About the SA Blog Network



Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

New Year’s Resolution: I will believe in free will

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

In the wee hours of this morning my eyes popped open, and I spent the next half hour trying to figure out what to write about in this column. After careful, albeit groggy deliberation, I decided to go with free will, both because of the tie-in to New Year’s resolutions and because some high-profile scientists have been questioning whether free will exists.

One is the neuroscientist Sam Harris. His new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press, 2010), which I critiqued in a previous post, has a section titled "The Illusion of Free Will". Harris argued that "no account of causality leaves room for free will." He cited experiments in which magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) "predicts" that a subject is going to do something—on the basis of activity in the subject’s brain—up to 10 seconds before the subject consciously decides to do it.

"Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions," Harris wrote. This and other experiments, he contended, show that physiological processes of which we are unaware determine our actions; our conscious decisions are literally afterthoughts. "Our belief in free will arises from our moment to moment ignorance of specific prior causes."

In my gloomier moments I have doubts about free will. None of us chooses to be born. We don’t choose our parents, our genes, the place of our birth, the circumstances of our upbringing. Nor did our parents have these choices, or theirs, or theirs—ad infinitum. Each moment of our lives is the outcome of a vast web of causes and effects—determined by physical laws—leading back thousands and millions and billions of years to the big bang, the cosmological event that set everything into motion. None of us chooses any of this, so how free can we be?

From this perspective, I can see why Einstein once wrote: "If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the Earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord…. So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will."

But from another perspective, this rejection of free will makes no sense. Or rather, it goes much too far, because it suggests that our conscious deliberations are epiphenomenal, superfluous, with no real impact on our actions. That is reductionism ad absurdum. As the physicist and Nobel laureate Phil Anderson wrote in his famous 1972 essay, "More Is Different" (pdf), reality has a hierarchical structure with qualitatively different phenomena emerging at different scales: "At each stage entirely new laws, concepts and generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry."

Choice is an emergent, psychological phenomenon that cannot be understood in terms of physics and other strictly physical sciences. Our lives pivot around choices big and small. Should I work on this piece on free will this afternoon, or play pond hockey instead? Should I watch more episodes of Dexter tonight or start reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen? Should I ask my girlfriend to marry me? Should I stop defending Obama from my bitter, disillusioned lefty friends?

Yes, there is much in life that we do not choose. And sometimes we deliberate insincerely toward a foregone conclusion or fail to act on our resolution. But not always. My sleepy decision at 2 A.M. this morning precipitated this essay (although my obsession with free will goes back decades). And I’m unimpressed that if you stuck me in an MRI tube, you’d find "evidence" that my brain "decided" before my conscious self did. Such experiments merely confirm that physiological processes underpin all our perceptions, plans, choices and actions. Only a believer in dualism or an immaterial soul would expect anything else.

Deniers of free will often have weird metaphysical definitions of it, which lead them to view it as a kind of exception to causality. I see free will as roughly equivalent to choice or even (although I hesitate to use this much-abused term) freedom. Moreover, free will is a variable property, which can grow or diminish depending on genetic, neural, experiential, social, political and physical factors. I have more free will—more choices to consider and select from—than I did when I was one or two or 10 years old. I have more free will than adults my age suffering from Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, alcoholism or quadriplegia. I have more than a prisoner in Guantánamo or an illiterate slum-dweller in New Delhi.

Our belief in free will has measurable social benefits. In an experiment recently cited by my fellow SciAm blogger Jesse Bering researchers asked subjects to read a passage written by the Nobel laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix, that cast doubt on free will: "’You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…. [A]lthough we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that." Subjects who read this passage were more likely to cheat on a test than control subjects who read a passage about brain science that did not refer to free will.* These results, the researchers concluded, "point to a significant value in believing that free will exists."

Talk about an understatement. Of course belief in free will has value! Free will underpins all our ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or a divine plan. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life or a society. Choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Therefore, as New Year’s Eve approaches let us all resolve to believe in—and be grateful for—whatever free will we possess.

*Correction (12/28/10): This sentence was edited after posting. It originally stated that subjects who read this passage were more likely to cheat on a test than control subjects who read a passage about brain science that did refer to free will.


