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Science

Does Free Will Exist?

Does free will exist? A recent Scientific American article* reports that a growing group of neuroscientists and philosophers hold that free will is an illusion. Authors Shariff and Vohs explain:

Philosophers with this viewpoint argue that all organisms are bound by the physical laws of a universe wherein every action is the result of previous events. Human beings are organisms. Thus, human behavior results from a complex sequence of cause and effect that is completely out of our control. The universe simply does not allow for free will. Recent neuroscience studies have added fuel to that notion by suggesting that the experience of conscious choice is the outcome of the underlying neural processes that produce human action, not the cause of them. Our brains decide everything we do without ‘our’ help—it just feels like we have a say.

If you would like to know more about the arguments for and against free will, or are curious about how a society without belief in free will might be arranged, consider the following resources.

Books:

 The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will, by Heidi M. Ravven
Few concepts are more unshakable in Western culture than free will. Ravven throws a wrench into this view. The book offers an accessible review of neuro-scientific research into the brain's capacity for decision-making, pointing to the profound, virtually inescapable social influences on moral choices. Ravven shows that it is possible to build a theory of ethics that doesn't rely on free will.

 Who's In Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, by Michael S. Gazzaniga
A powerful orthodoxy in the study of the brain has taken hold in recent years: since physical laws govern the physical world and our own brains are part of that world, physical laws therefore govern our behavior and even our conscious selves. Free will is meaningless, goes the mantra; we live in a "determined" world. Not so, argues renowned neuroscientist Gazzaniga: we are responsible agents who should be held accountable for our actions, because responsibility is found in how people interact, not in brains.

 Free Will, by Sam Harris
In this enlightening book, Harris argues that free will is an illusion but that this truth should not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom; indeed, this truth can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.

 

 Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld
In recent years, the advent of MRI technology seems to have unlocked the secrets of the human mind. In this book, the authors argue that the explanatory power of neuroscience has been vastly overestimated. They believe that the overzealous application of brain science has put innocent people in jail, prevented addicts from healing themselves and undermined notions of free will and responsibility.

 We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer's, by D. F. Swaab; translated by Jane Hedley-Prole
Based on groundbreaking new research, Swaab presents a controversial and multilayered ethical argument surrounding the brain. Far from possessing true free will, Swaab argues, we have very little control over our everyday decisions, or who we will become, because our brains predetermine everything about us, long before we are born, from our moral character to our religious leanings to whom we fall in love with.

 Impulse: Why We Do What We Do Without Knowing Why We Do It, by David Lewis
Lewis explores the mystifying things people do despite knowing better, from blurting out indiscretions to falling for totally incompatible romantic partners. Informed by the latest research in neuropsychology, Lewis investigates two kinds of thinking that occur in the brain: one slow and reflective, the other fast but prone to error. In ways we cannot control, our mental tracks switch from the first type to the second, resulting in impulsive actions. 

Video:

The Neuroscience of Everyday Life

This course explores the science and mystery of the human nervous system, from essential neurochemical and neurobiological processes to the psychological and social constructs they are thought to produce.

Reference Database Articles:

Chronicle of Higher Education: "Free Will Is an Illusion, but You're Still Responsible for Your Actions" by Michael S. Gazzaniga*

Foreign Policy: "Undermining Free Will" by Paul Davies*

Scientific American Mind: "Finding Free Will" by Christof Koch*

Scientific American: “The World without Free Will” by Azim F. Shariff and Kathleen D. Vohs*

Skeptic: "Free Will and Autonomous Will" by Victor J. Stenger*

 


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