“Free Will Debunked” Debunked

Steven Woodford believes that science has “debunked” the fact that humans have free will. I’m going to examine his argument.

We all experience what is known in philosophy as ‘libertarian free will’. That is, we feel like we are in control of our actions, and that in a given situation we could’ve done otherwise. You feel, for example, like you’ve chosen to listen to me right now, and that at any moment you can choose to stop. The problem, however, is that science is telling us, loud and clear, and unequivocally, that while our feelings of free will are real, free will itself is an illusion – a very powerful one, for sure, but still just an illusion.

Science has done nothing of the sort. What has been shown is that decisions are being made in one part of the brain before they are detected by another which corresponds to our perception of conciousness. In other words, we are concious of the fact that we have made a decision after we have actually made it.

The realisation (and subsequent proof) that external factors at least in part determine our consciousness, has led many of humanity’s greatest minds to suspect that our consciousness might be entirely determined by external factors… that despite the fact we’re conscious, we’re no more ‘free’ than the wind. This, needless to say, is a very compelling hypothesis, that if true would have unprecedented affects on our notions of praise, blame, pride and guilt – but that’s all it’s ever been… an untested hypothesis.

Given that it is about as useful as the hypothesis that we’re all living in a simulation, and that it goes against lived experience, I wouldn’t call it compelling.

The myth is that ‘determinism is another word for fatalism’ – which is the assertion that absolutely everything is predetermined, and that therefore absolutely everything is inevitable. The truth, however, is that while many fatalists call themselves determinists (and hence exacerbate this myth) determinism is merely the assertion that human consciousness is predetermined. It makes no claim whatsoever about the rest of the universe.

How does the fact that the universe is not predetermined help? If your every response to every stimulus is predetermined, how does the universe’s randomness make you any less fatalist?

Many people are convinced that various studies in quantum mechanics have demonstrated that the quantum world is random, and that therefore
determinism is false. Even if the quantum world is nondeterministic, this would not invalidate determinism. Sure, it would invalidate fatalism, but it would not invalidate determinism.

If there are structures in the brain that are small enough to operate at the quantum level, quantum randomness could invalidate determinism. I don’t believe that this has been ruled out.

Anyhow, with this myth now thoroughly addressed, let’s look at what neuroscience has to say.

Thoroughly addressed my ass.

In 1983, the pioneering scientist, Benjamin Libet, conducted a study in which he wired up subjects to an EEG machine to measure their brain activity. He then put a timer in front of them, asked them to consciously decide to perform a hand movement, perform the movement, and to then report the exact time that they had made a conscious decision. He found that “The onset of cerebral activity clearly preceded by at least several hundred milliseconds the reported time of conscious intention to act.” Or in other words, that the subject’s brain had initiated the movement long before the subject had consciously made the decision to move.

Is it safe to assume that the delay in reporting was because the decision was made after the movement was initiated, or was it merely the reporting that was delayed?

In 2008, in response to criticisms, Chun Siong Soon conducted a similar experiment using an fMRI machine, in which he asked subjects to freely choose between, and then immediately press, one of two buttons that were operated by the subject’s left and right index fingers. He found that, “… the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness.”

How is he measuring awareness? How the brain operates is far from clearly understood.

If we can accurately predict what you’re going to do before you’ve even made a conscious decision, then your consciousness is evidently not ‘free’, and therefore your conscious ‘decisions’ are not ‘free’.

But you can’t. You can measure the decision being made in the prefrontal and parietal cortices, but until you do, you don’t know what your subject will do. The only thing that is proven is that consciousness is not compartmentalized in some other part of the brain.

In light of these studies, and of many more, each with differing equipment and methodologies, [Sam] Harris has written that, “One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this decision and believe that you are in the process of making it.”

Even if Harris (who is a neuroscientist) is correct that all brain activity related to consciousness of decision making is occurring after the brain has determined what to do, this doesn’t mean that consciousness had no prior input into the underlying neural programs that were used to make the decision.

“You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.”

In this metaphor, Harris equates “you” to the subconscious mind. I agree. Our consciousness, the part of us that is able to watch and analyze what the subconscious is doing is not in full control, but it is also not lost. It’s relationship with the subconscious is not fully understood. The idea that there are two things, the subconscious mind and consciousness, that are entirely separate, is simplistic.

Now, in conclusion, I have to say that I’m honestly not convinced that the scientific community, let alone the general public, has acknowledged the gravity of these discoveries, either because they don’t understand them, or because they don’t want to (and unfortunately, I suspect it’s the latter). Humanity has always had a tendency to ignore inconvenient truths (such as human-induced climate change), and I think that the discovery that free will is an illusion, is, and for a while will continue to be, one of them.

Much as the level and impacts of human induced climate change are not clearly understood, and cannot be simply modelled and separated from natural effects, we cannot say that we have “discovered that free will is an illusion”. Rather, we have evidence that consciousness of decisions we are making subconsciously at least sometimes comes after the fact.

Anyhow, I’d thank you for watching the video to the end, but then, you didn’t have a choice, did you?

Yes, I did, just as I chose to write this response. Maybe the decision came because I had preprogrammed my subconscious to do so. If so, I can live with that. Belief in determinism is like belief in naturalism: it’s dogmatic. I am, as always, an agnostic. If you want to throw out free will, you need real proof.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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