This from Scientific American raises interesting questions regarding knowledge: The Will to Power–Is “Free Will” All in Your Head?
The author, Christof Koch, apparently wants to balance philosophical questions with scientific ones. I appreciate his trying—but he doesn’t succeed. Not even if we ignore the oddly inappropriate allusion to Nietzsche in the title (for which Koch may not be responsible, as titles are often written by editors instead).
His topic is the perceptual effects experienced by patients during brain surgery. Neurosurgeons have long used electrical stimulation to test what is going on in regions of the brain near where they are working. Patients, who are under local anesthetic, report various perceptual experiences during these surgeries, or their limbs may move without any intention on their part. The current article touches on both perception and motion. It describes a sensation scientists have termed “intention,” described by patients as “an urge to move a limb,” or the feeling of “a need to move the leg, elbow, or arm.” Or, as stated in one French study,
Patients made comments (in French) such as “It felt like I wanted to move my foot. Not sure how to explain,” “I had a desire to move my right hand,” or “I had a desire to roll my tongue in my mouth.” In none of these cases did they actually carry out the movement to which they referred. But the external stimulation caused an unambiguous conscious feeling of wanting to move. And this feeling arose from within, without any prompting by the examiner and not during sham stimulation.
The question this raises, as indicated in the article’s title, is whether this means intentionality is just a neural process; and if it is, whether that means that deciding to do what we do is just a neural (physical/chemical) process, too, and if our sensation of intentional decision-making is misleading. If so, that implies that human free will is an illusion.
One one level Koch seems quite appropriately cautious. His closing sentence reads,
In the debate concerning the meaning of personal freedom, these discoveries represent true progress, beyond the eternal metaphysical question of free will that will never be answered.
Scientists have made progress, he says, but there never will be an answer. Now, I’m thankful he did not jump to the materialist conclusion that the mind is necessarily a purely physical entity, subject to the same physical necessities as any other physical system. That would be a typical naturalistic/materialistic response. I applaud him for his restraint on that. He was not quite so even-handed, however, near the beginning of his article:
Surely there must have been times in high school or college when you laid in bed, late at night, and wondered where your “free will” came from? What part of the brain—if it is the brain—is responsible for deciding to act one way or another? One traditional answer is that this is not the job of the brain at all but rather of the soul. Hovering above the brain like Casper the Friendly Ghost, the soul freely perturbs the networks of the brain, thereby triggering the neural activity that will ultimately lead to behavior.
Although such dualistic accounts are emotionally reassuring and intuitively satisfying, they break down as soon as one digs a bit deeper. How can this ghost, made out of some kind of metaphysical ectoplasm, influence brain matter without being detected? What sort of laws does Casper follow? Science has abandoned strong dualistic explanations in favor of natural accounts that assign causes and responsibility to specific actors and mechanisms that can be further studied. And so it is with the notion of the will.
The “Casper” caricature is not very “Friendly” to serious discourse on the topic. The language of “emotionally reassuring and intuitively satisfying” is rather patronizing. And “metaphysical ectoplasm“? Really, now.
What’s especially telling, however, is the question, “What sort of laws does Casper follow?” It reminds me of Steven Schafersman’s absurdly stated willingness to accept the spiritual if only we discover the “mechanism” by which it operates. Here’s what Koch is saying: Some people believe Casper provides humans with free will, but science can’t accept that possibility because (among other things) it doesn’t know what laws govern Casper’s action. But what does this mean? Scientists cannot accept the reality of free will unless we can discover the laws that rule it!
It’s an absurd thing to say: free will can only make sense if it’s ruled by law, which in the world of natural science, is fairly well synonymous with necessity. Free will is doing what you must do by necessity.
The confusion appears to be that of the scientistic mindset, that cannot break free of natural-law-rules-all thinking long enough to recognize what an absurdity it is.
What’s also on display here is the assumption that there is no knowledge but that which can be gained by science. Now, it’s perfectly appropriate for science to “abandon” a search for “strong dualistic explanations,” for that’s not the kind of thing that science is competent to search for. Here’s what I mean by that: if there are strong dualistic explanations out there, and if they are true ones, they may or may not be discoverable, but they will certainly not be discoverable by means of science, any more than you could discover a sliver of hay in a needle-stack by searching with a magnet. It’s the wrong way to go about looking for it. You might find all kinds of other things, but not what you’re really after.
Koch might recognize that science isn’t the only way to study matters like free will, but if so, he surely didn’t say so. He apparently assumes the soul can be studied only if its effects can be detected somehow (apparently its interaction with the brain doesn’t count). He assumes the soul can be studied only if the laws governing its action can be sorted out. He knows that neither of these will ever happen. And so he concludes free will is an “eternal metaphysical question … that will never be answered.”
It will never be answered by science; that’s true enough. Does that mean it will never be answered? For my part, I’m quite sure that science isn’t our only way to know true things about the world. And I’m quite sure this “eternal metaphysical question” already has been answered. If you think I’m wrong on that, then please feel free to choose to disagree.