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Scientists, philosophers team up to answer: What is needed for you to have free will?

Philosophers and neuroscientists will collaborate on a study of free will.
Philosophers and neuroscientists will collaborate on a study of free will.

How does your organization solve messy problems that cross lots of domains of knowledge?

I’m a huge proponent of multidisciplinary approaches. My own academic history included (at every level – undergrad, masters and Ph.D. degrees) bringing together more than one discipline to look at questions that could not be answered by a single area of study.

My work on organizational creativity in Boise brought leaders from wildly different fields together, from sports and law enforcement to the arts and software, to discover how they approach similar problems from different perspectives.

So I was intrigued to read about a partnership between unlikely (to me, at least) collaborators: neuroscientists and philosophers. They are tackling questions related to free will that neither field can handle independently. Maybe businesspeople could look for their own unlikely partners.

One of my favorite journals, Science, reported on a research project where eight neuroscientists and nine philosophers will study two questions related to free will:

1. What is required to have free will?

2. Does the human brain have mechanisms to support free will?

Nancy Napier.jpg
Nancy Napier

Why is this important for the rest of us? First, it may help us understand how “volition” happens, which matters for legal reasons, like whether a person’s criminal action is voluntary or involuntary. Second, it may help understanding about diseases like Parkinson’s where people find it difficult to initiate movements voluntarily.

Apparently, the two groups worked independently in the past and met at conferences once a year to compare notes. In this four year-long study, each of the projects will have two neuroscientists and at least one philosopher.

As the project leader, Uri Maos, who is a psychologist and computational neuroscientist, explains, the philosophers will decide on what initial questions to ask. He says, “I don’t know what it entails to have free will. That’s a philosophical question.”

But once the questions are settled, the neuroscientists can design experiments to understand what’s going on in the brain or at least try to measure it. Then, he says, the philosophers will help interpret the results.

What a concept — two very different types of experts, approaching, solving and interpreting results on problems that are big, messy, and fascinating.

How does that happen in business?

Nancy Napier is a Boise State University distinguished professor. nnapier@boisestate.edu

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