Is free will an illusion? Some recent Neurological experiments have hit the headlines with that conclusion. The studies reveal that the conscious mind is sometimes slow to recognize a course of action the subconscious has already set in motion. Absence of free will is a possible explanation. Certainly most people don’t realise how much they invent reality to suit the events. Memory is highly subjective, and most of us occasionally use reason to justify decisions which are primarily motivated by our emotions.
Understandably scientists feel religion has got it wrong and science has got it right (generally true). Do some scientists further have a desire to liberate us from the burden of free will, apparently the remnant of an outdated belief system? Personally I am undecided. But to me there are significant doubts in the assumptions behind these experiments which mean going from ‘it is possible free will is an illusion’ to ‘this proves free will is an illusion’ or even ‘probably an illusion’ is quite a stretch.
Is Captain Kirk a robot?
The studies involve simple motor tasks – for example the subject presses a button whenever they feel like it, and record the moment they believed they made the decision by observing changing numbers on a screen. The study found the subject’s motor cortex was often active long before the conscious awareness, leading some to conclude free will is an illusion.
The fact the experiments are motor function tests is an important factor. If we think of the brain structure as a hunter-gatherer survival mechanism, it makes sense for the subconscious to sometimes just ‘get on with it’ as delays between thinking about an action and carrying it out were potentially life threatening to our ancestors. For example, if I get on a tennis court to receive serve I could have as little as half a second to see the ball leaving my opponent’s racket and make the return shot. Once I’ve decided to return serve and taken position at the baseline, my rational conscious mind may as well take a back seat and allow my motor functions to handle that very difficult physical task. If I started thinking or even consciously logging what I’m doing I will be late on the shot. And of course I had other options, to maybe stand there and do nothing, or throw my racket down and scream “You cannot be serious!”. I did not because I took position with the intention of returning the ball, and I went to the tennis court that afternoon because I decided to play tennis – both a result of whatever ‘free will’ might be.
Taking ‘button press’ experiments as evidence for an illusory free will seems to require that if free will existed it would have a specific known location in the brain, some sort of synaptic module. It rather implies that along with the brain having a location for language and another for visual processing, there would be one in the prefrontal cortex for free will. So the brain would then operate like the Starship Enterprise, with the prefrontal cortex the location for the Captain’s chair. And now the button press experiments have shown Scotty in Engineering can go to Warp factor 8 without explicit orders and report what he did to Kirk in the bridge afterwards, so Kirk might as well be a robot! But maybe free will does not operate like that at all? Perhaps other parts of the brain can become Captain and make decisions when needed – as when playing tennis. Maybe Bones (morality), Uhuru (communications), Sulu (direction) and Spock (analytical thinking) are all Captains.
The subconscious certainly has a powerful effect on our decision making. One brilliant example is a piece in the series Mind Control by illusionist Derren Brown (unfortunately not available online). He leaves two advertising creatives in a room with pens and paper, a flip-board they must leave covered, and a brief to do the branding for a chain of taxidermy stores. When they reveal their work 30 minutes later, Derren Brown shows the stunned Ad Men almost the exact same logo, tagline and store name on the covered board. He then plays back a tape of their taxi journey through the streets of London to his office. It was full of subliminal suggestions, from pub signs to kid’s t-shirts. The entire journey was an extensively co-ordinated exercise suggesting the logo, tagline and store name they swallowed hook line and sinker.
Yet although the suggestions were powerful, it’s worth remembering the creatives’ reason and free will could still have rejected ideas that didn’t sufficiently meet the brief – for example if Brown had forgotten the purpose of the illusion and asked the Ad Men to come up with a branding for a new type of toothpaste. Being heavily influenced by events and surroundings means your subconscious plays a more active role in decision making than most of us like to think. However realising the mind is highly suggestible is a very different conclusion from ‘free will is an illusion’.
What is the rational mind up to?
