Emerson, Neuroscience, & The Book of Nature – On Fate & Freedom


The book of Nature is the book of Fate. She turns the gigantic pages, — leaf after leaf, — never returning one.  … The element running through entire nature, which we popularly call Fate, is known to us as limitation. Whatever limits us, we call Fate. … Why should we fear to be crushed by savage elements, we who are made up of the same elements? – Ralph Waldo Emerson: Fate

As one reads and rereads Emerson’s essays, and especially the ones in The Conduct of Life, one gains a deeper appreciation of this man’s dark temperament, and of his tenacity in the face of those who would tyrannize us with superfluous notions of just what necessity and fate truly are.  For Emerson the notion of fate was but one of the forces, not the ruling force of life in this universe. The opposing force for him was freedom. If there are limits, if there are environmental factors that shape and bind us to certain limits and limitations of physical and mental constitution, there is also the opposing notion of mind and intelligence to counter the harsh necessities of life’s circumstances. Yet, the mind is not some separate entity, above it all; this would be illusion, too. No, the mind is very much enmeshed within the web of elements we call the universe, and it is within this very context and rootedness of mind in the processes of the universe that we must approach fate and freedom.

In his poem Fate  (see below) Emerson tells us that “There is a melody born of melody, which melts the world into a sea.” The notion that there are processes born of processes, which fold the world internally into the processes of the brain is at the heart of this. One could say that the production of production, system of system, or feedback loop within feedback loop all work their magic in this sea within:

That you are fair or wise is vain,
Or strong, or rich, or generous;
You must have also the untaught strain
That sheds beauty on the rose.
There is a melody born of melody,
Which melts the world into a sea.
Toil could never compass it,
Art its height could never hit,
It came never out of wit,
But a music music-born
Well may Jove and Juno scorn.
Thy beauty, if it lack the fire
Which drives me mad with sweet desire,
What boots it? what the soldier’s mail,
Unless he conquer and prevail?
What all the goods thy pride which lift,
If thou pine for another’s gift?
Alas! that one is born in blight,
Victim of perpetual slight;—
When thou lookest in his face,
Thy heart saith, Brother! go thy ways!
None shall ask thee what thou doest,
Or care a rush for what thou knowest,
Or listen when thou repliest,
Or remember where thou liest,
Or how thy supper is sodden,—
And another is born
To make the sun forgotten.
Surely he carries a talisman
Under his tongue;
Broad are his shoulders, and strong,
And his eye is scornful,
Threatening, and young.
I hold it of little matter,
Whether your jewel be of pure water,
A rose diamond or a white,—
But whether it dazzle me with light.
I care not how you are drest,
In the coarsest, or in the best,
Nor whether your name is base or brave,
Nor tor the fashion of your behavior,—
But whether you charm me,
Bid my bread feed, and my fire warm me,
And dress up nature in your favor.
One thing is forever good,
That one thing is success,—
Dear to the Eumenides,
And to all the heavenly brood.
Who bides at home, nor looks abroad,
Carries the eagles, and masters the sword.

In our own age the neurosciences have led many to believe that the so called “free will” of philosopher’s and theologians is an illusion, that the intentional aspects of the mind’s directedness, its ability or illusion to seem free to do and act voluntarily and against things in freedom is a mere non sequitor or faulty bit of reasoning on the part of humans. These neuroscientists are seeking to pin down the secrets of the brain as if it were a sort of robot that was programed to do everything it does through the power of adaptation and evolutionary history, as if every single cell within the physical mesh of our brain was bound to those limiting factors of necessity of which Emerson was so eloquently referring to as the social and environmental factors. For many of these neuroscientists the very notion of “free will” is erroneous. For them the notion of self or even consciousness is but a temporary and useful construct of the brain in its interactions with the environment, but that the decision making processes that take place happen outside of our awareness deep within the brain’s own processes long before we are aware of them after the fact. We assume we are the one’s thinking, that we have the ability to choose and make distinctions, to freely live or act in our lives as if there was some permanent entity called a self attached to a specific name given to us by our parents at birth.

Yet, with all their power of observation and the advanced tools they use to study the brain, or will have available in the coming years, all these scientists have done is spin another fabricated tell out of the facts surrounding us. They’ve displaced the old tales for new ones. They pinpoint the brain to behavior of physical and mental decisions as hotspots in their images and say: “See, we can pinpoint every time you move or think.” So what? What does this gain us? Of course their unique point is that if we know where one makes decisions one can influence that process, one can manipulate it and influence or even control behavior and thought. Ultimately one sees that they’ve not explained away free will at all, that the true purpose of their designs, all the billions being thrown into neurosciences is to benefit not the population at large but a small minority who would use such information to shape humanity to its own desires. They’ve decided to treat humanity as pure and unadulterated animals. And, of course, that’s what we are, flesh and blood primates who have a long evolutionary history that has yet to be fully defined or even explained. Does this bother them that we do not have all the facts? No. For them its all just a matter of time. Science will explain all. Sometimes I listen to the so called sciences and think: “Oh, gee whiz, how smart you are to suddenly put humanity into a box and fiddle with it, tinker with it like you do your rats and your chimpanzees. As if we were just so much grist for the mill to play with in your impersonal experiments.” Obviously they want to counter that their doing it all to help us, to benefit us, to alleviate dread diseases, and other biogenetic and biochemical disorders, to provide cures, etc. All for our own good. Bah… Governments and private enterprise do not sink billions of dollars into such things for the good of humanity, they do it for other more ancient reasons: control, power, and domination.

