Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will

The leading science journal, Nature, reports: The experiment helped to change John-Dylan Haynes’s outlook on life. In 2007, Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters. He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands. The results were quite a surprise.

“The first thought we had was ‘we have to check if this is real’,” says Haynes. “We came up with more sanity checks than I’ve ever seen in any other study before.”

The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person’s actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. “We feel we choose, but we don’t,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.

You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it. For Haynes, this is unsettling. “I’ll be very honest, I find it very difficult to deal with this,” he says. “How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”

Philosophers aren’t convinced that brain scans can demolish free will so easily. Some have questioned the neuroscientists’ results and interpretations, arguing that the researchers have not quite grasped the concept that they say they are debunking. Many more don’t engage with scientists at all. “Neuroscientists and philosophers talk past each other,” says Walter Glannon, a philosopher at the University of Calgary in Canada, who has interests in neuroscience, ethics and free will.

There are some signs that this is beginning to change. This month, a raft of projects will get under way as part of Big Questions in Free Will, a four-year, US$4.4-million programme funded by the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, which supports research bridging theology, philosophy and natural science. Some say that, with refined experiments, neuroscience could help researchers to identify the physical processes underlying conscious intention and to better understand the brain activity that precedes it. And if unconscious brain activity could be found to predict decisions perfectly, the work really could rattle the notion of free will. “It’s possible that what are now correlations could at some point become causal connections between brain mechanisms and behaviours,” says Glannon. “If that were the case, then it would threaten free will, on any definition by any philosopher.” [Continue reading…]

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9 thoughts on “Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will

  1. Steve Zerger

    Consiousness is a thin veneer on the total human experience, and any sensible free will philosopher will grant that decision begins in the unconsious. That is not the same thing as saying that decisions are nothing but deterministic electrochemical processes.

  2. Paul Woodward

    To say that decision begins in the unconscious seems to suggest that by the time it enters consciousness the decision may have been made — thus comes the disquieting notion that you can make a decision before you know it (as shown in the video above). Setting aside the question of whether this unconscious process is a deterministic electrochemical process, the idea of unconscious decision-making already undermines the notion of free will, which is to say the notion that we consciously and freely exercise choice.

    Now if one subscribes to a notion of consciousness or mind that operates in some way independently from the operation of the brain and nervous system, then it’s easy to pooh-pooh any claim a neuroscientist makes. But if one goes down the non-physical track then the test of any theory’s validity rarely amounts to anything more than whether it offers intellectual satisfaction.

    If on the other hand one accepts the idea that consciousness is the subjective experience of physical processes, then studying those processes will in due course reveal information about the nature of consciousness. If there has been a deficit in neuroscience it is that it has underplayed the experimental value of introspection, but that’s already changing.

    Politically, free will is a cherished notion because it connotes autonomy, while the absence of free will would suggest we are in some way enslaved. But the fact that the former is appealing and the latter revolting says nothing about which is true — it’s simply an expression for our preference for a particular kind of world. Human beings do not however by their nature find the real world particularly appealing.

    I’ll post a video shortly in which Robert Trivers talks about the fact that we generally have such idealized views of ourselves that subjects can actually identify an improved photo themselves faster than they pick out an undoctored image.

  3. Christopher Hoare

    I don’t denay that these ideas are interesting and challenging, but I need to see that the scientists’ insights into what is happening in the brain are something more than ‘lights going on’. If I were to suggest these 7second earlier ‘lights going on’ were nothing more than the ‘great consciousness in the sky’ sending the instructions to the experimental subject, the experimenters have absolutely no evidence that my asertion is not true.

  4. Steve Zerger

    I think there is already an inherent dualism in your assertion that consciousness is the subjective experience of physical processes. That seems to grant that the experience is something different than the “physical” processes themselves. That dualism is ultimately unresolvable, and it is due to our materialistic conception of physical processes. Whitehead’s solution that all of reality is exhaustively composed of experience (not conscious experience which is a rare high-level form), provides a coherent alternative. It is a leap that most modern minds are not willing to make. His analysis of consciousness is much closer to Buddhist ideas than Western notions.

