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Priest discusses free will and neuroscience

SARAH McCARTHY | Wednesday, November 20, 2013

 

On Tuesday, a visiting priest and professor of philosophy gave the campus community an idea of how to connect the firing of cerebral synapses with the philosophical idea of free will.

Fr. Peter Volek, a scholar from the Catholic University of Ružomberok in Slovakia, gave a talk titled “Free Will and Neuroscience” in Carole Sandner Hall. The lecture, sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, centered on the topic of free will in relation to the psychology and biology of the human body.

Volek said these sciences intersect to form a basis for an understanding of human freedom.

“Biology meets with psychology on the level of philosophy,” Volek said. “Philosophy is very important for the study of free will.”

Volek referenced a study done by the late Benjamin Libet that challenged the idea of free will. The study analyzed the brain’s physiological responses to external stimuli.

In the study, Libet placed electrodes on the head of a research participant and asked her to stare at an image of a clock with hands that were constantly rotating at an abnormally fast pace, Volek said. Whenever the participant felt inclined to do so, she was supposed to press down on a button that recorded the exact time on the clock every time she hit it.

This study revealed a pattern in the participant’s brain activity, Volek said. 

“The brain began to prepare for movement before she felt like she wanted to move,” Volek said. “This is a problem for the assumption of free will.”

However, Volek said other theories regarding free will and science support his argument that free will is not merely an illusion. 

Within the fields of neurobiology, psychology and philosophy, different concepts and methods are used to study certain topics, Volek said. He said there are several possible strategies for determining the connections between these sciences. 

Volek said he is a proponent of “ontological antireductionism.” He said this principle claims empirical sciences, such as physics, cannot fully explain all observable phenomena. Rather, many mental and physical occurrences, such as muscle movement, are a matter of volition and cannot be fully explained through hard science.

“The descriptions for mental states cannot be reduced to the description for physical states,” Volek said. “By reducing the mental states to the physical, we cannot distinguish between a cause from voluntary action and a cause from electric action. The meaning of the subjective experience cannot be comprehended within a physical description.”

Ultimately, Volek said free will does, in fact, exist within the realm of the human mind. He offered an example from the world of sports to support his stance. 

At swim meets, the swimmers often dive into the water before the signal to start is released, Volek said. He said this exemplifies the nature of human freedom.

“The unconscious activity of the brain cannot explain the start before the signal,” Volek said. “It is a free decision and choice.” 

Contact Sarah McCarthy at smccart6@nd.edu