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Scientific explanation of free will?

Brian R. Pike psy3brp at cabell.vcu.edu
Wed Nov 2 15:52:08 EST 1994

pbfriedm at us.oracle.com (Perry Friedman) writes:

>Can someone please give me a SCIENTIFIC (ie non-religious) explanation
>of free will.

>The concept that free will does not exist is disturbing and I don't want
>to get into it here, as this is not really the appropriate place.  I am
>just hoping that someone can explain to me a reason why free will COULD or
>SHOULD exist (and please leave "God" and "souls" out of it... unless you
>can come up with a SCIENTIFIC explanation of either of those).

This is a question that has been debated for 100's of years.  The
answer for science is that there can be no freewill.  For science
assumes (must assume) that nature is governed by universal laws that
can be predicted and tested.  The science of behavior, psychology,
also makes this assumption about behavior.  That is, all behavior is
governed by natural and universal laws that, like the physical
sciences, can be discovered and tested, and behavior reliably
predicted and controlled.  To profess belief in freewill is to
relinquish this prediction and control.

The idea of no freewill is uncomfortable for most people;
for in the absence of freewill, there is no such thing as individual
control over one's life.  If there is no freewill, then the
decisions that one seems to make are really only the CONSCIOUS
AWARENESS of some deeper unsonscious mental decision making process
occurring at the physiological level of the brain.

However, the 19th century philosopher John Locke advocates a more
commonsensical approach to the problem of freewill.  Locke
approaches the problem of frewill by distinguishing WILL from
LIBERTY.  To will is to actively consider (i.e., reflect on)
performing some action or not performing some action.  Liberty
exists in man if what one WILLS can actually be accomplished.  For
example, if one is in prison, one may have the WILL go leave or not
to leave.  But in this case one is not at LIBERTY to choose.  Thus,
freewill is a misnomer as will and liberty are independent of one
another.  Moreover, as soon as one does adopt a definite postition
or action, i.e., wills to do one thing or another, there is no
longer any liberty.  Futhermore, one may only choose (must choose)
one action over antoher action.  The action chosen will depend on
the liberty to make that choice, as well as on prior decision making
strategies influenced by the consequences of those actions.

Locke's philosophy of freewill appeals to both the science of
psychology as well as to the folk psychology of the layperson.  To
the psychologist, human behavior can be empirically investigated.  A
history of behavior should be predictive of future behavior (i.e., p
< 0.05).  To the layperson, Locke avoids the determinist view of
behavior and appeals to the intuitive notion that individuals choose
their own actions.

The question that must be addressed then is WHY do we have (or at
least appear to have) this decison making ability?  That is, why are
we CONSCIOUS of it?  For this answer, one can turn to Darwinian
evolution by stating that consciousness is an adaptive mechanism
that propigates survival of the individual, in turn promoting the
spread of the gene pool.  

I hope I have at least partially addressed your question.


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