In We are our brain the Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab, defends the thesis that in the end everything we do is determined by the biology of our brain. Our brain steers our development, mainly with the help of hormones. Sexuality, juvenile behaviour, depressions, aggression, psychological diseases … This is just a random choice of our hormone guided behaviour. Therefore it is no surprise that Swaab concludes that there is no “complete ‘Free Will’ ”.
If one sees the free will as the possibility to take decisions independent of internal or external limitations, so Swaab, our present neurobiological knowledge makes clear that there can be no complete freedom. Conceived this way, I think there’ll be hardly any person who thinks that there is. The limits of our body, but also of our social and cultural environment, are widely accepted as the limits of our freedom. However, Swaab does not make clear what our freedom then is, but I guess that he doesn’t see much space for the free will.
Yet, despite himself, he gives a hint where our freedom has to be sought. One of our characteristics determined by hormones during our prenatal development is the meaning of eye contact. In Western cultures, so Swaab, women use eye contact in order to understand other women better, and they enjoy it. For Western men, however, eye contact means testing their place in the hierarchy, which can be very menacing. In business negotiations, eye contact between women leads to more creative solutions, while eye contact between men has a negative effect on the results. “You can take advantage of this practical tip”, so Swaab concludes.
I think that just this remark says a lot about the limits of the determinism of our brain. In order to explain this I want to refer to a distinction by Jürgen Habermas between two levels of meaning, level 1 and level 0. The former is the level all sciences are faced with when they theoretically interpret their objects of research. The latter level is typical of those sciences that have to deal with objects that have been given meaning by the investigated people themselves. This made me distinguish two kinds of meaning: meaning 1 and meaning 0 (see here). The former is the kind of meaning used on the first level. It is the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character; it is the scientist’s theoretical interpretation of reality. Meaning 0 is the concept of meaning for the underlying level 0. It is the meaning people who make up social reality give to this social reality or to parts of it themselves; it is their interpretation of their own lived reality.When we return to Swaab’s description of the meaning of eye contact and his conclusion, we can apply the distinction of two levels of meaning here, too. When a researcher studies the effects of hormones on the meaning of eye contact, she is on level 1. When Swaab says, however, “You can take advantage of this practical tip”, he is no longer on the level of the biological mechanism. In fact, he says then what this mechanism can mean for us, the appliers of the eye contact, and also that the mechanism needs no longer be an automatism but that we can use it for the benefit of ourselves. By interpreting the biological mechanism this way we have arrived at level 0. It is the level where we can reflect on our biological constitution and where we can take advantage of it, if we are conscious of it. Just this conclusion by Swaab shows that our determinism has its limits. Therefore I think that there is room for a free will on level 0. Swaab gives also another hint that points in this direction, when he describes the meaning eye contacts have for Western women and men. For doesn’t this refer to the idea that our biological functioning can have another interpretation in another culture and so lead to other choices in other cultures?