Can "Mentalist Monism" Save Mind and Morality from the Mechanistic Materialists?

a review of Roger Sperry's Science and Moral Priority: Merging Mind, Brain, and Human Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983)

by Roger E. Bissell

Vera Lex, Vol. XIV, No. 1-2


[Beneath the melodrama and hyperbole in this alliterative question lies the tale of an ongoing sea-change of great import in the history of ideas. And that is no exaggeration, as you will see from the following review.]

With rare exception, the vast majority of secular and religious thinkers throughout human history have told us that it is impossible to derive values from facts, to deduce a prescription of what morally ought to be from a description of what actually is. And from about 1920 to 1970, the most influential thinkers in the behavioral sciences have argued that the human mind is an illusion or, at best, a powerless byproduct of physical brain processes--and that free will is a myth and, thus, moral responsibity for one's actions a cruel hoax.

It's easy to see how these two views of morality have combined in a way that has discouraged any attempt at rational understanding of moral right and wrong (during a time, some would say, when the human race has needed it most). If, as Kant said, "ought implies "can," then "can not" implies "ought not." So if, as the materialists claim, we can't choose to act morally, then we ought not to expect others to do what we think they "ought" to do, including choose to act morally! And even if we could make moral choices, we have no way of proving that ours are better than anyone else's.

Coming to do battle against this two-headed monster--the impossibility of rational morality and the impossibility of rational morality--is neurobiologist and Nobel Prize winner in Medicine/Physiology, Roger Sperry. The thesis of Sperry's book (and of a good number of his more than 200 scientific papers and articles[1]) is that, due to a recent profound shift in how consciousness and free will are regarded in the behavioral sciences--a shift in which he has played a leading role--"a synthesis of science with moral values, despite previous views to the contrary, is today logically feasible, humanistically compatible and scientifically sound." (p. 5)

This collection of pieces written between 1965 and 1980 lend eloquent and forthright support for the moral underpinnings of natural law and natural rights, and from an eminent member of the ranks of brain science, no less. Truly, the tide has turned, when references in scientific circles to one's inner experience or introspective data of awareness are no longer taboo, and when experimental scientists are willing to consider a human being as a creature that freely determines its values and actions and is more than just some kind of fancy "stimulus-response" machine.

As a brief overview of the thinking of this remarkable man, this review of Science and Moral Priority will focus on two of Sperry's unique contributions: (1) his view of mind, free will, and causality; and (2) his proposal for a "science of values" and for "a value-belief system that might stand a chance at the United Nations." (p. 5)

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The two most important questions regarding human consciousness or mind, for Sperry, are: (1) can conscious experience exist apart from the brain? and (2) can conscious experience exert causal influence over brain activity, and thus human behavior?

In answer to the first question, dualists, who believe that there are independent, co-existing mental and physical worlds, say yes--which allows for a number of ways that consciousness might exist apart from matter, including the possibility of a conscious afterlife, as well as other kinds of supernatural and paranormal ideas, such as belief in God or in Extra-Sensory Perception. The monists, on the other hand, say no: there is only one world, the world of physical things and their attributes, motions, and relationships; and the conscious mind cannot exist apart from the functioning brain of a living being.

In answer to the second question, materialists say no: consciousness (if they grant its existence at all) is a causally impotent by-product, inner aspect, or parallel correlate of events in the brain. Mentalists, however, say that, yes, consciousness somehow does exert control over the brain, controlling and guiding our behavior; mind and brain somehow interact with one another.

Mentalists or interactionists have typically been dualists, while materialists are monists. Sperry stakes out a third position: mentalist monism. He sees consciousness and mind not as ghostly, otherworldly phenomena, but as "emergent functional properties of brain processing," i.e., "dynamic, emergent (pattern or configurational) properties of the living brain in action." (pp. 92,32) And, like other emergent phenomena that arise from the development of complex, multi-level systems elsewhere in nature, conscious and mental states--being part of the highest level of the human organism's hierarchic structure--are not only influenced by lower-level processes (atomic, molecular, cellular, metabolic, etc.), but also act as "functional entities," exercising "downward causation" on those subordinate processes, as well as acting at the same level on each other (e.g., a memory helping to cause a thought, or a value to cause an emotion).

