Neuroscience and freewill

The experiment helped to change John-Dylan Haynes’s outlook on life. In 2007, Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters. He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands. The results were quite a surprise.

“The first thought we had was ‘we have to check if this is real’,” says Haynes. “We came up with more sanity checks than I’ve ever seen in any other study before.”

The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

The rest of the article in “Naturenews” is here. Now I am fairly confident that humans don’t have free will, if “free will” means being undetermined in one’s behavior. If I choose A, and you place me in exactly the same circumstances a thousand times, I will always choose A. So I’m not surprised by the scientific results.

What I find bothersome is the assumption in the article that this is the only understanding of “free will.” Since at least the time of Descartes (and Kleiner will probably point out earlier passages from Aquinas or Aristotle), there has been an alternative understanding of free will which is perfectly compatible with determinism. The question is not “Could I have done otherwise in exactly the same set of circumstances?” but instead, “What causes are operating as I choose A, and are those causes an integral part of my self?” If I choose A because I devoutly believe it to be the right choice to make, and those devout beliefs are instantiated in my gray matter in some way or other, then what does it matter if I would always choose A if I and my brain were placed in those same circumstances again and again? It’s *me* making the choice, and I am not being compelled by some force alien to me: that’s what’s important to track.

If this is our understanding of free will, then what we should be looking for is any evidence that the choices we take ourselves to be responsible for are being determined by forces that are not at all conditioned by our conscious beliefs and conscious motivations. And there is evidence of this, of course; Nietzsche and Freud were pioneers in providing it, and some contemporary psychologists are after it as well. I find this interesting, and sometimes troubling. But linking up neurons to actions like a chain of dominoes seems to me philosophically idle.

PS – I forgot to insert the thought that occasioned this post. The test, where subjects push buttons on whims, does not seem to me to be focused on cases of “free” or responsible decisions. Are there any tests where people are reading through, say, ethical dilemmas, and selecting answers, in which the fMRI predicts their choices seconds before the subjects are aware of having decided? And, if so, are the patterns that the fMRI is picking up on related to neural structures known to somehow encode the subject’s beliefs and motivations? For if that is true, then my choices are being determined by my beliefs after all; I’m just late in coming to recognize it!

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

4 thoughts on “Neuroscience and freewill”

  1. “The question is ‘What causes are operating as I choose A, and are those causes an integral part of my self?’”

    It seems to me that this is a question whose answers could be agreed upon both free will skeptics and free will preservationists. So it can’t adjudicate the dispute between them. The nub is always something more like: “Okay, I am reliably reasons-responsive and have a stable character and have all these other properties that you say inhere in having ‘free will.’ How does that make me a proper object of moral credit or blame (as opposed to mere admiration or contempt)?”


  2. I’m probably weird in my compatibilist intuitions, but I do regard “Michael deserves moral credit for that action” as meaning something like “What an admirable psychic structure Michael has, to bring him to do such a thing!”


    1. I wonder what the upshot of “deserving moral credit” for something is, over and above the relatively inert esteem such perceived desert reflects? By contrast, the upshot of “deserving moral blame” is very clear: sanction, punishment. This response in the moral desert case is very concrete, often formal or ritual, and doesn’t seem to have any cognate in the moral credit case. That asymmetry makes me leery of the idea that “free will” (even in its various compatibilist guises) does anything more than “mak[e] causes into sinners and consequences into executioners.”


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