Rights & Permissions

Comments 40 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Theresa KS 11:46 am 12/27/2010

    It seems to me, if I remember my anatomy class correctly, once you make a decision in your brain it takes seconds for that decision to reach its destination. I am going to clap after this song, my hands clap. Maybe this intelligent man who has determined there is no free will has forgotten this very basic mode of neuron traffic. Of course our brain acts first, it is where everything happens and transmits.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Davy 11:58 am 12/27/2010

    Theresa, nobody "forgot" about the seconds between impulse and action; indeed, that is the point of this study. The author is describing his finding that the brain impulse does indeed occur several seconds before the subject "decides" to do it.

    This will seem counter-intuitive to most. It’s acceptance requires a basic understanding about cause and effect.

    Link to this
  3. 3. wrbilledwards 1:11 pm 12/27/2010

    I am more and more convinced that this ancient argument is a debate about nothing meaningful. The conclusion that something one is observing does or does not have "consciousness" or "free will" may be valid, relative to the frame of reference of the observer, but has no absolute meaning. Most of us agree that a rock has no free will, because we are confident that we can predict its behavior from its properties, history and environment. An entomologist reasonably considers that an ant has no free will for the same reason. (Many primative peoples would not have agreed.) But few of us believe that we can predict fellow humans’ behavior, and even fewer for our selves. Thus we, reasonably in our frame of reference, think of humans as having free will. (Einstein is exactly relevant here, though I don’t know if he would have agreed.)

    I doubt that Prof. Harris would claim that science is close to the ability to predict human behvior in detail; his sort of assertions come from an abstract philosophical premise about "cause and effect," as if some godlike observer must be able to predict our behavior, thus we have no free will. This is most ironic, that a famous atheist is replicating the thinking of Calvinist theologians!

    Link to this
  4. 4. jvsciguy 1:12 pm 12/27/2010

    Mr Horgan has written a very interesting article.

    The discussion of Free WIll goes back centuries into the past. It has probably been one of the most debated philosophical issues of mans history.

    Here is a short (1 page) history of the debate. I post it so all can see how the pendulum has swung and continues to oscillate in this very compelling debate.

    Link to this
  5. 5. jvsciguy 1:21 pm 12/27/2010

    Where the debate began (most likely).

    "The materialist philosophers Democritus and Leucippus, again with extraordinary prescience, claimed that all things, including humans, were made of atoms in a void, with individual atomic motions strictly controlled by causal laws. Democritus wanted to wrest control of man’s fate from arbitrary gods and make us more responsible for our actions. But ironically, he and Leucippus originated two of the great dogmas of determinism, physical determinism and logical necessity, which lead directly to the modern problem of free will and determinism."


    This is worth reading as it provides important background on how this came to be such a difficult debate.

    The idea of a ‘Free Will’ was once considered a radical and unnecessary, even blasphemous, concept.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Huchet 1:42 pm 12/27/2010

    One might add to the difficulty of rejecting free will by considering that if one is not free to arrive at any conclusion then one’s conclusion must have been determined by an infinity of past events and thus has no validity. Truly meaningless!

    Link to this
  7. 7. pawhite 1:45 pm 12/27/2010

    Bravo John Horgan! Reductio ad absurdum is the perfect expression for the well meant but frankly silly argument that there is no free will, usually advanced by people who make good moral decisions all the time.

    Link to this
  8. 8. nonorthogonalbasis 2:15 pm 12/27/2010

    An interesting thought. But how do argument against (and the benefits of) the belief of no free will equate to arguments for it? There are conditions where people "feel" they are not in control of their actions.

    As Nelson from the Simpsons once said,"Some people prefer illusion to despair," so your motives are fine. But arguing something does/doesn’t exists is meaningless without defining it. If you argue for something at least specify what it is (especially since some people have conditions where they feel they don’t even have "it").

    Link to this
  9. 9. Noosh 2:56 pm 12/27/2010

    It seems to me that there are a number of physiological factors that indicate ‘free will’ at the moment of decision is improbable, however later reflection on past events could allow greater freedom of choice at a future point.
    At any decision point, we must rely on the neural pathways we already have, as new connections between neurons take time to develop. A decision is already made physiologically.
    However, regular reflection on events, or speculation about hypothetical events could create new pathways to be utilised at a future decision point – free will after the fact!

