Essay on Coming to Terms with Free Will

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Coming to Terms with Free Will

Neurobiologists would like to treat the brain as a machine, tinkering with its parts and seeing how they interact as a mechanic might with a car engine. This kind of treatment works in many ways: when neurobiologists act like car mechanics they often succeed in explaining how our mental spark plugs interact with our mental pistons, and thus can perform useful tune-ups on the brain, along with other practical achievements. But to fully understand the brain, we must admit that in certain respects it is a very unique sort of machine, and one which raises problems unsolvable by car mechanic strategies. Perhaps the most subtle and difficult of these problems is the question of free will.

What is free
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However, new ideas in science do manage to leave room for its possibility. The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior states: "Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases." While this at first appears to be a mere expression of frustration, it carries hidden significance. Animal behavior is impossible to predict beyond certain boundaries. While we can say with certainty that a dog, when asked about his favorite television show, is certain not to respond, we cannot say whether he will scratch himself or begin panting, even if our understanding of his brain and his environment is very extensive. Since the advent of "chaos theory," or "complex systems theory," a new understanding of behavior has risen which labels it neither random nor predictably determined. This new type is referred to as "ill-mannered determinism". It premises that in systems with a certain level of complexity and beyond, events become predictable only to a certain extent. Even if we can predict the behavior of each part of the system individually, we cannot know all the details of their interaction and thus cannot predict the outcome. Thus many neurobiologists feel that even after the ultimate success of their efforts to map out all the causation of the nervous system, the unpredictability of an organism's behavior, and thus the possibility of its

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