Thursday, May 17, 2007

Free will:In fruit flies, yet?

Researchers at the Free University of Berlin think they have found evidence for free will in fruit flies:
Animals and especially insects are usually seen as complex robots which only respond to external stimuli," says senior author Björn Brembs from the Free University Berlin. They are assumed to be input-output devices. "When scientists observe animals responding differently even to the same external stimuli, they attribute this variability to random errors in a complex brain." Using a combination of automated behavior recording and sophisticated mathematical analyses, the international team of researchers showed for the first time that such variability cannot be due to simple random events but is generated spontaneously and non-randomly by the brain. These results caught computer scientist and lead author Alexander Maye from the University of Hamburg by surprise: "I would have never guessed that simple flies who otherwise keep bouncing off the same window have the capacity for nonrandom spontaneity if given the chance."

I wouldn't have guessed that either, and I suspect that the researchers and I might differ in what we mean by free will. I am surprised that anyone ever doubted that the fly is capable of spontaneous non-random behaviour. But the traditional idea of "free will" requires a considerable intellectual component as well.

Essentially, they have discovered that the fly is not a machine. It has, in its limited way, feelings and goals. If you are not a materialist, you will not find that hard to believe.

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