Our entire social, legal and economic order is based on the axiom of free will, the idea that people are autonomous and rational agents who do what we decide at all times.
The last thing a bank robber's lawyer would think of would be to argue that her client did it involuntarily, moved by the deterministic forces of the cosmos and brain anatomy.
The judge wouldn't listen to him, and he'd put the guy in jail assuming he'd robbed the bank because he felt like it.
If the cause were the determinism of the cosmos, there would be no way to hold people accountable for their actions.
You yourself are reading this article because you want to, right?
An experiment by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, already a classic, came to entangle our received knowledge on this question.
Libet, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, asked a group of volunteers to move their wrists whenever they wanted.
They also had to say at what exact moment they had made the decision to move it.
The swarm of electrodes that Libet had attached to their heads showed that the brain neurons responsible for moving the doll were activated half a second before the doll moved and—here comes the bang—a quarter of a second before the subjects had moved. made that decision.
The experiment was well done, and has been confirmed and perfected by subsequent research, but its interpretation has been at the vortex of a deep-seated scientific and philosophical debate for 40 years.
Because the most natural reading of these data implies that our decisions are the product of neural processes of which we are unconscious.
Our mental life, what we call
, would be a kind of literary narration, or moral justification, of what the brain was already doing on its own, beyond our voluntary control.
Sounds strange, doesn't it, but there is plenty of other evidence that the vast majority of mental activity is unconscious.
Someone whose name I don't remember came up with the inspiring metaphor that we are a passenger leaning over the bow of an ocean liner whose operation we know nothing about.
It is a terrifying idea, but beautiful and exact as a verse by Jorge Luis Borges.
The question continues to hang over our heads.
There is even a collaborative project between philosophers and scientists called Neurophilosophy & Free Will, dedicated to refuting, or at least qualifying, the theory that
is an illusion.
"Neuroscientific research has cast doubt on whether consciousness is part of the causal chain that leads to action," says its frontispiece.
"In this project, a group of 17 neuroscientists and philosophers joined forces to understand how the human brain enables conscious and causal control of actions."
Two of his collaborators, the philosopher Alessandra Buccella and the psychologist Tomáš Dominik, from Chapman University, present in
the main ideas circulating in such high forums.
His conclusion is that free will is a useful concept, although its definition needs to be reexamined.
Think about it.
If they feel like it, of course.
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