Thursday, 22 March 2012

Is Free Will an Illusion?

Are you really in control, or is your every decision predetermined? Who's at the steering wheel: you, your genes, your upbringing, fate, karma, God?

This question has puzzled people, both religious and not for thousands of years. Recently, six academics from a range of backgrounds including neuroscience and philosophy tried to offer current up to date views on this topic. Eventually they voted 4-2 in favour of the position that free will is merely an illusion.

The scientists all argued that free will does not exist. They said that actions are governed by the brain, based on prior experience. They carried the 4 votes.

The philosophers claimed that neuroscience does not go against the theory of free will, and cast the 2 opposing votes.

"Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, defined free will as the possibility that, after making a decision, you could have chosen otherwise. But a "decision," Coyne argues, is merely a series of electrical and chemical impulses between molecules in the brain — molecules whose configuration is predetermined by genes and environment. Though each decision is the outcome of an immensely complicated series of chemical reactions, those reactions are governed by the laws of physics and could not possibly turn out differently. "Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made," Coyne wrote."

The other scientists all agreed. They argued that everyone should be held account for their actions and that this is vital in considering all cases in law.

The counter argument came from Hilary Bok, a philosopher. She said:

"Scientists misunderstand the question of free will when they argue that decisions are governed by the activity of brain cells. Free will, in her opinion, is being capable of stepping back from one's existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among various alternatives. "The claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it," she wrote."

There seems to be no possible agreement here. The problem actually seems to lie in definitions of free will. To what extent does this effect our view of human actions, particularly linked to evil and suffering? Is there an agreement that our actions are still conscious and that we can be held accountable for them?

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