    Link to this
  10. 10. Thornton Ellis 3:04 pm 12/27/2010

    Free will: how incredibly wonderful to see one of the greatest conundrums of all times burst forth here in this article! Great minds for thousands of years have been trying to find an answer.

    While the concept falls in the area of philosophy, within that, you then are faced with the many views, including religious, ethical, and scientific: as well as the dozens upon dozens of schools of thought. And this does not include the who-knows-how-many papers and books which have been written over the millennia concerning this subject.

    Funny thing: we seem to be able to either believe in free will, not believe in free will, or just ignore the whole idea, and all come out in the same place. We each are born, and we each die. In between those two an amazing thing called living seems to just keep happening; and no two of those lives are ever just exactly alike.

    Link to this
  11. 11. skiptic 3:21 pm 12/27/2010

    Sadly, given all the evidence, it is still common for journalists to resort to this pathethetic type of head-burying. They proclaim something like the old, "Yes, Virginia, there is… free will."
    Sorry, there ain’t no Santa either. Nice try, though!

    Link to this
  12. 12. dslaby 3:44 pm 12/27/2010

    Two books I’ve read have some interesting perspective on freedom and free will:

    Dennett, Freedom Evolves
    Montague, Why Choose This Book

    Freedom and Free Will engage controversies because decision-making has some randomization in anticipation of outcomes, and is never absolute, but circumscribed by ecological adaptation and cultural learning.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Entropy Reversal 4:20 pm 12/27/2010

    Not to sound excessively "negative," but it would seem free will also displays itself as the ability to decide not to proofread for the n+1th time: "Subjects who read this passage were more likely to cheat on a test than control subjects who read a passage about brain science that did [not] refer to free will."

    In any event, the social utility of free will is largely irrelevant to the question of free will’s existence, although I (or my automatic neurological mechanisms) might be convinced by the epiphenomena argument at some point.

    Link to this
  14. 14. gthroneiii 4:46 pm 12/27/2010

    If we could drop the word ‘free’ from ‘free will’ I doubt we’d have any controversy. Clearly we all experience a sense of will or intent. But what exactly is it being claimed that we are ‘free’ from? If the word is used merely to insinuate that there are multiple possibilities outcomes available to consider them I doubt that any real conflict arises. However, if it is intended to express a freedom from influences or physical laws, then we’re in conflict with other more established knowledge. If you claim that I could have acted differently if we re-wound the clock and all things were held equal (all things, including my mental state and environment), then I must be doubtful of your claims. However, if you claim that I’m able to consider, deliberate and chose from amongst multiple options known and available to me then we would again be in agreement.

    I’d also wish to revise the quoted statement from the article "Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry" to include the word ‘just’. Psychology is not ‘just’ applied biology (etc…) Clearly Psychology isn’t ‘free’ from biology, just as our "Will" is not free from biology, physics, etc. We are far more complicated systems, and due to that complexity we have greater potential (or "freedom", if you will) than if our basic components were separated, but we can’t ignore the basic properties of those basic components and how the impact the larger system.

    Link to this
  15. 15. bonetree 5:46 pm 12/27/2010

    Free will vs determinism is usually presented as a digital dichotomy: either you have free will or you don’t. And that’s probably wrong. There are greater and lesser degrees of freedom.

    We are clearly constrained in what we choose to do by our biology and our conditioning, and we’re even more restricted in what we can effect. Not only can’t I fly, I can’t even stop myself from being cranky – on a cranky day – despite my intentions. But within certain parameters I have free choice. I can choose the chocolate or the vanilla, choose to exercise today or not. This doesn’t mean my choices are not the result of past conditioning, but they can also be changed by current circumstances and influences. The internal, brain-based model we have of ourselves can be modified through reflection and choice, and the modified model becomes the basis for further choices. Some dieters, for example, are successful while some are not. And training in ethics can alter both our abstract moral code and our concrete behaviors. Happily.

    Though this doesn’t demand a trans-biological entity neither is our experience fully reducible to neurology. Selves are emergent properties arising from the underlying complexities of biology and physics but they are not just biology and physics any more than biology is just physics. Neural correlates are just that – correlates, one aspect of an organism’s functioning. They are not necessarily causal. We can clearly be the effect of the brain’s function but we can also affect the brain through consciously chosen behaviors.

