Essay — From the September 2014 issue

On Free Will

And how the brain is like a colony of ants

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Neuroscientists who work on the human brain seldom mention free will. Most consider it a subject better left, at least for the time being, to philosophers. Meanwhile, their sights are set on discovering the physical basis of consciousness, of which free will is a part. No scientific quest is more important to humanity. Everyone — scientists, philosophers, and religious believers alike — can agree with the neurobiologist Gerald Edelman that “[c]onsciousness is the guarantor of all we hold human and precious. Its permanent loss is considered equivalent to death, even if the body persists in its vital signs.”

The physical basis of consciousness won’t be an easy phenomenon to grasp. The human brain is the most complex system, either organic or inorganic, known in the universe. Each of the billions of nerve cells (neurons) composing its functional part forms synapses and communicates with an average of ten thousand others; each launches messages along its own axon pathway using an individual digital code of membrane-firing patterns. The brain is organized into regions, nuclei, and staging centers that divide functions among them. These regions respond in different ways to hormones and sensory stimuli originating from outside the brain, while sensory and motor neurons all over the body communicate so intimately with the brain as to be virtually a part of it.

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is the author of more than thirty books, including two Pulitzer Prize winners. His new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, will be published in October by Liveright.

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  • http://www.bleepfreepress.com John Baumgaertner

    I have long awaited a comprehensive monologue re “free will” by someone who knows what they are talking about. And I loved the cagey conclusion. My only fault is the use of the word “instant”. If anyone can locate a moment in time, please mail it to me. I’ll pay the postage.

  • Messiah Scrolls

    ‏@MessiahScrolls Aug 19, 2014 #EOWilson Does #FreeWill #exist? On #Earth In #science #maybe “But not in #UltimateReality” #Above http://harpers.org/archive/2014/09/on-free-will/ … John 3:31-36
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85zcMHO1tnc
    http://www.themessiahscrolls.com/table-of-contents/

  • Kaslo

    It would do Wilson some good to read some Koch, Nagel, Sheldrake and/or McGilchrist. Mind is a fundamental part of nature, you can’t reduce it. As far as free will goes, it’s still an extremely complicated issue, I agree. But there is a lot more going on than we want to admit. Just look at pilot wave theory being re-looked at in quantum theory. There could be memory in quantum objects, which could effect the human scale. Heck, the field of planet neurobiology is growing as well. Many plants can respond to anesthetics, how do you explain that, they have no neurons?!

  • David Wellens

    10/03/14

    DAVID WELLENS

    ON FREE WILL

    Scientists avoid the subject of FREE WILL because scientists do not under the mind. Brain is local; mind is non-local. The ability to make decisions (‘free will’) resides in the mind, not the brain, and thus the subject is to be avoided at all costs.

    What is obviously lost in article’s premise is the fact that consciousness continues on regardless of what the body does. There is no ‘physical basis’ of consciousness–consciousness being of the mind, not the brain, and thus, one does not even need a brain to have either consciousness or ‘free will’.

    The entire premise of the article poses the question, “if consciousness has a material basis (with brain mapping as ‘evidence’ that it may), can free will also?” Making such statements as ‘the mind’s physical neurobiological system’ clearly indicates the predominant confusion within science between the brain/mind relationship. The brain is not the author of the mind, but the other way around. It is the mind which conceives of the brain/body and entire universe, projected out and then observed, with the ‘self’ also being observed as something within it. At no time do any of these ‘projections’ actually exist in ‘reality’ any more than is there any ‘substance’ left once we wake up from a dream. It all seems very ‘real’ until awakening, and then, poof!

    Consciousness was the first split introduced into the mind with the ‘great fall’, or the thought of separation that ‘birthed’ the entire experience of the ‘uni-verse’, which is anything but ‘uni-fied’. It is also the author of the mysterious ‘self’, which views itself within the universe of its own creation, and then suffers from the great mystery as to how the hell it even came into being.

    Neuroscience will unfortunately keep circling the same mountain, no matter how well ‘mapped’, arriving at the same conclusions, and essentially deriving no significant understanding of mind nor free will, so long as it keeps confusing the cause & effect relationship between mind & brain. Mind/cause–brain/effect.

    Good luck, fellas

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