Where are we with this whole free will thing?

Haim Sompolinsky has written an excellent book chapter on the scientific view of free will and choice, pulling in good ideas from physics and neuroscience along with contemporary philosophical commentary.

I think this chapter might be helpful for neuroscientists outside of the lab. Often a dinner table discussion has moved to the idea of “quantum consciousness” or “quantum free will”. Often, someone will mention Roger Penrose, who has become something of a poster boy for this idea that quantum indeterminacy (eg. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) is one possible way that free will is really free. And then, people look around and say, “Well, you’re a neuroscientist. Do we have free will?” (And that’s when I take another big drink or bite while I figure out something semi-coherent to say.)

Sompolinsky does a nice job of evaluating such claims (in the end, he says we cannot rule out the possibility that the brain is an indeterministic system but it seems unlikely) and provides nice scientific insight. In his view, it is far more likely that the brain’s apparent randomness (eg. individual cell spike rasters vary across repeated presentations of the same stimulus) is more simply explained by thermal noise (think of varying channel gating properties) and chaotic brain dynamics. (Recall, a chaotic system is still deterministic; it simply exhibits aperiodic behavior due to exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions. It is difficult to predict the long-term behavior of chaotic systems. The more we know the initial conditions in detail, the better our prediction.) On the other hand, he argues that the relevant length and time scales for neurons (micrometers and milliseconds) are far larger by many orders of magnitude than those of quantum noise. Chaos might amplify such quantum events, but this is far from being the simplest, most parsimonious explanation. Given the current level of neuroscience understanding, this is almost idle speculation. Regardless of the (in)determinacy of the world, Sompolinsky effectively argues against any non-physical, purely mental (ie. dualistic) agent of causation.

Thus, in sum, the world and our brains might not be determined but, even given that, there’s no reason to believe we have any causative ability to change things in the sense of traditional free will. These observations seem right on the mark to me. I hope they bring some insight for others. Or at least a way to fend off the dinner-table-free-will-conversation barrage of questions.