Wednesday, September 28, 2016

His Brain Made Him Do It

By Bruce Morgan

Medical student Eliezer Sternberg recently published his second book on human consciousness

Eliezer Sternberg

“There is a tendency in the sciences to equate explanation of a phenomenon to reduction of that phenomenon,” says Eliezer Sternberg. Photo illustration: Stephen Sheffield

On the first day of school, English teacher Carol Palm found him waiting in her classroom, a tall, dark-haired boy with a nearly sheepish air of excitement, ready to share some dramatic news. He had a book contract.

Eliezer Sternberg, M13, a star pupil from Palm’s AP class the year before, was just then beginning his senior year at Williamsville North High School, located on the suburban outskirts of Buffalo, N.Y. He was 16 years old. The book in question had evolved from a class assignment the previous spring, when Palm asked her students to devote themselves to a long-term writing project, something she calls “a half-year, more intensive thing.”

Sternberg chose to explore the tension between artificial and human intelligence, a passion prompted by an article in Scientific American—“Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?” by American philosopher John Searlethat his father had handed him one day, commenting, “It’s really a great mystery. It’s where humanities and the sciences meet.”

The spark was lit. “I thought it was the coolest question I ever heard,” Sternberg says in retrospect. His resultant 20-page paper showed an unusual maturity, handling a wide range of scientific sources with aplomb. He began to sink ever deeper into the shimmering questions that branched out from the first. For starters, how do we distinguish mechanical and human systems? Where does consciousness reside?

Sternberg’s father, Ernest, a college professor, urged his son to send the paper around to some publishers and see if he got any nibbles. As luck would have it, there was a book publisher based in Buffalo, Prometheus Books, headed by a man, Steven Mitchell, who had done graduate work in philosophy and taught the subject at the college level before entering the inky trades.

He may have been the perfect audience. “The level of analysis, the sources he was citing,” Mitchell says in a marveling tone, remembering his first look at the paper. “John Searle? Lots of graduate students might not know about him.”

Mitchell wrote back to the would-be author, saying that he had raised some interesting questions in his paper and that Prometheus would certainly be interested in having a look at whatever Sternberg developed at greater length.

The boy who got the letter after his junior year had no idea what it meant. His friends were busy getting their learner’s permits, shooting hoops in the driveway or hanging at the mall. Luckily, Sternberg’s father, who had published academic books of his own, grabbed the note from Prometheus and told him, “This is big! This is rare!” Sternberg promptly hit the library that summer and began poring through scores of books to see what had already been said on the topic.

By mid-year the manuscript was done, and soon after that the book was accepted by Prometheus. It would be called Are You a Machine? The Brain, the Mind, and What It Means to Be Human, by Eliezer J. Sternberg. College loomed next. Sternberg had been accepted at Brandeis University, but was unsure of how to pay for it. He mailed a note to Jerry Samet, chair of the Brandeis philosophy department, asking if it would be OK if he sent him a copy of a recent work he’d done on the philosophy of mind.

“I expected some nut case,” Samet recalls. “But what he sent me was incredibly polished and professionally aware. It was shocking.” Samet advised the financial aid office to do what they could for the bright young man from Buffalo—“I don’t know what ever happened about that,” he says candidly—but that was by no means the end of their relationship. A few years later, Sternberg and Samet would join forces on campus to co-teach a multi-disciplinary course on “Consciousness, Brain and Self.”

Free Will and Dating

Up close, Sternberg doesn’t look like much of a philosopher. He’s more like the bright, shy kid sitting at the back of your high school civics class—a bit contrary to what you might expect. He carries a hint of athleticism on his lanky frame, and in fact he played shooting guard on his high school basketball team.

Sternberg is keenly attentive and ever polite, listening carefully to whatever question is put to him and hesitating slightly before making his reply. He’s pensive to a fault. But there’s also a fixity and drive inside him, something held back and deeply coiled, that is rare in a person of any age.

He can be funny and charismatic. When he’s asked, at a first meeting, if he ever discusses his concerns about the rise of computers and the puzzle of free will in human behavior when he’s out on dates, Sternberg unexpectedly lets his head sink forward and breaks into a wide, dazzling smile. “Well, I try,” he says, laughing easily.

Not long after Sternberg’s first book came out he began work on a second, making this follow-up effort seem as natural as lifting another slice of pizza from its box. “I had all these ideas left over,” he explains. “Also, I missed it—I missed working on a book project.”

