May 30, 2024

Free will, according to Nature

Free will, according to Nature

When the topic of
free will appears in Nature, it is normally being tossed
unceremoniously in the rubbish bin. There is a lot of recent research
which supports this. Last year, for instance, researchers at the Max
Planck Institute used brain scanners to show that brains decide 7
seconds before people are aware of making a choice. "By the time
consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done,"
said the
lead author
. Much of the latest research in science
journals “demonstrates” that human behaviour is never
self-generated and that freedom is an illusion. This is, of course,
is a matter of no little consequence for bioethics.

So there’s good
news and bad news about free will in this week’s Nature. The
good news is that a Nature author is contending that it
exists. Martin Heisenberg, of the University of Würzburg, in
Germany, writes: “self-initiated action is not in conflict with
physics and can be demonstrated in animals. So, humans can be
considered free in their behaviour, in as much as their behaviour is
self-initiated and adaptive.” He believes that the key to solving
this ancient conundrum is quantum physics and behavioural biology.

And that’s the bad
news. Dr Heisenberg proves that humankind has free will by showing
that Escherichia coli does, too. An expert on fruit flies, he
sees that “there is plenty of evidence that an animal’s behaviour
cannot be reduced to responses. For example, my lab has demonstrated
that fruit flies, in situations they have never encountered, can
modify their expectations about the consequences of their actions.
They can solve problems that no individual fly in the evolutionary
history of the species has solved before.”

The fly in the
ointment, so to speak, is the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Heisenberg
uses Kant’s definition as the benchmark for freedom: “a person
acts freely if he does of his own accord what must be done”. If a
fruit fly is free, surely we are, too.

Hmmm. The
philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote famously that "man is
condemned to be free". It’s unlikely that he thought that E.
was rattling the same chains. Perhaps Professor Heisenberg’s
“freedom” isn’t the same one that enraptured the
existentialists. So perhaps the inclusion of this essay in Nature
isn’t so surprising after all. ~ Nature, May 13