How Free Is Your Will?
(Illustration by Jonathon Rosen)
“You must believe in free will; there is no other choice.”
— Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jewish American writer, Nobel Prize laureate in literature
“Our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets. Recent experiments in neuroscience support the view that it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws. For example, a study of patients undergoing awake brain surgery found that by electrically stimulating the appropriate regions of the brain, one could create in the patient the desire to move the hand, arm, or foot, or to move the lips and talk. It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”
— Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, New York, 2010, p. 32.
“Free will lies somewhere between randomness and determinism which seem to be at the opposite extremes in reality. It’s clear that neither pure randomness or pure determinism would leave any room for free will. If the world is completely random, then by definition we have no control over what will happen, and if the world is completely deterministic we also similarly have no control over what will happen as it would all be pre-scripted. So you are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
— Vlatko Vedral, Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and CQT, Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information, Oxford University Press, 2010.
‘It might be an act of selection from the present range of options. And the decision might be made before you are even aware of it’
“We all believe we exercise free will in such actions – we decide what to do and when to do it. Free will, however, becomes more complicated when you try to think how it can arise from brain activity.
Do we control our neurons or do they control us? If everything we do starts in the brain, what kind of neural activity would reflect free choice? And how would you feel about your free will if we were to tell you that neuroscientists can look at your brain activity, and tell that you are about to make a decision to move – and that they could do this a whole second and a half before you yourself became aware of your own choice?
Scientists from UCLA and Harvard — Itzhak Fried, Roy Mukamel and Gabriel Kreiman — have taken an audacious step in the search for free will, reported in a new article in the journal Neuron. They used a powerful tool – intracranial recording – to find neurons in the human brain whose activity predicts decisions to make a movement, challenging conventional notions of free will. (…)
Fried and his colleagues implanted electrodes in twelve patients, recording from a total of 1019 neurons. They adopted an experimental procedure that Benjamin Libet, a pioneer of research on free will at the University of California, San Francisco, developed almost thirty years ago: They had their patients look at a hand sweeping around a clock-face, asked them to press a button whenever they wanted to, and then had them indicate where the hand had been pointing when they decided to press the button. This provides a precise time for an action (the push) as well as the decision to act. With these data the experimenters can then look for neurons whose activity correlated with the will to act.
Such neurons, they found, abound in a region of the frontal lobe called the supplementary motor area, which is involved in the planning of movements. But here is the interesting thing: about a quarter of these neurons began to change their activity before the time patients declared as the moment they felt the urge to press the button. The change began as long as a second and a half before the decision, and as early as seven tenths of a second before it, this activity was robust enough that the researchers could predict with over 80 percent accuracy not only whether a movement had occurred, but when the decision to make it happened.
So it turns out that there are neurons in your brain that know you are about to make a movement the better part of a second before you know it yourself. What does that mean?
It might be tempting to conclude that free will is an illusion. Some have believed this since the days of Libet, who recorded EEG and found it contained a specific pattern that predicted his subjects movements before they felt the conscious will to act. EEG measures electrical activity on the surface of the head, combining information from billions of neurons; Fried and his colleagues have gone further, by finding individual neurons that do this.
But before reaching any sweeping conclusions, it is important to remember that this study looked at a very rudimentary kind of action. The decision to move a finger hardly ranks as the same kind of free will we exercise when we make moral choices or major life decisions. To conclude that we aren’t fully responsible for our actions, for example, would be extremely far-fetched.
And lets consider two more things. First, Fried and his colleagues used their patients’ reports on decision-to-move times; it is possible that people are just very bad at accurately remembering or reporting when they made such decisions (although it is unlikely that they would be wrong to the tune of over a second). Second, the decision to move a finger – especially when that’s the only thing you are supposed to do – might develop gradually rather than occurring at a single time. (Try it yourself: hold your finger against a surface, and wait till the urge to tap it causes you to. You may find that this urge isn’t an all-or-none thing, and you wait till it is strong enough to actually go ahead.)
