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Why New Year Resolutionaries Should Believe in Free Will


New Year's Day is approaching, a time when we—by which I mean I--brood over past failures and vow to improve ourselves: I will be less judgmental with my kids and more romantic with my girlfriend. I will stop binging on cookies and bad TV. (Why, oh why, do I keep watching Blacklist?) I will not assume that people who disagree with me are stupid or evil.

Every time you choose one path over another, you are exercising your free will. Humanity has more freedom of choice now--and hence more free will--than in any previous era.

At this time of year, I like to hearten my fellow Resolutionaries by defending the concept of free will, which has been attacked by various scientific pundits (who are just misguided, not stupid or evil). After all, how can you believe in resolutions unless you believe in free will? Below is an edited version of an essay that I originally wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I never really thought about free will—or rather, I just took it for granted—until 1991, when I interviewed the late, great Francis Crick, who had switched from cracking the genetic code to solving the riddle of consciousness. With unnerving cheerfulness, Crick informed me that brain research is contradicting the notion of free will. Picking up a pen from his desk, he noted that even this simple act is underpinned and preceded by complex biochemical processes taking place below the level of consciousness.

“What you’re aware of is a decision, but you’re not aware of what makes you do the decision,” Crick said. “It seems free to you, but it’s the result of things you’re not aware of.” I frowned, and Crick chuckled at my distress.

Like many other free-will deniers, he cited experiments carried out in the 1980s by psychologist Benjamin Libet. Libet asked subjects to push a button at a moment of their choosing while noting the moment of the decision as displayed on a clock. An electroencephalograph monitoring the subjects’ brain waves revealed a spike of activity almost a second before the subjects decided to push the button. This and other findings show that our conscious decisions are literally afterthoughts, according to Crick.

EEG’s are a crude measure of neural activity, but neuroscientists led by Itzhak Fried recently replicated Libet’s results with electrodes implanted inside the brain. Fried’s group inserts electrodes into epileptics’ brains to pinpoint the epicenters of their seizures, which are then surgically removed. While gathering this clinical information, Fried’s team had patients perform the Libet clock experiment. The electrodes revealed a burst of activity in the supplementary motor area of patients’ brains—which supposedly underpins the decision to act—as much as one and a half seconds before the patients actually pressed the button.

“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,” the cognitive scientists Daniela Schiller and David Carmel commented in Scientific American. “It might be tempting to conclude that free will is an illusion.”

I feel no such temptation. Libet’s clock experiment is a poor probe of free will, because the subject has made the decision in advance to push the button; he merely chooses when to push. I would be surprised if the EEG sensors or implanted electrodes did not find neural anticipation of that choice.

I’m more impressed by implant experiments that reveal how we fool ourselves into thinking we’re in control when we’re not. Scientists can make a patient’s arm shoot into the air, for example, by electrically stimulating a spot in the motor cortex. The patient often insists that she meant to lift her arm and even invents a reason why: She was waving to that handsome doctor! In his 2002 book The Illusion of Conscious Will, psychologist Daniel Wegner calls these delusional, after-the-fact explanations “confabulations.”

We all confabulate now and then. We passively do what we’re told to do—and believe what we’re told to believe—by parents, priests and political leaders, and we convince ourselves it’s our choice. We subvert our wills by deliberating insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, and by failing to act upon our resolutions. Sometimes we act out of compulsion—out of fear or rage—without thinking through the consequences of our actions. But just because our wills are weak doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

My view of free will resembles that of the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett is sometimes too clever for his own good. You feel like he’s trying to pull a fast one on you, as when he argues, in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, that consciousness has been, well, explained, which I doubt even Dennett really believes.

But in his 2003 book Freedom Evolves, Dennett lays out a sensible, down-to-earth view of free will. He notes, first, that free will is “not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world.” Free will is simply our ability to perceive, mull over and act upon choices; in fact, choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will.

Dennett calls free will “an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs,” which humanity acquired recently as a consequence of language and culture. Free will is a variable rather than binary property, which can wax and wane in both individuals and societies; the more choices we can perceive and act upon, the more free will we have. Dennett’s most subtle, profound point is that free will is both an “objective phenomenon” and dependent on our belief in and perception of it, “like language, music, money and other products of society.”

We, in turn, are dependent on free will. The concept of 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. Choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Try telling prisoners in Guantanamo or Syrian civilians fleeing bombs and bullets that choices are illusory. “Let’s change places,” they might respond, “since you have nothing to lose.”

Freedom, Dennett asserts, can be “studied objectively from a no-nonsense, scientific point of view.” The nonprofit organization Freedom House does just that by charting the ebb and flow of freedom around the world. Freedom House defines a nation as “free” if it meets two criteria. First, it must “elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate.” Second, the nation must allow “freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state.”

According to Freedom House’s 2013 annual report, 90 of the world’s 195 nations, representing 43 percent of the global population, are free; another 58 countries are “partly free.” People are “not free” in 47 countries, home to 34 percent of the global population.

Although freedom has declined lately in certain regions of the world and scarcely exists in others, humanity is freer in our era than in any previous one. Forty years ago, only 44 countries were free, and 69 were not free. And remember that just a century ago, women still could not vote in the U.S. and other leading "democracies"!

So there you have it. Not only does free will exist. We have more of it now than ever. If we keep believing in it and insisting on our right to it, maybe someday we’ll all be free, in our own imperfect, confabulating way.

Happy New Year!

Photo by Nicholas Mutton, courtesy Wikimedia Commons,

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

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