De La Mettrie’s Ghost: The Story of Decisions by Chris Nunn
MacMillan 228 pp, index, £16.95/$24.95 hardback, ISBN 14-3994951

Reviewed by Susan Blackmore for Focus August 2005

(This is the version submitted. It may have been edited before publication.)

Are we free to choose what we want, and to make – or fail to make – moral decisions? Or are we just complicated machines whose actions are entirely determined? This question of “free will” is said to the most discussed in all of philosophy, and has worried people for millennia. And no wonder – for we all feel as though we are a conscious entity in charge of our lives, even though our bodies and brains look very much like clever machines. Now, in this accessible and well-written book, psychiatrist Chris Nunn reviews the arguments and presents a novel solution to the problem.

Nunn’s starting point is Julien de la Mettrie’s infamous 1748 book “Man a machine” which scandalised religious eighteenth century France and caused him to flee into exile. Nunn traces the history of mechanistic thought and provides a helpful overview of recent attempts to find a role for consciousness in the workings of the physical brain. As in de la Mettrie’s time, but with far more knowledge of biology and the brain, we keep hitting up against a horrible dilemma; that the brain does not seem to need us, and yet we think of ourselves, treat each other, and build our legal and medical systems on the idea that there is someone – some ghost, or soul, or spirit, or inner self – who is in charge.

For me, the only viable solution is to accept the soul-less science, dismantle the false sense of self, and learn to live without the illusion of free will. But this is not Nunn’s preferred option. Instead he develops the idea that we are more like stories or films than machines. Free will and responsibility are properties of the tale, not of the apparatus with which it is told, and memories are crucial to consciousness and the sense of self, especially because of how they are edited and re-edited.

Consciousness, then, is actually some memory-related aspect of brain function. Yet, claims Nunn, consciousness has some degree of autonomy, or freedom from neural determinism; it can influence its own future and the actions of its brain. But isn’t this just sneaking in a separate, powerful, self again? Nunn’s self is certainly not a ghost in the machine; it is a story, or a lot of stories, that each of us builds up over a lifetime. Yet the stories themselves must be built and edited by the changing machinery of the brain mustn’t they? Nunn claims that his is a scientific account of free will, and that memory frees us from the de la Mettrie machine. I am not convinced. But I urge you to read this book and decide on these critical issues for yourself.