My friend Björn has just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, an invited article on the possible biological basis of free will.
In accordance with Björn’s commitment to openness in science, he circulated a preprint and paid to make the published version Open Access in the hope of stimulating further discussion:
The article has been through several rounds of peer–review, both informal and formal […] since august this year. Of course, the real discussion, I would hope, isn’t starting until today, when the article actually became accessible.
I read the preprint, and it made my head ache. In a good way. I’m really not qualified to say whether Björn is right or wrong or completely nuts on this issue, but he’s taken an ambitious stab at a Big Question and that’s always good. More to the point, he’s done it well and carefully and it’s worth your time to play along at home.
Do your brain a favor and give it a workout — the full article is freely available online, and if you have substantive comments to make I guarantee you that the author will be delighted.
To whet your appetite, here’s the abstract:
Until the advent of modern neuroscience, free will used to be a theological and a metaphysical concept, debated with little reference to brain function. Today, with ever increasing understanding of neurons, circuits and cognition, this concept has become outdated and any metaphysical account of free will is rightfully rejected. The consequence is not, however, that we become mindless automata responding predictably to external stimuli. On the contrary, accumulating evidence also from brains much smaller than ours points towards a general organization of brain function that incorporates flexible decision-making on the basis of complex computations negotiating internal and external processing. The adaptive value of such an organization consists of being unpredictable for competitors, prey or predators, as well as being able to explore the hidden resource deterministic automats would never find. At the same time, this organization allows all animals to respond efficiently with tried-and-tested behaviours to predictable and reliable stimuli. As has been the case so many times in the history of neuroscience, invertebrate model systems are spearheading these research efforts. This comparatively recent evidence indicates that one common ability of most if not all brains is to choose among different behavioural options even in the absence of differences in the environment and perform genuinely novel acts. Therefore, it seems a reasonable effort for any neurobiologist to join and support a rather illustrious list of scholars who are trying to wrestle the term ‘free will’ from its metaphysical ancestry. The goal is to arrive at a scientific concept of free will, starting from these recently discovered processes with a strong emphasis on the neurobiological mechanisms underlying them.