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Free Will is Compatible with Modern Neuroscience

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 2/24/2016 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 7 months ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 386 times Debate No: 87141
Debate Rounds (4)
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This is a debate on whether modern neuroscience, can be used to support the view that free will exists. I am for the position that it can be.

For the sake of this argument, freedom will be defined as:

freedom-the ability to do otherwise in a significant way.

By "significant", I mean that given conditions X and person Y, person Y is capable of choosing actions A OR B which completely exclude one another, things like running versus brushing one's teeth. An "insignificant" way would be something like twitching one's hand.

As a note- defining freedom in this way actually makes it harder for me to argue my point- so any contenders should take that into account.

I am arguing that our brains are capable of allowing us to do otherwise in a significant way.

The "will" in free will shall be defined as:
the ability to know what one will do, meaning that one has a subjective perception of what one will do before one does it.

Thus, putting them together, we get:

The ability to know what one will do when one also knows that one can choose otherwise in a significant way.

In neuroscience terms, this means that the brain is capable of freely choosing between two completely different future neural states and also of supplying the conscious perception of both one's "freedom" (the ability to do significantly otherwise) and "will" (which action the brain will command the body to act on).

Use of external scientific fields is permitted (i.e.) chemistry/physics) as long as one can show directly how those fields apply to neuroscience and free will.

Some rules.
No semantics. I have defined the topic of our debate, which is appropriate for a debate concerning an abstract noun. I have defined free will in a way which gives an edge to my challenger, so this is acceptable.
No forfeits.
No straw man arguments.
No offensive or inflammatory language.

Round 1-acceptance
Round 2-Opening arguments
Round 3-Rebuttals and Extended arguments
Round 4- Closing arguments or rebuttals

Feel "free" to respond.



This sounds about my cup o' tea, I'll take this challenge, as I believe that modern neuroscience can not be compatible.
Debate Round No. 1


Thank you for accepting. It’s fun to tackle big topics.

My first argument will consist of several parts.

1.An explanation of quantum mechanics.

NOTE- my argument is NOT completely dependent on quantum phenomena, in fact I refute the idea that quantum mechanics alone can give us freedom in a significant way.

2. An explanation of mathematical models relevant to modern advances in neuroscience research.

3.An explanation of how specific properties of individual neurons allow random quantum phenomena to influence macro brain activity over sufficiently long periods of time via specific mathematical models of the brain which will be discussed.

As anyone who is familiar with modern physics will know, the indeterministic world of quantum mechanics is a very weird world. In a way, it gives us an answer as to whether we are free.

Dr. Michio Kaku, one of the founders of string theory, said in a video that in a way, the fact that quantum mechanics proves the fundamental nature of the universe is undetermined and in-deterministic proves that we have at least SOME freedom, but does not tell us just how much.

You can watch the video here:

Now I must say that Professor Kaku is very intelligent, one of the greatest minds of our time as far the sciences are concerned. But of course, he is not a neuroscientist. He is a theoretical physicist.

As such, he himself only says that we have “some degree” or “some kind” of free will. He does not say that we have a significant amount. But what he does point out that we must have some degree of freedom. Thus the question is not: are we free? The question is: how free are we? Once, again, I am of the position that we are free in a “significant” way.

Anyone who is familiar with quantum mechanics will know these two things about it:

1. On very small scales of space and time, quantum events are governed by probability and chance events.
2. On large scales of space and time, such as (supposedly) the brain, things appear to behave ALMOST completely deterministically.

From this, it appears that we do have freedom, but if so, a very small amount. Thus, quantum mechanics by itself cannot give us freedom in a “significant” way. However, we are not done yet.

Enter chaos theory.

What “chaos” theory really means is:

A mathematical theory which uses non-linear differential equations (calculus) to describe the behavior of very, very, very complex physical systems which exhibit self-similar fractal behavior in patterns known as “strange attractors”.

At this point please examine this web page, specifically the section on the brain starting on page 4 (This is a heavily researched source, not a Wikipedia page, mind you):

What this essentially supports is that the brain and indeed our entire bodies are pulsing with "chaos". Chaotic systems are EXTREMELY sensitive to initial conditions. This is known as the butterfly effect; i.e. "A butterfly flaps its wings and across the world a thunderstorm brews".

The brain is thus a nonlinear-chaotic system.

Chaotic systems are indeed sensitive to EXTREMELY SMALL DIFFERENCES IN INITIAL CONDITIONS. Two initial starting conditions which are nearly identical can lead to entirely different outcomes. This is actually exemplified in our weather patterns. We can predict the weather, oh, say, a week into the future. But a month? Nope. A year? Astronomically small chances. A decade? Definitely not.

The weather is predictable on small scales of space and time, but unpredictable on large scales of space and time.

In the same way as the weather, the brain is a chaotic system. We might be able to predict someone's actions based on brain activity, oh, say a third of a second in advance. But a minute? Maybe with recent advances in technology. An hour? Probably not. A week? No. SEVENTY TWO YEARS (A lifetime) IN ADVANCE? Never.

But I realize the obvious counter-argument. This uncertainty is only due to limitations in knowledge, right? If we knew everything about the person's brain down to every last molecule, and also knew everything about their environment down to pH of their skin, we could predict what they would do with nonlinear mathematics. Thus, chaos theory as well, by itself, cannot give us freedom in a significant way.

