It is widely believed, at least in scientific circles, that living systems, including mankind, obey the natural physical laws. However, it is also commonly accepted that man has the capacity to make “free” conscious decisions that do not simply reflect the chemical makeup of the individual at the time of decision—this chemical makeup reflecting both the genetic and environmental history and a degree of stochasticism. Whereas philosophers have discussed for centuries the apparent lack of a causal component for free will, many biologists still seem to be remarkably at ease with this notion of free will; and furthermore, our judicial system is based on such a belief. It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism—something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago.
Figure (click to enlarge) - Models for the flow of information between unconscious neural activity and conscious thought. In A, the commonly accepted model is shown whereby WILL influences conscious thought and, in turn, unconscious neural activity, to direct behavior. The difficulty with this model is that there is no causal component directing WILL. In B, a causal component for WILL is introduced; however WILL now simply reflects unconscious neural activity and GES (genes, environment, and stochasticism). That is, WILL loses its “freedom.” In C, WILL is dispensed with, and conscious thought is simply a reflection of unconscious neural activity and GES. Conscious thought is now primarily a means of following—more than a means of influencing—the direction of behavior by unconscious neural activity. This subservient role of conscious thought in directing behavior in model C, is indicated by the dotted arrow 2 (contrasting with the solid line for the corresponding arrow in A and B).
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Belief in free will is a belief in vitalism
Any readers who have checked out my web lectures or podcasts (particularly the "I-Illusion") know how I deal with the topic of free will and determinism. I would recommend that those of you interested in this topic read this excellent open access essay in PNAS by Anthony Cashmore. (Figure 1 is a nice summary of models for the flow of information between unconscious neural activity and conscious thought.) The abstract and a figure: