Of Fruit Flies and Mormons: Can Science Shed Light on Free Will?

Defending Free Will: A Fruit Fly Makes Choices” is the headline of the Reuters story about scientists who think they may have seen evidence of free will in fruit flies. This has profound theological implications, of course. If fruit flies have free will, then is it such a stretch to believe that free will may also exist in Mormons? I somehow feel compelled to ask this question.

The researchers placed a single fruit fly in a pure white chamber — devoid of visual cues. The fly was fixed in place and its attempts to turn were recorded. Researchers repeated their experiment on many flies and analyzed the data using a series of complex mathematical models.

What they found was surprising.

Lacking external input, Brembs said he had expected a pattern of entirely random movement or noise — akin to static on a radio that is tuned between stations. Instead, the flies showed a pattern of flight that was generated spontaneously by the brain and could not have been random.

“The decision for the fly to turn left or turn right, which it changes all the time, has to come from the design of the brain,” Brembs said.

Brembs said the finding reveals a mechanism that could form the biological basis of free will.

My son Benjamin, a high-school senior who just took the AP psychology test (OK, so it’s not a Ph.D. in psychology, but it’s a start), is not completely convinced. He observes that there are many forms of stimulus besides visual input. Doesn’t having some hideous contraption attached to your back that keeps you from going anywhere count as stimulus?

But such hairsplitting misses the point. We are faced with scientific evidence that flies have free will. And if so, perhaps Mormons and even all of humanity does. This doesn’t completely “prove” Mormon theology on free agency (the idea that we do have freedom of choice, at least to some degree), but it’s worth further exploration. To confirm the extension of this concept to human free will, one more experiment is needed. Let’s take some researchers, put them in an all white room, tied tightly to an uncomfortable chair that can record their movements. Now, in the absence of any stimulus, let’s see if they still wiggle first to one side, then then to the other, as if their brains were making a choice. If so, we will have demonstrated free will. We need to do this experiment – in fact, I think we are predestined to do it. Any “volunteers”? Come on, you know who you are.

Note, however, that the researchers indicate that the free will behavior is based on programming from the brain, not from an immortal (and possibly resurrectable) soul. Whew! Here’s hoping that flies and mosquitoes are for mortality only!


Author: Jeff Lindsay

6 thoughts on “Of Fruit Flies and Mormons: Can Science Shed Light on Free Will?

  1. One of the problems that I’ve found with news agencies reporting on scientific research, is that reports usually jump to conclusions that aren’t supported by the research they’re covering. More often than not, I end up wanting to skip the journalists interpretation and just read the original article. Frequently, I haven’t had to look much further than the abstract to find discrepancies in the reporting. I’d have to read the original article, but if they didn’t control for variables such as sound, temperature, smells, etc. then the study is pretty much useless. Like Benjamin said, there are any number of external stimuli that might cause the non-random behavioral patterns.

    I’m all for science trying to show what my faith already tells me is true. Based on Reuters coverage of the study, however, I’m not convinced we’re any closer to having any scientific evidence supporting the idea of free will.

    Oh, and all this discussion of fruit flies reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:

    “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana” – Groucho Marx

  2. “The decision for the fly to turn left or turn right, which it changes all the time, has to come from the design of the brain”

    Okay, so how is this anything which a determinist would not expect? What prevents the determinist from saying that the structure of the brain determined the behavior?

    Indeed, I can’t think of a single experiment which would could provide results which would directly refute determinism.

    Of course the big question is “what is freewill?” I just don’t see how science can provide much insight into these issues.

  3. To echo Jeff G, I think the media (and the researchers?) jumped the gun on the “free well” issue. When Brembs says, “the decision for the fly to turn left or turn right, which it changes all the time, has to come from the design of the brain,” he still leaves open the reductionist perspective that the “decision” of the fly was merely a product of its brain, which is merely an evolutionary development based on a few chemical reactions.

    Like countless other things in nature, the fly’s reaction may not have been random, but that does not imply free well.

  4. The philosophy of determinism has always seemed odd to me. (If I punch a determinist in the face, can he blame me for my actions?} If actions are predetermined, why make the effort to be spiritual? Determinism can be used to rationalize lack of self mastery. I’m not fat because I overeat, I was predetermined to be this way. Was I predetermined to sing and play the piano? Whether or not I do? Did you choose to read this or was it predetermined?

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