Making a mind up

1 July 2004


Walter J Freeman

In “How Brains make up their Minds”, Walter J Freeman set out to tackle the ancient issue of free will, but he also addressed many of the other fundamental issues about consciousness and thought. The book has an unusually even balance of neurology and philosophy, with similar ideas coming into play in both fields.

Freeman uses some familiar terms from philosophy in rather unusual ways. For him, intentionality does not mean “aboutness” in the way it generally does to contemporary philosophers. Instead, it means the property of being directed towards some object or goal. So in his eyes, the food-seeking behaviour of simple organisms displays intentionality even though there is no question of their having plans or acting deliberately. In his view, this is Thomas Aquinas’s original meaning, and a key foundation for consciousness. Aquinas is credited with a number of important insights which Freeman has incorporated into his own views.


‘Meaning’ also has a special sense in Freeman’s account, quite distinct from simple information. Freeman speaks of meaning in what sound at first like worryingly poetic or metaphorical terms, but the point is really a matter of context. Meaning, in Freeman’s sense, is given to mere information when it is set in the context of an individual mind, with all its multiple life experiences, history and characteristic quirks. This matches his views about the neuronal operation of the brain, where rather than discrete bits of data working their way through a program, he sees a mathematically chaotic pattern of activity in which the whole system comes to bear. Each brain has its own individual pattern of basic activity which provides a unique context in which meanings develop. It follows that meanings are, strictly, unique to particular individuals, and in stark contrast to Putnam's famous doctrine, meanings are only in the head. Consciousness is the high-level pattern which brings the whole thing together, and emotional and moral self-control may well be a matter of how closely overall consciousness binds lower and more partial patterns of activity.


In Freeman’s view, the process of perception and action is not a two-way matter of inputs and outputs, but a one-way street of action on the world. Many people would agree that perception is an active business, not just a passive reception of impressions, but the idea that it consists entirely of action on the world sounds bonkers, and in fact Freeman does allow the outside world to influence our behaviour – the point is that all the ideas and interpretations bubble up from inside, and merely survive or fail to survive the impact of external reality. This is rather reminiscent of Edelman’s views and his analogy with the immune system, but Freeman draws from it the rather bleak conclusion that we are all, in a sense, in a state of solipsistic isolation from the world.


This creates a special problem for Freeman: how is it that we ever manage to overcome our isolation and communicate with each other? He sees social interaction as playing a mediating role, with processes rather similar to those which go on in the brain operating in the wider social sphere - though not so similar that society itself becomes a conscious entity. Freeman has a number of ideas about signalling and communication to offer, but I'm not sure he really manages to deal with the underlying problem, and it remains a weak spot in the theory.


What, then is the answer on free will? At times Freeman seems to assert free will, while at others he seems to deny it: in fact he ultimately considers the question an ill-formed one. We see actions in terms of freedom or determinism because we are wedded to linear causality, even though we know that it does not provide an adequate view of the world, and that circular causality and more sophisticated perspectives are often more appropriate. For the swirling chaotic patterns of the brain, dynamic analysis is a more appropriate tool than those based on linear causation, and when we apply it correctly, the old opposition between free and determined is no longer an issue.


There’s something in this, undoubtedly, but it doesn’t dispel the sense of mystery which has made the old debate such a long-running philosophical staple. There does seem, intuitively at least, to be something uniquely odd about the causality of our minds, but if the problem arose entirely from a lack of dynamic analysis, we should surely find some of the causality of the normal world more mysterious than we do?