- Published on Sunday, 11 March 2012 07:02
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 2042
Neuroscientist Sam Harris thinks so - he has written a book about it. He has said that free-will "could not be squared with an understanding of the physical world", and that all our behaviour "can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge". He and some other neuroscientists use physical measurements of brain activity to try to prove that free-will is an illusion. This is important for all of us since we think we have free-will - it seems to us that we do. For religions, it's even more important - how can a god expect us to do specific things if we are just a product of our genes, environment and history? The whole concept of punishment for misdeeds is called into question. But it turns out that not everyone agrees with Sam - not even other scientists and it's not connected to religion.
In June 2011 Raymond Tallis published Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, "a critique which exposes the exaggerated claims made for the ability of neuroscience and evolutionary theory to explain human consciousness, behaviour, culture and society." Tallis says that trying to find human life in the brain is like trying to hear the rustle of a forest by listening to a seed. Other scientists like Michael Gazzaniga (Author The Cognitive Neurosciences) are working on how the brain thinks, how it looks into the future and how it controls body action but Michael does not see this as a negation of free will. In fact, he wants to ask a different question - more on this below. There is still a lot to be learned and knowledge on the workings of the brain are growing at a fast pace. At no point do any neuroscientists talk about a soul or religion - although it's possible that some believe in a higher power or keep religion separate from their work. It's just not necessary to postulate or talk about a soul to discuss how brains work. But scientists sometimes use the concept of a mind that is separate from the brain. They talk about the mind as being that part of our thinking that is how we see ourselves - a person thinks with their mind, the mind is the person's self. So it's more of an abstract concept or a way of talking about the workings of the brain. That does not make it a soul that is separate.
The new thinking is that although fMRI and PET machines can let you look inside brains while they are functioning, this insight does not necessarily help with understanding behaviour. Anthony Gottlieb explains in an article in Intelligent Life that it's like the old joke about a drunk who drops his car keys at night and looks for them under a distant streetlight. Not because they are likely to be there, but because it's where he can see. These machines are still relatively broad in their view. They can (as yet) only see coarse effects - what's happening in many millions of cells and not individual neurons. The science is still in its early stages - Sam is wrong to jump to any conclusions. In fact, a study of 55 papers in this field found that over half had used faulty methods that biased their results towards the findings they were looking for.
Sam Harris (and others) cites some experiments that seem to undermine the notion of free will - where the actions come before the intention is formed in the brain. Tallis does not agree that these experiments are conclusive - if you are looking to prove a pet theory, strange results from an experiment can be used to support it.
So what can we conclude from all this? It's NOT that there is Free Will NOR that there is not. The conclusion is that as far as neuroscience is concerned, the case has not been proved.
The subject has been discussed since the time of ancient Greeks who postulated the "force of necessity". In the Middle ages, theologians worried that since God knows all that will happen, then how can we then have free-will. Then in the 1700s, philosophers grappled with the "invariable laws of nature" in a similar fashion to the Greeks.
Neuroscience is moving so quickly that it may not be long before the question can be answered scientifically or maybe it's not a good question for science. Maybe it's a philosophical question (see addendum below).
In fact neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga feels that the question needs to be changed - he asks what is "Free Will" and in a 70 minute lecture explains why despite the current knowledge of how the brain works , we are accountable for our actions and we have "free will" in the way that matters to us.
If you have 70 minutes, watch the following video where Gazzaniga explains - that is, he reconciles the current science which questions the concept of free will with our understanding of what free will means to us.
Philosophy Professor Dan Dennett thinks that this question is not for neuroscientists to answer but is a philosophical question. He gave a lecture in 2009. It's a bit long but it's a complex subject.