Michael Gazzaniga’s Gifford Lectures “What We Are” and “Free Yet Determined and Constrained

Gazzaniga’s Gifford Lectures of 2009 fall within the broader project of a humanism – in the sense of the place and role of human beings in the cosmos – and the discourse of modern science, which seems to provide an answer to this question according to its own postulates, especially in the form of determinism, which is a materialist philosophy which posits cause and effect reactions. In other words, the human being and, for example, consciousness are just another example of physical cause and effect relationships. Relying upon neuroscientific research that follows the scientific method, Gazzaniga nevertheless shows that this research itself leaves the possibility open that the deterministic model perhaps shows that human brains cannot be reduced to material phenomena as we currently understand these phenomena.

Accordingly, Gazzaniga shows many of the existing lacuna in current research, forwarding the possibility that perhaps the brain is organized differently to other phenomena. The lecture is valuable in demonstrating that material science still has many unanswered questions, although Gazzniga also underscores the point that this does not mean that these questions are unanswerable, but rather that further research can give us new answers, although this may require new approaches, which falls in line with some of the limits of the aforementioned determinism.

Gazzaniga builds on these points more specifically in his fourth Gifford lecture, entitled “Free Yet Determined and Constrained.” The title of the lecture reflects some of the new and apparently paradoxical approaches to the human mind: it is not correct to say that either the mind or free will is free or determined, but rather tries to re-think what he terms the meaning of being free. Namely, the lecture is above all valuable in thinking about some of our presuppositions in regards to consciousness and neurosciences. Gazzaniga in particular identifies the possibility whereby the material causes that produce consciousness is then subsequently effected by consciousness. This destroys any of the neat classifications involved in neuroscience, and once again underlines the importance of new conceptual approaches to the field that are wary of unexamined prejudices.

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