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Neurons v Free Will

February 21, 2012

Anthony Gottlieb in More Intelligent Life:

On the evening of October 10th 1769, in one of his typically curt dismissals of a philosophical problem, Dr Johnson silenced Boswell, who wanted to talk about fate and free will, by exclaiming: “Sir…we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.” Nearly two and a half centuries later, free will and responsibility are debated as much as ever, and the issue is taking some new twists.

Every age finds a fresh reason to doubt the reality of human freedom. The ancient Greeks worried about Ananke, the primeval force of necessity or compulsion, and her children, the Fates, who steered human lives. Some scientifically minded Greeks, such as Leucippus in the fifth century BC, regarded the motion of atoms as controlled by Ananke, so that “everything happens…by necessity.” Medieval theologians developed a different worry: they struggled to reconcile human freedom with God’s presumed foreknowledge of all actions. And in the wake of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, philosophers grappled with the notion of a universe that was subject to invariable laws of nature. This spectre of “determinism” was a reprise of the old Greek worry about necessity, only this time with experimental and mathematical evidence to back it up.

In the 20th century, the new science of psychology also seemed to undermine the idea of free will: Freud’s theory of unconscious drives suggested that the causes of some of our actions are not what we think they are. And then along came neuroscience, which is often thought to paint an even bleaker picture. The more we find out about the workings of the brain, the less room there seems to be in it for any kind of autonomous, rational self. [More]

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