The question of determination and free will has recently been very lively discussed with regard to neurobiology and its supposed proof of man’s determined nature. Yet, there are several direct objections that can be made from a philosophical point of view. Moreover, the question whether this relation must specifically be described in biological terms or whether such a description could even be adequate should be asked.
When biology states that all mental phenomena are identical with neurological phenomena a determination of mental actions does not necessarily follow. Obviously, an individual person cannot be described as free when she could act differently in any given situation. The same circumstances given, the individual would have to be called instable and maybe even schizophrenic when her actions were not determined by her personality. Personal preferences and convictions are what form the individual (cf. Pauen, 2005).
Thus, a certain determination by the environment through the personal development is always present. If neurobiology assesses that mental phenomena are identical with neurological phenomena, this actually has to mean that personal decisions can be described in mental as well as in neurological terms. The descriptions must be identically adequate.
Another argument against the much feared neurobiological determination of man can be made by verifying the foundations of natural science. If the objective observer in natural science were not free to observe objectively, her assertions of free will’s absence based on her observations could not make sense according to the requirements of natural science (cf. Heidelberger, 2005).
The question of determination compared to freedom is actually not a specifically neurobiological question. It has been discussed in philosophy for many centuries in various forms. It could even be traced back to religious discussions of the nature of man in relation to God. The point around which any of these arguments evolves explicitly or implicitly is the question of responsibility. Asking whether someone is free or not only makes sense when we want to hold her responsible for her actions.
Therefore, the assertions that a human being has a free will or that she is completely determined do not hold any useful information and do not point to any course of action in themselves. If she were completely determined (without any level of even personally determined decision), no suggestion how she should be treated would make any sense. The persons who were supposed to treat her would be equally determined. If she were completely free – that is not influenced by her environment at all – suggestions to human beings would be futile as they were not to reach by them.
Consequently, the point to investigate is the balance between determination and free personal choice. As this discussion (and the study of man in general) is centuries – even millenias old, it seems strange to try to solve it by using neurobiological arguments. Neurobiology and even the natural sciences as we know them today have only entered the cultural stage very recently – barely a couple of decades respectively a century ago. Information about human life and human beings has been gathered and discussed for so much longer. It seems far more adequate to turn to these older discourses or at least to consider them as well to investigate such a foundational question.
Heidelberger, Michael. “Freiheit und Wissenschaft! Metaphysische Zumutungen von Verächtern der Willensfreiheit.“ Neurowissenschaften und Menschenbild. Eds. Eve-Marie Engels and Elisabeth Hildt. Paderborn: Mentis, 2005, 195-219.
Pauen, Michael. “Keine Freiheit in einer determinierten Welt? Neurowissenschaftliche Erkenntnis und das menschliche Selbstverständnis.“ Neurowissenschaften und Menschenbild. Eds. Eve-Marie Engels and Elisabeth Hildt. Paderborn: Mentis, 2005, 171-193.