It is popular these days to claim that free will is an illusion—that our brains, our genes, or even just the laws of physics actually determine our actions and that any sense of control we have is just a conceit. Neuroscientist and author Kevin Mitchell delves into these claims and explains how and why he finds they are hollow.
Mitchell traces the story of how living beings capable of choice and control emerged from lifeless matter and evolved into humans with the remarkable capacity for conscious cognitive control, i.e., free will. Living beings are not merely pushed around by physical forces, like nonliving matter is, he says, but act with purpose, making sense of the world, selecting their own behaviors, and doing things for reasons.
Mitchell shows how the capacity for action evolved, along with systems of perception and control. Nervous systems provided the means to learn about the world, figure out what’s important, and understand cause and effect, giving animals the power to model, predict, and simulate and the power to choose, settle what happens, and shape the future. These faculties reach their peak in humans, with our ability to imagine and to introspect—to reason about our reasons, to think and think again, to exert conscious control, and to shape our selves over our lifetimes.
Mitchell’s new book, Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will (Princeton University Press), is available for purchase.
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