Apr 302015

Neuroscientific_evidenceSome 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:

Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined)

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.

Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W. & Pearl, D. K. Brain
Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J. & Haynes, J.-D. Nature Neuroscience
Fried, I., Mukamel, R. & Kreiman, G. Neuron

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  6 Responses to “Neuroscientific Supporting Evidence Against Free Will”

Comments (6)
  1. I always found the neuroscience experiments as an interesting side show. We don’t need them to disprove an illogical concept like free will. Why do you think people place such importance on these studies?

    • Some people prefer empirical evidence, even though they don’t realize that free will also has no empirical evidence for it, anymore than parralel train tracks converging in the distant horizon has empirical evidence for it. :-)

  2. Even if the idea of free will was logically possible, there is only one way a human soul or mind having free will could work given the information from these studies.

    It would have to be capable of time travel with the freely willed decision made right now being projected to the nervous system of a few moments ago (philosophers get ready to start arguing for this position :) !!!).

    But the capacity for neural impulse time travel would be very limited, or people could change what they did hours, weeks, or years in the past, which would make the world a fascinating place, but doesn’t seem to be way it is.

    • Interesting thoughts. Time travel wouldn’t help either, as such would have to time travel the only way it could, and change such the only way it could. Thanks for the visit. :-)

  3. So “I” is not a cause but a result.
    What a relief. This is true enlightenment.
    This world is beyond joke.

  4. Those who advocate the concept of free will, and try to justify it using logic, rely on overly-simplified logic, redefinitions, and the pseudoscientific method rather than the scientific method. Pseudoscience always starts with a forgone conclusion (aka wishful thinking) then scratches around trying to find things to support that conclusion. Science starts with confirming that an observed phenomenon actually exist before wasting its time trying to explain it. Has free will been empirically determined to exist? No!

    Simple epistemic logic, such as “if A then B”, is adequate for explaining many things, but it is wholly inadequate for analysing, explaining, and designing highly-complex adaptive systems. If I decide to say “Hello.”, then I vocalise it, does not in any way lead to the implication that I have free will.

    You, Sam Harris, Bruce Hood (and others) have more than adequately explained that it is the timing of the events in the brain that is crucially important in discussions about agency and free will. Experiment after experiment provides us with independently confirmed empirical evidence that the decision to take an action is made within the brain before we become consciously aware of making that decision. Not only is free will an illusion, the agent that we refer to as me/myself/I is also an illusion[1]. Most people consider these scientific facts to be abhorrent and no amount of evidence will dissuade them from clinging to their beliefs that humans are independent autonomous agents who possess free will.

    We cannot perform a physical action without: firstly, preloading the required instructions into the pre-supplementary motor area and the lateral pre-motor cortex (the preparatory stage of performing the action); secondly, transferring instructions to the supplementary motor area proper and the primary motor cortex (the initiation and execution phases of performing the action). These operations are highly complex neuronal activities that operate at a sub-conscious level (fortunately!) using heuristics rather than rational logic. The brain (and neural networks in general) perform heuristic processing orders of magnitude faster than rational logic. Our conscious self emerges from the continual time-domain integration of the outputs from a plethora of neural subnets. The time constants of this integration means that our emergent awareness is running at least 200 milliseconds behind reality, and it often emerges days, weeks, or even months, after the subconscious level at which our decisions were made.

    One of the most difficult jobs to perform is that of an air-sea rescue helicopter pilot. This job represents, I think, the ultimate logical and scientific tests to advocates of free will. Imagine a pilot who is coping with heavy sea swell, high wind gusts, a low fuel warning, and an engine overheating warning, during a rescue operation. Now, please clearly explain two simple yet profoundly important things, using logic and science: the precise roll that free will is playing in the operation; the boundaries between mind, body, machine, and the operational procedure manuals. I’m fairly certain that anyone who tries to provide that explanation will rapidly discover that they also suffer from having two other illusions: the illusion of explanatory depth and the illusion of explanatory power![2]

    Continued arguments to support free will despite the increasing volume of counter-evidence from cognitive neuroscience is, I believe, based on more than just wishful thinking; it is part of the war on science[3].

    1. The Self Illusion: Why there is no ‘you’ inside your head, by Bruce Hood.
    2. The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth, by
    Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil.
    3. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Non-materialist_neuroscience

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