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Nature News has a very good article on free will, it's a couple of months old, I've been meaning to post on it for a while, but at first I felt we had sort of beaten the free will's dead horse quite a bit, and people may not be interested. Evidently, it is a subject that fascinates many people since it is one of the most commented upon articles in Nature News. Some of the comments are very good. The article is free access. It is not too long, I recommend reading it all.

As I have said before, I think the free will question is largely one of semantics, since whether it exists or not is dependent on how we define it. There is no doubt that we feel we have "free will" in the sense that we can make choices and decisions. And we do make choices and decisions, whether our brain knows it before we are aware of making a decision or not. After all, there is no dualism: your brain is you (or at least, your brain being aware of your body and its surroundings, is "you").  I think for human beings, it is mentally healthy to assume we have free will, we have some impact in our lives, otherwise we would fall into helplessness, and evolution would have selected against an organism who loses the will to struggle.  But, to think we are completely free to make choices is also a dangerous illusion, one that can lead us to disregard the huge impact that our past experiences have, in shaping our present and our futures.

Here is the article:



Published online 31 August 2011 | Nature 477, 23-25 (2011) | doi:10.1038/477023a

News Feature

Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will

Scientists think they can prove that free will is an illusion. Philosophers are urging them to think again.


The experiment helped to change John-Dylan Haynes's outlook on life. In 2007, Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters1. He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands. The results were quite a surprise.

"The first thought we had was 'we have to check if this is real'," says Haynes. "We came up with more sanity checks than I've ever seen in any other study before."

The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person's actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. "We feel we choose, but we don't," says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.

You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it. For Haynes, this is unsettling. "I'll be very honest, I find it very difficult to deal with this," he says. "How can I call a will 'mine' if I don't even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?"

Thought experiments

Philosophers aren't convinced that brain scans can demolish free will so easily. Some have questioned the neuroscientists' results and interpretations, arguing that the researchers have not quite grasped the concept that they say they are debunking. Many more don't engage with scientists at all. "Neuroscientists and philosophers talk past each other," says Walter Glannon, a philosopher at the University of Calgary in Canada, who has interests in neuroscience, ethics and free will.

There are some signs that this is beginning to change. This month, a raft of projects will get under way as part of Big Questions in Free Will, a four-year, US$4.4-million programme funded by the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, which supports research bridging theology, philosophy and natural science. Some say that, with refined experiments, neuroscience could help researchers to identify the physical processes underlying conscious intention and to better understand the brain activity that precedes it. And if unconscious brain activity could be found to predict decisions perfectly, the work really could rattle the notion of free will. "It's possible that what are now correlations could at some point become causal connections between brain mechanisms and behaviours," says Glannon. "If that were the case, then it would threaten free will, on any definition by any philosopher."

Haynes wasn't the first neuroscientist to explore unconscious decision-making. In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, rigged up study participants to an electroencephalogram (EEG) and asked them to watch a clock face with a dot sweeping around it2. When the participants felt the urge to move a finger, they had to note the dot's position. Libet recorded brain activity several hundred milliseconds before people expressed their conscious intention to move.

Libet's result was controversial. Critics said that the clock was distracting, and the report of a conscious decision was too subjective. Neuroscience experiments usually have controllable inputs — show someone a picture at a precise moment, and then look for reactions in the brain. When the input is the participant's conscious intention to move, however, they subjectively decide on its timing. Moreover, critics weren't convinced that the activity seen by Libet before a conscious decision was sufficient to cause the decision — it could just have been the brain gearing up to decide and then move.

Haynes's 2008 study1 modernized the earlier experiment: where Libet's EEG technique could look at only a limited area of brain activity, Haynes's fMRI set-up could survey the whole brain; and where Libet's participants decided simply on when to move, Haynes's test forced them to decide between two alternatives. But critics still picked holes, pointing out that Haynes and his team could predict a left or right button press with only 60% accuracy at best. Although better than chance, this isn't enough to claim that you can see the brain making its mind up before conscious awareness, argues Adina Roskies, a neuroscientist and philosopher who works on free will at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Besides, "all it suggests is that there are some physical factors that influence decision-making", which shouldn't be surprising. Philosophers who know about the science, she adds, don't think this sort of study is good evidence for the absence of free will, because the experiments are caricatures of decision-making. Even the seemingly simple decision of whether to have tea or coffee is more complex than deciding whether to push a button with one hand or the other.

