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Freedom for Fruit Flies? - Schöneberger Blog
Sep 112020

Today, I would recommend reading a paper by biologist Björn Brembs, published in December 2010 in the renowned Proceedings of the Royal Society – B Biological Sciences.

Björn Brembs: Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates.Proc. R. Soc. B 22 March 2011 vol. 278 no. 1707 930-939

In simple terms, the author examined the following question: Do fruit flies have something like freedom of will? The author analyzed whether fruit flies have the ability to choose between alternative actions. According to a trivial assumption, animals of the same species will always take the same decisions if they are in excactly the same starting position. Therefore, hungry fruit flies would always move towards a possible food source.

Surprisingly, this is not the case! In the experiments, there were always some animals that showed a deviation from the expected regular behavior. We can gather that even in simple stimulus-response situations, where a basic stimulus is likely to be answered by a highly predictable reaction, there will be individuals deviating from the crowd. We will always find curious outliers among the fruit flies. Most of the times, they amount to roughly 20 percent of the respective group.

But there is more to come! If these 20 percent of the test flies are excluded and the remaining individuals are exposed to a new experiment, the deviation rate is about the same.

Flies thus seem to seek solutions to problems – instead of simply having instincts guide them. Björn Brembs concludes:

The fly cannot know the solutions to most real-life problems. Beyond behaving unpredictably to evade predators or outcompete a competitor, all animals must explore, must try out different solutions to unforeseen problems. Without behaving variably, without acting rather than passively responding, there can be no success in evolution.

The behavior of insects is never fully predictable, even in the simplest standard situations. It seems that insects have a kind of discretionary power. The freedom of trial and error gives the species an evolutionary advantage.

Decisions for or against something seem to be possible even in the largest sub-group of the animal kingdom, in the sense that invertebrate animals are not neuronally determined in their behaviour. Under absolutely identical initial conditions, genetically similar or genetically identical insects “decide” differently even in fundamental questions of existence – for example, whether they should fly into the light or away from it!

Neurobiology – this lead science, which is so extremely hip at the moment – discusses whether something like free will can still be allowed or justified. Will freedom of will one day become obsolete, since it is becoming increasingly clear why our brain reacts the way it does?

In my opinion, Brembs’ paper proves that neuronal processes in animals do not clearly determine their actual decision to act.

For the age-old philosophical problem of the freedom of will in humans, I think I may resume these considerations in the following words:

A biological proof that we do not have free will cannot be provided. Many findings seem to indicate that not only we humans, but also animals can use a considerable scope for decision. The fact that we can actually decide, that we are endowed with freedom of will, that we are to a large extent “masters of our own actions”, is a basic concept that is accessible through subjective introspection. Moreover, it cannot be refuted by scientific experiments.

In saying so, we do not deny that acts of will are inextricably bound to material processes – i.e. ultimately to processes among neurons, synapses, messenger substances and excitatory potentials in the brain. But these processes are only substrates, carrier substances of the will.

Any human individual is free to a considerable extent. He or she decides to do something – or decides not to. Only through such a concept of freedom will responsibility become a justifiable philosophical option. By the same token, morality, the differentiation between right and wrong become conceivable only if we accept this fundamental principle of freedom. Thus, for instance, hardly anyone will concede an excuse to a murderer if she or he claims: “I just had to kill! I was overtaken by the impulse to kill!”

Apart from few cases of utter madness or mental incapacity, we will always say: “The murderer did not have to kill. He or she must answer for the consequences of their actions.”

In this sense, I am strongly committed to the concept of human freedom.

Picture: Kreuzberg blogger talking to Berlin children about freedom, good and evil in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Picture taken at Lomonosov Elementary School Berlin in 2011

This post was originally published here on 11 February 2011. Re-edited and translated from German by this blog’s author.

 Posted by at 11:46

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