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Free will not threatened by neuroscience?

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Actually, as I point out in “Neuroscience tried wholly embracing naturalism, but then the brain got away,” neuroscience has consistently failed to support the idea that the mind is an illusion.

This just in from Wired:

The research involved hundreds of undergrads at Georgia State University in Atlanta. They were told about a piece of wearable brain imaging technology – a cap – available in the future that would allow neuroscientists to predict a person’s decisions before they made them. They also read a story about a woman named Jill who wore the cap for a month, and how scientists predicted her every choice, including her votes in elections.

Most of the students (80 per cent) agreed that this future technology was plausible, but they didn’t think it undermined Jill’s free will. Most of them only felt her free will was threatened if they were told that the neuroscientists manipulated Jill’s brain activity to alter her decisions. Similar results were found in a follow-up study in which the scenario descriptions made clear that “all human mental activity just is brain activity”, and in another that swapped the power of brain imaging technology for the mind reading skills of a psychic. In each case, students only felt that free will was threatened if Jill’s decisions were manipulated, not if they were merely predicted via her brain activity or via her mind and soul (by the psychic).

Hmmm. First, the technology would only be plausible if we assumed that nothing happened in the month leading up to the election that might change Jill’s mind, blunting the forecast. That happens.

Indeed, there used to be a law in Canada limiting electioneering on polling day, principally to prevent any candidate from advancing slurs against a rival that no one had time to check out. But what if Jill heard such accusations privately?

Of course, the students’ general principle is right. Free will does not depend on others’ knowing/suspecting what one’s choice will be but on whether it is one’s own volition. Otherwise, social life wouldn’t make sense.

When a couple says “I do” at the altar, are we really to imagine that they – for practical purposes – might have said “I don’t”? Obviously, they would not be there (nor would we) if they didn’t wish to be married. Yet we would say they had free will throughout. As the authors put it, most of us are “theory-lite” in such matters.

I’ve written on this topic before:

Is free will becoming fashionable again in neuroscience?

A choice argument

Will power

That stuff’s bad news for no-free-will utopians, actually. Their dreams of total control has vanished? The underlying basis of so many modern tyrannies was that most humans did not have free will anyway, so it didn’t matter if someone was just barking orders from a podium or lectern.

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I always wonder something about research like this. How do the people who wrote the grant think that the funding committee made the decision to fund their research? JDH

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