During the last five to ten years we have seen a re-emergence of scientists declaring that free-will – our capacity to intentionally direct our actions through rational choice – has been greatly exaggerated – indeed, that it may even turn out to be an illusion.
This undermining of free-will comes primarily from neuroscientists who claim to demonstrate that many, if not all of our actions, can be explained by neural events occurring before we are consciously aware of having made a decision to act. In short, ‘the brain may know what we will choose before we do.’ If the research is valid and the conclusions sound, it would be a tough pill to swallow. Who wants to hear that they may have less free choice than they had once assumed, that our physical brains are really driving things, or that we are nothing but helpless passengers in the pre-determined unfolding of our own lives?
Though the neuroscientific findings are somewhat unsettling, they appear to fit nicely with the general scientific worldview whose primary aim is to break down an object of inquiry into reductive parts within a deterministic system of causal mechanisms. Free-will, for example, is a product of the conscious mind – and for many scientists, the activities of a conscious mind must somehow reduce to a physical thing such as the brain or its activity; it must start there. It is therefore only natural for the brain to show some kind of neural activity before or simultaneously with conscious awareness. In addition, we might reason that if the mind and brain are part of a deterministic system solely shaped by physical causes, then there seems to be little reason to assume that it could have done anything other than what it did.
Before exploring (and critiquing) the studies that gave rise to recent trends in anti-free-will neurodeterminism, it is important to recognize the degree to which this view has seeped into our mainstream culture. I am writing this essay, for example, after having watched a Daily Planet episode (on the Discovery channel) featuring one of these recent neuroimaging studies claiming to investigate free will. The final results suggest to the viewer that our conscious choices are not so much ours, but those of our unconscious brains. The layperson is unlikely to have the scientific or philosophical training that would enable them to critically evaluate such claims. We tend to believe what the scientists tell us since we judge them to have a kind of ‘expert knowledge’ that we lack. But what will happen if the message is sold en masse – if we begin to question our intuitive feeling of rational agency? Our sense of moral responsibility is based on the assumption that a person was free to choose among various courses of action. But what if we begin to see choice as illusionary? Will the legal systems then be plagued by defenses on the grounds that ‘our brains’ made us do it? If there is no free will, there can be no moral responsibility. Recent studies seem to illustrate this point by finding that people who do not believe in free will are more likely to act immorally, than those who think they do have free will (Vohs & Schooler 2008, Shariff, Schooler & Vohs, 2008). In short, there may be consequences to selling this kind of message to the general public.
The ‘Evidence’ Against Free Will
Many of the ‘anti free-will’ arguments originated with the work of Benjamin Libet (1985). Libet conducted experiments using EEG, where an individual wears a cap with electrodes measuring electrical correlates of brain activity. The subject’s finger or wrist was also connected to an EMG measuring muscle contraction. They were then asked, at the timing of their own choosing to move their finger or wrist. Participants looked at a clock on the wall to note when they had an urge or intention to make the movement, while the EMG would record the timing of the actual movement. Through repeated trials, Libet was able to identify a spike in the EEG recording that always preceded an action – dubbed the ‘readiness potential.’ Over repeated trials, he surprisingly observed that the readiness potential occurred one third of a second before the individual was consciously aware of a decision to act. Libet concluded that “the brain ‘decides’ to initiate or, at least, to prepare to initiate the act before there is any reportable subjective awareness that such a decision has taken place” (Libet, 1985, p. 536).
Soon et al. (2008) conducted complementary fMRI studies where subjects were asked to view a successive display of letters on a screen. They were then instructed to push a left or right button at a moment of their own choosing and to note the letter that was displayed at the moment they made their decision to press the button (the letter was used as a time marker). The results showed that two regions of the brain differentially ‘lit up’ when choosing to push the right or left button. Moreover, these researchers found that neuroimaging correlates could predict choice of action up to 7-10 seconds before the participant was aware of their decision. While the authors were more careful in their interpretations than what would later come in the popular press, they nonetheless concluded that “a network of high-level control areas can begin to shape an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness” (Soon et al., 2008, p. 3).
