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The Debate Continues: Does Free Will Really Exist?

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Free will and determinism are not fashionable topics for discussion, partly because they are thought to be in the realm of philosophy, and philosophers are apt to confuse the issue by debating, for example, whether feeling free is the same as having free will. I am discussing the topic in a neurological context, which makes it easier to come to meaningful conclusions. Let us consider an apparently free movement: an individual is asked to move either his left arm or right arm.He feels perfectly free to choose either. Let us say it is left. How is that accomplished? A signal comes along nerves from the brain and is transmitted to the left arm muscles, and there is no signal to the right arm. The signal from the brain arises in brain neurons, and it involves both chemical and electrical energy. It is not spontaneously created because it would contradict a fundamental scientific principle. This means that the neurons responsible for sending the signal were themselves stimulated from other cell or cells, but the individual was unaware of this event, which has in fact determined the choice the individual made. There may well be a β€˜Decision Making’ center in the brain.

The decision I mentioned is trivial, but as we all know, some decisions are difficult to make. They make. They take into account all manner of external factors and prior events, as well as the consequences of any decision. It is sometimes said that only humans have free will, because all animals only have behavior which is determined. Yet animals with awareness of their surrounding also make choices: to move right, or to left. A cat or a dog on the prowl is continually making decisions about what it will do next. Yet it may also have conditioned or deterministic behavior. When hungry, it will respond to a bell, if it knows that food is then provided. There appears to be no basis for believing that humans have some unique higher function of the mind which provides them with freedom of action, and animals do not have that. There is also a misconception that if free will does not exist, then the world we live in becomes deterministic and predictable.

Chaos Theory makes it clear that outcomes may never be predictable. One can forecast the weather, but never with complete certainty, simply because there are so many interacting influences, that it is very hard or impossible to take account of all of them. A simpler example is spinning a coin: all we can conclude is that it will land tails up or heads up. Nevertheless, if we were able to measure the spin imparted, the distance the coin moves, the air resistance, the way the coins hits the ground, and so on, we probably could, at least in principle, determine the outcome.

The relationship between freedom of action and free will in human activities becomes important when judgments are made about human actions in particular contexts.


As well as free will, it is often said that human consciousness is unique among animals, and people also often refer to the mystery of consciousness.

Although we cannot experience the consciousness animals may or may not have, we can certainly observe their behavior in the physical world. The senses of many animals are very highly developed, and we can see that they respond in very specific ways to environmental cues or stimuli. Indeed, it would be fair to say that a highly developed sense of smell in a dog makes it much more conscious of the olfactory world around it than humans, who in this example, are largely unconscious of this particular world. Of course, animals are not conscious of their place in their world or that they will die, and they probably have very limited imagination. Humans greater awareness of the world in which they live comes in large part from language and communication. Young children would not be aware of the fact that they will one day die if they were not told that this would be the case. They then become conscious of their limited time span.

Consciousness maybe a mystery simply because we don’t know enough about it basics. After all, it was not that long ago that life itself was regarded as a mystery. Now we know there are genes, the field of genetics and how they function and replicate. The mystery of human life resides in the human genome, the sequence of which is now known and also in the rest of the zygote. There may be some surprises in store, but we can be sure the whole zygote is composed of molecules, and their properties will be unraveled publicly someday. So it is with the human brain. Our huge ignorance will be gradually reduced, and finally we will understand the brain’s power to reason, to think, to grasp abstract concepts, to experience emotion, pleasure, and pain. We will develop important insights into our pleasurable responses to various art forms, and the judgment of the quality of music, visual art, and literature will become more objective and realistic. We will understand the function of sleep and why we have vivid dreams. As well as all this, we will be able to define what consciousness really is, and at that point, we will understand it.