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Fate, Freedom, and Neuroscience :

The science of free will

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  • The Debate

    Fate, Freedom, and Neuroscience

    Some neuroscientists claim to be able to predict actions up to seven seconds before we decide to make them. Does this mean human freedom and will are illusory? Should we accept that all our actions are determined in advance, or has neuroscience overstepped its bounds?

    The Panel

    Oxford neuroscientist Nayef Al Rodhan, East End psychiatrist and broadcaster Mark Salter, and LSE philosopher Kristina Musholt debate the limits of science.

  • Find out more about speakers

Jump to what you want to see in the debate
  • Mark Salter
    The Pitch
    Free will is a necessary illusion.
  • Nayef Al-Rodhan
    The Pitch
    Neuroscience does not contradict free will.
  • Kristina Musholt
    The Pitch
    Free will makes us accountable.
  • The Debate
    Theme One
    Neuroscience and the Self
  • The Debate
    Theme Two
    Moral responsibility
  • The Debate
    Theme Three
    Emotion and free will
Want to learn more about our speakers?
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mebigguy on 04/01/2015 3:15am

According to current science there is no free will. Certainly classical mechanics is completely deterministic which rules it out. Quantum mechanics allows for some indeterminacy (unpredictability) of outcomes but in a completely random manner. This wouldn't be free will except in a trivial sense. It is conceivable that in human brains that something happens which controls the random processes from quantum mechanics so that they are no longer completely random which might be a window for something like free will to exist. There is no hint of this in current physics but if it only occurred in human brains then it would be almost impossible to detect. There is still another concern with the notion of free will however.

If human decisions aren't being controlled by the known laws of physics then what are they being controlled by? If the answer is they aren't being controlled then we're back to randomness which wouldn't be free will except in a trivial sense as mentioned above. We can say that they are being controlled by the person's mind but that just puts off the problem.

We then ask if the person's mind is being controlled. As before if it's not controlled it's random and no free will. If it is being controlled the question remains, what is controlling it? This continues on forever.

The problem is in the very notion of "free will". To be free always means to be free from something, some kind of control in this case. A person isn't acting according to their free will if they have a gun to their head. A person's will can be free from that sort of control and many other types of more or less obvious other types of control. To say that it is free in an abstract sense however means that it is in fact uncontrolled, which would have to be random.

Susanne Stevens on 24/10/2014 8:55am

The science is in it's infancy yet already there are proposals to 'treat' peo;e labelled with 'personality disorder' with psychotherapy. It is proposed that a close consistent relationship with a therapist will bring about changes to the brain and so the personalty How these paragons of virtue/therapists are to be chosen and monitored is a worry and smacks of brain washing. How would issues of consent be dealt with is an ethical issue not debated as yet

raznak on 17/02/2014 4:22pm

As neuroscience develops, lawyers are going to find it easier and easier to point to brain abnormalities in the defence of the accused. If this trend continues we will find ourselves in a situation where no one can be said to be truly responsible for their actions. The only way to avoid this is to change how we determine sentences from focussing on culpability to the likelihood of recommiting (which neuroscience can shed light on).

Tabetha on 17/02/2014 4:21pm

Don't you understand??! Yes, neuroscience is in its infancy and yes it many only be able predict wrist flicking or button pressing but within the next decade, neuroscience is going to get a lot more sophisticated and only then will we be able to point to a part of the brain and say 'there's free will' or perhaps, more interestingly, there is no such thing as free will. It will be able to predict probabilities of things like how probable a person is to commit a crime and that in itself will be a whole new can of worms to explore.

Serge Patlavskiy on 10/12/2013 11:27am

Eddie, "neuroscience can predict" or "some neuroscientists claim to be able to predict"? For me, there is a big difference between the two expressions. A solution here is simple. There is a time span between the moment we decide to perform some action and the moment we realize that we decided to perform that action. When talking about 7 seconds, neuroscientists take into consideration the moment when we report about our decision, but not the moment when we actually made a decision. So, free will sustains.

Eddie Graf on 05/12/2013 1:27pm

Just because neuroscience can predict whether you will or won't flex your wrist in the next 7 seconds, does NOT mean there is no such thing as freewill. Neuroscience is only in its infancy and these findings are completely irrelevant when questioning much more complex decision making processes.

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