Do we really have free will? Or are we determined to act in a specific way depending on specific and given circumstances, as the planets are determined to revolve in ellipses around the sun? What makes us different from a rock? To what extent are we a product of physico-chemical conditions? Is it just higher levels of complexity? How can we know? How can I tell? Could science answer these questions? What is science? What is a scientific law? According to Claude Bernard, science is mastering the knowledge of something so well that we are able to predict what is going to happen under certain situations or circumstances given that these circumstances are always the same. A scientific law gives us numerical relations of an effect to its cause, between two or more bodies.
“When we have the law of a phenomenon, we not only know absolutely the conditions determining its existence, but we also have the relations applying to all its variations, so that we can predict modifications of the phenomenon in any given circumstances… once the conditions of a phenomenon are known and fulfilled, the phenomenon must always and necessarily be reproduced at the will of the experimenter”
To read this quote from “An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine” after analyzing excerpts from “The Origin of The Species” made me wonder if it will ever be possible for us to achieve this sense of control and mastery of nature and the laws that govern it. I do not think that Darwin would have agreed with Bernard because, according to the former: our world, –and I would add to it-, our universe, is so complex and change occurs so slowly, that for us to be able to predict variations and what is going to occur for instance if we remove one species from the surface of the planet or trying to predict how we are going to evolve one million years from now becomes an impossible task. This is why I think Bernard’s views on science in this sense are very questionable, based on the limits of our very human sphere or cone of vision and on the complexity of the relationships between both organic and inorganic bodies in the whole universe. Bernard asserts that the scientific method closes the door to supernatural explanations believed by faith and leaves us with “fixed laws” that are based on a reliable criterion (if they are to be accepted). But, would we ever be able to fulfill Bernard’s outlooks on science? Can there be any exceptions to a scientific law? Claude Bernard claims that exceptions are unscientific, that an “exception” only means that we have not yet traced or determined every physico-chemical reaction acting upon a specific phenomenon. An exception in science means merely ignorance. But, can we trace every numerical relation between every cause and effect?
Bernard studies the field of biology which itself studies organic phenomena that is always doubly conditioned by its interior and by its outer environments. Since biology deals with living beings: Should the laws of biology be different to the ones of the physico-chemical sciences? In what sense should they be equal? To what extent do they differ? Is determinism possible in the phenomena of life? Bernard claims that the main difference between physics and biology is that physics just ponders upon the external environment, while biology also needs to study the inner environment of very complex living beings. E.g. If I move my hand, a scientist should be able to trace this phenomena to its roots by finding the relations which produce it, the neurons firing from my brain and the nerves and chemicals pushing each other in a domino manner until they find my hand. This changes our focus from the big picture (me moving my hand) to the little things that take place in order to make me act in specific ways. If you also take into account my outer environment, where I am and what made me react in that certain way and if you find out all the stimuli that played a role in my action, then, according to Bernard you should be able to predict that if the conditions were to be exactly the same at any other moment, I would react in the exact same way.
Now it is my last turn to question what struck me the most about Bernard’s “An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine”: determinism in the phenomena of life. Are we determined by the lower levels of our body? Do we really act in the same way under identical conditions (internal and external)? Are we as humans capable of explaining everything under the same terms in which we explain Newton’s three laws of motion? Bernard’s argument seems to me very logical; at least it is valid, although I am not sure if it is sound. There is something within me that does not let me believe that this absoluteness is applicable to human beings. In my everyday experience I truly feel like I am making decisions and that I am the only one in charge and in control, and therefore I am the only one responsible for my actions. Bernard mentions that science replaces feelings with reasoning and, as Newton points out in his rules for philosophizing in the Principia, we should only consider the necessary conditions for the appearance of a phenomenon. Last year I read “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and writing this essay reminded me of the epiphenomena: From the given rules and lower levels acting without our control in our body, something else beyond and inexplicable by all these conditions emerges. Free will is a vital aspect of life. I would even say that Bernard feels uneasy about this idea because he literally expresses that “manifestations of life cannot be fully elucidated by physico-chemical phenomena known in inorganic nature.” So maybe, epiphenomena is the answer to our question of determinism in living beings, and the source of our decision making. If it is, our knowledge should not only be based on the material conditions that act within a phenomenon. Science could still study epiphenomena by looking at the lower levels within our bodies that permit for marvelous, creative and new actions to take place.