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11. FREE WILL Previous | Next

Your decisions are not your own

EVERY day, we live under the spell of an illusion: that our conscious mind is autonomous, and in control of our bodies and decisions. We think we have free will, yet as neuroscience digs ever deeper into the mystery of the human brain, that delusion becomes harder to justify. We are, as one neuroscientist told me as he used a powerful magnet to take control of my body’s movements, brain-machines.

This runs contrary to our every impulse. Our gut instinct, our experience, is that we make the decisions to move, to think, to eat, to steal, to lie, to punch and kick. We have constructed the entire edifice of our civilisation on this idea. Is science wrong when it says free will is a delusion? If not, what does it mean for our sense of self? And for our morality – can we prosecute people for acts over which they had no conscious control?

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#1 - Posted: 25/07/2008 07:25

Benjamin Libet died before I could interview him for the book. He always maintained that, despite his experimental results, humans have free will. I wish I could share his view.

As if it wasn’t already dead in the water for various very good reasons, Libet’s notion was challenged again by new results published in June 2008. Experiments carried out in MRI machines showed that you could predict what someone will do (given certain options) 10 seconds before they even know they are going to do it. Read about it here. The idea that the jelly-like goo that is a human brain is just ticking over, making decisions without the human’s conscious involvement is not an easy one to deal with. It has implications for morality and legal responsibility. But, hey, maybe we really are brain-machines. It’s not our fault.

  

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#2 - Posted: 06/08/2008 17:27

Social interaction will require a value system (ie:action=responsibility), notwithstanding a potential disconnect with underlaying controls.

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#3 - Posted: 07/08/2008 10:59

I wonder if neuroscience is just catching up with physics here? Physical processes have been regarded as either deterministic or random (in the case of quantum mechanics), neither of which seems like a possible starting point for free will.

Maybe it's my background, but I find it impossible to imagine a how truly free will could arise, how it can cause things but not itself be caused. The decision-making machine has to be formed and informed somehow, so it's nature must be entirely determined by what goes into it.

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#4 - Posted: 07/08/2008 15:23

Perhaps the real issue here is how we define free will. Is free will merely making choices, or is it the ability for the human being, in the physical state of mind, to guide the neurological impulses along a chosen direction? Given certain situations, how can we account for different human responses? Why do some humans face danger while others flee?

This search for the the physiological phenomenon may lead to more questions and further searching. Searching for answers may indeed raise more questions, and is that not free will in itself?

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#5 - Posted: 08/08/2008 05:33

Do we have free will?  Yes and no. 

None of us picked our parents,our birthplace,birthdate,name,sex,etc.  However, we come to many forks in the road on a daily basis where we can go one way or the other.  Some of those decisions are genetically preprogrammed but some are the result of things we have learned and many times our decision depends on someone else or even just the reaction of someone else.   Mmmmmm?  Still doesn't sound like totally free will does it?   Actually,after years of thought, I have come to the conclusion that our only free will involves deciding to do what  is right or doing what we know is wrong in any given situation.  We choose only our beliefs and morals.  Everything else is predestination.

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#6 - Posted: 08/08/2008 07:27

If free will means the ability to make unpredictable choices in the immediate and very limited short term, then I believe we have it, there is an evolutionary benefit to having a certain (small) amount of randomness in choice making (when encountering something new). If free will means the ability to make unpredictable choices repeatedly or over the long term then I don't believe we have it. Human minds are geared towards patterns and socialization and as a result are very predictable, especially in repeated tasks, over extended periods of time or as members of a group.

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#7 - Posted: 08/08/2008 08:54

I can see how a bit of randomness in choice making would be of evolutionary benefit, but I'm still not sure it equates to free will. There is still nothing in our conscious minds that acts separately from the "machine" of our brain, and that's just chemistry and, ultimately, quantum mechanics. Maybe that's too reductionist too provide a useable way to work with the concept of free will, but it seems to me the only natural path. Otherwise you just fall back on "I feel as if I'm making decisions." Which is fine, and maybe it's as good as it can get. But, to an outside observer, it's still not free will.

Dennis Overbye did an interesting (but ultimately inconclusive) look at the subject in the New York Times a while back. It's here.

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#8 - Posted: 10/08/2008 01:54

So if we all agree that we have no free will, then is there free will anywhere? I suppose that maybe "In the beginning..." there was free will, but if that beginning was the result of something else, and that something else was the result of something else, and on, and on, and on till you can't go back any farther because our brains can't physically fathom back that far. in any case one would have to look to the philosophers to figure that out. 

Oh and i'm not that sure on neuroscience, but anyone know how far the brain can go?

And what is the science behind imagination, or in other words is imagination just the accumulation of different sets of data that have amalgamated in our brains?

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#9 - Posted: 10/08/2008 02:57

If we don't have free will then we are all unconcious.

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#10 - Posted: 10/08/2008 10:01

or subconcious.

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