Determinism and Free Will

Posted: September 12, 2011 in Books, Integral Studies, Personal Whining, Philosophical Debris, Religion
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In the final chapters of Incognito, Eagleman turns to the question of determinism and free will.  If the sub conscious is so instrumental in our conscious thinking, if decision making is so predetermined by brain activity, then there is no scientific room, he says, for the idea of free will.  Even though it is such a basic personal experience, science can’t locate it anywhere.  His scientific arguments are very strong, pointing to brain research which demonstrate that actions and choices don’t require consciousness in order for them to take place.  He points to cases where brain tumors produce unusual, uncharacteristic behaviour and a case in Toronto of a man killing his in-laws while sleep walking.  He points to the fact that brain research shows activity in certain areas of the brain well before subjects say they choose to commit to a random act such as raising a finger.  All of these things, he says convincingly, point to the brain compelling choices instead of any kind of will.

And yet, at least some of the time, we all have the experience of free will.  We feel that we think for ourselves and are capable of making decisions independently of any kind of compulsion from predetermined forces.  As Descartes said, “I think, therefor I am!”  As subjective as it may be, what goes on in our own minds is the most direct empirical experience that we can possibly have.

And herein lies a paradox.  Determinists are usually rationalists and are often non-religious.  Determinism is essential to atheism and rationalism because it sets aside the question of the “soul”.  It rests on the idea of scientific and empirical evidence showing that the nature of the universe is one of determinism.  This is a strong carry over from Newtonian thought.  The problem, as I see it, is that the most direct empirical evidence that anyone could ever ask for is the experience that we are having inside our heads.  It is the experience of consciousness.  Even the staunchest determinist would have to admit that they experience free will.  The individual who feels that they operate their life as nothing more than a cog in a machine or a pinball being forced around by outside forces is usually regarded as dysfunctional.

And so the paradox.  Our collective personal experience strongly supports the idea of free will.  It is a direct experience of a profound empirical nature.  Yet it is in conflict with any attempt to independently validate it through the current scientific paradigm.  Given this, I have to argue that it is the scientific paradigm that is inadequate, not my personal experience.  Perhaps we cannot measure free will with our current science.  I think it is far more likely that it is our science that is lacking the tools rather than it is the experience of self determination experienced by every human being that is the fraud.

It is likely that many actions and much of our day may be done on auto-pilot and may even be the result of deterministic principles.  I know lots of people that often behave like robots.  However, consciousness, when it arises (-and for some that’s not that often-) does, in my opinion, operate with freedom of choice.


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