– “Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Most philosophers suppose that the concept of free will is very closely connected to the concept of moral responsibility. Acting with free will, on such views, is just to satisfy the metaphysical requirement on being responsible for one’s action.
Scientists have vehemently argued the theory that free will is simply an illusion, and that our brain’s activity predicts our behavior before it even happens, sounding eerily similar to Tom Cruise’s movie Minority Report. But the researchers from Georgia State University have a new compelling study that sheds light on the inaccuracies of such a claim. They published their free-thinking findings in the Journal of Cognitive.
One of the lively debates spawned from the neuroscience revolution has to do with whether humans possess free will, or merely feel as if we do. If we truly possess Free Will, then we each consciously control our decisions and actions. If we feel as if we possess free will, then our sense of control is a useful illusion—one that neuroscience will increasingly dispel as it gets better at predicting how brain processes yield decisions.
For those in the free-will-as-illusion camp, the subjective experience of decision ownership is not unimportant, but it is predicated on neural dynamics that are scientifically knowable, traceable and—in time—predictable. One piece of evidence supporting this position has come from neuroscience research showing that brain activity underlying a given decision occurs before a person consciously apprehends the decision. In other words, thought patterns leading to conscious awareness of what we’re going to do are already in motion before we know we’ll do it. Without conscious knowledge of why we’re choosing as we’re choosing, the argument follows, we cannot claim to be exercising “free” will.
Those supporting a purer view of free will argue that whether or not neuroscience can trace brain activity underlying decisions, making the decision still resides within the domain of an individual’s mind. In this view, parsing unconscious and conscious awareness is less important than the ultimate outcome – a decision, and subsequent action, emerging from a single mind. If free will is drained of its power by scientific determinism, free-will supporters argue, then we’re moving down a dangerous path where people can’t be held accountable for their decisions, since those decisions are triggered by neural activity occurring outside of conscious awareness. Consider how this might play out in a courtroom in which neuroscience evidence is marshalled to defend a murderer on grounds that he couldn’t know why he acted as he did.
Some researchers have decided to approach this debate from a different angle by investigating whether our subjective experience of free will is threatened by the possibility of “neuroprediction” – the idea that tracking brain activity can predict decisions. The answer to this question is not, of course, an answer to the core question about the existence of free will itself. But it addresses something arguably just as important (maybe more so), because ultimately free will has little meaning apart from our belief that it exists.
If we believed that our lives were completely laid out before us and out of our control, the value of our moral responsibilities would come under question. For example, if I already knew that I’d eventually end up at the same place, I won’t have to adhere to the same laws I thought I once did, believing my fate is written. If I will eventually face doom, then there’s nothing I can do about it. “This paper breaks new ground,”Joshua Knobe, a philosopher at Yale University who has studied people’s thinking about free will, told NewScientist.
From the free-will-as-illusion camp, we might expect a skeptical reply to this study along the lines of, “A majority of people thinking Bigfoot or God exists doesn’t make it so.” That’s an understandable response, but unlike belief in Bigfoot (or insert your favorite myth), the implications for belief in free will are significant. Our subjective understanding about how we process information to arrive at a decision isn’t just a theoretical exercise; what we think about it matters. And it will matter even more as science nears closer to touching uncomfortable possibilities we’ve only been able to imagine.
The study was based on a view called “Willusionism,” which is the theory that people can reject “free will” if it’s shown that it’s an illusion brought on by predicting what the brain is going to do. Researcher and experimental philosopher Eddy Nahmias from Georgia State University, and his colleagues borrowed the idea from neuroscientists and philosopher Sam Harris, who argues science can answer moral questions. “If determinism is true, the future is set — and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior,” Harris said in his book.
“People don’t have detailed metaphysical views about what underlies free will,” Nahmias said. “What people care about is that their own conscious reasoning makes a difference to their behavior.”
Many people think that free will is a foundation for just blame and punishment. The questions are whether this is true and whether deterministic neuroscience undermines traditional notions of criminal and civil responsibility if it conclusively demonstrates that human beings do not have free will. Is the claim, “My brain made me do it,” valid? In this lecture, Prof. Stephen Morse will clarify these issues and explain how responsibility is possible in a deterministic universe.
Stephen J. Morse, J.D., Ph.D.
Dr. Morse is the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law and a Professor of Psychology and Law in Psychiatry at Penn. He works on problems of legal and moral responsibility and their compatibility with the materialist worldview of neuroscience. He is interested in the roles of neuroscience and behavioral science in explaining and excusing antisocial and criminal behavior.