When Did I Choose? What Did I Choose?
Though the above studies supply most of the support for our undermining free will, they have been extensively criticized on methodological grounds (e.g. Hartmann, 2004; Ostrowick, 2007). In most cases, for example, the subjects had to report the timing of their intention to move. But there is often a time lapse between noting an intention to move and noting the time marker such as the position of a clock – extra time that may skew the results in some studies to make it appear as though the action preceded conscious awareness.
Critics have also argued that there are grave conceptual errors in how neuroscience researchers define the timing of ‘choice’ in their free will experiments. Researchers insist that the choice to act was made sometime between being connected to the EEG or fMRI machine, and the observation of a physical movement of a thumb, finger, or wrist, or the observation of complementary neuroimaging correlates preceding these actions. But if we were to be a bit more liberal in our definition, we might argue that that the ‘decision’ to move one’s appendage is actually part of a larger set of decisions and choices involving some conscious planning that starts further back in the temporal chain of events (Raymond Tallis, 2010). This may include the decision to volunteer in a scientific experiment, to participate in a particular study, one agreeing to the terms of the consent form, and so on. It is important to note that these kinds of decisions are presumably based on the subjective reasoning of the potential participant. Subjective reasons may include: “I value science and the importance of research” “I had nothing else to do that day,” “it seemed like a harmless experiment,” and so on. In short, the conscious decision and rational choice (grounded in a world of meaningful reasons) may have been made long before the inconsequential and almost reflexive muscle movement the experimenters were interested in; this superficial movement is unlikely to require much conscious effort or need for rational choice.
If we reflect on our own day to day lives, we can note that many of our inconsequential self-directed actions are made without a conscious decision to act. Take, for example, the act of walking to the grocery store. While we may be minimally conscious of the steps involved in getting there, since the larger decision was already made (i.e. to go to the grocery store), we tend to follow them on auto-pilot – relying on implicit muscle memory or other unconscious mechanisms. There need not be a separate decision to take each step, to walk around a pothole, to ascend or descend familiar staircases or a familiar shortcut, and so on. Self-awareness may only kick in when our route is altered by something unexpected – requiring our rational minds to make another decision; another ‘choice’ based on our subjective reasoning in that particular moment.
To summarize: real free will, and real decision or choice, involves basing our actions on reason. And here we see one of the major flaws of neuroimaging studies where researchers methodologically strip the situation of any need for human consciousness or human reasoning. They instead reduce the human being and their rational agency to a series of overly simplistic mechanistic actions, which are in reality based less on a ‘decision’ to move than on what may be an inconsequential neuromuscular ‘impulse.’
… since the decision to move was of no consequence and did not require any higher cognitive functions, the subject may have delegated the decision to the motor cortex or other unconscious parts of the brain, which then originated the action as it was supposed to, only briefly notifying consciousness in case there might be a veto (Arnason, 2011, p. 153).
Brain Causation versus Human Reasoning
Free-will deniers will often suggest that free-will cannot exist since we are part of a causally closed and deterministic system of causes and effects. But the conscious human mind does not reduce to the causal mechanisms of a physical brain (as argued here). We must not confuse causal mechanism (i.e. the brain) with conscious human reasoning. The latter transcends mere mechanism and belongs to a symbolic system of meanings that are both subjectively experienced and pluralistic in the sense that they are shared within the sociocultural web of other subjective minds.
Kenan Malik (2002) gives a thoughtful example to illustrate the difference between causes and reasons: Suppose one day you rush out of the house and kill the first person you see on the street. At your trial, you present one of two defenses. In the first, you argue that you have a brain tumor that made you temporarily out of your mind and caused you to kill. In the second, you say that you were talking the previous night with an intelligent but evil philosopher who convinced you that the only way to prove your free-will was to murder the first person you see on the street. Many of us would be inclined to say that in the first example the person is not responsible. This is because the action was committed by a person acting as an object – there was a cause for such behavior and the person did not have any choice in their actions. But in the second defence, we are inclined to say that the person is responsible for their actions, since they are acting as a subject and their decision was based on reason.
