Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Does bacteria have free will?

  1. Jul 5, 2012 #1
    I was discussing the concept of free will with my professor and he asked me to ponder over the question of whether bacteria has free will. I answered no as everything it does has a simple reason like it will move towards food whereas it will move away from an unpleasant area and so on. It doesn't (as far as I know) dispay emotions or curiosty etc, like us.

    Any discussion/views on the topic would be welcomed.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 5, 2012 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Whilst we don't have a solution to the hard problem of consciousness (in otherwords we cannot explain exactly how consciousness arises and what it is) all of what we do know points to bacteria not being conscious beings. As such they can be agents (i.e. capable of action) but without consciousness there can't really be will.

    Having said all that your professor was probably just trying to get you to think of free will in general and uses the example of a bacteria as a good frame for this. The reason being that the difference between us and bacteria is relatively small; we too are a culmination of chemical reactions but there is both a qualitative and quantitative difference between us (though examples of elephants and redwoods would point to the latter not being significant).

    Lastly "free will" is a long and complex debate in itself as to whether or not the term even makes sense and what it could mean. See the philosophy forum for more on that.
  4. Jul 5, 2012 #3


    Staff: Mentor

    actually the bacteria comparison is pretty good since we are composed of 90% bacteria and 10% human cells.


    so that could mean that 90% of our free will comes from bacterial decisions. :-)
  5. Jul 5, 2012 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

  6. Jul 5, 2012 #5
    I read this interesting article a while back, which suggests bacteria under stress have to make decisions, and their decisions are dependent on what other bacteria decide:

    http://murj.mit.edu/news/world/16 [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  7. Jul 5, 2012 #6


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    OP: do humans have free will?

    I think that use of the term "free will" in the first link is kind of irrelevant to the actual paradoxical idea of free will. You could just replace "free will" with "local noise" and it would be functionally identical, only the words "free will" brings a bunch of philosophical baggage with it, whereas "local noise" remains neutral about the noise source.
  8. Jul 5, 2012 #7
    Bacteria may not have free will, but they are collectively very successful. Who needs free will?
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2012
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook