John Templeton Foundation


Determining free will
By Chris Frith, New Scientist, 11 Aug 2007

Home Approach Program Commitee Other Participants
  Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow 

hilosophers have raised questions throughout history regarding the relationship between our intuitive sense of mental causation and agency and the physical world. Their inquiry has taken on new urgency since the discovery of brain signals that seem to precede an intended action. Is volition then an illusion? Is bottom-up causation all there is? Or does an understanding of the experience of freedom of choice require the invocation of downward causation—the theory that the mind can initiate action because it is more than merely the sum of its parts? Does the existence of intentional, goal-oriented behavior in nature and of certain kinds of organizing information in the universe lead to the hypothesis that the higher-level system selectively activates lower-level causal processes? In the quarter-century since Roger Sperry, the neuroscientist who assigned a causal role to consciousness, won a Nobel Prize for showing that a conscious mind exists in each hemisphere of the brain, much has been learned about the psychology and neurology of volition and intentionality. Researchers have measured electrical and hemodynamic signals associated with freely initiated actions, some of which (e.g. readiness potential) occur before the subject becomes aware of his or her intention to move. Can these laboratory findings be generalized to decisions and actions that occur in daily life? What new types of experimentation and instrumentation might advance this domain of inquiry?

The body of research undertaken to date is compatible with the position that the “feeling of authorship” is a conscious sensation that is, in principle, no different from the feeling of seeing the color red or smelling a rose. What are its neuronal correlates? What are the functional and neuroanatomical links between the brain centers that initiate action and those networks that generate the feeling of authorship? Would such a neuronal mechanism, if understood, resolve the apparent conflict between the hypothesis that the universe is causally closed and a psychological sense of freedom (“I am the author of my own actions”)? To what extent might bottom-up accounts of causation for such actions within the brain and nervous system be modified by top-down influences, for instance, expectations? How can higher levels of integration and personal volition—the subject’s beliefs, hopes, purposes, and desires—be said to initiate action? And, more generally, how might physicalist frameworks for top-down causation be conceptualized in the first place?

Furthermore: How can convictions about the possibility for self-actualization be squared with ideas of ‘causal closure’? Are such philosophical or scientific ideas based on compelling interpretations of the implications of physical science? Were there to be no such thing as actual libertarian free will, can there be actual, philosophically coherent, moral responsibility? Can non-reductive physicalism, affirming both the reality of the mind and the thesis that every physical event has a physical cause, break the logjam philosophically and possibly point towards fruitful new research agendas in neuroscience? How does contemporary philosophical theology engage with this area of inquiry in the neurosciences and in the philosophy of mind? What is the status and shape of active contemporary debates in philosophical theology that pertain to questions of volition and causation?

The fourteen scientists, philosophers, and theologians who have come together to examine these questions, under the auspices of the John Templeton Foundation, meet in Yosemite National Park, a world heritage site in the high Sierras marked by spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, lakes, streams, and groves of ancient giant sequoias. It is a natural wonder of immense biological diversity that President Abraham Lincoln set aside 143 years ago as a public trust.

TOP BANNER: Maurice Braun, Yosemite Falls from the Valley (detail),
1918, oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Irvine Museum, Irvine, California,
adjoined by Diverging Paths, © John Goldstein Photography.