What I have just done may seem futile, because I have just described two scientific theories, quantum mechanics and nonlinear neural processing, neither of which by itself can give us significant freedom. By quantum mechanics, chance quantum events are lost to “quantum noise” and thus can have no effect on the brain. By chaos theory, the only unpredictability is due to limitations in our current level of brain imaging technology, in other words limitations in knowledge.

But this is not the end.

Chaos theory and quantum mechanics together give us freedom in a significant way.

This is the crux of the argument, so please examine it carefully.

You see, quantum systems are unpredictable on short scales of space and time, and almost predictable on large scales of space and time.

Chaotic systems, are the reverse: almost predictable on very small scales of space-time, and unpredictable in the larger scales of space-time.
Secondly, the more unpredictable they are on short scales, the more unpredictable they become on large scales.
And, most importantly, they are extremely sensitive to slight disturbances in initial conditions. Slight disturbances such as, maybe, a chance quantum event that causes a single neuron not to fire? Or even an accumulation of quantum events that causes an ever-so-slight disturbance in the activity of a few thousand neurons?

The reason why we can expect quantum effects of chance to be "amplified" large scale in the brain is this( this is where the properties of individual neurons become relevant):

The brain as a whole is large enough to be complex enough to qualify as a very, very chaotic system. However, it is also comprised of very small parts, neurons, which are small enough to be affected, even if minutely, by chance quantum events. For example, calcium ion channels between nerve cells are often only big enough to let one atom through at a time (see sources below). Calcium ion channels in particular are very integral to regulating the release of neurotransmitters, and are used extensively by neurons. Quantum effects start to manifest at such minuscule scales as a single atom, enough to alter the behavior of any and all neurons, if only slightly.

Of course, it is not any one individual neuron that changes it all, but rather an "accumulation" of extremely tiny disturbances in many neurons that produces a slight difference great enough to alter the chaotic behavior of the brain. Because the brain is chaotic, demonstrably so, these many small "butterflies" (neurons) flapping their "wings" (quantum events due to chance) produce a "thunderstorm" (say, a thought or impulse) on the other side of the "world" (the brain).

Because these utterly unpredictable quantum events trickle up the "causal chain" in brain activity, these events make large-scale brain activity, and thus any actions caused by brain activity, unpredictable on large scales of space and time. What you will have done when you die is certainly not determined when you are born.

Thus, we have a hell of a lot of freedom.

Will, on the other hand, is a different matter. My argument for the existence of will shall also be threefold.

First of all, I make an appeal to our subjective experience. Normally, subjective experience would not be appropriate for a logical debate, but because will is subjective, subjective experience becomes relevant. In the vast majority of our experience, we have this perception of knowing what we will do. We make plans, schedules, and talk about future plans, all of which suggest at least some degree of “will”, or knowledge of what one will do.

Of course, we sometimes “change our minds”. However, this is not a reasonable objection to the fact that we know what we will do. Consider the following thought experiment:

Let us say person X has a choice between doing action A or action B, and that he is aware of both choices available. Let us say that they must choose either A or B in half an hour from the start time. Now, let us say that at the start of the half hour, person X plans to choose action A. However, 10 minutes before the choice is to be made, he changes his mind and plans to choose choice B. When, the time comes, he chooses choice B. Now the question is: did person X have will? In other words, did he know what he was going to do before he did it?

And the answer is: yes. He knew that he was going to choose B before he chose it, in fact, he knew so DIRECTLY before he chose it. The fact that he originally planned to do A does not mean that he didn’t know what he was going to do. What he really didn’t know is that he was going to change his mind. However, changing one’s mind is not an action, there is no voluntary muscle contraction resulting in motion. Thus, regarding his actions, he had both freedom and will.

Of course, there is also the counter-argument that if one’s future brain states are truly undetermined, then one has no way of controlling one’s future actions, and thus no will. However, this is ridiculous.

This is ridiculous because how can one say that a person does not have control over their brain states and activities if “the brain and all its actions” are all that the person is? In other words, there is no other cause to point to for one’s action if one’s actions are free, other than oneself. You can't say "that wasn't my fault, it was my neurons, don't mind them" because you ARE your neurons.


Ion channels-

More on Chaos Theory



Normerican forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 2


Mentiumax forfeited this round.


Normerican forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3


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Normerican forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 4
5 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 5 records.
Posted by Normerican 8 months ago
My god, I am so sorry, I just didn't have the time to respond to the debate, my bad. Suppose it's an automatic forfeiture.
Posted by imsmarterthanyou98 8 months ago
May i have the honors.
Posted by Free_Will_Does_Not_Exist 8 months ago
I would love to take this but I don't like how you are using neuroscience in this because my arguements make any sort of neuroscience irrelevant. Free will is simply a logical paradox but we would be debating different things I suppose.
Posted by canis 8 months ago
The point about free will is that modern science and mathematical theories...Are irrelevant...You are free of them.
Posted by philochristos 8 months ago
I hope you get a good opponent because this sounds like an interesting debate. I'm surprised nobody has taken you up on it yet. If I had more time, I might be tempted to take this one.
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