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Scientific explanation of free will?

Jason Becker jdbecker at acs.ucalgary.ca
Thu Nov 3 09:39:07 EST 1994

In article <393qh0$jgm at dcsun4.us.oracle.com>, pbfriedm at us.oracle.com (Perry
Friedman) wrote:

> Can someone please give me a SCIENTIFIC (ie non-religious) explanation
> of free will.
> It seems to me that given that thoughts and memories and so on related to
> "the mind" are all entirely physical quantities (again, we are ignoring
> religion here) and therefore, the laws of physics should govern the 
> interactions of the particles which make up our brain (and our surrounding
> stimuli) and while due to quantum physics, this may not be predictable or
> predetermined, it is also outside of our control.  Just as a tossed coin 
> does not have free will as to whether it will land on heads or tails it is
> also not "predetermined".
> I can not see any scientific backing to the concept of free will.  We may 
> decide to take some particular action, but that is just because that is
> how the particles in our brain happen to interact, and the particles 
> themselves (individually or collectively) can not "change" the laws of
> physics to make themselves or others act other than the way physics dictates.
> 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).
> Perry

I too have been considering the question of free will. Although I cannot
offer any definitive answer to your questions, here are some of my thoughts
on the matter. 

"Free will" (I believe) is a psychological construct just like "love" is. A
psychological construct is really a semantic label for a number of
behaviors that covary. So for example "love" is commitment, desire,
jealousy, etc. This of course leads into the problem of "turtles all the
way down". The problem then is that psychological constructs are (usually)
defined by behavior; a person is in love because he/she is committed to the
relationship, is desirous of his/her partner, is jealous when his/her
partner directs their attention to others. I don't think the construct of
"free will" is much different. Like love and the many behaviors that can
constitute a defintion of it, "free will" does not share a consensual

I am a reductionist in the sense that all behavior is a product of the
nervous system. Ipso facto "free will" is also a product of the nervous
system. This is not that difficult to appreciate. Human beings routinely
produce voluntary motor behavior; is "free will" all that different? (It is
believed that vouluntary motor behavior is executed via the (motor) cortex
in the frontal lobe).

A problem with the argument that psychological constructs/human behaviors
can be reduced to the level of elementary particles is that we do not yet
have a comprehensive understanding of how matter behaves... and then there
is the whole philosophy of science thing... the uncertainty principle,
etc., etc. However in a recent article of Discover magazine, a well-known
physicist argued that "consciousness" was dependent upon microtubules
(small transport tubes in neurons). The problem of defintion was the most
salient thing gleaned from the article as well as proposing that some
"active" mechanism occurred along the microtubules that was essential for
consciousness. This active mechanism was similar to saltatory conduction
along axons; I haven't heard much about this from the neuroscience
community even though this is a revolutionary concept.    

My own personal philosophy about "free will" has largely been gleaned from
the philosophy of Dostoyevsky in his masterpiece Notes from Underground
(1864). An important theme of the novella is the very question we have been
discussing; unfortunately I do not have my copy handy. 

The Underground Man ponders the question "If all human behaviors can be
explained by natural laws, by logarithmic tables, what is life then?" He
often cites as a natural law that "two times two is four". His answer to
himself is that if he doesn't like the laws then he won't abide by them and
thus may proclaim that "two times two is five". Thus The Underground Man
adopts an attitude of irrationalism and asserts his superiority  ("free
will") over the laws of nature. Dostoyevsky by the way anticipated the
coming era of "scientific determinism" [i.e. reductionism]; Bernard's An
Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (considered by many to
be the manifesto of scientific determinism) was published a year after
Notes from Underground in 1865.

Gotta go.


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