© 2009

Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will

  • Nancey Murphy
  • George F. R. Ellis
  • Timothy O’Connor
  • All star cast on an extremely hot and important topic

  • Useful and important contribution to the growing interdisciplinary field of free will

  • How is free will possible in the light of the physical and chemical underpinnings of brain activity and recent neurobiological experiments?

  • Analysis of the current state of arguments over the meaning and legitimacy of concepts of emergence and downward causation for free will

  • Interdisciplinary discussion of leading experts from neuroscience, physics, physiology,neurobiology, psychology, philosophy, theology or law


Part of the Understanding Complex Systems book series (UCS)

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
  2. Introduction and Overview

    1. Nancey Murphy
      Pages 1-28
  3. Part I: Physics, Emergence, and Complex Systems

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 29-29
    2. Christof Koch
      Pages 31-52
    3. William T. Newsome
      Pages 53-62
    4. George F. R. Ellis
      Pages 63-81
  4. Part II: Volition and Consciousness: Are They Illusions?

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 125-125
    2. Mark Hallett
      Pages 127-143
    3. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore
      Pages 145-151
    4. Hakwan C. Lau
      Pages 153-169
  5. Part III: Broader Understandings of Volition and Consciousness

  6. Part IV: Human Implications of the Debate

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 225-225
    2. Dean Mobbs, Hakwan C. Lau, Owen D. Jones, Chris D. Frith
      Pages 243-260

About this book


How is free will possible in the light of the physical and chemical underpinnings of brain activity and recent neurobiological experiments? How can the emergence of complexity in hierarchical systems such as the brain, based at the lower levels in physical interactions, lead to something like genuine free will? The nature of our understanding of free will in the light of present-day neuroscience is becoming increasingly important because of remarkable discoveries on the topic being made by neuroscientists at the present time, on the one hand, and its crucial importance for the way we view ourselves as human beings, on the other. A key tool in understanding how free will may arise in this context is the idea of downward causation in complex systems, happening coterminously with bottom up causation, to form an integral whole. Top-down causation is usually neglected, and is therefore emphasized in the other part of the book’s title. The concept is explored in depth, as are the ethical and legal implications of our understanding of free will.

This book arises out of a workshop held in California in April of 2007, which was chaired by Dr. Christof Koch. It was unusual in terms of the breadth of people involved: they included physicists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, philosophers, and theologians. This enabled the meeting, and hence the resulting book, to attain a rather broader perspective on the issue than is often attained at academic symposia. The book includes contributions by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, George F. R. Ellis , Christopher D. Frith, Mark Hallett, David Hodgson, Owen D. Jones, Alicia Juarrero, J. A. Scott Kelso, Christof Koch, Hans Küng, Hakwan C. Lau, Dean Mobbs, Nancey Murphy, William Newsome, Timothy O’Connor, Sean A.. Spence, and Evan Thompson.


Cognitive Neuroscience Complex Systems Complexity Downward Causation Free Will Neurobiology behavior physiology

Editors and affiliations

  • Nancey Murphy
    • 1
  • George F. R. Ellis
    • 2
  • Timothy O’Connor
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyFuller Graduate SchoolsPasadenaUSA
  2. 2.Mathematics DepartmentUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschSouth Africa
  3. 3.Department of PhilosophyIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

Bibliographic information

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