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The Volitional Brain: towards a neuroscience of free will
  1. JON STONE

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    The Volitional Brain: towards a neuroscience of free will. Edited by: benjamin libet, anthony freeman, and keith sutherland (Pp 298, £14.95) Published by Imprint Academic, Exeter, 1999. ISBN 0-907845-11-8

    Do we really choose to get out of bed in the morning or is our sense of free will merely an illusion? In an age of functional imaging can philosophy still offer any solutions to the problem of volition? Is free will compatible with the laws of quantum physics?

    The subject of free will, once the province of philosophy and theology, is now fair game for neuroscience, psychology, and physics. This diverse collection of articles covers all of these disciplines, old and new, providing a ringside seat to the current arguments about the nature of free will—and even whether it exists. You are left to use your own free will (or lack of it) to judge the final outcome.

    There are some complex arguments on offer but there is much to enjoy for an interested amateur—the variety of opinions reflecting an understandable lack of consensus. I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Spence and Frith on what is known of the functional anatomy of volition and the lessons from social anthropology in McCrone's essay. Libet, who in 1983 famously described the enormous 350 ms delay between the brain's preparation to act and its conscious awareness of intention to move, explains why his experiments do not necessarily deny the possibility of free will. Other contributions include critiques of Libet's work, discussion of free will in the light of obsessive-compulsive disorder and the relation of quantum physics to volition. Even if the writing is a little dense at times, you are generally rewarded for your efforts. Lastly, there is a highly personal contribution from Anthony Freeman, an ex-vicar, who—despite his surname—claims he has never taken a “positive free-choice decision” in his life. This is an unusually affordable book that performs well as a starting point for exploring modern answers to the ancient and thorny problem of free will.

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