Causes happen to objects. Only subjects are motivated by reason. A reason is a special kind of cause, one that is only applicable to subjects; an act is determined by reason we generally treat as an act of free will (Malik, 2002, p. 381).
So while brains house the causal mechanisms that are necessary to our making choice, human actions are often based on subjective reasons tied to an extended web of meanings that cannot be reduced to causal mechanism alone. “We can talk of causes as being right or wrong. But only reasons can be good and bad. Causes belong to a physical world; reasons to a moral one (Malik, 2002, p. 381).”
So what would happen if we re-introduced the need for reasons in these neuroscience experiments? Imagine, for example, our modeling the experiments conducted by Soon and colleagues. A person is lying in an fMRI machine and must choose to push the right or the left button. But let’s say that this time when one clicks the ‘left button,’ a second participant gets an electric shock, while pressing the right button means that the same person must ingest some especially potent hot-sauce (both are forms of punishment). Now, what are the odds that the brain would ‘choose’ pushing the right or left button? Very slim one would presume – the brain does not choose, because we would choose not to. The action is not inconsequential, as it was before. When the researcher asks us to make a decision and push a button, we might refuse – based on our reasoning: “I do not want to hurt anyone.”
Free will deniers would counter this line of argument by suggesting that ‘our brains’ are unlikely to act in this situation because it likely runs counter to our previous history of conditioning. But suppose a person in the fMRI is aware of these arguments and decides to push a button. The researcher is surprised and asks why. Following the Milgrim studies, a participant may plead to authority and say “because you told me to.” Alternatively, one might say: “because I am aware of how not believing in free will can lead to apathy and lack of social responsibility – I reasoned that if my choosing to hurt someone means exhibiting my free will, then I could potentially improve the lot of society by ensuring that more people will believe in free will – and in personal responsibility.” Again, the action in this case is based on reasons, not causes. When we ask someone to give us reasons for why they acted a certain way, we implicitly assume that they could have done otherwise – that they (and not their brains) are responsible for acting one way versus another (Habermas, 2007). In other words: there can be no moral responsibility without conscious agency and our having real choice over our actions.
Conscious Free Will & the Sociocultural Cloud of Reasons
The actions of humans, like those of other animals, are often explained as the direct result of preceding causes. But we are unique in that many of our actions are determined by reasons that are deemed convincing within the experienced consciousness of the subjective first-person perceiver. The power of choice emerges from this subjective stance involving conscious self-awareness and rational agency – this is what allows us to momentarily step outside of what might otherwise be a causally-closed and deterministic system.
It is also interesting to note that some reasons are better than others and that in many ways these reasons have cultural variability – they are based on the values, beliefs, and assumptions of the sociocultural web to which we belong. You will not find these culturally supported subjective reasons in the causal mechanisms of the brain. They are partially located in the ‘community of minds’ and in the experience of our own subjective consciousness (Tallis, 2010). It is again only apparent to the first person subject and remains inaccessible to the uninvolved third person researcher looking at correlations of causal mechanism.
To the extent to which persons let their actions be guided by reasons, they submit themselves to the logical-semantic and broadly ‘grammatical’ commitments of intersubjectively shared systems of rules that are not up to them. At the same time, these rules do not ‘compel’ in the same way that laws of nature do (Habermas, 2007, p. 17).
In a way, we partly transcend our biological nature when we stop to acknowledge that our conscious minds have grown from the soil of human abstractions – meanings, reasons, and shared subjectivity. Self-awareness and agency emerge within this context. And this is why we do not hold children as responsible for their actions. Free will requires some necessary biological components (presumably a developed pre-frontal cortex not yet fully formed in the child), but it also requires reaching a certain level of human socialization. It is this socialization process that gives rise to our sense of self-directed agency and our ability to bind our will to actions within the context of a ‘sociocultural cloud’ of reasons. This requires a subjective self-awareness of our own conscious minds – to be able to observe ourselves and the activities of our minds; to feel the power of our rational agency and intentionality; our ability to act on some thoughts, feelings and impulses, inhibit or delay others, and at times to justify them based on convincing reasons. We escape determinism by temporarily stepping outside of ourselves – entering the cloud of reasons and shared subjectivity.
