Thursday, February 12, 2009

Free Will, Neuroscience, Determinism, and Choice

Do we have free will or is our fate predetermined? This question has been debated for thousands of years. Joining the debate now are neuroscientists who are tending to land on the side of determinism based upon the increasing knowledge we are gaining about how the central nervous system operates. One example is the question of who or what is doing the acting when I move? For instance when I move my arm the transmission from the neocortex (where I do my thinking) actually comes after, not before the arm has moved. Another example is in the case of those who have antisocial or criminal tendencies. We are learning through neuroimaging that their brains are different than a normal brain in terms of how emotions are processed. The argument is that if their brains are different how can they act otherwise and on what basis do we hold them accountable for their actions? These are just a couple of examples.

When I think about the issue I think about how much is predetermined. I have no say as to when I am born, where I am born, my parents, my genetic makeup, the environment that I grow up in, my intelligence level, my socioeconomic class, whether I live in a free country or under a dictator, natural events such as floods and earthquakes, illness or health, how my brain is wired, etc. So I have to admit that I don't have complete free will. I think the better way to put it from my perspective is that while much is predetermined for me I retain the gift of free choice. Throughout each day I am presented with choices to make, the most remarkable to me is how I respond to events, how I respond to adversity, how I respond to good fortune, how I treat my family and loved ones, and how I respond when faced with moral dilemmas. I believe that this power of choice resides in me, that circumstances may be predetermined, but that what I do with these circumstances makes all the difference. So while neuroscience can tell us much about how the brain operates neuroscience without philosophy cannot answer the question of determinism vs. free will.

More on this tomorrow.

Thought for the day

" Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man'.

David Hume

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