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Scientific explanation of free will?

Perry Friedman pbfriedm at us.oracle.com
Wed Nov 2 20:53:34 EST 1994

In <1994Nov2.205208.18532 at cabell.vcu.edu>, psy3brp at cabell.vcu.edu (Brian R. Pike) writes:
>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.

I disagree with the second to last sentence.  There is no guarantee that
something as complex as the human mind can be reliably predicted or
controlled.  There are so many variables to look at and on a quantum
level, it is probabilistic and not necessarily predictable.

>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.

The "choice" as to whether or not to allow this to be a disturbing concept
is absent if you truly believe there is no free will.  There is a certain
self-referential quality to the belief in no free will which is really
beyond what most people initially consider.  You don't even have the choice
as to whether or not to think about the implications of there being no
free will and whether or not to let it disturb you.

Some people think that no free will means that people need not be held 
responsible for their actions.  This isn't so.  They may say not to punish
a criminal for their crime since they had no control over whether or not
to do it.  This is wrong thinking in two ways.  First of all, agents with
no free will still respond to stimuli, just as a plant grows toward the
sun (it doesn't "decide" to do so, it just does) or someone tips a 
vase over (it falls but it doesn't DECIDE to fall).  However, even more
to the point, YOU DON'T HAVE A CHOICE as to whether or not to punish the
criminal.  You will or you won't but there is no choice made.  Then again,
you have no choice as to whether or not to rationalize your choice which
you think you are making but really aren't.  

>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.

Agreed.  I don't care about liberty for the purposes of this discussion.
Liberty is an external concept whereas free will is an internal one.

>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.

Again, I don't think that past behavior IS necessarily predictive of 
future behavior, especially in certain individuals and I think that the
system as a whole is far too complex to be understood.  In fact, it also
has elements of the great "halting machine" idea.  You tell me what you
think I will do next, and I can bet you'll be wrong.  Knowing the prediction
can and usually does affect the outcome.

Personally, I do not believe psychology to be true science but let's not
get into that debate (hey, in the "modern" era of medicine, the 
psychological field has used lobotomies, shock therapy, etc.).  For the 
most part, they're just guessing.  Yes, there is some scientific method,
trial and error, and so on, but the human mind is still a mystery and
will likely remain so for many many years.

>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.

Yes, you did.  All responses I have gotten in private email, and this
one as well, confirm my suspicion that no one can explain scientific
a justification for free will and there _probably_ is none.


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