December 20, 2006

Neuroscience & Free Will

Filed under: science — ted @ 1:29 pm

A brief piece in The Economist summarizes current trends in neuroscience and it affects the way we think about ourselves an our decisions:

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.

The link within the text points to another piece in the same issue, which deals with the question of identity in light of the findings of neuroscience:

On September 13th 1848 a navvy called Phineas Gage was helping to build a railway in Vermont. As gang foreman, he had the job of setting explosive charges to blast a path through the hills near a town called Cavendish. While he was tamping down one of the charges with an iron bar, it went off prematurely, driving the bar clean through his head.

Accidents on construction projects happen all the time. The reason that people remember Gage’s is that he survived it. Or, rather, his body survived it. For the Gage that returned to work was not the Gage who had stuck the tamping rod into that explosive-filled hole. Before, he had been a sober, industrious individual, well respected and destined for success. Afterwards, he was a foul-mouthed drunkard, a drifter and a failure. His identity had been changed in a specific way by specific damage to a specific part of his brain.


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