    Link to this
  16. 16. royniles 5:47 pm 12/27/2010

    Excellent article, especially as it relates to choices. And consider this:
    If all your choices had been made before you seem to make them, or it was determined that you’ve had no choice at all, that’s by its nature predeterminate. The bigger question then is, has the predetermined been the eternal state of nature, or was there a predeterminer that changed the course of nature to its liking by the power of its will?
    It’s my understanding that "true" determinism means that every choice made anywhere and any time in the history of the universe that even in the smallest way will require me to decisively react, has already been accounted for in the vast causative web of decision making, so that my putative decision was actually foretold eons ago and out of my control to change.
    Is that what anyone can logically attest to be the actual case?

    Link to this
  17. 17. johnmetzler 6:18 pm 12/27/2010

    The history of science tells me that the last word is hardly the last; so I do not assume that "science" at this point in its history is able understand the brain well enough to determine whether people have a free or not. Such claims raise issues with me, e.g. isn’t there a certain hubris in making claims on free will? Why assume that we know the brain well enough to make such claims? What are the motivations behind such claims?

    I have felt — and life experience has taught me that feelings have meaning — that I have a free will and I have empirical data, e.g. my life, that I have had the freedom to exercise my free will, with approriate consequences.

    Link to this
  18. 18. danegal 11:55 pm 12/27/2010

    THIS SENTENCE IN THE ARTICLE MAKES NO SENSE: "But from another perspective, this rejection of free will makes no sense. Or rather, it goes much too far, because it suggests that our conscious deliberations are epiphenomenal, superfluous, with no real impact on our actions."

    Choosing is a process. 1) Options arise and we sometimes "deliberate" on possible outcomes. 2) Then one or more options is selected. 3) We act on our choice or not. 4) We often "deliberate" on our results.

    Choices happen. There is no free will. Conscious deliberating is simply a part of the choosing process.

    Link to this
  19. 19. suresh10in 1:45 am 12/28/2010

    No body has controverted here the veracity of the MRI neuroimaging which revealed how brain centers predetermine our conscious decision-making ,emphasising a kind of brain based determinism.Harris was only echoing what would logically appear to any one interpreting those MRI results. Who is doing the predterminism act as a master controller is a natural question.Quantum mechanics provide the evident answers ,since according to Mach principle too relationality is a universal truth. When things are interrelated stochastic existence is a natural corrollary ,and some states have greater probability to come into being than others depending on the very act of observation.Positivists hold the view that reality is not known but only the measured or observed truth ,though we can know the truth through reason and mathematical logic[Godel refutes this]. But as Kant argues a priori analytic reality or truth of things is not knowable by logic or experimentation because of inherent sensory and intutive limitations that govern our logic and embed our experience.
    Uncertainty principle is a reverberation of Einstein`s position that theory determines measurement,since we are influenced by what we already hold in our minds .Neuroscience now reveals that mental imagery is not in our control ,and we are in fact under the influence of mental imagery which we have internalised consciously and unconsciously ,as part of our self consciousness.The self is itself an illusion in the brain ,and the argument that self is real based on emergence at the pinnacle of brain networks and its processes has been disproved.
    Our unity of beliefs and unity of consciousness ,as part of the self make us see world as self-other with features like space time perspectivity and bodily consciousness.But this unity of consciousness is a brain construct and not in our control to alter ,as phenomena like binocular rivalry reveals.
    But we also know from neuroscience that loss of brain parts or impairment leads to a malfunctioning of self confirming the virtual nature.
    In fact studies related to eastern meditation also reveal that we can overcome our subjective awareness and perceive an objective reality by inhibition of brain centers linked to self notions and stream of thought.We see an entangled self as a unitary being ,and cause- effect is reversed.Mysticism and quantum theory are in unison in a state of interrelatedness and its rules.Block time and nonlocality are not just curiosities but realities.

    Link to this
  20. 20. royniles 2:06 am 12/28/2010

    Choices don’t just happen. There would be no need for a choosing process to have developed in a purely determinate universe. Our choices may be limited by circumstance but the point is that we, not circumstances, decide to choose. Freedom is in effect a freedom to as well a freedom from. And our conscious brain, if consciousness seems to some to be required, is freed to veto any choice before it’s acted on.