Free will… is not behavior that is undetermined, but behavior that arises from being able to choose which causes will determine my actions (Malik, 2002, p. 367).
While science tries to study consciousness by reducing it to some object that it can physically observe or measure, we must remind ourselves that such attempts are doomed to fail, since consciousness is in many ways subjective. The only way that science can appear to succeed is by redefining consciousness – reducing it in scope and stripping it of all meaning. We buy into the hype by thinking that they have answered the question, but it is only a magic trick – a sleight of hand where they replace consciousness with something else. These neuroimaging studies involve crude experimental designs that treat the human being as a passive biological machine reflexively responding to stimuli. Is it any wonder when they finally conclude that we are passive biological machines reflexively responding to stimuli? Who is deluded – us, or the scientists? So it would seem to me that if you want to deny yourself free will and thereby evade personal responsibility, then go ahead: it is your choice. But I, for one, would not want to live in a world where people would believe in such illusions.
Trends in Reducing Free Will
I want to close this discussion by suggesting that if we look at the big picture within the recent scientific literature, we can see something of a suspicious trend. From deterministic neuroscientism to evolutionary psychology or universal Darwinism, we see scientists painting a picture of man that effectively reduces his/her freedom. There is something about recent scientific trends indicating a preference for seeing ourselves as psychobiological machines passively shaped by either the environment and/or principles of natural and sexual selection; our actions are thus seen as reflexive, or in many ways, outside of our control.
But if neither evidence nor logic support these claims, why do these scientific myths persist? Why are we, as a society, so interested in maintaining them? I believe the reason has something to do with an age old truth: freedom is a burden. For example, if we see ourselves as truly free to choose, we must simultaneously accept sole responsibility for our actions. Indeed, taking full responsibility for the creation of our lives and what meaning we choose to give it. For centuries, religion helped us to carry this heavy burden – by telling us how to live, giving us a prescription for meaning, defining ‘right’ from ‘wrong,’ relieving guilt by telling us that we cannot help but sin because we are born into it, and so on. But with our society becoming more and more secular, we are in danger of having to take on more responsibility for the narration of our own lives – perhaps it is an existential burden we would prefer to avoid. In short, the freedom once reduced by traditional religion, is perhaps now being reduced by science.
Religious myth is thus replaced by scientific myth. And while there has been a great deal of fuss about the dangers of the former, I actually regard the latter as being far more dangerous. This is due to the fact that science is far more likely to influence politics and social policy without suspicion or criticism. Unfortunately, what some call ‘science,’ may be nothing more than scientistic ideology. And history shows us how dangerous that can be. So let us reject the claims of researchers who dumb us down to computational machines, or mere monkeys with opposable thumbs and language. Let us embrace our human freedom, and ensure that we are not afraid of taking responsibility for narrating these lives that we live.
- Arnason, G. (2011). Neuroscience, free will and moral responsibility. TRAMES: A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences, 15(65/60), 2, 147-155.
- Habermas, J. (2007). The language game of responsible agency and the problem of free will: How can epistemic dualism be reconciled within ontological monism? Philosophical Explorations, 10(1), 13-46.
- Hartmann, D. (2004). Neurophysiology and freedom of the will. Poiesis and Praxis, 2(4), 275-284.
- Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8, 529-526.
- Malik, K. (2002). Man, beast, and zombie: What science can and cannot tell us about human nature. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Ostrowick, J. (2007). The timing experiments of Libet and Grey Walter. South African Journal of Philosophy, 26(3), 271-288.
- Stillman, T. F., Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., & Brewer, L. E. (2010). Personal philosophy and personnel achievement: belief in free will predicts better job performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(1), 43-50.
- Shariff, A. F., Schooler, J., & Vohs, K. D. (2008). The hazards of claiming to have solved the hard problem of free will. In Are we free? Psychology and free will. J. Baer, J. C. Kaufman, & R. F. Baumeister, eds. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Vohs, K. D. & Schooler, J. W. (2008). The value of believing in free-will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science, 19, 49-54.