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Biology 202
2003 First Web Report
On Serendip

Coming to Terms with Free Will

Andy Greenberg

Neurobiologists would like to treat the brain as a machine, tinkering with its parts and seeing how they interact as a mechanic might with an car engine. This kind of treatment works in many ways: when neurobiologists act like car mechanics they often succeed in explaining how our mental spark plugs interact with our mental pistons, and thus can perform useful tune-ups on the brain, along with other practical achievements. But to fully understand the brain, we must admit that in certain respects it is a very unique sort of machine, and one which raises problems unsolvable by car mechanic strategies. Perhaps the most subtle and difficult of these problems is the question of free will.

What is free will? It seems most scientists and philosophers can agree that free will is simply an organism's control over its own response to stimuli. The creators of such a definition would imply that the behavior of free-willed organisms is neither strictly determined nor random. But what is the difference between these three types of behavior? Before we dig ourselves any deeper in this pit of complex ideas, we should first make a certain distinction. Scientists differ with most philosophers on one facet of their method of inquiry: the former believe that data must be objective and public, while the latter feel that premises from rational introspection make up a portion of sound logic. Thus almost all scientists ascribe, unwittingly or not, to a faction of philosophy of mind which calls itself "behaviorism" and posits that the only valid way of examining mental states is in the behavior of other organisms. While this is a hefty claim, it is fairly useful in making sense of ideas about free will, and so I will momentarily put myself into behaviorist shoes.

Because mental control over one's actions is fundamentally an internal, private mental state, behaviorists lack a method to prove or disprove free will. However, new ideas in science do manage to leave room for its possibility. The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior states: "Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases." While this at first appears to be a mere expression of frustration, it carries hidden significance. Animal behavior is impossible to predict beyond certain boundaries. While we can say with certainty that a dog, when asked about his favorite television show, is certain not to respond, we cannot say whether he will scratch himself or begin panting, even if our understanding of his brain and his environment is very extensive. Since the advent of "chaos theory," or "complex systems theory," a new understanding of behavior has risen which labels it neither random nor predictably determined. This new type is referred to as "ill-mannered determinism". It premises that in systems with a certain level of complexity and beyond, events become predictable only to a certain extent. Even if we can predict the behavior of each part of the system individually, we cannot know all the details of their interaction and thus cannot predict the outcome. Thus many neurobiologists feel that even after the ultimate success of their efforts to map out all the causation of the nervous system, the unpredictability of an organism's behavior, and thus the possibility of its being self-controlled, will still exist.(2)

Let us examine the first hypothesis. The idea that the gap is merely an illusory sensation, that we are, in fact, locked into deterministic action and are merely fooled into thinking that our actions are free, is epiphenomenalism. This is the theory that subjective mental states have no causal powers, but instead are mere effects of physical events which dangle out impotently with no effects of their own. Epiphenomenalism is a solid attempt at an explanation, with a long history. Baruch Spinoza wrote that if a stone were conscious, it would believe that it fell of its own free will. Williams James, a founder of modern psychology, said of free will that it "is only necessity understood." But besides a sort of irrational unease that accompanies the notion of being trapped in a mental world of ineffectual perceptions and desires, epiphenomenalism gives rise to at least one very difficult question, namely the tiresome problem of responsibility for our own actions. If our sense of self-control is an illusion, then every criminal in every prison in the world has been framed by their physically determined brains, and framed so successfully that even he or she feels that he or she willingly committed his or her crime. Immanuel Kant wrote that we must understand that human will is determined, but nonetheless hold people accountable for their actions as if it were not. (3) If we adopt epiphenomenalism, we seem to be stuck heeding this seemingly cruel and unfair piece of advice. Along with this one obvious problem comes a plethora of others which would redefine ethics or problematize ethics as a whole. Thus epiphenomenalism is far from attractive.

Searle's second solution to the gap problem is an undetermined, free self. This self, like the epiphenomenal self, is irreducible to physical objects, but unlike the epiphenomenalist's self, it is powerful, capable of changing the objective world. Irrationally examining this option, it seems highly attractive, since it makes us feel both unique among the world of physical things, and potent in our ability to affect those things. Unfortunately, science is quickly dashing our hopes for special favors from the universe. Recent research identifies physical events in the brains of monkeys which correspond to their decisions, and can predict their decisions several seconds prior to a behavioral outcome. (4) Thus the space for a self whose will does not supervene upon physical, observable, determined phenomena is shrinking daily. If we have any foresight, it seems we should get off the free-will boat before it sinks.

In the end, none of our options seems very convincing or attractive. However, one of them, regardless of our distaste for it, holds logical water. That option is epiphenomenalism. Perhaps we should accept the impotency of our will and then try our best to ignore it and pretend that we are the true agents of our actions. Unfortunately, the march of science makes the absence of that freedom more obvious and well known every day. It seems only a matter of time until our sense of agency fades into the friscillating dusk light of a gloomy epiphenomenalist night.

WWW Sources

1)Variability in Brain Function and Behavior, Our very own Prof. Paul Grobstein explains the theoretical basis behind the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior and the unpredictable nature of complex systems.

2)Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology, The philosopher of mind John Searle tries to use his analytical hammer to smash up Grobstein's behaviorism, and then assembles the pieces into some options that don't really make anyone happy.

3)Free Will and Determinism, This thoughtful essay advocates epiphenomenal free will, but also deals with problems that arise from such a view.

4)The Neurobiology of Cognition, Along with many other topics, this paper explains current research in decision making anatomy and discusses its implications.

5)Free Will: What the Hell is Free Will Anyway?,This mostly frivolous site provides a wide variety of ideas about free will, ranging from those of famous philosophers to those of people who are not particularly intelligent. I had often wondered what the classic rock band "Rush" thought about this subtle philosophical quandary. Now my curiosity has been satisfied.

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