SocraticGadfly: Free will not so free? And not so human-specific

December 19, 2010

Free will not so free? And not so human-specific

I've long been of the opinion that "free will" vs. "determinism" is, if not a false dilemma, at least something close — a pair of false polarities, rather than something on a continuum.

(I've also been of the opinion, taking Dan Dennett's stance on consciousnesss that there's no "Cartesian meaner" to its logical conclusion — as does Daniel Wegner and others, I'm not alone — that there's no conscious, central, controlled location for free will in humans, as well. That is, there's no "Cartesian free willer" either. But, I digress.)

There's a German-based neuroscientist who agrees with me on the "polarities" angle. But, that's not all.

Bjoern Brembs also says that this free will — free will within constraints — is exhibited by animals, too.
Brembs and others have used mathematical models to simulate brain activity on a computer, finding that what worked best was a combination of deterministic behaviour and what is known as stochastic behaviour - which may look random but actually, in time, follows a defined set of probabilities.

Personally, I actually don't see this as that big of a deal. Given that consciousness itself is understood as being on some sort of continuum, rather than "we conscious humans" vs. "you unconscious animals," how could a will, and a will that is partially free, also not exist, and again, on a continuum?

That then said, I do find it a bit more questionable to extend some degree of free will, as Brembs does, all the way down to the level of flies, just as I would find it questionable to attribute consciousness to an animal with so few neurons.

To talk about a dog, or the old laboratory vertebrate standby, the lab rat, as having some degree or type of free will? Yes. The laboratory insect standby, a fruit fly? Per Carl Sagan, that's an extraordinary claim. I expect more evidence.

I'll stand by for more research; this is surely going to be a hot topic not just for months but for years.


Unknown said...

Over all I agree. I tend to argue against "Free Will". Everyone from Maslow to Jung imply in their work that a truly free will does not exist.

I tend to think of it as 'informed and shaped' will. Obviuosly we can only be the sum of our total experience. That includes, everythging thing from nutrition to genes to religious and cultural value exposure.

Anonymous said...

You are correct. Which is why I re-define 'free will' (yet again) as a scientific concept. Our will doesn't get free-er than that (and that's plenty).

The original article is open access and linked in the BBC news report.