Thursday, February 10, 2011

lab meeting February 16

Next week's lab meeting will get philosophical - we will discuss the concept of free will!


Free will used to be a theological and a metaphysical concept, and philosphers have long pondered its implications for society. Natural scientists, in contrast, have often shied away from discussing the concept of free will because of its metaphysical history (dualism of body and soul) or have argued in favor of deterministic brains and our actions being direct consequences of gene–environment interactions.


In his recent paper "Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates" (Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. vol. 278 no. 1707, pp. 930-939) Björn Brembs takes another viewpoint and argues that free will is a biological trait and not a metaphysical concept, based mainly on neurobiological findings in insects.


"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 Today, with ever increasing understanding of neurons, circuits and cognition, this concept has become outdated and any metaphysical account of free will is rightfully rejected.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 decisionmaking 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."


The paper can be downloaded (open-access) from the publisher's website using the following link:


If you have trouble downloading the pdf, drop me a line and I can send you a copy of the paper. It makes interesting reading and should provide enough ideas for a lively discussion (for example, are we really free to decide if we join the lab meetings? Or are we forced by Erik's deterministic decision and our body's craving for fika?)

Sophia Engel
Postdoctoral Fellow
CAnMove Centre
Department of Ecology
Lund University, Sweden

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