    Link to this
  21. 21. royniles 2:13 am 12/28/2010

    Nice to get the Hindu point of view of course, but oddly enough, fatalists still assign responsibility to other fatalists.

    Link to this
  22. 22. icono 2:17 am 12/28/2010

    I wonder if this problem with free will is because the situation is a little more complex than we imagine at first blush? Due to the complexity of sensory interpretation I would not expect my conscious self to intrude in real time behavior. But after I act I have the ability to reflect on what I did and consider the outcome. I suspect that it is during this time of review that I have the opportunity to tweak my responses to either strengthen a successful action or to substitute an alternative response for use the next time similar conditions arise. To learn from error requires some kind of reference point for departures from it to be recognized. And I would submit that this yard-stick is often consciously chosen and is the source of our free will. In this light, free will exists and is neither an epiphenomena nor a dualistic notion but acts retrospectively because it does not have enough time to act in the heat of the moment. This is why brain imaging experiments show that a person decides to act in a particular way before conscious thought has been aroused. We aim the gun and then we fire it. The aiming is conscious (can be conscious) and I suspect the ‘mind’ is replete with ‘targets’ consciously selected on the basis of reflective thought. The firing happens unconsciously in response to environmental cues and thereafter we have the opportunity to view our score card and change aim as we so choose. The fact that we are forced, due to processing bottlenecks,to mostly act as automatons in real time does not eliminate the possibility that we have already consciously set up the contingencies for our reflexive behavior which is the essence of our free will. It would also suggest that the more experience one has the more important free will should become to the gestalt of behavior which does seem to accord, at least to an extent, with ‘reality’. And, of course, aiming and firing would never be experienced as two definite phases of mental activity since with the brain’s parallel processing we would always be involved in both acts simultaneously.

    Link to this
  23. 23. cccampbell38 8:55 am 12/28/2010

    Question: does the concept of "free will" originate from and exist primarily in the realm of the Judeo-Christian religions? It is widely debated within these two religions and has been for millina. Do other religions share this concept? If so, how do they view it?

    If it is more or less unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition how might that impact the scientific question that has been posed here?

    Link to this
  24. 24. jbrother37 12:30 pm 12/28/2010

    It isn’t enough to assert that it’s all about inflexible determinants. One must also be able to define precisely just how that happens, something that I think nobody can do. Otherwise, the assertions are little more than religious pronouncement.

    Link to this
  25. 25. gesimsek 12:53 pm 12/28/2010

    As a muslim, we believe that God determines everything except your intentions. So, free will means to harmonize your will with God’s will. As God wants the best for the humanity so should you. You are not the result of laws of causality but the result of your intentions. Your actions and their consequences is up to God’s plan.

    Link to this
  26. 26. daleshankins 9:27 am 12/29/2010

    John decries the reliance on "strictly physical sciences". What other "sciences" are there? Psychology owes its modern existence to the physical sciences, despites its beginnings as an intuitive exercise by the likes of Freud. Harris is simply trying to apply the latest neuroscience to age old questions. He does not claim to have all the answers.

    In his book Harris simply makes the point that the traditional view that man is the CONSCIOUS "captain of his soul" is not supported by current evidence. The key word is conscious. Apparently, our conscious sense of "free will" is underpinned by a such a vast array of unconscious neural activity that we must rethink our view of what we mean by the term "free will".

    Are our actions determined to a greater or lesser extent by subconscious activities? Do our actions alter this unconscious network and thus influence our conscious choices? If so how? If not, from where does the unconscious network derive its "motivation" or direction? Exclusively from genetics? From the influence of other humans and our environment?

    There are many unanswered questions. The answers likely will be counterintuitive. When we attempt to describe the wonders of quantum mechanics we are frustrated by the inadequacy of our mental, word based metaphors and models. The same likely will be true for the neuroscience of free will. Traditional religious, philosophical and psychological models probably will be as useful in describing the neuroscience of free will, as analogies of spinning balls are when describing the motion of electrons. Such analogies may entertain or comfort us, letting us feel like we truly "understand" the science. However, they can easily obscure the truth of models that accurately predict "how things work".

    As John notes, currently neuroscience cannot predict people’s choices. However, recent findings tell us that our traditional intuitive views are full of error. Neuroscience cannot predict choices, yet it offers greater hope in this arena that religion or philosophy. Why? Precisely because it is based on "strictly physical science" rather than intuition. Intuition varies by culture. Physical science is consistent across cultures.

