Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Is free will an illusion?


This is the title of a series of articles on The Chronicle of Higher Education. The authors of the articles discuss recent research findings positing that we do not have a free will. What can science tell us about free will? And if we don’t have a free will, what happens to our understanding of morality, of personal accountability and accomplishment?

Jerry A.Coyne argues that we do not have a free will due to the structure of our brains: They are made of molecules, and signal transmission uses electrical impulses. All of these elements are subject to the rules of physics. He also cites research in which it was found that brain scans can predict our decisions seconds before we are conscious of making them. Alfred R. Mele criticises this interpretation in his article. Study participants had to press one of two buttons, thus the probability of their pressing one of them was 50%. The predictions made based on the brain scans were only 60%.

Michael S.Gazzaniga posits that even if we have a deterministic notion of the brain, we are still responsible for our deeds because we have to follow social and personal rules. And Hilary Bok goes one step further and says that neuroscience only can answer what happens in our brain, but it can’t answer the question whether freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with free will. Owen D. Jones even suggests that we should stop discussing free will because the choices we make are never totally unrestrained, and our brain sets certain limits to our decision-making. Paul Bloom, finally, argues that the discussion on free will is nothing new, but has been around for centuries, and he holds the opinion that determinism is compatible with the idea of conscious deliberation and rational thought.

The conclusion from reading all this seems to be that we do not have a free will in the sense that we are independent of the laws of physics and that we can only do what the anatomy and functionality of our brains allow us to do. But still there seems to be room for making our own decisions based on deliberate thought. The authors cited here seem to hold us capable of making conscious decisions and thus responsible for our deeds.

What do you think?

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