Yet, this is not the dreary world I want to explore. No. There are also other neuroscientists who are painting a different picture, one that is more in line with a truth that affirms much of even such thinkers as Emerson. One such is Joaquín M. Fuster who in his book, The Neuroscience of Freedom and Creativity, tells us that:

The ultimate foundation of human liberty consists of two cognitive functions that radically differentiate us humans from all other organisms. One is language and the other our ability to predict the future – and to shape our actions accordingly.

But as Fuster admits modern neuroscience is in the main deterministic and reductionistic, averse to the idea that there is a place in our brain for free will or any other sort of “counter-causal” entity.1 Against this form of physicalist science there are signs that things are changing, that both radical determinism and radical reductionism are no longer the beacons to guide our discourse. He does not discount basic neurobiology which is without doubt physical, and as he suggests the study of synaptic mechanisms and molecular neurobiology is making enormous strides at the most elementary biophysical stage of neuronal information processing in both learning and memory (KL 624). As he tells it his main goal is to broaden the perimeters of cognitive neuroscience by “opening up to accommodate liberty; that is, to accommodate our capacity to act as free causal agents, albeit within physical and ethical constraints” (KL 194).

This is not a full review of his work which one is invited to read for themselves. All I had hoped to offer is a view onto the base program for which his formidable learning and scientific background offer toward a different perspective onto the old problems of determinism (Fate) and freedom (liberty).  In his introduction he lines up the usual suspects from philosophy who from Thomas Hobbes to Kant to James etc. shifted between determinism/indeterminism and compatibilist (i.e., the notions that free will is both determined and undetermined based on specific criteria, etc.) views of “free will”. Central to his argument is that our decision making processes – the freedom to take alternative actions – emerges from the intimate relationship between our brain and our environment in the PA cycle. That environment is largely within us, for it includes the internal representations of the world around us. It consists of our perceptual, cultural, and ethical knowledge, in other words, our “personal-world history” – internalized in our cerebral cortex (KL 271).

Now one may ask: What am I as a poet interested in all this? Of what benefit will such knowledge have on my poetic stance? Well, in the above statements you see the term representations, the internalization of our personal and world history, etc. All of this pertains to poetry from the Romantic Era till now in one form or another, for generation by generation poetry sense the time of Wordsworth has been keyed on the Kantian notion of the internalization of thought and self, the abyss of self-reflection. Yet, this is not the whole story, and as Fuster argues in his introduction there are five problems facing any neuroscientist – and, I would add poets, too – to an understanding of how liberty is formed and shaped:  (a) determinism; (b) reductionism; (c) “the central executive ”; (d) the hegemony of consciousness; and (e) the hegemony of the “self.”

The notion of determinism came under attack first in the physical sciences of cosmology, and in quantum mechanics specifically in which the laws of physics seem to break down and what had shaped he laws of physics determinately as probability equations up to that point broke down and became indeterminate. In the study of the cerebral cortex he and his associates realized he same notions took effect, and that both randomness and variability are now an integral part of neuroscience (KL 316). As he pointedly states it: “variance, in a complex adaptive system such as the brain, is a necessary condition for plasticity, development, and emergence of new function, all of them conducive to the freedom of cognition and action from determinism” (KL 323). Over the years research has come to the conclusion that the main general function of this cortex is the temporal organization of goal-directed actions in the domains of behavior, reasoning, and language (KL 330). He explains this in detail, and I quote at length for clarification:

The prefrontal cortex does not perform this function in isolation, but in close cooperation with many other cortical and subcortical structures. It sits at the summit of the PA cycle, deeply embedded in the circuitry of that cycle. In dynamic terms, this means that the prefrontal cortex is subject to myriad inputs from the external as well as the internal world. It also means that it sends vast numbers of outputs to efferent motor systems as well as feedback to input systems. Therein lies its crucial position in freedom and above determinism. My prefrontal cortex is not my “center of free will,” but it is the neural broker of the highest transactions of myself with my environment, internal as well as external; that is to say, the highest transactions at the top of my PA cycle (Kindle Locations 332-337).

I could continue to explicate step by step each of his conclusions, but I think the above passage gives the reader the general gist of his argument. There is an intricate web of interactions taking place within the brain from the deeper physical determinate and biological processes on to the more plastic and open processes within higher brain functions. What we see is that the brain’s complexity developed over eons of time in evolutionary context that shaped its forms between brain and environmental pressures and interactions, feedback loops, and development of memory, structure, and the various aspects of what he terms the PA cycle and its circuitry. Obviously there is much more to his argument than this, but do to time and readability I’ll let the reader pursue this on his own. The debates in the neurosciences like much else in philosophy, poetry, etc. are all controversial and open to further review, revision, transformation as more knowledge becomes available. What my point has been is that for most of the past two thousand years we’ve surmised blindly and without the aid of direct access to these processes, and now neuroscientists have opened the black box up and are directly surveying, mapping, and interpreting the facts of these processes even in real time as they explore every aspect of our brain and how it works. This is both fascinating and also a form of dread and terror. Why? Because with knowledge comes great responsibility, and the use or abuse of this knowledge and what it can bring will at times as we know from history fall into unscrupulous hands and be used to the detriment of human and natural kinds. So in the end it is up to each and everyone of us to become knowledgeable as to many of these new worlds science is opening up under our very noses. Otherwise we are at the mercy not of scientists, but of those that fund their experiments and guide their research. To what ends?

1. Fuster, Joaquín M. (2013-08-31). The Neuroscience of Freedom and Creativity (Kindle Locations 189-190). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “Emerson, Neuroscience, & The Book of Nature – On Fate & Freedom

  1. Pingback: Dark Ecologies: Emerson & Neuroscience | synthetic_zero

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s