The meaning of free will: one of the oldest problems in philosophy

Roger Penrose in his book, “The Emperor’s New Mind” effectively demolished the idea that thinking is algorithmic; the belief that artificial intelligence is possible using current computational mechanisms, is also a casualty of Penrose’s reasoning.

Penrose, not being a theist, places more faith in the role of quantum mechanics in the operation of an apparent Cartesian version of free will than, say, a Christian, who might be more inclined to view free will as the result of being made in God’s image.

Some interesting new research on animals shows that, whether his quantum explanation is correct or not, Penrose’s notion that the operation of the brain is not merely algorithmic is confirmed.

From the BBC:

The free will that humans enjoy is similar to that exercised by animals as simple as flies, a scientist has said.

The idea may simply require “free will” to be redefined, but tests show that animal behaviour is neither completely constrained nor completely free.

The paper, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests animals always have a range of options available to them.

“Choices” actually fit a complex probability but, at least in humans, are perceived as conscious decisions.

The idea tackles one of history’s great philosophical debates, and Bjoern Brembs of the Berlin Free University brings the latest thinking from neurobiology to bear on the question.

What has been long established is that “deterministic behaviour” – the idea that an animal poked in just such a way will react with the same response every time – is not a complete description of behaviour.

“Even the simple animals are not the predictable automatons that they are often portrayed to be,” Dr Brembs told BBC News…..

Christof Koch, a biologist from the California Institute of Technology and frequent author on topics of free will and biology, said that the work hits at the heart of “one of the oldest problems in philosophy”.

In writing about Dr Brembs’ research, he suggested that “the strong, Cartesian version of free will—the belief that if you were placed in exactly the same circumstances again, you could have acted otherwise—is difficult to reconcile with natural laws”.

“There is no way the conscious mind, the refuge of the soul, could influence the brain without leaving tell-tale signs. Physics does not permit such ghostly interactions.”

That last sentence betrays a thoroughly unscientific preconception: that the numinous doesn’t exist. If it does exist, there isn’t any scientific reason for supposing that it could not interact with nature – physics – or, rather physicists – no matter how they exercised their free will, would have little choice but to admit it.