Human beings: Minds or machines?

Do modern physics and biology support the idea of free will?

Written by: Siddharth Kackar

Art by: Susan Park

The question of free will has haunted philosophers for centuries. Recently it has entered the realm of scientific enquiry. Advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence have enabled us to at least start attempting to solve this problem. However, the major hurdle to be overcome is that, even now, very little is known about the actual workings of the human brain and mind.

It is currently accepted that the mind is a function of the brain. This means that the mind is an expression of the activity of neurons and the interaction between them. Exactly how this process works is not known so far. Conventionally, the brain has always been compared to the latest technological advancement of the time. It used to be switchboards, then calculators and now it is computers. The development of ever more powerful computers, with increasing processing power, and now even quantum computers, has further fuelled this comparison and given rise to several theories about the mind.

The brain is considered as a parallel computing device. That is, several components or regions in the brain work in tandem, constantly communicating with each other to give rise to the various mental functions like speech and movement. It has also been compared to a quantum computer. Various processes in the neurons, occurring at the sub-atomic scale may eventually produce mental activity.

However, according to eminent physicist Sir Roger Penrose, our knowledge of quantum physics is not yet sufficient to explain the workings of the brain. He argues in favour of free will by saying that the human mind is inherently ‘non-computable’ i.e. mental activity cannot be truly replicated by a computer following a strict set of instructions (algorithm). He further says that, at best, artificial intelligence can replicate some human qualities. For example, computers are far better than us in logic-based computation tasks like arithmetic.

One more possible reason in support of free will comes from the work of Dr. VS Ramachandran. Mirror neurons are a set of neurons in the brain which help us to imitate and learn from surrounding events and perform complex tasks. They are considered to be the basis for the human cultural evolution. Dr. Ramachandran says that because of these mirror neurons, we are constantly aware of several events happening around us at a subconscious level. It is upto us to consciously choose as to what and how to react.

Thus, I firmly believe that human beings are not merely machines following a set of rules. Future discoveries in neurobiology, computer science and quantum physics should shed further light on the inner workings of this mysterious organ.

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