Even with the above caveats, though, these findings are mind-boggling. They indicate that some activity in our brains may significantly precede our awareness of wanting to move. Libet suggested that free will works by vetoing: volition (the will to act) arises in neurons before conscious experience does, but conscious will can override it and prevent unwanted movements.
Other interpretations might require that we reconstruct our idea of free will. Rather than a linear process in which decision leads to action, our behavior may be the bottom-line result of many simultaneous processes: We are constantly faced with a multitude of options for what to do right now – switch the channel? Take a sip from our drink? Get up and go to the bathroom? But our set of options is not unlimited (i.e., the set of options we just mentioned is unlikely to include “launch a ballistic missile”). Deciding what to do and when to do it may be the result of a process in which all the currently-available options are assessed and weighted. Rather than free will being the ability to do anything at all, it might be an act of selection from the present range of options. And the decision might be made before you are even aware of it. Think about that next time you reach for the remote.”
Brain might not stand in the way of free will | New Scientist
“Libet found there was a 200 millisecond delay, on average, between this urge and the movement itself. But the EEG recordings also revealed a signal that appeared in the brain even earlier – 550 milliseconds, on average – before the action. Called the readiness potential, this has been interpreted as a blow to free will, as it suggests that the brain prepares to act well before we are conscious of the urge to move. This conclusion assumes that the readiness potential is the signature of the brain planning and preparing to move. (…)
“Libet argued that our brain has already decided to move well before we have a conscious intention to move,” says Schurger. “We argue that what looks like a pre-conscious decision process may not in fact reflect a decision at all. It only looks that way because of the nature of spontaneous brain activity.
“So what does this say about free will? “If we are correct, then the Libet experiment does not count as evidence against the possibility of conscious will,” says Schurger. (…) “It’s a more satisfying mechanistic explanation of the readiness potential. But it doesn’t bounce conscious free will suddenly back into the picture,” he says. “Showing that one aspect of the Libet experiment can be open to interpretation does not mean that all arguments against conscious free will need to be ejected.” According to Seth, when the volunteers in Libet’s experiment said they felt an urge to act, that urge is an experience, similar to an experience of smell or taste. The new model is “opening the door towards a richer understanding of the neural basis of the conscious experience of volition”, he says.”
- Anil Ananthaswamy, Brain might not stand in the way of free will, New Scientist, 9 August 2012.
Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?
“The neuroscientist Sam Harris claimed, “You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.” (…)
As the legal analyst Jeffrey Rosen wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “Since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behavior could potentially be excused? … The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility.” (…) Here, I’ll explain why neuroscience is not the death of free will and does not “wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility,” extending a discussion begun in Gary Gutting’s recent Stone column. I’ll argue that the neuroscientific evidence does not undermine free will. (…)
Instead of showing that free will is an illusion, neuroscience and psychology can actually help us understand how it works.
When Haggard concludes that we do not have free will “in the sense we think,” he reveals how this conclusion depends on a particular definition of free will. Scientists’ arguments that free will is an illusion typically begin by assuming that free will, by definition, requires an immaterial soul or non-physical mind, and they take neuroscience to provide evidence that our minds are physical. Haggard mentions free will “in the spiritual sense (…) a ghost in the machine.” The neuroscientist Read Montague defines free will as “the idea that we make choices and have thoughts independent of anything remotely resembling a physical process. Free will is the close cousin to the idea of the soul” (Current Biology 18, 2008).They use a definition of free will that they take to be demanded by ordinary thinking and philosophical theory. But they are mistaken on both counts.
We should be wary of defining things out of existence. Define Earth as the planet at the center of the universe and it turns out there is no Earth. Define what’s moral as whatever your God mandates and suddenly most people become immoral. Define marriage as a union only for procreation, and you thereby annul many marriages.
