Ok, so perhaps you actually believe that you made a conscious decision to read today’s blog entry… Yes?
When in actuality, your brain made the decision to do so a long while before you knew about it… Let me explain…
In a study published cited in this article on the Wired website, researchers using very fancy and modern brain scanners could predict the decisions people would make seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them.
The decision that they were making (in the piece of research) was whether to hit a button with their left or right hand, which is not exactly a complicated choice in the same ball park as those that we make day in day out in our lives…
However, the findings raise some deep and fascinating discussions about the nature of self and autonomy: Do we have totally free will? Is the notion of having a conscious choice actually an illusion?
Usually this is a discussion for philosophers and has been for centuries. I think it is a real sign of the times we live in that science is starting to illuminate some of those questions too.
Just a short blog entry today… Got a crazy busy day on the cards… Back tomorrow.
Seven seconds is a lot. In earlier experiements it was more like 0.7 seconds or something, and many people were claiming that this isn’t good enough evidence. But even if the predictions are not completely accurate, seven seconds… pretty long I say.
It’s also pretty funny to see how people who think themselves of scientific and objective to try to come up with excuses to maintain their belief in a free will. “Free will” is, by definition, a supernatural concept. Free from what? The physical laws of the universe? The atoms and the molecules? The nature?
The brain is just a piece of meat in the end, just like a heart or a liver. Unless you believe in souls and spirits and stuff like that, then primarily that piece of meat defines who you are.
I had struggled a bit after my own realization that free will probably doesn’t exist. It took me a while to conclude that it doesn’t really change anything at all. Recently I also had an exchange with someone about the “meaning of life”. It might be of some interest here:
I decided that free will does not exist. Only trouble was: I chose to think like that.
I do my best to respect all people and all views. Indeed, some may say one of the reasons why I can be a “conflicted person” is because I do my best to consider and appreciate so many points of view. That said, I have my own opinions on this. Science and scientists do wonderful work and science is one of the foundation stones of our understanding. But the existence or absence of free will is one of those questions that, try as it might, science can’t answer. At least not fully.
If free will does not exist, then there’s a chance the scientists who conducted the experiment did not objectivley interpret the results of the experiment. The scientists were and are human beings after all and humans are as subjective as they are objective. What I am saying is: perhaps the results of the research do not actually show what the scientists claim they show. Perhaps the scientist’s brains made a decision to interpret the research a certain way and that ended up being how the results were expressed? So basically, by taking the absence of free will to be a truth, you can actually begin to convincingly argue for the existence of free will. Welcome to the looking glass people.
What is all this preoccupation with “conscious choice” about anyway. Conscious choice is not the only indicator of free will. The important word is not “conscious”. It’s “choice”.
How on earth did the scientists conducting this experiment know whether the participants were aware of the decisions they were making? Were they consciously aware? Who knows. But even if they were not consciously aware, they may still have been aware. If we have to do the really dodgy thing of entertaining Freud and talking too much about the subconscious (a concept I have mixed feelings about), subconscious awareness is still awareness.
My brain is part of me and it is me. It’s not the whole of me but it is me. But does it really define who I am? Sure, get rid of it and I’m dead (unless my spirit- should it exist as I believe it does- ascend the boundaries of such a corporial existence). Damage my brain and that will change who I am. But stick me and my brain in an isolation ward and I am not defined. Other things define me. External things define me. My reactions to external things define me. My interpretations of external things define me. I influence and I am influenced. The give and take ballet of existence goes on and what a dance it is.
Actually, thinking about it, it is somewhat ironic for rationalism and science (two forces of understanding that, in their own ways and to varying extents, sought to liberate people from creationism and government by deity) to be so obsessed with expressing and indeed seeking to prove the absence of free will. They liberated us from slavery to Gods. Only to suggest that we’re slaves to our brains, our instincts, our genes, our molecules and the physical rules of the universe. We are the animal with the power to override our genes. I’m a man. In terms of my genes, I should be out there having sex with as many women as possible to make sure that I get my wild oats out there and my genes survive my eventual and inevitible end. My genes should be screaming at me to do that and I shouldn’t be able to tell them to shut up. But I can and I do. I’m a one woman guy (hey, I’m not Brad Pitt after all and let’s face it, the queue for me is a bit short and most of the women in it actually wanted the queue for the Pearl Jam gig down the road). I overrode the natural, instinctive wishes of my genes. But then again, perhaps that was all part of the diabolical plan of my genes?
I love to defend “free will” but I can’t prove its existence. Nobody can prove it doesn’t exist either. Do we have total free will? Perhaps not. But even if we don’t have total free will, there’s a good chance we still have “free will”.