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Wednesday, December 20th 2006

Free Will? Phewie!


All Your Future Actions Can Be Predicted By This Equation

Neuroscience is breaking down the idea of “free will.” H/T Reddit.

For millennia the question of free will was the province of philosophers and theologians, but it actually turns on how the brain works. Only in the past decade and a half, however, has it been possible to watch the living human brain in action in a way that begins to show in detail what happens while it is happening (see survey). This ability is doing more than merely adding to science’s knowledge of the brain’s mechanism. It is also emphasising to a wider public that the brain really is a just mechanism, rather than a magician’s box that is somehow outside the normal laws of cause and effect.

Science is not yet threatening free will’s existence: for the moment there seems little prospect of anybody being able to answer definitively the question of whether it really exists or not. But science will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making.

At that point, the old French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” will start to have a new resonance.

Personally I think ‘free will’ in a form may be saved by quantum indeterminacy, although I’ll admit this doesn’t appear to be a popular prospect amongst those physicists in the know. Or if you believe philosophy has not been entirely usurped by the study of neurotransmitters, here’s a refute.

I know human progress and understanding appears to be exponential, but whether because it actually cannot be predicted (there’s a randomness to it) or because it is too complex to be predicted, I think human action and will, will never be accurately modeled by physicists and neuroscientists. At the least, the inability to to do that, will preserve a semblance of free will.

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