26 Feb Ourselves | Part B’
Well, no, there is nothing about us that can escape the norms of nature. If something in us could infringe the laws of nature we would have discovered it by now. There is nothing in us in violation of the natural behaviour of things. The whole of modern science – from physics to chemistry, and from biology to neuroscience – does nothing but confirm this.
The solution to the confusion lies elsewhere. When we say that we are free, and it’s true that we can be, this means that how we behave is determined by what happens within us, within the brain, and not by external factors. To be free doesn’t mean that our behaviour is not determined by the laws of nature. It means that it is determined by the laws of nature acting in our brains.
Our free decisions are freely determined by the results of the rich and fleeting interactions between the billion neurons in our brain: they are free to the extent that the interaction of these neurons allows and determines. Does this mean that when I make a decision it’s ‘I’ who decides? Yes, of course, because it would be absurd to ask whether ‘I’ can do something different from what the whole complex of my neurons has decided: the two things, as the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza understood with marvellous lucidity in the seventeenth century, are the same.
There is not an ‘I’ and ‘the neurons in my brain’. They are the same thing. An individual is a process: complex, tightly integrated. When we say that human behaviour is unpredictable, we are right, because it is too complex to be predicted, especially by ourselves. Our intense sensation of internal liberty, as Spinoza acutely saw, comes from the fact that the ideas and images which we have of ourselves are much cruder and sketchier than the detailed complexity of what is happening within us. We are the source of amazement in our own eyes.
We have a hundred billion neurons in our brains, as many as there are stars in a galaxy, with an even more astronomical number of links and potential combinations through which they can interact. We are not conscious of all of this. ‘We’ are the process formed by this entire intricacy, not just by the little of it of which we are conscious.
The ‘I’ who decides is that same ‘I’ which is formed (in a way that is still certainly not completely clear, but which we have begun to glimpse) from reflections upon itself; through self-representations in the world; from understanding itself as a variable point of view placed in the context of the world; from that impressive structure that processes information and constructs representations which is our brain. When we have the feeling that ‘it is I’ who decides we couldn’t be more correct. Who else?
I am, as Spinoza maintained, my body and what happens in my brain and heart, with their immense and, for me, inextricable complexity.
This strange, multicoloured and astonishing world which we explore – where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere – is not something that estranges us from our true selves, for this is only what our natural curiosity reveals to us about the place of our dwelling. About the stuff of which we ourselves are made. We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made, and when we are immersed in suffering or when we are experiencing intense joy we are being nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world. Lucretius expresses this, wonderfully:
… we are all born from the same celestial seed; all of us have the same father, from which the earth, the mother who feeds us, receives clear drops of rain, producing from them bright wheat and lush trees, and the human race, and the species of beasts, offering up the foods with which all bodies are nourished, to lead a sweet life and generate offspring … (II, 991–7)
It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn. Our knowledge of the world continues to grow.
There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics