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My lab:
lab.png Today, the Royal Society published my article reviewing the invertebrate data supporting a scientific concept of free will. In it, I first reiterate that the metaphysical concept of free will is long dead (since the 1970s). Then I emphasize that determinism has been dead for even longer (basically since quantum mechanics). Finally, I propose that the ability to behave differently in identical circumstances forms the basis for a scientific concept of free will. Basically, IMHO, free will is a biological brain function, not some ghost in our heads. I argue that the evolutionary ancestry to this brain function can be traced back to invertebrate species living today, which also show this fundamental capacity. In fact, I propose that brains who are not free to behave as they will, would not do very well in a competitive situation such as evolution.

The article has been through several rounds of peer-review, both informal and formal (by two anonymous referees selected by the editor of the journal, Lars Chittka) since august this year. Of course, the real discussion, I would hope, isn't starting until today, when the article actually became accessible. Nevertheless, a bunch of colleagues have looked through it to make sure it's not all totally screwed up devilmad.png.

In keeping with my committment to the open access movement, I paid ~2k€ for everyone to be able to download the article 'for free', so you can go ahead and read it for yourself.

Here's the abstract, just to whet your appetite grin.png
Until the advent of modern neuroscience, free will used to be a theological and a metaphysical concept, debated with little reference to brain function. Today, with ever increasing understanding of neurons, circuits and cognition, this concept has become outdated and any metaphysical account of free will is rightfully rejected. The consequence is not, however, that we become mindless automata responding predictably to external stimuli. On the contrary, accumulating evidence also from brains much smaller than ours points towards a general organization of brain function that incorporates flexible decision-making on the basis of complex computations negotiating internal and external processing. The adaptive value of such an organization consists of being unpredictable for competitors, prey or predators, as well as being able to explore the hidden resource deterministic automats would never find. At the same time, this organization allows all animals to respond efficiently with tried-and-tested behaviours to predictable and reliable stimuli. As has been the case so many times in the history of neuroscience, invertebrate model systems are spearheading these research efforts. This comparatively recent evidence indicates that one common ability of most if not all brains is to choose among different behavioural options even in the absence of differences in the environment and perform genuinely novel acts. Therefore, it seems a reasonable effort for any neurobiologist to join and support a rather illustrious list of scholars who are trying to wrestle the term ‘free will’ from its metaphysical ancestry. The goal is to arrive at a scientific concept of free will, starting from these recently discovered processes with a strong emphasis on the neurobiological mechanisms underlying them.

Björn Brembs (2010). Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates Proc. R. Soc. B
Posted on Wednesday 15 December 2010 - 20:35:28 comment: 0

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