For centuries the philosophers have debated the existence of free will. Those with a religious bent claimed it definitely existed, while those of a more scientific persuasion leaned more toward a biological reason. The debate is still ongoing, with new twists now being added by neuroscientists.

The ancient Greeks looked to their goddess of necessity or compulsion, Ananke, and her children, the Fates, to steer their lives. The scientific-minded Greeks looked to Ananke to control the atoms because  “everything happens…by necessity.” During Medieval times they believed that everything was preordained by God; and during the 17th century philosophers wrestled with the idea that nature plays a part in our decision making.

Scientists often look for alternate explanations for nearly everything anyway, so were open to new suggestions – like Freud’s theory that our unconscious drives are the basis for our actions. Now neuroscientists are voicing their belief, that the more we find out how the mind works the less they believe that everything has a preordained function, and that autonomous thought does not exist as we know it, and the idea of free will is just an “illusion.” For example: We do not decide what is saved into long-term memory, that is done by the short-term memory portion of our brain.

In 2011, an American writer on neuroscience and religion named Sam Harris wrote that free will “could not be squared with an understanding of the physical world, and that all our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge.”

Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher, says: “A rigid philosophical tradition claims that no choice is free unless it is uncaused: that is, unless the “will” is exercised independently of all causal influences – in a causal vacuum….The problem is that choices are made by brains, and brains operate causally…The unavoidable conclusion is that a philosophy dedicated to uncaused choice is as unrealistic as a philosophy dedicated to a flat Earth.”

Very few people will argue that the neurons (brain cells) in our brain are responsible for all of our thoughts and feelings. It is from their connection to each other that we are able to do anything – think, learn, speak or remember. In order for our mind or body to work at all the brain has to be functioning. This is nothing new – Hippocrates said basically the same thing in the 5th Century.

There is a realization among neuroscientists, the more they are able to actually “see” inside the brain through the use of modern technology, like the fMRI scanner, that this may not be the most informative way to actually understand the workings of the brain. This is because there are outside influences, like environment, and inside influences like DNA that has been passed down through the generations that have an effect and make us all unique.

Maybe looking inside the brain is the wrong place to find our free will. According to books written by Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Raymond Tallis, a retired British doctor and neuroscientist this may be the case. According to Dr Tallis in his book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, “trying to find human life in the brain is like trying to hear the rustle of a forest by listening to a seed.”

Neuroscientists have been encouraged in recent years (with the fMRI and PET scanners that can show activity in the brains while we are still alive) to believe they will find everything there is to know about the brain soon, including how we fall in love, how we form our decisions, and even how we come up with our moral judgments. Fact is, just because they can see activity in certain areas of the brain when we are thinking about something will not guarantee they will understand the behavior that goes along with it.  “It’s like the old joke about a drunk who drops his car keys at night and walks down the road to look for them under a distant streetlight—not because that’s where they’re likely to be, but because it’s where he can see.”

These brain scanners are still in their infancy when trying to understand the human brain. They are still not able to see neuron activity, although they may see trails of large bursts of activity but nothing less than a million brain cells.

There is no doubt that scientists will be able to become more adept at interpreting the information obtained through the brain scans, but is it practical to check out aspects of our mental life through the workings of our brain? They have been able to see that we often act before our brains form an intention, instead of afterwards, which leaves no time for your conscious to play a role in what we do. Everything is done on the unconscious level first, it seems. If that is so, then our ability to pick and choose of our own free will is simply an “illusion.”

Only time, and more research, will ever answer the question definitively as to whether it is our free will, or our neurons, that make our decisions.



About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.



More Intelligent – Neurons vs Free Will:

YouTube: Small neuronal ensembles and Free Will: