Breaking the Causal Chain – Free Will

Picking up where we left off, we had bookmarked the experiential definition of free will (that which reduces to “the experience of choosing”) and ventured into the causal definition (a “self” is a unique cause of action).

Now, a little bit is known about the brain and nervous system. We know that certain neurons of the brain are “stimulated” by neurotransmitters received from neurons extending from various sensory nerves, and this is our brain’s primary input for experiencing the world. Likewise, we know that our muscles contract and release depending on signals carried to the by nerves which are stimulated by certain neurons in the brain. We also know that our brains have quite a bit of nervous activity that sorts and stores sensory inputs and mediates output to our motor functions. It would probably be accurate, if overly simplistic, to say that the brain processes inputs and turns them into outputs through nervous activity.

Be that as it may, we have a problem if we are to postulate causal will. Where does it manifest? If I “choose” to ball my fist, then at some point a set of neurons have to communicate the necessary signals from my brain to the muscles in my hand. Those neurons do not discharge in a vacuum – they discharge the way they do, according to the current understanding, because they are stimulated by neurotransmitters from other neurons. Without oversimplifying too much, my fist clench is the end result of the convergence of numerous causal chains – chains that involve DNA and the development of neural tissue, sensory inputs and its impact on neural tissue, the fact of being dropped on my head as a baby, nutritional factors, etc., etc., etc. It’s difficult to find a gap in which to insert a different kind of cause. Sure, there are big gaps in our understanding of how the brain stores memories, reinforces with dopamines, punishes with pain… but there is little doubt left that all of these are accomplished through the mediation of neural connections and the transmitters between them. If we trace backward the neural reactions that lead to the balling of my fist, at some point we have to find that there is room for something we call “self” – apart from those causal chains – to cause some neurons to release their chemical signals without being primed to do so by other neurons or physical stimuli. If no such place can be found, we are at a near loss for ways to consider my choice to ball my fist to be other than mechanically caused with no true “choice” on the part of a more numinous “self”. The only alternative is that, in cases where the numinous “self” wishes to assert its free choice, it is capable of producing neurological miracles.

Very frankly put, to gain a causal sense of will, and for that will to be free, there must be a miracle making self not completely tied up with the mechanics of the brain.

The other alternative for causal free will is very similar to what we discussed before: if we admit of the self as cause without the guarantee that the self could choose differently than it does, then we can say that the “self” does cause the action, defining the self with reference to the human body and brain as constructed and modified by its genes and environmental history. In other words the freedom of the will remains somewhat illusory, but the will itself could be well-established. Then the question of whether there is a numinous “self” or only the illusion of same must be brought up, then dropped quickly when we realize that we have mainly already covered that territory.

I’m not quite satisfied to drop the subject there, but again – fits & starts. I’ll return to this, hopefully by Monday.

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