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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Quantum model of neuroscience?: Free will is back in town

A recent paper by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, and Mario Beauregard, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society establishes a basis in neuroscience for free will.

(Note: If this is not the story you were looking for, see the Blog service note below or the stories listed in the middle sidebar. )

The paper can be a demanding read, but it demonstrates that quantum effects provide a science-based - but not materialist - account of free will.

The reason that science has long been associated with the belief that free will is only an illusion and cannot really exist is that science has been associated with naturalism and materialism. And it makes sense: If you are only a material entity, you cannot have free will any more than a brick can.

Essentially, this paper argues that materialist ideas that deny free will are rooted in outdated notions of classical physics. The authors understand the brain in quantum mechanical terms instead. A quantum understanding of the brain does two things: 1) It provides a science-based account of how free will can exist, and 2) the account squares with neurological observations. For example,

An important early neuropsychological experiment is the Libet experiment pertaining to free will. (Libet, 1985, 2003) In this experiment the subject is instructed to make a motor action within a certain long time period, and it is found that a readiness potential begins to appear tenths of a second before his conscious effort to make this action occurs. This effect seems to suggest that the willfull effort is an effect of brain action, rather than a cause of it. However, within the quantum model the Process 1 choice picks out essentially one classically describable possibility, with all of its history, and all of the ancillary effects tied to this history, from a host of alternative possibilities. The mathematical structure of the theory guarantees that all experiences of all observers will conform to the classically described history that is free chosen by the subject.

The paper concludes,

Materialist ontology draws no support from contemporary physics, and is in fact contradicted by it. The notion that all physical behavior is explainable in principle solely in terms of a local mechanical process is a holdover from physical theories of an earlier era. ... In this account brain behavior that appears to be caused by mental effort is actually caused by mental effort: the causal efficacy of mental effort is no illusion. ...

A shift to this pragmatic approach that incorporates agent-based choices as primary empirical input variables may be as important to progress in neuroscience and psychology as it was to progress in atomic physics.

A book written for a lay as well as a professional audience that unpacks related ideas is Schwartz and Begley's The Mind and the Brain.

I would think this type of reasoning and research should be bad news for those who put a lot of effort into denying free will. A number of Darwinists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have tried to make free will compatible with Darwinism, but they don't sound philosophically coherent to me. What they are describing is a method of fooling oneself that one has free will, rather than an account that demonstrates the existence of free will. Even evolutionary psychologist David P. Barash (in the Dennett link above), who otherwise praises Dennett's book Freedom Evolves doesn't seem sure that his account of free will really works: "I’m not convinced that Dennett’s distinction between 'determined' and 'inevitable' is as significant as he so triumphantly maintains."

Full disclosure: Mario Beauregard is the lead author on a forthcoming book on the spiritual implications of similar recent neuroscience findings, of which I am the co-author.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
Blog service note: Did you come here looking for any of the following stories?

- The op-ed by Catholic Cardinal Schonborn in the New York Times? Note also the Times's story on the subject, some interesting quotes from major Darwinists to compare with the Catholic Church's view, as expressed by the Cardinal, and an example of the kind of problem with Darwinian philosophy that the Cardinal is talking about.

- the Privileged Planet film shown at the Smithsonian, go here for an extended review. Please do not raise cain about an "anti-evolution" film without seeing it. If your doctor forbids you to see the film, in case you get too excited, at least read my detailed log of the actual subjects of the film. If you were one of the people who raised cain, ask yourself why you should continue to believe the people who so misled you about the film's actual content ...

- the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one and this one will bring you up to date.

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