The sciences of the mind do give us good reasons to think that our minds are made of matter. But to conclude that consciousness or free will is thereby an illusion is too quick. It is like inferring from discoveries in organic chemistry that life is an illusion just because living organisms are made up of non-living stuff. Much of the progress in science comes precisely from understanding wholes in terms of their parts, without this suggesting the disappearance of the wholes. There’s no reason to define the mind or free will in a way that begins by cutting off this possibility for progress.
Our brains are the most complexly organized things in the known universe, just the sort of thing that could eventually make sense of why each of us is unique, why we are conscious creatures and why humans have abilities to comprehend, converse, and create that go well beyond the precursors of these abilities in other animals. Neuroscientific discoveries over the next century will uncover how consciousness and thinking work the way they do because our complex brains work the way they do.
These discoveries about how our brains work can also explain how free will works rather than explaining it away. But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way. Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.
These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities. (…) Rather, these are the sorts of cognitive capacities that psychologists and neuroscientists are well positioned to study. This conception of free will represents a longstanding and dominant view in philosophy, though it is typically ignored by scientists who conclude that free will is an illusion. (…)
Researchers in the new field of experimental philosophy study what “the folk” think about philosophical issues and why. For instance, my collaborators and I have found that most people think that free will and responsibility are compatible with determinism, the thesis that all events are part of a law-like chain of events such that earlier events necessitate later events.That is, most people judge that you can have free will and be responsible for your actions even if all of your decisions and actions are entirely caused by earlier events in accord with natural laws.
Our studies suggest that people sometimes misunderstand determinism to mean that we are somehow cut out of this causal chain leading to our actions. People are threatened by a possibility I call “bypassing” — the idea that our actions are caused in ways that bypass our conscious deliberations and decisions. So, if people mistakenly take causal determinism to mean that everything that happens is inevitable no matter what you think or try to do, then they conclude that we have no free will. Or if determinism is presented in a way that suggests all our decisions are just chemical reactions, they take that to mean that our conscious thinking is bypassed in such a way that we lack free will.
Even if neuroscience and psychology were in a position to establish the truth of determinism — a job better left for physics — this would not establish bypassing. As long as people understand that discoveries about how our brains work do not mean that what we think or try to do makes no difference to what happens, then their belief in free will is preserved. What matters to people is that we have the capacities for conscious deliberation and self-control that I’ve suggested we identify with free will.
But what about neuroscientific evidence that seems to suggest that these capacities are cut out of the causal chains leading to our decisions and actions? For instance, doesn’t neuroscience show that our brains make decisions before we are conscious of them such that our conscious decisions are bypassed? With these questions, we can move past the debates about whether free will requires souls or indeterminism — debates that neuroscience does not settle — and examine actual neuroscientific evidence.
Consider, for instance, research by neuroscientists suggesting that non-conscious processes in our brain cause our actions, while conscious awareness of what we are doing occurs later, too late to influence our behavior. Some interpret this research as showing that consciousness is merely an observer of the output of non-conscious mechanisms. Extending the paradigm developed by Benjamin Libet, John-Dylan Haynes and his collaborators used fMRI research to find patterns of neural activity in people’s brains that correlated with their decision to press either a right or left button up to seven seconds before they were aware of deciding which button to press. Haynes concludes: “How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”
However, the existing evidence does not support the conclusion that free will is an illusion. First of all, it does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it. It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions. If we assume that conscious decisions have neural correlates, then we should expect to find early signs of those correlates “ramping up” to the moment of consciousness. It would be miraculous if the brain did nothing at all until the moment when people became aware of a decision to move. These experiments all involve quick, repetitive decisions, and people are told not to plan their decisions but just to wait for an urge to come upon them. The early neural activity measured in the experiments likely represents these urges or other preparations for movement that precede conscious awareness.
