We are responsible for our own actions. Of course we are.
Sure about that?
"I think I can?"
"I think I can't?"
All philosophizing aside, the assumption that we have free will has been called into question by research that suggests our brains are deciding for us before we become conscious of the decisions streamed down from the cerebral cortex.
An article in the January issue of Scientific American by philosopher Eddy Nahmias addressed this debate, coming to the conclusion that we are endowed with free will, even if, at times, a lot of mental processing is going on before we become conscious of it.
The article—and the intrinsic fascination with this question—prompted us to run a survey of visitors to our site, asking their opinions on this philosophical perennial, now being debated anew because of the brain scans that question free will’s existence.
The results are now in. In agreement with Nahmias, most of the 4,672 responses registered from Dec 20th through Jan. 14th gave a thumbs up to free will. Specifically, the breakdown has 59 percent endorsing the idea that free will exists and 41 percent voting nay.
Responders hailed from as far afield as France, Australia, New Zealand, Kuwait, Israel, the Philippines, India, a demonstration of the globe-spanning appeal of a question that Socrates pondered.
A few explanations for the reasons people voted yes or no:
Yes, Portland, Oregon: The unconscious influences our thinking processes, but the conscious brain ultimately has the last word. We often change our minds at the last moment due to outside influences, such as the opinions of other people, despite the previous influence of the subconscious, which generally works more slowly. Also, why would we have consciousness if we were completely controlled by our subconscious?
No, Sequim, Washington: I'm a retired Los Angeles Policewoman. I'm convinced that had not my sub-conscious detected and acted instantly in several dangerous situations both on and off the job, I'd be fertilizing plants with my ashes.
Yes, Auckland, New Zealand: "Random" behavior on the quantum level "may" be the result of individual choices. Entangled systems "may" also make individual choices. Human beings and sentient organisms "may" be very large entangled systems making individual choices.
No, Pennington, Virginia: What we do is the product of our biological state at the moment and the sum total of our experiences as these bear on the issue at hand.
Yes, Livermore, California: I believe we have both. I believe we can exercise control over our subconscious selves with our conscious will, but often we rely on the underlying subconscious to control our basic daily activities. I do not believe that just because brain activity seems to indicate activity just prior to conscious thought, this means something else besides our consciousness is driving our actions.
No, Fairbault, Minnesota: Until we understand the neurochemical and neuron connections of the brain, the answer remains hidden. From what we know, I think the brain has tricked us into believing we have free will.
Yes, Liverpool, England: Because I freely chose to turn on my laptop and do this survey.
No, Boise, Idaho: Because the 'self' is not separate from the body but a product of it. When the body fails, the 'self' can be completely lost such as in Alzheimer's and schizophrenia. Because we are a product of biology we cannot also be in control of it. Free will is an illusion of the ego.
Yes, Omaha, Nebraska: We think. We discuss ethical behavior, create laws, and hold people accountable for their behaviors. If we did not believe in free will none of those actions would happen.
No, Warsaw, Poland: Our thoughts and actions are determined by our brains' neural activity, variances in brain structure, our biochemistry, hormone levels, vitamin levels, our life experiences and events, even our evolutionary past, etc.
Image Source: Nicholas Bisceglia, Scientific American