Free will in the brain

Free will in the brain October 5, 2007

picture: Can brain science explain free will? Credit: ©

Is free will an illusion? Classical science, built on a foundation of observable cause and effect, seems to leave little room for free will, as classically defined. Arguably, quantum mechanics provides a route out of this dilemma, by allowing the potential for ‘uncaused cause’. But what kind of free will could follow from the inherent randomness of quantum theory? Daniel C Dennet, in his 2002 book “Freedom Evolves”, put forward a persuasive argument that there is no inherent incompatibility between free will and determinism – at least for the kind of free will that really matter.

In September this year, the DANA foundation hosted a debate on the existence of free will between Mark Hallet, a neurologist at the US National Institutes of Health, and Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist at at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. As might have been expected, the neurologist argued for the non-existence of free will, whereas the psychiatrist insisted otherwise. Some interesting points were made in the debate and rebuttal – but perhaps the most telling observation is that the two debaters built their cases from fundamentally different starting points, with no apparent meeting of minds. Perhaps this reflects a deeper problem – perhaps the definition of free will is simply too fuzzy for any consensus to develop.

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