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ResearchBlogging.org A few weeks ago, Lars Chittka invited me to write an article "about free will in insects" for a Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) Special Feature on 'Information processing in miniature brains' that he is editing. Given our work on spontaneity in flies and my mentor being Martin Heisenberg, how could I decline?

I think I will first give a very brief overview of what people used to call "free will" and why it was such a controversy. I hope to get the gist across in about two paragraphs. Much of this info will be distilled from Bob Doyle's website and his article in William James Studies. Bob also published a letter to Nature in response to Martin Heisenberg's article there. Is it just coincidence that it was Heisenberg's father Werner Heisenberg who discovered the uncertainty principle?

Then I plan to go on to argue that today the old, metaphysical free will of course does not exist in the almost 'spiritual' sense and that no prominent scholar has entertained that idea at least since Popper and Eccles' book "The self and its brain" in 1977. Instead, I will try and make the case that the term "free will" should be recast in biological terms, as a trait that evolved and keeps evolving to different degrees in different animals. I plan to use evidence from flies, leeches and other invertebrate animals to emphasize that even so-called 'simple' brains possess the capacity to behave unpredictably, i.e., freely. Any difference in freedom between animals is merely gradual.

I probably should also spend a paragraph or so elaborating on the selection pressures leading to spontaneous behaviors and behavioral variability.

Once the capacity for freedom has been shown, it will take less work convincing the readers of the capacity to 'will'.

All of this should be couched in the notion that the dichotomy between indeterminism and determinism is a false dichotomy, because brains operate in the gray area between the two. This may be the most difficult concept to grasp, that indeterminism and determinism are not mutually exclusive, but delineate a spectrum of what one may call 'probabilism'. I may try and refer to evolution as also using both concepts of mutation (indeterminate) and selection (determinate) in a probabilistic process. I may even try and refer to Bayesian Statistics, although I know little more than the basic idea behind it. The main task of this section will be to argue that what we call freedom is more than just chance. Chance, or randomness is a prerequisite for freedom, a necessary component but it's not sufficient. Let me quote from our press release at the time:
[co-author George Sugihara]"This nonlinear signature eliminates the two alternative explanations of spontaneous turning behavior in flies that would run counter to free will, namely complete randomness and pure determinism. These represent opposite and extreme endpoints in discussions of brain functioning which mirror the free will debate." To that, I'd only add that our subjective notion of 'Free Will' is essentially an oxymoron: we would not consider it 'will' if it were completely random and we would not consider it 'free' if it were entirely determined. Nobody would attribute any responsibility to our action if it had happened entirely coincidental. On the other hand, if our action was completely determined by external factors such that there was no alternative, again the person would not be held responsible. So if there is anything remotely close to free will, it must exist somewhere between chance and necessity - which is exactly where fly behavior comes to lie. George again finds the right words: "Our results address the middle ground between simple determinism and randomness that is currently not well understood or characterized. We speculate that if free will exists, it is in this middle ground." This leads me to believe that the question of whether or not we have free will appears to be posed the wrong way. Instead, if we ask 'where between chance and necessity are we located?' one finds that this is precisely where humans and animals differ. Humans may not have free will in the philosophical sense, but even flies have a number of behavioral options they need to decide between. Humans are less determined than flies and possess even more options. With this small reformulation, the topic of free will becomes the new biological research area of studying spontaneous behavior and can thus be discerned from the philosophical question.
If after all that there's still room in the article, I'll review some of the data on the human default mode network and what they might contribute to the debate.

Let's see, if enough people express interest in the comments, I may put a draft version online for comments and review. All commenters will at least be mentioned in the acknowledgements, of course.


Heisenberg, M. (2009). Is free will an illusion? Nature, 459 (7244), 164-165 DOI: 10.1038/459164a
Doyle, R. (2009). Free will: it's a normal biological property, not a gift or a mystery Nature, 459 (7250), 1052-1052 DOI: 10.1038/4591052c
Briggman, K. (2005). Optical Imaging of Neuronal Populations During Decision-Making Science, 307 (5711), 896-901 DOI: 10.1126/science.1103736
Maye, A., Hsieh, C., Sugihara, G., & Brembs, B. (2007). Order in Spontaneous Behavior PLoS ONE, 2 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000443
Posted on Friday 23 July 2010 - 16:53:45 comment: 0
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