    In thinking about human freedom, I think it is much more useful to think of it in terms of degrees. Our freedom is limited but not determined by past experiences (internal and external) which feed into the process. Within the parameters of those inputs, we have a limited but real freedom of action to create ourselves. Consciousness itself is a high level abstraction from that process.

  5. Steve Zerger

    Let me try a different angle. Suppose I say something hurtful to my spouse. And even as the words are coming out of my mouth, I know that I shouldn’t be saying them, but the momentum of my anger carries me along in spite of myself. And then of course I feel remorse, which may influence my future behavior. Is that entire process from beginning to end merely the predetermined outcome of physical processes which are beyond my control? If that is the case then my question to you is: why do you bother to maintain this very informative blog which is largely composed of value judgements (insightful in my opinion)? You certainly don’t act as though you believe that you have no freedom.

  6. Paul Woodward

    Having studied religion (and principally Buddhism) in considerable depth, I think that one of the most important distinctions between religion and science is that in the history of religions individually or collectively, it’s hard if not impossible to point to historic breakthroughs — junctures at which discoveries were made that led to a permanent shift in the way human beings understood themselves and the world. There are no religious Copernican revolutions.

    What biology reveals and does so relentlessly are more and more layers of complexity in the ways bodies are structured and operate. If brain science revealed a physical architecture that seemed to lack the complexity that we would imagine must be required for processing sensory input, manipulating symbolic representations of external objects and abstract ideas, and regulating the vast array of “backend” functions that take place throughout the body, then there would be good reason to go in search of some outer guiding force that keeps everything ticking. So far, there is no indication that a dead end in complexity is going to be reached.

  7. Steve Zerger

    Thanks for you responses.

    I don’t think the word breakthrough is really how I would put it (in many ways it was destructive), but the religious revolutions of the Axial age did profoundly shift human conceptions of the place of humans in the world. Modern science is in many ways an afterthought derived from those new conceptions. And science intself is not progressive in a linear way but evolves through a seemingly endless series of shifting paradigms. And so the word breakthrough might not apply very well in that context either.

    I think that biology provides the most holistic model of reality to come out of the sciences. Unfortunately, it has mostly been monopolized by a materialistic metaphysics and ontology which are just assumed without the explicit treatment that intellectual integrity demands.

  8. Paul Woodward

    Here’s a thought experiment anyone can engage in — though it will be easier to perform if you have some experience practicing meditation.

    Catch a thought. And by that I mean, with the most acute attention you can muster, try to watch thoughts at the cusp upon which they emerge in awareness. What becomes apparent is that they emerge out of nowhere. That’s not to suggest that literally something comes out of nothing but that it is impossible to anticipate a thought. A thought is either operating in consciousness or it’s not there. There is good reason that we commonly use the expression, “a thought just popped into my head,” because that is what they do — relentlessly.

    Consciousness is like the surface of a pond. Bubbles are released from the mud below and they enter consciousness as they hit the surface, manifesting as thoughts. The upward-floating bubble is a precursor of thought, but not thought itself. My guess (and it’s nothing more than that) is that consciousness is a functional end-state of neural cascades of activity — that it is a product of that activity rather than something produced in a particular part of the brain. (But that’s just a guess — I’m not a neuroscientist.)

    I have no problem calling the body of water beneath the surface the “unconscious”, but all I would mean by that is the operations that take place inside the brain about which we have no direct awareness.

    So, as for the question: why do I run this blog? Firstly, when I signed up for a Blogger account 10 years ago, I could not possibly imagine I’d still be scratching the same itch 10 years later. But beyond that, the “why bother” question applies to all of us always given that we all know that sooner or later we will drop dead, and not long after that no one will even remember we had ever lived.

    I do not believe there is a rational imperative that moves us forward but rather that life itself is a creative force and the simple reason we do whatever we do is because that’s what it means to be alive. We live in perpetual motion and even in stillness pulsate with a river of electricity. (That phrase, “river of electricity”, comes from Emerson — I just saw it the other day on someone else’s blog.)

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