    John’s intuited that the students in the experiment cheated because Crick’s statement implied that there is no free will. All that I could tell from the data was that people sometimes cheat. If they continue to cheat consequences will alter their behavior. Will they return because the "choose" to, or because they are "forced" by the society in which they live?

    Link to this
  27. 27. Shenonymous 5:24 pm 12/29/2010

    The lack of prediction does not indicate or prove free will. Nor does the lack of knowledge. That was part of the point of Sam Harris’s conclusions. From the second we are born we are conditioned to our environment and that in its turn has significant influence on how our mind thinks. But not entirely though, as capacity to analyze, synthesize, and theorize our world and our experiences of it are also part of the equation. But the rational principle does not prove free will either. It is lovely to think we are independent free willers. How disgusting to think we do not make unfettered choices. It is egotistical, however and those who think there is such a status as having free will do not want to accept the fact that they are creatures of conditioning. For every time one believes they have exercised their free will in making decisions, there will be a previous time, even a moment, of experience that is the substrate of the decision. It is, repugnantly as it might be, a reductio up until the time of our birth, and then beyond that even when cells began to accumulate that would become us, the person, genetic dispositions are encoded. Such is unconscious dependency or interconnectedness of one’s holistic life. It is not the case at all that it becomes meaningless to realize this. It is the case that all meaning is thus assigned. This is what makes sense to me, and indubitably I have been conditioned to think so.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Dyremose 3:00 am 12/30/2010

    Well, one thing that John Horgan does right is ending his statement about free will by recommending everybody to believe in free will. Because free will is something you have to believe in, and as such are never precisely defined. The same is true for this presentation, as Horgan is not even trying to define the concept, he want us all to believe in. I am not quite sure I understand what Horgan means by emphasizing that free will cannot be investigated by traditional scientific methods, but it sounds to me like a similar statement made with respect to God. Additionally it is difficult to accept that you should acknowledge a concept as true because it results in generally better behavior. I have heard this argument before, once the Danish philosopher David Favrholdt claimed in an article that if we accepted the absence of a free will, the criminals could argue in the court that it was not really their fault, but they were forced to act because they had no free will. He believed that this was an argument for maintaining the free will as a basis for morality. But the argument is not valid, because as the criminal explain that he was forced to act because he had no free will, the judge will reply that he sentence him to prison, because he, like the convicted, have no free will, and is forced to do so.
    We do not know exactly what comprises a will, and we do not know precisely how we should define freedom. If freedom means that no influence is determining the path of active decision-making, I do not think we would like to have a free will. But if our will is influenced and limited by a frame of reference that we perceive as moral, then it seems to me that this is a better solution than a will that is completely free of influence. Our moral concepts is hopefully created over time through understanding, and not through freedom of thoughts, and I think that most people after all, hope that this frame of morality is a limiting factor that influence the choices we make.

    Link to this
  29. 29. sbijapure 9:34 am 12/30/2010

    So what if it is meaningless? It seems you have not completed your argument.
    And by the way,
    What do you mean by "meaningless"? What things are meaningful? If a thing is meaningful(or meaningless) to one person than is it meaningful(or meaningless) to others too?

    Link to this
  30. 30. Mark Pine 10:07 am 12/30/2010

    John Horgan resolved he would believe in free will in the New Year. Apparently he has a problem doing so. I find his difficulty difficult to understand.

    There are no proofs, with flawless logic, on either side of the debate. Gaps in reasoning interrupt arguments for both free will and determinism. Otherwise, the question would have been settled long ago. If one must choose a default position, free will makes more sense.

    In daily life, we experience ourselves as free to choose. Horgan, for example, says he sprung awake in the early morning and chose to post on this subject. Freedom is tightly woven into our perception of reality, so those who argue against it must overcome a strong presumption in its favor. Nevertheless, our freedom is limited. We cannot choose anything at all; most things are impossible. But within constraints, we can freely choose among a limited range of possible actions.

    Quantum mechanics provides the best picture of the nature of reality we currently have. It shows us a material world where absolute determinism fails. Although the state vector of a physical system evolves deterministically, the application of the state vector to the material configuration of reality specifies a range of possibilities and associated probabilities. The range is limited to those possibilities that are not so improbable as to effectively be impossible, but within the range of more probable alternatives, it is impossible to predict which one will be realized.

