Can we have free will with no soul?

One of the great debates in human philosophy, as well as the subject of a terrific Rush song, is the question of free will? Do we control our actions? Obviously, to some degree, the answer is no. We don’t choose to breathe or blink or to reflexively jerk our leg when a doctor hits our knee with a hammer. But for higher actions — treating people around us with respect, not killing people who annoy us — we tend to give credit to our free will. We presume these are choices we are making. Additionally, the legal systems of every society man has ever known presume people bear some responsibility for their actions.

Damage to our brains can limit the range of choices from which we can freely choose. If the part of your brain that controls action (the motor cortex) is damaged via a stroke, you may want to move your arm, you may choose to move your arm, but that arm ain’t moving. On a more subtle level, damage to the prefrontal cortex can limit our ability to do long-term planning. The result is that our decisions become more childlike, only focused on the here and now. Damage to the amygdala — heavily involved in emotion — can produce psychopathic behavior and an inability to empathize.

This would seem to imply that we don’t have free will, that our decisions are entirely based on brain physiology. By this argument, our brains are much like a computer: data is inputted (we observe our annoying neighbor asking to borrow our lawnmower), calculations are performed on the data (we determined we’ve had it up to here with his crap), and the result is spit out (brain orders fist to punch him in the face).

But what if we think of these components of the brain as not so much functions, but tools? Let me return to the computer analogy. An Internet browser running on a computer can open up a webpage and render it in an organized fashion, converting digital information into text and pictures. But the computer can’t decide it wants to go to a particular webpage (say, a quality, informative and amusing website like You need to do that. In that sense, the computer is a tool you use to access content. So what if we think of parts of the brain — the prefrontal cortex, the motor cortex, amygdala etc. — as tools that can be used to work towards certain goals? Then the question becomes, who is using these tools, who is utilizing the functionality of the brain from the outside? The answer would have to be the soul. (Well, may be the answer doesn’t have to be the soul, but for the purposes of this blog post it does.)

I have numerous problems with this theory. For the most part, I don’t believe in souls, and I’m not even clear what they’re supposed to be. (For the most part, “soul” seems to be a term encompassing all the aspects about human beings, brains and behavior that we don’t understand.) Would the soul be our “consciousness” — whatever that is? And what happens to the soul when part of the brain is damaged? If your amygdala goes bad, does your soul also lose the ability to emphasize?

This is all very vague and fuzzyheaded, I know. But it does seem to me that, in order for there to be free will, there would have to be some additional component aside from the brain itself doing things. If we only have the brain — which clearly seems to operate in a very deterministic fashion — we cannot have free will.

(The concept of free will has taken another hit from the work of neurologist Benjamin Libit. You can read the specifics at this link, but basically, it seems like ideas for actions “bubble up” from the brain to the consciousness, not the other way around. Our consciousness is taking orders from the brain.)

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