A popular mantra of modern neuroscience tells us that free will is an illusion. An article in the New York Times makes a lucid challenge to the ‘death of free will’ idea and a prominent neuroscientist has come out to fight the same corner.
Neuroscientists began making preparations for the funeral of free will shortly after Benjamin Libet began publishing his experiments in the 1980s showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move.
Since then, many more neuroscience studies have shown that brain activity can precede conscious awareness of specific choices or actions – with the implication that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect that plays little role in our actions and reactions.
The idea that ‘free will is an illusion’ is now consistently touted by neuroscientists as an example of how brain science is revealing ‘what really drives us’ and how it explains ‘how we really work’. But philosophers, the conceptual engineers of new ideas, have started to find holes in this popular meme.
Probably the most lucid mainstream analysis of why neuroscience isn’t killing free will has just been published at The New York Times where philosopher of mind Eddy Nahmias takes the mourners to task using a narrow and largely irrelevant definition of free will.
So, does neuroscience mean the death of free will? Well, it could if it somehow demonstrated that conscious deliberation and rational self-control did not really exist or that they worked in a sheltered corner of the brain that has no influence on our actions. But neither of these possibilities is likely. True, the mind sciences will continue to show that consciousness does not work in just the ways we thought, and they already suggest significant limitations on the extent of our rationality, self-knowledge, and self-control. Such discoveries suggest that most of us possess less free will than we tend to think, and they may inform debates about our degrees of responsibility. But they do not show that free will is an illusion.
Nahmais makes the point that the ‘death of free will’ idea makes a fallacy he calls ‘bypassing’ that reduces our decisions to chemical reactions, implying that our conscious thinking is bypassed, and so we must lack free will.
He notes that this is like saying life doesn’t exist because every living thing is made up of non-living molecules, when, in reality, its impossible to understand life or free will without considering the system at the macro level – that is, the actions and interactions of the whole organism.
Interestingly, a similar point is made by legendary neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in an interview for Salon where he discusses his new book on free will. He also suggests it’s not possible to understand free will at the level of neurons without making the concept nonsensical.
These contrasting concepts about free will may yet be solved, however, as Nature recently reported on a new $4 million ‘Big Questions in Free Will’ project which brings together philosophers and cognitive scientists to work together to understand how we act in the world.