I’ve read two interesting articles on free will in the past couple of days.  The first, in the New York Times, said that although we cannot be sure that we do have free will, it’s better for us to act as if we do. Imagine living life and thinking that all of your decisions are predetermined. Similarly, even if we think that someone who commits murder had no choice in the matter, we must punish them as if he did. Thus, keeping with the illusion of free will is the only way to keep society in check and individuals sane.

The second article, in Scientific American, was a post discussing a recent article by Fried and colleagues in which they found that they could predict in human subjects when a decision would be made based upon the firing of specific neurons before the decision had been made. The decision was a rudimentary one. The subjects were asked to press a button when they wanted to while watching a clock. This enabled them to “know” and tell the researchers when they made the choice to push the button. Based upon the firing of neurons, however, the researchers were able to predict when they would choose before they subjects were aware that they would choose.

This type of experiment has been performed previously, but to my knowledge not at the single neuron level. In the Scientific American article, the author (of the post, not the paper), goes to great lengths to not over-interpret the results, which I greatly appreciated. Nevertheless, let’s say the neurons fire before we are aware. Does this mean that we don’t have free will?

I am happy to see free will being investigated scientifically but at this point we have to admit what is being studied is really a much simplified version of what we usually think of as free will. But that’s how science works. We reduce the problem so that it’s soluble and then add variable and layers of complexity back as we can. Scientists also generalize and use the inductive method to apply what they’ve learned in a specific experimental setting to the scientific problem at large. Again, that’s how science works. Some scientists are better than others at illustrating this when speaking about science or promoting their findings. When the media takes over… all bets are off. All of this regarding how science works and is presented is important to note.

What’s also important to note is that there is a healthy discussion being had by scientists of whether free will should even be considered as a scientific question. Can there even be a scientific model for free will? In an article last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) titled The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system, author Anthony Cashmore wrote that free will is tantamount to vitalism, a philosophical belief that something other than physics and chemistry is needed to explain life. Cashmore concluded that even though day to day we may act as though we believe in free will, he thought biologists in principle had discarded this belief over 100 years ago. His article resulted in several letters of disagreement being submitted to and published by PNAS. Clearly, even within science, there is some discussion to be had.

This for me is where disciplines other than science are absolutely needed. For the non-scientist (and many scientists as well), the response is, “well, duh.” Philosophy, theology, psychology, and other methods of study have been tackling this for centuries to millenia. While the answer on free will versus determinism is obviously not clear-cut, I think a strong case can be made for free will from philosophy and theology. Does this mean that this is then going to result in another science versus religion war?

Maybe, unfortunately. But I think it’s important to remember the qualifiers that I mentioned above regarding the scientific model of free will and its limitations and lack of general acceptance. The gray subject of free will is not, in my mind, going to cohere to black or white anytime soon just because neurons firing correlate with intention. But if you thought evolution vs creation was ugly, just wait to see this play out.

What do you think about free will and determinism? Some philosophers have attempted to formulate positions that say both free will and determinism can exist at the same time, and this has some backing from theologians as well. Do you think this is possible? Regarding the science of free will, do you believe it to be a worthwhile area of study for scientists? Do you think it should be left to other disciplines?