The fantastic case of neuroscience and free will

Image of an anime girl with a woman sitting in a control room in her head

Writer: Marta Caldeira
Editor: Iona Jenkins
Art: Wenanlan Jin

It’s a typical Monday morning and you are standing in line at your local cafe waiting to get your favourite breakfast pastry. When your turn finally arrives, the barista tells you they have run out. You are suddenly faced with the task of choosing between one of two alternatives: a bagel or a cake. What will you choose? I bet you have already thought of an answer. After all, this task is quite an easy one to tackle. Or so it seems…

Have you ever wondered what goes on inside your brain while you are trying to choose between two options? How do the billions of neurons in your brain behave? Is the choice truly “yours”, or is it a product of neuronal activity beyond your control? Thus, choosing between a bagel and a cake now seems more complex.

The progress in neuroscience research over the last decade has produced numerous explanations on how neurons generate the processes we refer to as thought, consciousness, and will. The renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, amongst others, puts forward their views on the implications of these processes to the problem of “free will”. This questions how much we control our actions.

The controversial experiments of Benjamin Libet in the 1980s have shaped the investigation into free will. Libet sought to determine the moment we first become consciously aware of our decision to perform an action. He built a special clock consisting of a dot moving around an oscilloscope screen. He then asked volunteers to spontaneously move their fingers and remember the position of the dot when they first became aware of their decision to move. The brain activity of volunteers was simultaneously monitored. Results showed that volunteers became aware of their decision to act prior to moving their finger, but unconscious activity in the brain preceded awareness.

Many philosophers have invoked Libet’s experiments as definitive proof that free will does not exist. Jerry Coyne argues that these experiments show that our decisions are made by our brains even before we are aware of them, and thus free will is an illusion. How can it be real if our decision to choose a bagel over a cake is made before we are aware of it? Sam Harris says these experiments demonstrate that the intention to act is not a product of consciousness – it is a part of consciousness. If our intention to choose one option over another merely pops up in our brain, then our choices are never truly free.

In contrast, several scholars argue that this conclusion does not justify the evidence. Daniel Dennett states that Libet’s measurements were highly subjective, and that the timing of decisions could not be accurately measured. In fact, Libet himself has questioned the implications of his experiments: he concludes that free will exists. According to him, free will rests not on the ability to initiate a voluntary act, but on the ability to veto an unconscious impulse to act. Indeed, volunteers in his experiments often reported consciously suppressing the urge to move. So, does this make us free?

It is possible for the same experiments to support contrasting views of free will. Despite having uncovered much about neuronal function and organisation in the brain, neuroscience has yet to conclude how these allow for processes such as thought, consciousness, and will. Most of the discussion on the freedom of our actions is a reflection of metaphysical biases of authors as opposed to any concrete experimental results. Indeed, whilst Coyne and Harris are sceptical of free will, Dennett and Libet defend it. Thus, we must await more conclusive evidence before neuroscience can tell whether we exert control over our actions. Until then, we are “free” to interpret neuroscientific findings as we wish.

One thought

  1. Excellent articles this month! Maggie

    Maggie Roe AFLI Reader in Landscape Planning Research & Policy Engagement Dean of Postgraduate Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Newcastle University ________________________________


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