Freewill and the Brain: Choices, Constraints, and Community

2d-neural-map-image-cropped
Cropped from Two-dimensional brain. Copyright: Radu Jianu/Brown University

Have you ever had that slightly disturbing experience of arriving at work and realising that you have very little recollection of how you got there? The human brain contains around 100 billion nerve cells[1], each of which makes multiple connections. This biological hardware is used to integrate signals from our own bodies and surroundings, as well as our memories and predictions for the future. Most brain activity actually happens without our being aware of it – our consciousness only needs to get involved when the outcome is not determined. In other words, the more routine our actions become the less we need to think about it. Continue reading

Free to choose?

Traces within – © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009

Neuroscientist Bill Newsome is grappling with a question that has perplexed scholars for millennia. Do we have free will? That is certainly something to wonder about. At the Faraday Institute summer course, philosopher Peter van Inwagen refused to speak about ‘the f___ w___ phrase’, for fear of becoming embroiled in debates over definitions, and instead chose to speak about determinism. But Newsome finds himself in a profession where the question of free will is more immediate, and both his scientific and his spiritual instincts have led him in an interesting direction for answers.

‘What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.’
Madeleine Albright, 2006 Snowdon lecture

‘We become that which we love.’
Attributed to Saint Bridget, popularised by Jason Mraz

The central dogma of neuroscience is that all of our behaviour and mental life is inextricably linked to the brain. That’s all very well, but most people would believe that much of our behaviour is a choice resulting from our unique beliefs, values, and aspirations. How do the two fit together? Continue reading

A twin speaks on freewill

Dilbert's take on Freewill

It’s significant that Peter Clarke, who spoke on ‘Brain, Determinism and Free Will’ at the Faraday Institute this week, is an identical twin. As a twin he will be more acutely aware than most of the factors that are important in defining individuality, personality and choice.  Peter is Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Morphology at the University of Lausanne and, unusually for a biologist, his first degree was in engineering science. His supervisor for his PhD on electrical responses in the brain was the well-known (in science & religion circles) philosopher-neurobiologist Donald MacKay. With this background, his approach to freewill was both unusual and fascinating.

Peter Clarke’s approach to the question of whether or not our brain biochemistry is completely determined by genetics and environment was to ask which of the various philosophical solutions that have been proposed for the free-will question fit the data best. His main focus was to test the idea that randomness at the molecular level in the brain leaves room for the soul to act.  Some proponents of free will claim that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (that you can’t completely define the position of an atom) means that the brain’s biochemistry may ‘allow’ for individual choice. Peter showed, by looking in detail at the energy involved in neuronal synapses, that the brain is resistant to random forces (such as localised fluctuations in ion concentrations) that are thousands of times greater than Heisenbergian uncertainty. So quantum fluctuations aren’t going to cause neurons to fire, and are not a good candidate for the mechanism underlying free will.

It was interesting to see science being brought to bear on a philosophical problem, and also to see someone picking apart an argument in such detail. But is raises the  question that if people believe in a soul, does it matter whether or not we can see where in the brain it acts? I’m tempted to say no, because I think that if  ‘soulish’ properties such as hatred and love are outside of science, then how they emerge from our physical body is not a scientific question – just as the ‘tableness’ of a table is not a scientific question. It does leave us with a lot of questions about our brain, consciousness, freewill and so on – which I expect is why so many neuroscientists (and theologians, psychologists and many others) think that the question of the soul is more nuanced than the simple ‘ghost in the machine’ idea.

Subscribers to the journal Science & Christian Belief can see a paper by Peter Clarke that deals with this subject in more detail here.