The two books ended up having different flavors, he says, with the first devoted to robotics and questions stemming from artificial intelligence and the second, eventually titled My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility (Prometheus), more ethical and contemplative.

Twinned Beasts

The second book is more substantial in every way, and subtler in its demands on the reader. At regular intervals, Sternberg offers protracted scenes where the reader is submerged in a moral crisis and asked to find the way out. One of these replicates the case of Jean Valjean, the working-class hero of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, who, after breaking his parole upon discharge from prison and attaining some measure of wealth under an assumed identity in another town, must decide whether or not to turn himself in to authorities to save another man from being sent to prison when that man is mistaken for him.

Valjean considers all the good he has spun off in his new, more prosperous life, musing, “I’m sent back to the chain gang; very well, and what then? What happens here? Ah! Here there is a district, a city, a factory, a business, laborers, men, women, old grandfathers, children, poor people! I have created all this, I keep it all alive; wherever a chimney is smoking, I have put the fuel in the fire and the meat in the pot; I have produced comfort, circulation, credit; before me there was nothing. . . . I take myself away; it all dies . . . How could I think of turning myself in?”

Sternberg extends the drama across four or five pages to give an example of what he calls a “boundless problem,” immune from mathematical resolution. The card is deftly played. After first charting the philosophical anguish that the circumstance summons up for our protagonist, Sternberg is then able to tap the other side of his training, say, “Let’s try to explain Valjean’s moral introspection neurobiologically,” and proceed to do just that in a fair amount of detail involving a map of neuronal surges in regions throughout the brain.

Body and soul are like twinned beasts, never able to break free and roam independently. There’s a lot of water under the bridge on that one, from the exegesis of Greek philosophers—who often had dual identities as doctors and philosophers, Sternberg points out—to the lyrics of the latest country tune twanging from the radio.

A number of early thinkers, including Rene Descartes, argued that physical life and conscious life are two distinct and separate things. Not many people believe this any more. Sternberg prefers the idea of human consciousness as something distinct from and greater than the sum of its parts, much the way that sodium and chloride, one chemical element explosive and the other toxic, combine to form harmless table salt. He calls this an “emergent property.” Of course this concept doesn’t solve the riddle of consciousness. It merely places the riddle in an unknown realm.

Knowing What You Don’t Know

Not knowing, and owning up to that not knowing, is key. Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, Sternberg is engaged in a kind of spiritual battle against a growing consensus in his densely argued book.

Consider his use of “threat” in the subtitle. The author believes that while there has been a rush of recent discoveries in neuroscience that encourage a certain deterministic, chemical-based reading of human agency—the idea that our destiny lies entirely in our cells—the neuroscientists behind the claim are moving too fast and making too big a jump in their assertions. By linking cognitive life with relatively simple physical systems like digestion or circulation, they are squeezing free will out of the picture.

“The scientists say, ‘You think you have this thing in yourself called consciousness that controls your body, but that’s outdated,’ ” Sternberg relates. “ ‘Now that we have neurons, we can reduce everything to the pristine, sensible notion that it’s a network of cells. The whole consciousness thing—its time is up.’ I’m not saying the scientists are wrong,” he says, speaking carefully, “but I don’t think a natural conclusion of the evidence is that free will is no more.”

The threat is especially pernicious in medicine, Sternberg contends, given that “there is a tendency in the sciences to equate explanation of a phenomenon to reduction of that phenomenon.”

Sternberg is not apt to rest easy any time soon. He is just starting his second year of medical school. What will become of his indelible curiosity and his inner banked fire? Jerry Samet, his professor from Brandeis, sees Sternberg playing a role as a “public intellectual” along the lines of cognitive scientist Steven Pinker at Harvard, doing “high-end” science writing on a regular basis and wrestling with ethical issues for the public good.

“We don’t have much of that in America,” says Samet, “and even if that’s not what he’s aiming for, that’s what he seems ticketed for. I don’t think he ought to bury himself by becoming a specialist.”

My Brain Made Me Do It, published this spring, drew a rave, five-star review from Focus, a magazine put out by the BBC, who called it simply “a masterful study of [the] interface between science and philosophy” and remarked, almost as an aside, “astonishingly, [the author] is still in his early 20s.”

That’s right, folks. Sternberg turned 23 years old in May.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2010 Tufts Medicine magazine.

Bruce Morgan can be reached at

Posted October 13, 2010