Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?
Murphy (Nancey) & Brown (Warren)
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Oxford Scholarship Online Abstract

  1. If humans are purely physical, and if it is the brain that does the work formerly assigned to the mind or soul, then how can it fail to be the case that all of our thoughts and actions are determined by the laws of neurobiology? If this is the case, then free will, moral responsibility, and, indeed, reason itself would appear to be in jeopardy. Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown here defend a non-reductive version of physicalism whereby humans are (sometimes) the authors of their own thoughts and actions.
  2. Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? brings together insights from both philosophy and the cognitive neurosciences to defeat neurobiological reductionism.
    1. One resource is a 'post-Cartesian' account of mind as essentially embodied and constituted by action-feedback-evaluation-action loops in the environment, and 'scaffolded' by cultural resources.
    2. Another is a non-mysterious account of downward (mental) causation explained in terms of a complex, higher-order system exercising constraints on lower-level causal processes.
    These resources are intrinsically related: the embeddedness of brain events in action-feedback loops is the key to their mentality, and those broader systems have causal effects on the brain itself.
  3. With these resources Murphy and Brown take on two problems in philosophy of mind: a response to the charges that physicalists cannot account for the meaningfulness of language nor the causal efficacy of the mental qua mental. Solutions to these problems are a prerequisite to addressing the central problem of the book: how can biological organisms be free and morally responsible? The authors argue that the free-will problem is badly framed if it is put in terms of neurobiological determinism; the real issue is neurobiological reductionism. If it is indeed possible to make sense of the notion of downward causation, then the relevant question is whether humans exert downward causation over some of their own parts and processes. If all organisms do this to some extent, what needs to be added to this animalian flexibility to constitute free and responsible action? The keys are sophisticated language and hierarchically ordered cognitive processes allowing (mature) humans to evaluate their own actions, motives, goals, and rational and moral principles.

    Introduction: New Approaches to Knotty Old Problems – 1
  1. Avoiding Cartesian Materialism – 15
  2. From Causal Reductionism to Self‐Directed Systems – 42
  3. From Mindless to Intelligent Action – 105
  4. How Can Neural Nets Mean? – 147
  5. How Does Reason Get its Grip on the Brain? – 193
  6. Who's Responsible? – 238
  7. Neurobiological Reductionism and Free Will – 267
    Postscript – 307
    Bibliography – 309
    Index – 323

