Neuroscience and free will

Interesting conversation between Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga, in this month’s Seed.


The conversation is wide ranging, but what most struck me was the discussion of free will. It’s often argued that advances in cognitive sciences reveal free will to be an illusion, that our thinking is determined by our neurological processes – there is only mechanism and we can finally lay to rest the ghost in the machine.


Matthew Taylor alluded to this in his recent discussion here. It was also central to a conversation between Ray Tallis and Pierre Magistretti that the RSA hosted at the Cheltenham Science Festival.


For different reasons, Tallis and Maigistretti were both of the view that neuroscience didn’t have to do away with free will. I’m inclined to agree with Tallis that given how evident to us our ability to think and make decisions is (after all it seems to be the thing we know best) it is an odd intellectual gesture to say that because we cannot find it in the brain it simply doesn’t exist.


On one level this is a question of trying to reconcile different levels of reality. Free will is experientially real to us. The empirical and experimental data that tell us about the neural processes behind our decision making are equally real (though of course our knowledge of them is based upon rational and perceptual processes that are at root experiential) – but isn’t the most useful task to accept these different layers of reality and to try and decide how they relate to each other rather than attempt fruitlessly to decide which real is most real….?



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