Free will: Here’s a cautious and useful approach

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Today is Thursday, and here is your regular dose of No Free Will?:

Scientists from UCLA and Harvard — Itzhak Fried, Roy Mukamel and Gabriel Kreiman — have taken an audacious step in the search for free will, reported in a new article in the journal Neuron. They used a powerful tool – intracranial recording – to find neurons in the human brain whose activity predicts decisions to make a movement, challenging conventional notions of free will.

– How Free Is Your Will? A clock face, advanced neurosurgery–and startling philosophical questions about the decision to act (Daniela Schiller and David Carmel, Scientific American, March 22, 2011)

The basis of many “no free will” assertions is that people often make a decision before they are consciously aware of it:

Even with the above caveats, though, these findings are mind-boggling. They indicate that some activity in our brains may significantly precede our awareness of wanting to move. Libet suggested that free will works by vetoing: volition (the will to act) arises in neurons before conscious experience does, but conscious will can override it and prevent unwanted movements.

That’s hardly a new discovery, and were it not so, “split-second” decisions would be impossible. Hamlet can dither; the rest of us can’t.  The idea that it poses a challenge to the existence of free will is marketed almost exclusively by those who have a problem with the concept. The authors here more or less recognize the flaws in the typical reasoning when they write,

Other interpretations might require that we reconstruct our idea of free will. Rather than a linear process in which decision leads to action, our behavior may be the bottom-line result of many simultaneous processes: We are constantly faced with a multitude of options for what to do right now – switch the channel? Take a sip from our drink? Get up and go to the bathroom? But our set of options is not unlimited (i.e., the set of options we just mentioned is unlikely to include “launch a ballistic missile”). Deciding what to do and when to do it may be the result of a process in which all the currently-available options are assessed and weighted. Rather than free will being the ability to do anything at all, it might be an act of selection from the present range of options. And the decision might be made before you are even aware of it.

Historically, few have doubted that this is how free will works because most decisions, especially for adults, follow a script. We tend to make the same types of decisions repeatedly, usually completely unaware. That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t make different ones. It’s just that, with thousands of decisions a day, great and small, we rationalize by following a script.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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