Sperry thus avoids the false alternative of mechanistic determinism and indeterminism. The former holds that every process in human beings can ultimately be explained by and reduced to what happens on the subatomic level, a view sometimes called "micro-determinism." The latter[2] holds that, due to the presence of quantum effects in our systems, part of us is totally uncontrolled and "free"--a view hardly more conducive to a sense of personal self-responsibility than Epicurus' ancient notion that our freedom consists in being subject to the causeless swerves of "soul atoms."

Rather than being mechanistically determined or quantumly undetermined, Sperry says, we are self-determined, and our actions are macro-determined by the reasons and values which occupy the highest, conscious level of our organismic structure. Unlike the lower animals, our actions are influenced not only by physical impulses, pleasure and pain, desire and aversion, but also by thoughts, judgments, beliefs, and values.[3]

To Sperry (and to this reviewer), being in touch with the combined effects of our own thoughts, reasoning, feelings, beliefs, hopes, ideas, memories, and temperament gives us an expanded sense of alternatives and freedom much more personal and special than would be the case if our decisions were totally cut free of any causal influences. The reason why we experience our control over our actions as "freedom of the will," then, is not because our choices are free from causality, but because the causal influences on our choices are so rich and revelatory of what is possible to us, that we do not feel trapped or limited to range-of-the-moment, concrete actualities.

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In the realm of values, Sperry draws a basic distinction between "cognitive" values, which result from our cognitive interaction with the environment and which vary widely from one society or culture to the next; and "noncognitive" values, which are based on our genetic, biological, and psychological characteristics. Cognitive values are one subcategory of ideas and, according to Sperry, are the main determining factor of human behavior. Furthermore, they are organized in a hierarchical structure, so that a person's most general assessment of him/herself, of life, and of the world are the basis for more particular, lower-level cognitive values, which in turn steer one toward the various specific habits and patterns of behavior that one learns. This hierarchic nature of values is reflected in society as well and serves as the basis for Sperry's ethical thinking.[4]

Sperry is very concerned about large-scale environmental and population issues. He thinks that the human race has sufficiently upset the "checks and balances of nature"--through pollution, killing off other species and large areas of vegetation, overpopulation, the devastation of war and the threat of nuclear holocaust--that the very survival of life on earth, or at least civilization as we know it, is in serious jeopardy.

The root source of these problems, Sperry argues, is not political, economic, or social, but moral. Human values, he says, are the "top-level causal agents in our global control system...Every voluntary act and/or decision by an individual or a group inevitably is governed, overtly or implicitly, by value priorities. In essence, what a person or society values determines what it does." (p. 11)

To save our planet and the human race, Sperry is convinced, we cannot rely on the self-corrective tendencies of societal values, for such adjustments happen in a haphazard, piecemeal, reactive, situational manner. What is needed, he says, is a more deliberate, rational, long-term, idealistic approach. Also, we cannot count on groups whose values are "based on supernatural beliefs, any form of mystical insight, revelation, or unproven hypothesis about economics and class power struggles, however appealing these may appear to be...[Instead, we must seek] a new transcendant frame of reference...that cuts across old cultures, faiths and national interests, for the welfare of mankind and the biosphere as a whole." (p. 21).

The method Sperry favors for seeking this new global ethic is to apply "free scientific inquiry and empirical examination...the same kinds of rigorous principles demanded for reaching belief in science...[to] the realm of values," i.e., to regularly force "the inner processes of the check and double-check with outside dealing with value questions," rather than taking it for granted or on faith that the results of one's thought, intuition, or emotions are valid. (pp. 19,20) Sperry does not claim that this will lead to Utopia or to "final, absolute answers--only improved ones." (p. 20)

The other prerequisite to finding the appropriate fundamental moral guidelines is to select "the basic postulates or starting axioms around which [the] system of values is built[, for they] are critical in determining the total structure of the system." (p. 18) Sperry wants to find "some ultimate frame of reference for values that could logically and rightly be accepted and respected by all countries, cultures, governments and creeds, by mankind in general, as the final supreme standard when it comes to judging ethical priorities, resolving value conflicts, and as a guideline for human judgment generally and international decision-making in particular..." (p. 46) His proposal, which he says is based on "a common thread" that runs "through most of man's great faith-belief systems," which base their ultimate standard of value on what they regard as most sacred, is this:

