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Scientist Sheds New Light On Free Will

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Scientist sheds new light on free will

By Tom Chivers, Daily Telegraph - October 13, 2010

For a man who thinks he's a robot, Prof. Patrick Haggard is remarkably cheerful about it. "We certainly don't have free will," says the leading British neuroscientist. "Not in the sense we think." It's quite a way to start an interview.

We're in the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, in Queen Square in London, the nerve centre -- if you will -- of British brain research. Haggard is demonstrating "transcranial magnetic stimulation," a technique that uses magnetic coils to affect one's brain, and then to control the body.

One of his research assistants, Christina Fuentes, is holding a loop-shaped paddle next to his head, moving it fractionally. "If we get it right, it might cause something." She presses a switch, and the coil activates with a click. Haggard's hand twitches. "It's not me doing that," he assures me, "it's her."

The machinery can't force Haggard to do anything really complicated -- "You can't make me sign my name," he says, almost ruefully -- but at one point, Christina is able to waggle his index finger slightly, like a schoolmaster. It's very fine control, a part of the brain specifically in command of a part of the body.

"There's quite a detailed map of the brain's wiring to the body that you can build," he says.

I watch as Christina controls Haggard's fingers like a marionette. The mechanical nature of it is unsettling. A graph on a screen shows his muscle activity plotted by time; 20 milliseconds after she clicks the button, it depicts an elegant leap and drop, like a heartbeat on an ECG. That 20 milliseconds is how long it takes for the signal to travel down his nerves. "The conduction time would be less from my jaw muscles, more from my leg muscles," he says. And as many of us will recognize, the process gets less effective as we age: "As I get older, the curve will move slowly to the right on the graph."

The idea that our bodies can be controlled by an outside force is a pretty astonishing one. "This is absolutely out of my control," insists Haggard, as his muscles continue to move. "I'm not doing it, Christina is. I'm just a machine, and she is operating me."

What does this mean in terms of free will? "We don't have free will, in the spiritual sense. What you're seeing is the last output stage of a machine. There are lots of things that happen before this stage -- plans, goals, learning -- and those are the reasons we do more interesting things than just waggle fingers. But there's no ghost in the machine."

The conclusions are shocking: if we are part of the universe, and obey its laws, it's hard to see where free will comes into it. What we think of as freedom, he says, is a product of complexity. "An amoeba has one input, one output. If you touch it with one chemical, it engulfs it; with another, it recoils.

"If you see a light go green, it may mean press the accelerator; but there are lots of situations where it doesn't mean that: if the car in front hasn't moved, for example. The same stimulus sometimes makes me press the accelerator, but sometimes the horn. We are not one output-one input beings; we have to cope with a messy world of inputs, an enormous range of outputs. I think the term 'free will' refers to the complexity of that arrangement."

Slowly, however, we are learning more about the details of that complexity. This, Haggard says, has profound implications: philosophically, morally, and -- most worryingly -- legally. "We understand what brain areas are responsible for impulsive behaviour, and which bits are responsible for inhibiting that behaviour. There's a whole brain network associated with holding back from things you shouldn't do.

"What happens if someone commits a crime, and it turns out that there's a lesion in that brain area? Is that person responsible? Is the damage to the machine sufficient for us to exempt them from that very basic human idea that we are responsible for our actions? I don't know."

He refers to a major project in America, where "lawyers, neuroscientists, philosophers and psychiatrists are all trying to work out what impact brain science has on our socio-legal sense of responsibility."

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

source: http://www.{censored}/technology/Scientist+sheds+light+free+will/3663017/story.html
Oct 7, 2010
I really dont get the point, why he came up that we dont have free will.
Every individual have choices, and each choice we choose is on our own free will.


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
I really dont get the point, why he came up that we dont have free will.
Every individual have choices, and each choice we choose is on our own free will.

I understand your frustration. This topic tends to go in circles. That is just a basic reality of the topic itself. welcomekaur

One thing that I did and it helped me clear out the cob webs was read on the topic of "conditional free-will." It helped sort out the moral questions involved in the idea that if all is determined, then why do we make choices? If all is determined, then how do we have responsibility for our deeds? Try it out and see what you find. Let us know.




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