If the rational conscious mind is not always in charge what role does it play? The rational mind frequently provides a justification for a course of action the subconscious and emotions have already determined. But that is not a one way street. The rational mind can feed back and affect your behaviour – otherwise there would be no benefit in psychotherapy – reasoning out what will happen to you if you follow a certain course of action may help put your emotional state in check, and so affect the choices you make in the future.
And although reason is usually considered the pinnacle of human consciousness, reason can also be the framework propping up the very worst of human behaviour. When looking at dictatorships we tend to focus on the monsters at the top, the Stalins and Pol Pots responsible for murdering millions of their own people. They can only achieve this with an army of secret police, made up of enough people willing to imprison, torture and kill other human beings. War criminals and secret police have a mixture of reasons for doing the awful things they do – fear, ambition and cruelty for example. Ideology is frequently the reasoned justification for these dreadful actions, actions justified ‘rationally’ as essential to build a stronger, more stable future society.
The Mind Movie
At the other end of the scale is a New Age view of free will I’ve always found unconvincing – the idea that everything that happens to you in the real world is a projection of your mind, a ‘Mind Movie’. Without compassion that’s potentially a kind of New Age Thatcherism which ignores the effect of other peoples’ actions, circumstances and random events that are beyond your control. It can be beneficial to recognize your subconscious behaviour is partly determining how your life turns out as well as your conscious decisions. But naive to take it to that extreme.
A friend of mine once believed in the ‘Mind Movie’. She was drifting in her twenties after having quit University and moved to a small town in Ireland. Then she got pregnant and with no real chance of a relationship with the father she moved back in with her parents and had the baby. It wasn’t the perfect situation but she was fine with it because she believed she had subconsciously chosen for it to happen, and these life events were therefore part of her own personal ‘Mind Movie’. One night without warning her 7 month old baby had a prolonged febrile seizure. Fortunately it was a one-off with no lasting effects but terrifying at the time as my friend experienced the utter powerlessness of believing her baby was about to die. Afterwards she ditched the ‘Mind Movie’ philosophy. It just made no sense for her to have in any way chosen for her baby to die.
Free will is a point of view, so does it matter?
In one sense it is true free will is an illusion, because free will is only ever a philosophical, moral and legal point of view, like a sense of Justice or even Aesthetics. The actions of the brain related to free will are worth investigating, but ultimately its reality or otherwise depends on your standpoint. I sometimes believe I have it, at other times my life feels like that of a passenger on a ride I don’t control. A wider acceptance of free will as an illusion is unlikely to lead to us scrapping our Criminal Justice system (thankfully!) on the basis that criminals are not ultimately responsible for their actions.
If you witnessed a violent assault by someone clearly out of control and without your testimony they would go free, how many would really consider not going to court? Some argue in such a case their decision to testify was predetermined as well. For me that’s a poor excuse. Regarding every event as ultimately predestined is little different from stating everything that happens in the world ‘is God’s will’. The reality or otherwise of free will is not as part of the brain, but as a concept useful to the functioning of Society. Looking forward there is a real danger that while free will as an illusion may demystify religious guilt for some, it could also be an excuse for in-action on important issues like world poverty and global warming.
Your Ethics tutor is an electronic frog
Heavy stuff sure. For a lighter view of free will vs Determinism you could consider the old arcade game Frogger. In Frogger there are lanes of traffic and logs on a river. You can move forward, backwards, left and right and sideways to avoid the traffic, or land on passing logs if you make it to the river. These are your choices. But you don’t choose the amount or speed of trucks, logs, crocodiles or anything else in your path, the computer does all that. With a combination of luck and skill you’ll make it across. If you are unlucky crossing may be nigh on impossible. Your free will is making choices about when and where to move, but only given the available options.
In those studies I wonder if any subjects rebelled? Put me a in a lab with a bunch of men in white coats telling me to push a button, and I would probably have decided to do no such thing before I had even sat down. What would the readout show then? Now that’s free will!
Or so it seems to me.
A perspective on the readiness potential New Scientist – August 2012
Psychologist W.R Klemm’s critique
Views from Philosophy and Neuroscience Nature – August 2011