May 13, 2010

Letter to the Editor: In defense of ‘free will’

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To the Editor:

Re: “Scientists Debate Free Will,” Science, May 5

Science has made great strides in helping us to understand the world around us and to live happier and healthier lives, yet we still are unable to predict from first principles how a person creates an original thought, poem, joke, symphony or experiment. It is possible that everything does have a material cause that, in principle, can be identified. Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment on obedience to authority certainly shows that people are capable of following rules.

On the other hand, people, including great scientists, are also capable of acting as individuals with free will. The chemist Linus Pauling risked his career to publicize the ill effects of nuclear fallout; the biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi risked his life working for the Hungarian Resistance during WWII; and the cell biologist Werner Franke courageously blew the whistle on his East German colleagues who were involved in athletic drug doping.  It is more intelligible to explain these courageous actions based on character and free will than on evolutionary theory.

The neurophysiologist John Eccles states that free will “is a fact of experience” and that the laws of physics and physiology have not been adequately developed to explain it. Indeed the physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote that “Living matter, while not eluding the laws of physics as established to date, is likely to involve other laws of physics hitherto unknown which…will form as integral a part of this science as the former.”

The First Law of Thermodynamics has evolved over the past century as new forms of energy were discovered and it is possible that the “energy of free will” will be added to the First Law in the future. It takes only 0.1 aJ to open a calcium channel in a pre-synaptic neuron. Perhaps such a small amount of energy, localized at the right time and place has made the world a more compassionate place. I believe that we can teach our students to develop their free will just as coaches teach athletes to develop their skills.  Helping students develop free will can be done by looking for mechanisms and by pointing out good examples.

Randy Wayne, plant science