Seeking free will: a debate

The Dana magazine Cerebrum has just published a debate between a psychiatrist and neurologist on how we can make sense of free will in the age of neuroscience.

The choice of professionals is an interesting one because each typically deals with what are assumed to be quite different disruptions in free will.

Neurologists often treat patients who have problems controlling their movements, cognition or consciousness – owing to clear, identifiable brain damage to the systems involved in these processes.

Someone with Parkinson’s disease, for example, seems to have little conscious control over their tremor or rigid movements.

Psychiatrists on the other hand, typically deal with people who don’t have clear brain damage, but whose brain’s are nonetheless functioning in such as way that they experience unstable moods, odd perceptions, or come to hold seemingly impossible beliefs.

Here the idea of free will is a bit more conceptually tricky. We can clearly say that someone who has Parkinsonian tremor is not ‘willing’ their movements, but what about someone whose brain disturbance means they hear voices?

Some people who hear voices can have conversations with them. In this situation, the person would seem to be exercising some influence over their hallucinations, because the voices respond to what’s being said, but many people can’t ‘will’ the voices away.

One particularly interesting phenomenon in this regard is ‘command hallucinations’ – usually hallucinated voices that command the person to do something.

Often, the commands are pointless – touch the table, cross the street, take off your hat – but sometimes they can be terrifying instructions – for example, that the person must harm themselves.

In some cases, these commands seem irresistible, the person feels completely compelled to follow their hallucinated instructions.

We don’t really have a good understanding (or, to be fair, even a bad understanding) of why some command hallucinations are distressing but impotent, while others seem to compel the person to comply.

There are many more examples of how free will is affected in both psychiatry and neurology. In both specialities, there are conditions where the boundaries of free will cover a big grey area, and all of them raise really quite profound questions about our freedom to act as we want.

The Cerebrum debate tackles exactly these sorts of issues by two people who undoubtedly have to deal with them on a daily basis.

Link to Cerebrum article ‘Seeking Free Will in Our Brains: A Debate’.

One Comment

  1. Neil Levy
    Posted September 23, 2007 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Um, and this article has exactly what to do with free will? Has it occurred to scientists that there is a philosophical debate on free will, and that just maybe philosophers have noticed that actions are caused by brain events? Apparently not.


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