Free will

Modern neuroscience and psychology seem to be moving toward a conclusion on the old philosophical questions of free will. This is a basic version of that discussion, given that it is being written largely from memory on a long train journey with no internet – please feel free to correct anywhere I have ballsed up the science.

In simple dualist terms, probably the more immediately appealing explanation of human experience, there is the physical body and a separate mind. This dualist mind operates independently of the body, in a different realm, and instructs the body. This gives the purest form of free will, where each and every interaction is chosen from the range of possible actions in advance and freely by the actor.

However, this dualist explanation is significantly undermined by neuroscience, whereby it is clear that certain brain areas have direct and mappable effects on experience, abilities, and decision making processes. We see this most clearly when the brain is damaged, and the experiences of the person change significantly. This means straight dualism is wrong, with the mind, or world of experience, directly mapped to the brain, rather than independent.

So, if the mind is directly linked to the brain, can we say anything abut the causal relationship? To allow free will, we would hope to see the mind directing the brain, and the brain directing the body. Therefore, for example, we would hope that in an experiment, people would say they were going to do something before the mechanism for doing started. This would mean, for example, a test subject say ‘I will move my arm’ then we see the mechanism, such as brain activity, nerve messages and muscle twitches, then the activity of the arm moving. This would demonstrate at least that the relationship goes from decision in the mind to action in the brain.

However, in the tests originally run by Libet and built on over the more recent years, we can see that the relationship described above doesn’t happen. The body is starting the activity before the declaration of intent, which suggests that the decision is not consciously taken by the mind before the brain and body kick into action.

This suggests that we cannot say that the mind directs the brain, but rather is directed by it. Taking any psychoactive drug, recreationaly or medically, shows quite clearly that the physical state of the brain leads the experiences of the mind to some degree. This is supported in more detail as the understanding of the brain develops, with very strong links demonstrated between certain areas and functions of the brain and certain behaviours.

So it appears that the brain directs the mind, strongly and inherently predictably, even if we could probably never hope to actually predict it due to the complexity involved. What does this mean for free will? The sense in which I would naturally interpret it, free will does not appear to exist. There is no independent moral agent that has the freedom to act or to make decisions – your brain and body have made the decision for you, and the you that experiences the decision is deluded into thinking it made it.

However, there are alternative explanations of free will – you can argue that an action is free if it is one of a set of possible actions, barring strong coercion and so on. In this formulation, actions that are unconstrained, or more realistically minimally constrained, are considered to exhibit free will.

I agree that there are situations where actions could appear free, and it is largely using these criteria that I would judge wether an action appears free. However, I am concerned that this approach dodges the question a little – if the action is taken by the brain in direct response to electrical and chemical signals with no influence from a moral agent, to what extent could the outcome have been otherwise? There has been no decision making, but rather a complex but inherently predictable set of responses to particular stimuli. Given this predictability, you have not chosen one of a possible range of actions, as the other actions were not possible outcomes given the circumstances.

I have argued here that the nature of the brain, and the leading role it has in action formation means that free will is a delusion of experience. This is a difficult conclusion to come to, as it is so counter-intuitive, and somewhat discomfiting. Questions about ethics arise as many ethical theories are based largely on agency, and this leads into political questions around crime and punishment, and personal responsibility. However, those are for another post. Worry not, I think I’ll probably write about those next time I’ve got a couple of hours and no internet.

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