    Since QM applies to all systems in the universe, it applies to our brains and bodies. When we choose to act, the state vector of our brain/body specifies a range of possible decisions we might make and actions we might carry out. In our choosing and acting, the range of possibilities devolves upon a particular choice and action. That is free will. The range of alternatives, among which we may choose, is constrained to fall within the range of what is permitted by the probabilities determined by the state vector. But within that limited range of possible choices, we can and do really choose.

    EEG or MRI experiments that show a gap in time between a decision and a conscious perception suffer from the fact that several neurological events must occur before experimenters can record the time of conscious perception: (1) the experimental choice, (2) the self-perception that a choice has been made, (3) the decision to signal the choice to the experimenters, and (4) the signaling of the choice. Those events, and perhaps others, take time and can account for the delay.

    Link to this
  31. 31. bucketofsquid 4:24 pm 12/30/2010

    I find the free will vs causality, fate or predeterminism debate to be pointless. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. What is fun however, is to find people of a particularly Christian religious bent that don’t belive in free will and hit them in the head with a stick. Then quote all of the scriptures about forgiveness and long suffering. If they don’t immediately forgive me I hit them in the head again. After all I have no choice. God wanted them hit in the head and I was the tool he chose. The Bible says we must forgive those who trespass against us so if they don’t forgive me they are a foul sinner and deserve a whack in the head.

    This is a long winded way of saying that I find most free will deniers to be self serving users that excuse their many failings by dodging personal responsibility. This naturally makes me want to hit them in the head with a stick.

    Link to this
  32. 32. Vir Narain 2:34 am 01/1/2011

    There are a number of issues which, independently of each other, have a bearing on the question of free will:
    1.The nature of time. The passage of time could be entirely subjective. Perhaps, in another dimension, all that has happened, or will happen, already exists. Is there any way (even in a thought experiment) that the "inevitability of the actual’ can be disproved? If not, there is no way of proving that anyone "could have acted otherwise".
    2. What do we mean by free will? Is there any action that can demonstrate free will? All creatures act to follow an impulse. Is a moth circling a flame acting freely?
    3. The strict causality of natural events. Extrapolating from subatomic events may not be justified.
    4. That we are not conscious (or aware) of any force (or internal compulsion) constraining or guiding our behaviour does not mean that such a compulsion does not exist. And, while we are unaware of these factors, we are bound (predetermined) to feel that we are exercising our free will.
    It is perhaps impossible to prove that free will (implying that a person is responsible for his actions) exists. But, to maintain a sane and stable society, we must act on the assumption that it does exist. In any case, we are ‘hardwired’ to behave as if free will is a fact. No amount of theorising is likely to change this.

    Link to this
  33. 33. dwbd 8:49 pm 01/3/2011

    Of course it must be true that free will is an illusion, since the Self must be an illusion. Free will of whom? There is no whom to have free will. We have two half brains. In about 1% of the population, the two halves are disconnected – no corpus collusum and it is sometimes surgically severed. What are there, two people each with their own free wills? What about dolphins with which half the brain is asleep at a time, while the other is awake? What about Dissociative Identity Disorder where the brain creates many different personalities? What about in my dreams where a person with my identity acts out reality and indeed multiple personalities are created by this brain.

    Free Will is an illusion just as the World we are conscious of is an illusion. Our brains create a model of reality, this model of reality is updated through our senses, with about a 1/2 to 1 sec time delay, and we live within that instant replay model of reality. If an object flies towards us, and we duck out of its path, we see that as an act of free will, but in reality by the time we are conscious of the event it is already over. But this model of the world out there, is useful and effective, and Free Will is also a useful illusion that has many practical advantages for a social animal, such as the human.

    And certainly there are agents in our "control system" that make inferences & predictions based on observed events, and then create behavioral options that the system may act upon. And that Free Will is an illusion, does not mean people should not be held accountable for their actions. Social emotions such as anger, and vengeance are practical phenomena that evolution has favored, and their effect is to influence the behavior of other humans in a way that provides an evolutionary advantage to the specie’s survival. There is no question that legal sanction and moral standards – some that have developed socially and some are undoubtedly biological in origin – are effective in influencing the behavior of individual humans, presumably beneficially for the survival of the species.

