decisions we take that appear to contradict all our previous behaviour in life. From this has arisen the need for the invention of a concept such as the ‘ mind ’ as a way to explain such erratic actions, so contrary to the simple dynamics of cause and effect.

Using another metaphor, we can view the brain as a system of bio-electrical circuits encoding, willingly or not, pieces of information from the external world according to an instantaneous degree of preference, based on their: i ) emotional intensity, ii ) frequency of repetition, iii) sequence in time – since any piece of information contributes to our interpretation of the following one. Thus our vision of the world correlates to the way we interpret external stimuli. When a piece of the information fails to match any live circuit encoding a class of feelings, ideas, interests, etc., another circuit out of the number of all those available will be activated or completed, in order to host subsequent stimuli of the same class.

But each classification, as indeed any view of the world, remains subjective, based as it is on: i ) chance, i.e. the casual succession of events stimulating the brain and ii ) necessity, i.e. the propensity of one’s system of genes to interpret in any given way the events arising within different environments. In this manner, willingly or not, our whole life through we are constantly activating, upgrading, downgrading and isolating any number of brain circuits related to our feelings, judgements, beliefs, interests, etc., and become accustomed to analysing these in an abstract and complex space called the mind.

Just as the Ancient Greeks envisaged, the brain can work as a catapult. When a strong emotional stimulus hits the brain at a crucial time in life, this trauma can isolate, or downgrade, part of one’s system of beliefs and activate, or upgrade, those brain circuits fitting better with one’s new needs and wishes.

As a result, one builds up a fresh, new culture for oneself, step by step, reinterpreting the past from a new subjective view or by absorbing, totally or partially, accessible alien cultures.

Globalization has been giving more and more form to a composite megastore of beliefs, concepts and ideas, opening mankind to innumerable choices by activating one’s brain circuits in ever more differentiated way.

The range of our free will is thus extended, along with our cultural evolution, providing us with ever newer alternatives by means of higher education, newspapers, books, TV, radio, the Internet and so on. This gigantic artificial brain draws lymph and stimuli indiscriminately from here, there and everywhere and opens all the gates, from Hell right up to Heaven.