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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?

By Eddie Nahmias
The New York Times
Originally published November 13, 2011 and still relevant today

Is free will an illusion?  Some leading scientists think so.  For instance, in 2002 the psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote, “It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do… It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion.” More recently, the neuroscientist Patrick Haggard declared, “We certainly don’t have free will.  Not in the sense we think.”  And in June, the neuroscientist Sam Harris claimed, “You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.”

Here, I’ll explain why neuroscience is not the death of free will and does not “wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility,” extending a discussion begun in Gary Gutting’s recent Stone column.  I’ll argue that the neuroscientific evidence does not undermine free will.  But first, I’ll explain the central problem: these scientists are employing a flawed notion of free will.  Once a better notion of free will is in place, the argument can be turned on its head.  Instead of showing that free will is an illusion, neuroscience and psychology can actually help us understand how it works.

The entire story is here.
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