We have the impression that our free will is supreme, but modern neuroscience is starting to challenge the idea that we are the masters of our fate and captains of our soul.
Newtonian physics suggests that interactions in the physical world are deterministic, that is, the outcome is predictable.
As physical objects, a crucial question is how can we have free will in a universe where every outcome is determined by what went before.
Some people have suggested that the ‘fuzzy’ nature of quantum physics might provide an answer to this, but there have been no convincing accounts of how this might work.
In neuroscience, free will is more to do with whether we have conscious control over our actions.
Two main threads of research have suggested that our experience of having complete conscious control over our actions may be an illusion.
The first is from experiments like those originally completed by Benjamin Libet. He asked people simply to move their hand whenever they felt like it and note the time when they first felt the urge to move.
While they performed this voluntary action, he recorded electrical activity from areas in the brain known to be involved in generating actions.
His experiments, and many subsequent replications, suggest that the brain’s movement areas are active about 200 milliseconds before we feel the urge to move.
In other words, we only become conscious of the intention to move after the brain has initiated the action.
The second source of doubts about our sense of free will is from patients who have suffered brain injury and discover that they have lost conscious control over their actions.
One of the most striking examples is anarchic hand syndrome, linked to frontal lobe damage, where patients find their hand has a ‘mind of its own’ and often have to prevent it from carrying out actions they don’t consciously intend.
An article in The Economist questions whether such findings are eroding the concept of legal responsibility.
This is particularly in light of court cases where evidence of neurological disturbance has been used in an attempt to persuade the jury that the person wasn’t responsible for their actions, and, therefore, not guilty of the crime in question.