Free will, Determinism and Frogger


(reading time: 7 mins)

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 Do some scientists further have a desire to liberate us from the burden of free will, apparently the remnant of an outdated belief system? Perhaps. Whether or not there is such a mission, there are significant problems with the assumptions behind these experiments, which mean going from free will may be an illusion to this proves free will is an illusion or even probably an illusion is quite a stretch.

You cannot be serious!

The cognitive studies involve simple motor tasks. For example, with brain activity being monitored, the subject presses a button whenever they feel like it. They record the moment they believed they made their decision by observing changing numbers on a screen. The results showed the subject’s motor cortex was often active long before the conscious awareness, leading some to conclude that free will itself is an illusion.

The fact the experiments are motor function tests is an important factor. If we think of the brain 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, on a tennis court receiving 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’m very likely to be late on the shot, and miss.

And of course I had other options. I could have stood there and done nothing. Or I could have thrown my racket down and screamed “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 quite possibly a result of whatever ‘free will’ might be.

Is Captain Kirk a robot?

Taking ‘button press’ experiments as evidence for an illusory free will seems to require that if free will exists it must 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 an area 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. So the button press experiments show Scotty in Engineering can go to warp factor eight without explicit orders, then report what he did to Kirk in the bridge afterwards – meaning Kirk might as well be a robot!

But maybe free will does not have to be permanently located in the captain’s chair. 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, as and when required.

The subconscious certainly has a powerful effect on our decision making. We are heavily influenced by events and surroundings, which play a more active role in decision making than most of us care to imagine. However understanding that 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 re-interpretted as ideology 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 ultimately responsible for murdering millions of their own people. However they can only achieve this with the support of thousands who are 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, greed and cruelty. Ideology ‘rationally’ justifies dreadful actions as essential to building 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. 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 all 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 a mother experienced the utter powerlessness of believing her baby was about to die. Soon afterwards she dropped the ‘Mind Movie’ philosophy. It made no sense for her to have made a cosmic choice 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 construct, 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 philosophical standpoint. I sometimes believe I am in charge of my destiny. At other times my life feels like that of a passenger on a ride I can’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 and be a danger to others, how many would really consider not testifying? 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

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!

Related articles:
A perspective on the readiness potential New Scientist – August 2012
Psychologist W.R Klemm’s critique
Views from Philosophy and Neuroscience Nature – August 2011