Neuroscientist claims to have proof of free will
If the brain’s workings can be reduced to chemical reactions, is there room for free will? This question has puzzled philosophers for decades; now science may have the solution.
‘We are not mere automata or unfree characters in a movie,’ says neuroscientist Peter Ulric Tse. ‘We can change the physical universe with our minds.’
This sounds like stating the obvious: most people accept unquestioningly the assumption that human beings are capable of making decisions about how to act, and a belief in free will underpins all of conventional ethics. But in the mind-boggling world of neuroscience, it is in fact a rather radical claim.
Why? Because science works on the principle that every event is determined by a physical cause. When you throw a ball, its trajectory is set by a limited set of factors – the force of your throw, the weight of the ball, gravity, the wind. If you can calculate each of these factors exactly, you can unfailingly predict the ball’s flight path.
Many scientists and philosophers (called determinists) believe that similar if much more complex equations drive almost everything that takes place in our universe. That includes the human brain. In other words, our actions, decisions and desires are simply the product of a complicated chain of reactions over which we have no control. Free will is little more than an illusion.
It’s a frightening theory. But determinists often claim that scientific evidence backs them up. In a series of famous experiments in the 1970s, biologist Benjamin Libet proved that neurons fire in the brain half a second before we experience the sensation of having made a choice.
Tse, however, argues that this conclusion is based on a simplistic understanding of how the nervous system works. As well as passing on electrical impulses sparked by some external event, neurons can also ‘rewire each other’. It may be that our conscious thoughts can reroute the nervous system’s pathways in order to change how we respond to future events.
Triumph of the will?
Some people are simply exasperated by this whole debate. Of course we have free will, they say: we use it countless times each day, from the moment we choose what to eat for breakfast to the moment we retire to bed. We don’t need brain scans to know that – it’s a vital part of the human condition, and to argue against it is simply absurd.
It feels to us as though decisions originate in our brains, determinists admit. But how do we know that this isn’t just an illusion? Where does this ‘will’ we boast of come from, and where can it be found? If it’s part of the physical world, it must surely behave in the same ultimately predictable way as all other matter. It’s not an easy thing to accept, they say, but the truth is that we are mere slaves to the chemicals in our brain.
- Is free will an illusion?
- Is everything in the universe made up of energy and matter? Or are there things that exist independently of the physical world, such as ideas or souls?
- Can philosophical problems be solved by science? Hold a class debate and put the question to a vote.
- Research one philosopher and write a summary of their beliefs about free will.
Some People Say...
“A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.’ Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher, 1788-1860”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Typical philosophers: tying themselves into endless knots over questions that have no impact on real life.
- Wrong! This might seem like an abstract debate, but it has some very profound real world implications. If we are not responsible for our own decisions, for instance, it makes little sense to judge and punish people for committing crimes – they are simply doing what their biology forced them to do.
- But that’s ridiculous!
- It’s certainly tough to accept, and in fact this is one of the most popular objections to determinism. But some, including Albert Einstein, concede that it really is the truth: even murderers, he argued, are victims of physics and biology. Putting them in prison makes sense to keep society safe, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are to blame.
- An automaton (plural: automata) is a machine that operates itself independently, such as a wind-up toy.
- People who believe that all eventualities are determined by unalterable circumstances. This is a different concept from fatalism or predeterminism, in which worldly events are decided by an external force like God or fate.
- Almost everything
- There is a proven exception to this rule: according to quantum physics, reactions at the subatomic level can have results that seem genuinely random. If this is true then strict determinists are wrong. But true randomness leaves as little space for free will as physical causation, so quantum mechanics doesn’t resolve this debate.
- The cells which make up the nervous system. Neurons pass electrical impulses to one another via structures called synapses. Neural networks are interconnected in many different ways, and depending on the area and level of stimulation they can fire in countless different ways.