Archive for December, 2023

Dec 01 2023

Do We Have Free Will?

Published by under Neuroscience

Let’s dive head first into one of the internet’s most contentious questions – do we have true free will? This comes up not infrequently whenever I write here about neuroscience, most recently when I wrote about hunger circuitry, because the notion of the brain as a physical machine tends to challenge our illusion of complete free will. Debates tend to become heated, because it is truly challenging to wrap our meat brains around such an abstract question.

I always find the discussion to be enlightening, however. In the most recent discussion I detect that some commenters are using the term “free will” differently than others. Precisely (operationally) defining terms is always critical in such discussions, so I wanted to break down what I feel are the three definitions or levels of free will that we are dealing with. It seems to me that there is a superficial level, a neurological level, and a metaphysical level to free will. Language fails us here because we have only one term to refer to these very different things (at least colloquially – philosophers probably have lots of highly precise technical terms).

At the most superficial level we do make decisions, and some people consider this free will. To be clear, I am not aware of any serious thinker or philosopher who holds that we do not make decisions. There is a deeper discussion about the mechanisms of those decisions, but we do make them, we are consciously aware of them, and we can act on them. From this perspective, people are agents, and are accountable to the choices they make.

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