Neuroscientists Claim Free Will is an Illusion, then Change their Minds


– By Paulie Spiceflow –

First it was the theologians telling us free will was irrelevant; we are all part of God’s plan. Then came stuffy philosophers who claimed free will was an illusion. New age spiritualists got in the act too, with a determinism reliant on tarot cards, astrology, or just a crystal ball. It wasn’t God, but you still weren’t in charge. After awhile it seemed only us ignorant commoners thought we had free will.

Eventually neuroscientists came up with their own method of killing free will. Studies in the 1980s found there is significant brain activity before a person makes a conscious decision to act. They believed it was evidence the brain made the decision unconsciously, not the conscious individual. We just carry it out. It led to all sorts of books and papers, including one called My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility. I just love that title.

So don’t worry if you make bad decisions. You’re not really making them. Some unconscious part of your brain is. Or some omnipotent force is. Either way, no need to feel responsible. You’re just a tool.

Well it turns out no one was listening to them. Some neuroscientists reject their colleagues’ conclusions. In a recent article, they found that even if accepted as true, regular people still don’t buy that free will is dead. A group of undergrads were told of a brain cap that analyzed brain activity could predict a person’s choices before they made them, such as which finger they’d use to press a button on the desk. When asked if they thought the existence of the brain cap meant free will didn’t exist, an overwhelming majority said no. Most responded that a person still has free will even if their choices could be predicted ahead of time. As long as the brain cap couldn’t manipulate the choices, they believed free will still existed.

That seems like common sense. I mean, isn’t my brain part of me? Even if it was my unconscious that made the decision, isn’t that still me making the decision?

After reading the article and the abstract to the studies beneath it, I kept asking myself: why are they surprised to find we think about choices before making them? Isn’t that what brain activity is? Maybe it’s because I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ve always assumed that the measurable activity in the brain is science’s way of detecting a person “thinking.” Anyone who makes a choice has to think about it first, hence the brain is active before we actually make the call and verbalize it or act.

Science fiction has taken up the question of free will a few times but from a much more thoughtful approach than these neuroscientists. In Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, three psychics called PreCogs are able to predict future murders allowing police to prevent them. The protagonist, John Anderton, learns he is to kill a man he’s never met and questions the accuracy of the PreCog’s prediction. Near the climax, it is explained to Anderton that his situation is unique because he was made aware of his future acts and can thus alter his choices. In other words, he can defy the PreCogs.

The question is whether the ability to predict a person’s actions is evidence that free will is an illusion. Philip K. Dick suggests that once an individual is aware of the future, it is inexorably altered because of free will. Psychic abilities don’t undermine it. Okay fine, but suppose somewhere there is a book or computer that has a record of the future with total accuracy but no one can access it. We are only able to access it after the event happens, confirming its accuracy.

Would the existence of such a book or computer change your view on free will? Is it any different than God’s plan? These are far more interesting questions to me than the trivial brain cap experiment.

The Matrix: Reloaded offered a slightly different approach. When Neo asks why he can’t change his destiny and follow a different path, the Oracle replies, “you’ve already made the choice, now you have to understand it.” Unlike Minority Report, the Oracle believes having knowledge of the future won’t change its outcome. Neo can’t or won’t make any other choices than the one laid out by the Oracle. She had a different source of her predictions: an equation. She knew the future because their system had mathematic precision but more importantly, it had happened five times before. She believed the sixth Neo would do exactly the same thing because all the variables were constant. Even as she tells him his future, she doesn’t expect him to alter his choices.

The Oracle and Agent Smith both believed, with good reason, that no one is free. In the words of the Oracle, “we are all here to do, what we are all here to do.” She believed humans were no different than machines in terms of executing their programming. The Oracle’s purpose was to understand humanity’s programming and thus help balance the equation. Agent Smith explained that “it is purpose that drives us,” not free will. No one could deviate from the plan, or in this case, the equation.

In both movies, the protagonist defied the plan. John Anderton chose not to kill his predicted victim. Neo did not fulfill his role as the anomaly. Once made aware of the plan, humans will readjust their thinking if they don’t like the outcome.

The society in Minority Report put too much faith in the PreCog’s premonitions, not realizing they could alter them. The machines in The Matrix put too much faith in their equation and the predictability of humans.

While science fiction writers tend to think there is no set plan, religion and new agers think otherwise. Some say the accuracy of great prophets such as Nostradamus is proof of a plan. The problem is no one can interpret the predictions of Nostradamus until after the event. There’s an obvious problem of confirmation bias. The final interpretation of the predictions are based on the subjective analysis of short poems. Most of them can be interpreted numerous ways, allowing them to fit a large group of fact patterns. If a person is already predisposed to believe the prophecies, they will interpret them to fit the facts confirming their beliefs. If a person is objective, the words of Nostradamus are ambiguous nonsense.

So is free will an illusion? I have no idea. As a practical matter it is much better to assume we have free will. How could we punish criminals if free will did not exist? Why think about anything if all the events of the future are going to happen as planned no matter what you do? Might as well stay home, watch TV, eat Doritos and wait for it to happen.