This is what we should expect with simple decisions. Indeed, we are lucky that conscious thinking plays little or no role in quick or habitual decisions and actions. If we had to consciously consider our every move, we’d be bumbling fools. We’d be like perpetual beginners at tennis, overthinking every stroke. We’d be unable to speak fluently, much less dance or drive. Often we initially attend consciously to what we are doing precisely to reach the point where we act without consciously attending to the component decisions and actions in our complex endeavors. When we type, tango, or talk, we don’t want conscious thinking to precede every move we make, though we do want to be aware of what we’re doing and correct any mistakes we’re making. Conscious attention is relatively slow and effortful. We must use it wisely.
We need conscious deliberation to make a difference when it matters — when we have important decisions and plans to make. The evidence from neuroscience and psychology has not shown that consciousness doesn’t matter in those sorts of decisions — in fact, some evidence suggests the opposite. We should not begin by assuming that free will requires a conscious self that exists beyond the brain (where?), and then conclude that any evidence that shows brain processes precede action thereby demonstrates that consciousness is bypassed. Rather, we should consider the role of consciousness in action on the assumption that our conscious deliberation and rational thinking are carried out by complex brain processes, and then we can examine whether those very brain processes play a causal role in action. (…)
None of the evidence marshaled by neuroscientists and psychologists suggests that those neural processes involved in the conscious aspects of such complex, temporally extended decision-making are in fact causal dead ends. It would be almost unbelievable if such evidence turned up. It would mean that whatever processes in the brain are involved in conscious deliberation and self-control — and the substantial energy these processes use — were as useless as our appendix, that they evolved only to observe what we do after the fact, rather than to improve our decision-making and behavior. No doubt these conscious brain processes move too slowly to be involved in each finger flex as I type, but as long as they play their part in what I do down the road — such as considering what ideas to type up — then my conscious self is not a dead end, and it is a mistake to say my free will is bypassed by what my brain does.
So, does neuroscience mean the death of free will? Well, it could if it somehow demonstrated that conscious deliberation and rational self-control did not really exist or that they worked in a sheltered corner of the brain that has no influence on our actions. But neither of these possibilities is likely. True, the mind sciences will continue to show that consciousness does not work in just the ways we thought, and they already suggest significant limitations on the extent of our rationality, self-knowledge, and self-control. Such discoveries suggest that most of us possess less free will than we tend to think, and they may inform debates about our degrees of responsibility. But they do not show that free will is an illusion.
If we put aside the misleading idea that free will depends on supernatural souls rather than our quite miraculous brains, and if we put aside the mistaken idea that our conscious thinking matters most in the milliseconds before movement, then neuroscience does not kill free will. Rather, it can help to explain our capacities to control our actions in such a way that we are responsible for them. It can help us rediscover free will.”
Discussion on The Science and Philosophy of Free Will
“Are advances in the scientific understanding of the human mind shaping our conception of free will? If so, how? Are the cognitive sciences revealing that free will does not exist, or are they merely shedding light on the inner workings of agency? And do the answers to these questions have implications for moral responsibility?”
On Nov. 6, 2011, the Center for Inquiry-New York City explored these and related questions by presenting a panel discussion featuring:
* Hakwan Lau, Columbia University.
* Alfred Mele, Florida State University.
* Jesse Prinz, City University of New York.
* Adina Roskies, Dartmouth College.
* Massimo Pigliucci, City University of New York.
[This note will be gradually expanded…]
☞ Michael Gazzaniga, The controversial science of free will, Salon, Nov 13, 2011
☞ Michael Gazzaniga, Neuroscience and Justice, Edge Master Class 2011, July 16, 2011.
☞ Kerri Smith, Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will, Nature, 31 August 2011.
☞ Gareth Cook, Neuroscience Challenges Old Ideas about Free Will. Celebrated neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga explains the new science behind an ancient philosophical question, Scientific American, Nov 15, 2011
☞ Björn Brembs, Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates, Proceedings of The Royal Society, Dec 2010
☞ Anthony R. Cashmore, The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system, National Academy of Sciences, Feb 2010.
☞ Free will, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
☞ Free will tag on Lapidarium