Some philosophers such as Alfred Mele think that people are jumping the gun on suggesting that the neuroscientific evidence against free will is sufficient for the conclusion that free will doesn’t exist. What they don’t seem to understand is that the neuroscientific evidence is just empirical supporting evidence that free will doesn’t exist. It is hardly the whole story. The larger story around free will stems not to empirical evidence against it, but rather it’s logical incoherence.
Imagine, if you will, a physicist writing an advanced formula for something within quantum physics, in order to explain some phenomenon that we don’t have a full understanding of. Now imagine another physicist comes along and shows that the formula itself is logically incoherent. She shows how one part of the formula irreparably contradicts another part. Guess what happens to the formula?
If you guessed that it either gets fixed (changed) so that it is coherent if possible, or is abandoned, you’d be correct. Imagine if the logic was so incoherent that there is no way to fix it. At that point, the hypothesis becomes entirely abandoned as a theory for the phenomenon. It’s no longer accepted in any way except as something that has been falsified.
This is because logic is an epistemological staple not only in mathematics and philosophy, but of our scientific theories as well. And no, quantum physics is not an exception to this as some who misunderstand it would have you think. As soon as we allow for illogical ideas, we simply need to drop logic. And with that comes the removal of all identity and an inability to address anything at all. So we, as rational people, try not to go there.
But this is where we find ourselves with free will, at least for the definition of concern: The ability to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise.
The very notion of an otherwise is only coherent if we have an acausal event, and the very notion of an acausal event is something that can never be of one’s own accord. Free will, per such a definition, is logically incoherent regardless if we have a universe that is entirely causal, or we have a universe with some acausal events. And like an incoherent scientific idea or formula, such “free will hypothesis” needs to be entirely abandoned.
So no, the neuroscientific evidence that points to a lack of free will is not even close to the whole story. It is, however, just more evidence to tack on to an already sufficient means to reject free will. But some philosophers have been pointing to these studies and asserting they are insufficient, without telling the whole story. This can give free will advocates a glimmer of hope. But it’s a glimmer that is like the 9-11 truther movement, one that only looks at a small fraction of the evidence, in this case, the fact that the neuroscientific studies aren’t 100% accurate (“only” more than chance), and that they only test for simplistic decisions like flicking a wrist or pressing a button.
They are right that the neuroscientific evidence, by itself, does not completely obliterate free will; that obliteration is done through logical means. If you don’t know the logical obliteration of free will that I’m addressing pick up a copy of Breaking the Free Will Illusion. But let’s look at what the neuroscientific evidence does inform of us, because these philosophers seem to miss some of these points.
To get into this we need to talk a little bit about what the neuroscientific evidence against free will is. It all started in the 1980’s when Benjamin Libet ran an experiment in which he asked the subjects to choose a time (anytime) to flick their wrist. While doing so he measured activity in their brain (electrical signals) using an EEG. Libet then asked how this measurement related to the time in which the person “felt the conscious decision to move the wrist”.
He determined that the unconscious brain activity that lead up to the decision was detected half a second before the subject felt they make the decision.
This may not seem very astonishing as a half second isn’t a whole lot of time, and indeed many have criticized the design of the test, the clock being distracting, or the interpretation of such.
But this had led to updated versions of the test using an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) by John-Dylan Haynes in 2007. The big difference here is that an fMRI allowed Haynes to scan the entire brain. The test was a little different as well, this time he told the subjects to press a button with either their left or right hand when they felt like it, while looking at a screen flashing letters. He asked that they remember the letter they saw at the time they made the conscious decision of pressing with left or right hand.
Though the difference between the conscious decision noted by the letter and the actual button press was around a second, the team was able to predict with 60% accuracy the button that was going to be pressed up to 7 seconds before that conscious decision, by looking at the brain scans.
Image from the book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind:
But like before, philosophers criticize the fact that it’s only 60%, which is above chance but not by a larger degree, and suggest that a change perhaps could happen that trumps the decision. They also criticize the fact that these tests study a simplistic decision making process such as pressing a button, and suggest perhaps a more complex process isn’t similar.
Itzhak Fried, a neuroscientist and surgeon at the University of California, went even farther by studying people with an electrode planted in their brain. Of course this electrode was planned for people with epilepsy, not for the test itself, but it did allow recordings from single neurons giving an even more accurate depiction.
He was able to show a good second and a half before the conscious decision was made which button would be pressed, this time with 80% accuracy.
Though some still criticize, such criticism often turned to the definition of free will itself and holding on to compatibilist notions. This is something entirely different and gets into which semantics we should be using and why, part of what I address here:
But let’s get back to what these neuroscientific studies do show, because some seem to be under the impression that they aren’t evidence against the “ability to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise” notion of free will. The definition that is of the greatest concern.
If we can show that the decision a person will consciously make stems from prior unconscious brain states, such says a whole lot if one thinks about the causal mechanism of all of our decisions. And though the studies are not 100% accurate as of yet, it’s obvious that as technology and neuroscience improves, that is where things are heading. And with more complex decisions as well.
And this should be of no surprise to anyone who doesn’t inject magic into our conscious thought and action. Of course unconscious brain states are going to causally lead to conscious ones, and conscious ones will causally feed back down into the configuration of unconscious brain states. It’s important that we don’t neglect the role of conscious processes within the causal process. What must be understood is that all conscious processes including decisions we make stem causally from unconscious processes. But of course they do, otherwise what would they stem from? There is no real controversy here other than such pointing to how causality itself isn’t compatible with free will.
In other words, such neuroscientific evidence only points to ‘how’ decisions are caused, and with the understanding that decisions are caused, comes the understanding that they are not free in the “could have done, of one’s own accord, otherwise” sense. And let’s be clear, this is the free will sense that neuroscientists and philosophers who say there is no free will are using, and it also is the free will definition of importance for so many other reasons.
And keep in mind that even if some “random noise” or acausal event happens in the brain, this would be of no help for free will either. But let’s not place the neuroscientific evidence on its own island is if it’s the only evidence against free will. Indeed, we don’t even require one bit of neuroscientific evidence to assess the incoherence of such free will ability.