...the supreme ultimate authority, arbiter, reference, or determinant of what is ethically and morally good, right and true, that has been used most widely and most commonly recognized throughout history, has been the concept, in various forms, of man's creator, along with the cosmic forces that move and control the universe, [which in] the eyes of modern science...becomes the vast interdependent and interwoven matrix of all evolving nature, a tremendously complex concept that includes all of the immutable and emergent forces of cosmic causation that control everything from high energy subnuclear particles on up to galaxies--not forgetting the causal properties that govern brains and behavior at the individual and social levels. (pp. 47,49)

If such a concept of the most sacred and standard of right and wrong were adopted universally, Sperry says, we could base on it:

a new ethic, ideology, or theology that will make it sacrilegious to deplete natural resources, to pollute the environment, to overpopulate, to erase or degrade other species, or to otherwise destroy, demean, or defile the evolving quality of the biosphere...along with corollary value criteria which, if applied worldwide, would promptly set in motion the kinds of corrective legislation and other trends and pressures that are needed to remedy looming global disaster conditions. (p. 115)

The good, on such a standard, would be whatever "is in harmony with, sustains, or enhances the orderly design of evolving nature...the grand design of the creative process ...the diversity, meaning, and quality of existence." (p. 50) While mankind would remain the prime concern of ethics, it would no longer have absolute carte blanche over the environment and "would no longer be justified in destroying or downgrading the rest of creation for its own homocentric aims." (p. 23) Apart from such limits, however, there would probably be no significant change in people's day to day values, or in their family and social relationships (p 51), and there would be considerable room for "individual freedom of choice, flexibility, and diversity" (p. 23)

* * *

Because of his over-arching concern for the biosphere and the extra-human sacred, Sperry seems to entirely bypass any thought of reconciling his ideals with people who hold with ethical systems such as humanism, communism, eudaimonism, or hedonism, whose standards of value are something within the human species, rather than a "higher authority" that takes the Grand Design of Nature into account. Even assuming a broad consensus of the magnitude and likelihood of disaster that Sperry envisioned over 10 years ago--a scenario which is currently in considerable doubt, after the failure of numerous dire predictions to come to pass--one wonders if Sperry's approach isn't overly exclusionary and pessimistic. In particular, his advocacy of a world government to enforce the balanced flourishing of all living things seems to discount the possibility that a plurality of political systems allowing the self-directed flourishing of all human beings[5] could arrive at substantially the same beneficial results for the environment.

* * *


[1]. A full bibliography of Sperry's published works can be found in Brain Circuits and Functions of the Mind. Essays in Honor of Roger W. Sperry, ed. Colwyn Trevanthen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 389-95.

[2]. Cf. Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[3]. Whether this influence is by the thoughts, etc. as integral aspects of certain high-level brain processes known to us in the form of thoughts, or by the thoughts, etc. as somehow distinct from any other brain process, is not fully clear in Sperry's writing. This confusion is a principal source of some of the recurring objections to Sperry's position detailed in Thomas Natsoulas, "Roger W. Sperry's Monist Interactionism," The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 1987, 8:1, pp. 1-22.

[4]. For a fuller discussion of Sperry's science of values, relating it to sociobiological and behavioristic proposals, and placing it as well within the broader context of ethical naturalism, see William A. Rottschaefer, "Roger Sperry's Science of Values," The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 1987, 8:1, pp. 23-36.

[5]. Also known as "classical natural rights liberalism." Cf. Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order, LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1991; and Liberty in the 21st Century. Contemporary Libertarian Thought, ed. Tibor Machan and Douglas Rasmussen, Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.


This review was originally published in Vera Lex, Vol. XIV, No. 1-2, 1994, pp. 84-87. For information, contact Editor, Vera Lex, 29 Cross Hill Ave., Yonkers, NY 10703 (Jun-Aug) or Costello House, Pace University, Pleasantville, NY 10570 (Sep-May).