Oxford Scholarship Online Chapter Abstracts
    Introduction: New Approaches to Knotty Old Problems
    • The problem that is addressed by this book is given in the form of the question: ‘If humans are physical systems, and if it is their brains that allow them to think, how can it not be the case that all of their thoughts and behaviors are simply the product of neurobiology?’
    • The book's approach to this problem is described in terms of a reformulation of philosophical views based on neuroscience, most particularly the views of causal reduction and the mental as ‘inner’.
    • Tangled terminology is sorted out (preliminarily) with respect to the meaning of ideas, such as physicalism, emergence, and downward causation.
    • Finally, an overview of the progression of arguments of the book is given in the form of chapter summaries1.
  1. Avoiding Cartesian Materialism
    • This chapter explores the legacy of Descartes in attempting to understand the human mind, a legacy often referred to as Cartesian materialism.
    • An account is given of the many ways in which Cartesian assumptions about human nature are embedded in most versions of physicalism.
    • The chapter criticizes the tendency to substitute brain-body dualism for mind-body dualism, the assumption that emotion is opposed to rationality, and the idea of mental processes as occurring in an inner space — no longer the ‘Cartesian theater’ but nonetheless inside the head.
    • In contrast, this chapter emphasizes that mind is embodied, not merely ‘embrained’, and that mental events must be understood as contextualized brain events.
  2. From Causal Reductionism to Self‐Directed
    • This chapter criticizes overly-simple accounts of causal processes, particularly atomist-reductionism-determinism.
    • Alternatively, a case is made for considering downward causation (the effect of the whole on its parts) as well as bottom-up causation (the effect of parts on the whole).
    • Downward causation involves selection or constraint of lower-level causal processes on the basis of how those lower-level processes or entities fit into a broader (higher-level) causal system. Self-directed and self-causing systems are described as embodying downward causation in the form of systems operating on information and feedback, and describable in the terms of complex, nonlinear dynamical systems.
    • Countenancing downward causation is not equivalent to denying (all) causal determinism; the lower-level variants may be produced either deterministically or randomly.
  3. From Mindless to Intelligent Action
    • This chapter builds upon the preceding account of complex causal processes by considering step-by-step the increasing abilities of organisms to respond to information about their environments in increasingly flexible ways, and the neural processes that make this flexibility possible.
    • The characteristics of goal-directedness and evaluation are present in even the most rudimentary biological activity; the distinctiveness of intelligent action lies in the organism's ability to detach itself from immediate biological and environmental stimuli, and in the character of the evaluative processes involved.
    • Such evaluation depends on hierarchical structuring of cognitive processes such that higher animals are able to make their own actions (and in the case of humans, their own cognition) the product of evaluation.
    • The nature of consciousness in evaluative processes is also discussed.
  4. How Can Neural Nets Mean?
    • The charge is often made that a physicalist cannot make sense of meaning.
    • This chapter argues that the supposed mysteries of meaning and intentionality are a product of Cartesian assumptions regarding the inwardness of mental acts and the passivity of the knower.
    • If instead we consider the mental in terms of emulations of embodied action in the social world, there is no more mystery as to how the word ‘chair’ (for example) hooks onto the world than there is in how one learns to sit in one.
    • Consideration is given to the neural capacities needed for increasingly complex use of symbols, and to the embodied nature of meaning in language.
    • Symbolic language — in fact, quite sophisticated symbolic language — is a prerequisite for both reasoning and morally responsible action.
  5. How Does Reason Get its Grip on the Brain?
    • This chapter deals with the role of reason in human thought and action.
    • A powerful argument against physicalism is the lack, so far, of a suitable account of ‘mental causation’, that is, of the role of reason in brain processes. The problem is often formulated as the question of how the mental properties of brain events can be causally efficacious.
    • Instead, this chapter reformulates the problem in terms of two questions:
      1. how is it that series of mental/neural events come to conform to rational (as opposed to merely causal) patterns; and
      2. what difference does the possession of mental capacities make to the causal efficacy of an organism's interaction with its environment?
    • The role of beliefs and reasoning in behavior is discussed with respect to these questions.
  6. Who's Responsible?
    • This chapter deals with a central theme of the book: a philosophical analysis of the concept of morally responsible action.
    • The account of moral agency worked out by Alasdair MacIntyre is utilized. In this account, morally responsible action depends (initially) on the ability to evaluate that which moves one to act in light of a concept of the good.
    • The cognitive prerequisites for such action would include
      → a sense of self,
      → a narrative memory,
      → the ability to run behavioral scenarios and predict their outcome,
      → the ability to represent the future, and
      → high-order symbolic language.
    • In light of this, the problem of weakness of will and the meaning of free will are discussed.
  7. Neurobiological Reductionism and Free Will
    • Free will is taken as a prerequisite for moral responsibility.
    • The tangled history of debates over its meaning and existence is briefly reviewed.
    • The principal aim of this chapter is to eliminate one of the worries that seems to threaten our conception of ourselves as free agents, namely neurobiological reductionism — the worry that ‘my neurons made me do it’.
    • The following arguments are brought forward from previous chapters:
      → that organisms are (often) the causes of their own behavior;
      → that humans are capable of using and understanding the meaning of language;
      → that humans act for reasons, not merely on the basis of causes; and
      → that mature humans are able to act on the basis of moral concepts.
    • These are used to critique some of the usual categories under which the idea of free will has been debated.

In-Page Footnotes ("Murphy (Nancey) & Brown (Warren) - Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?")

Footnote 1:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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