Coming to Terms with Free Will
Neurobiologists would like to treat the brain as a machine, tinkering with its parts and seeing how they interact as a mechanic might with a car engine. This kind of treatment works in many ways: when neurobiologists act like car mechanics they often succeed in explaining how our mental spark plugs interact with our mental pistons, and thus can perform useful tune-ups on the brain, along with other practical achievements. But to fully understand the brain, we must admit that in certain respects it is a very unique sort of machine, and one which raises problems unsolvable by car mechanic strategies. Perhaps the most subtle and difficult of these problems is the question of free will.
What is free will? It seems most scientists and philosophers can agree that free will is simply an organism's control over its own response to stimuli. The creators of such a definition would imply that the behavior of free-willed organisms is neither strictly determined nor random. But what is the difference between these three types of behavior? Before we dig ourselves any deeper in this pit of complex ideas, we should first make a certain distinction. Scientists differ with most philosophers on one facet of their method of inquiry: the former believe that data must be objective and public, while the latter feel that premises from rational introspection make up a portion of sound logic. Thus almost all scientists ascribe, unwittingly or not, to a faction of philosophy of mind which calls itself "behaviorism" and posits that the only valid way of examining mental states is in the behavior of other organisms. While this is a hefty claim, it is fairly useful in making sense of ideas about free will, and so I will momentarily put myself into behaviorist shoes.
Because mental control over one's actions is fundamentally an internal, private mental state, behaviorists lack a method to prove or disprove free will. However, new ideas in science do manage to leave room for its possibility. The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior states: "Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases." While this at first appears to be a mere expression of frustration, it carries hidden significance. Animal behavior is impossible to predict beyond certain boundaries. While we can say with certainty that a dog, when asked about his favorite television show, is certain not to respond, we cannot say whether he will scratch himself or begin panting, even if our understanding of his brain and his environment is very extensive. Since the advent of "chaos theory," or "complex systems theory," a new understanding of behavior has risen which labels it neither random nor predictably determined. This new type is referred to as "ill-mannered determinism". It premises that in systems with a certain level of complexity and beyond, events become predictable only to a certain extent. Even if we can predict the...