Saturday, September 26, 2009


by Alexandre Couto de Andrade

Recent discoveries in neuroscience suggest that free will might be an illusion. If it is indeed so, the ethical, religious and scientific implications could hardly be overestimated. No individual could be held responsible (and, therefore, morally accountable) for his (her) own decisions, actions and choices anymore. At least not fully.

Data published last year suggest that our brain takes decisions up to seven seconds before we are aware of them. Some scientists and philosophers argue that this implies that our behavior is not self-generated and freedom is an illusion.

It does not mean that we simply respond to external stimuli. However, human behavior would totally depend on our internal states (unconscious neural processes), the product of genes and environment in mutual interaction (“nature” and “nurture”).

To Martin Heisenberg, a professor emeritus in the department of biology at the University of Würzburg (Germany), this does not imply that we aren't free:

Does this tell us anything about freedom in human behaviour? Before I answer that, let's establish what I mean by freedom. One acknowledged definition comes from Immanuel Kant, who resolved that a person acts freely if he does of his own accord what must be done. Thus, my actions are not free if they are determined by something or someone else. As stated above, self-initiated action is not in conflict with physics and can be demonstrated in animals. So, humans can be considered free in their behaviour, in as much as their behaviour is self-initiated and adaptive”.

It does not seem to be much of a comfort. We cannot change the facts by giving them other names. Our behavior would be deterministic anyway.


Heisenberg, Martin

Nature 459, 164-165 (14 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/459164a; Published online 13 May 2009

1 comment:

  1. Of course free will is an illusion. The universe is deterministic. However, knowledge of consequences and the concept of responsibility are simply other determining factors in our decisions.

    Just because everything is deterministic doesn't mean that it has been or can be determined or pre-determined. The number of variables let alone the infinite possibilities of the values of all such variables would take the total energy of the universe to accurately predict.

    Such chaos gives us the illusion. And while it is just an illusion, that is the extent by which free will can be said to exist.