    In my view, the human has a strong sense of self-identity and consequently of free will, because social selective forces favored the development of an ego, as a way that humans "bands" would expand & conquer. The bands or tribes whose individuals had strong ego sense were much more motivated to migrate and acquire wealth and technology, survival advantage for the extreme tool using human.

    Link to this
  34. 34. Bruce Lee 9:34 pm 01/3/2011

    Horgan’s comments, "Of course belief in free will has value! Free will underpins all our ethics and morality" could also be used to undermine his position. We readily acknowledge that our physical characteristics were determined in response to evolutionary pressures. Why is Free Will excluded? It’s easy to speculate that the illusion of free will might have been selected for. Those individuals who harbored the illusion tended to exhibit those characteristics (e.g. ethics and morality) that enhanced reproductive likelihood in a societal species such as ours.

    Link to this
  35. 35. Adam_Smith 9:46 pm 01/3/2011

    I believe consciousness is a feedback mechanism allowing review and modification of decisions made, initially, subconsciously. However, I also believe the role of consciousness is not the main determinant of free will. I think it rather depends on the self/external world distinction. To the extent our decisions result from inner motivations and personal character they are manifestations of free will. To the extent they are determined by external circumstances we do not have free will. In general, we enjoy limited free will.

    Link to this
  36. 36. DJohnston36 9:04 am 01/14/2011

    Sam Harris is one of ‘those’. A neurologist who gets the conclusion of his result backwards: the fact that people aren’t aware of their brains intention to act – and their habit of rationalizing after the fact that they consciously chose – is not an indication that their ‘Will’ is not ‘Free’. It is an indication that their conscious awareness of that Will comes afterward.

    Nobody – not even someone apparently as dim as a neurologist rejecting Free Will – can really doubt the existence of Free Will. And while there are mechanisms that can take that away ( brain stimuli, drugs etc. ) it does not demonstrate a lack of the faculty.

    Mr. Harris and his ilk would be better off to recognize their path aught to be to look at the lower source of the stimulus – if they determine the stimulus actually comes, in every case, from ‘God’ or the Coca Cola company, then I would agree there is no Free Will.

    -> and an Aside: In his book, ‘The Moral Landscape’, Harris harps on about his idea that morality is about the ‘good of conscious creatures’. Am I the only one who detects a certain irony in this combined with his denial of the existence of Free Will / Conscious choice? One begins to detect a certain amount of chicanery coupled to bewilderment in his views…

    Link to this
  37. 37. Scopes Monkey Matt 9:14 pm 01/24/2011

    If you enjoy reading philosophy, may I recommend Daniel Dennett’s "Freedom Evolves" as a convincing argument for how free will exists in a deterministic universe. It ain’t nihilism, it’s a pep talk.

    Link to this
  38. 38. openeyes999 3:29 am 01/31/2011

    Horgan’s just believing what he wants to believe. FACT: All the experiments done on free will suggest it doesn’t exist or are null, and none of them suggest free will does exist. Regardless, causality makes free will impossible. Even if will is an emergent phenomenon, it still emerges from things in the mind which react to the laws of physics, and therefore is just a downstream (and dependent) effect of these causal events. It doesn’t emerge from nothing. The emergence argument is ad hoc.

    At least Horgan didn’t bring up Quantum Mysticism, like I’m sure some of the commentators here will. You can’t have a discussion about free will without some clown bringing up quantum jargon that he doesn’t understand and trying to use it as an ad hoc argument to support free will. (same thing is done in pseudo-scientific books like The Secret, and anything by depak chopra) Any BS people want to believe in they’ll use a misunderstanding of quantum physics to support it, even though real physicists laugh at their arguments.

    Link to this
  39. 39. openeyes999 3:35 am 01/31/2011

    Most neuroscientists and physicists don’t believe in free will since that’s what the experimental evidence shows. Science doesn’t always show what we want to believe or what is intuitive. If you’re interested, a good book on this topic is The Illusion of Conscious Will.

    Link to this
  40. 40. jayjacobus 4:58 pm 12/29/2012

    Science shows that evolution is deterministic but genetic mutations are random, making it possible to have a wide variety of species.

    Neurological processing is predictable but human cognition isn’t or is only predictable on average.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article