Haynes stands by his interpretation, and has replicated and refined his results in two studies. One uses more accurate scanning techniques3 to confirm the roles of the brain regions implicated in his previous work. In the other, which is yet to be published, Haynes and his team asked subjects to add or subtract two numbers from a series being presented on a screen. Deciding whether to add or subtract reflects a more complex intention than that of whether to push a button, and Haynes argues that it is a more realistic model for everyday decisions. Even in this more abstract task, the researchers detected activity up to four seconds before the subjects were conscious of deciding, Haynes says.

Some researchers have literally gone deeper into the brain. One of those is Itzhak Fried, a neuroscientist and surgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Tel Aviv Medical Center in Israel. He studied individuals with electrodes implanted in their brains as part of a surgical procedure to treat epilepsy4. Recording from single neurons in this way gives scientists a much more precise picture of brain activity than fMRI or EEG. Fried's experiments showed that there was activity in individual neurons of particular brain areas about a second and a half before the subject made a conscious decision to press a button. With about 700 milliseconds to go, the researchers could predict the timing of that decision with more than 80% accuracy. "At some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness," says Fried. The conscious will might be added on to a decision at a later stage, he suggests.

Material gains

Philosophers question the assumptions underlying such interpretations. "Part of what's driving some of these conclusions is the thought that free will has to be spiritual or involve souls or something," says Al Mele, a philosopher at Florida State University in Tallahassee. If neuroscientists find unconscious neural activity that drives decision-making, the troublesome concept of mind as separate from body disappears, as does free will. This 'dualist' conception of free will is an easy target for neuroscientists to knock down, says Glannon. "Neatly dividing mind and brain makes it easier for neuroscientists to drive a wedge between them," he adds.

The trouble is, most current philosophers don't think about free will like that, says Mele. Many are materialists — believing that everything has a physical basis, and decisions and actions come from brain activity. So scientists are weighing in on a notion that philosophers consider irrelevant.

Nowadays, says Mele, the majority of philosophers are comfortable with the idea that people can make rational decisions in a deterministic universe. They debate the interplay between freedom and determinism — the theory that everything is predestined, either by fate or by physical laws — but Roskies says that results from neuroscience can't yet settle that debate. They may speak to the predictability of actions, but not to the issue of determinism.

Neuroscientists also sometimes have misconceptions about their own field, says Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In particular, scientists tend to see preparatory brain activity as proceeding stepwise, one bit at a time, to a final decision. He suggests that researchers should instead think of processes working in parallel, in a complex network with interactions happening continually. The time at which one becomes aware of a decision is thus not as important as some have thought.


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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for the detailed post and this last sentence makes sense to me "He suggests that researchers should instead think of processes working in parallel, in a complex network with interactions happening continually. The time at which one becomes aware of a decision is thus not as important as some have thought."

The brain is not linear or sequential but non linear and parallel

Yes, I love that sentence too. Very often we think in linear terms, as a progression, but we forget parallel processes and it's difficult for us to think in terms of networks. I like Michael Gazzaniga very much. He's a neuroscientist AND a deep thinker.

Although the money for the project aiming to get philosophers and neuroscientists together comes from the Templeton Foundation, and I'm not convinced it's a good idea for scientists to take their money, given the Templeton's past history trying to shoehorn religion into everything, I do think it's a great idea to have philosophers and scientists working together. They are complementary ways of thinking about knowledge.

Another good example is the nascent field of Experimental Philosophy, which I find very exciting.

A related study on pain



Lata Mani excerpted in the Wall Street Journal:

48b94dea-f8cc-11e0-983e-000b5dabf613It is often suggested that pain is beyond description, that language breaks down at the terminus of pain. It is certainly true that when one is in the midst of the cluster of physical sensations that we call pain, the last thing on one’s mind is finding the right words to make poetry out of one’s suffering. But there is nothing essentially mysterious about pain. It can, and for the body in pain must, be spoken of, even if only in the abbreviated cry to God, taking the form of a groan, curse, or a helpless “I don’t know how much more of this I can take”. No, pain is not beyond the horizon of meaning, beyond conceptualization. Rather it is squarely within the world of signification.

Pain throbs. Pain shreds. Pain darts. Pain weaves sly patterns across the length and breadth of the body. Pain stabs. Pain pulses. Pain plummets the body into a vortex unknown and at times fearful. Pain nags. Chronic pain drones repetitiously, monotonously, ad nauseam. Pain flays the surface of the skin, turning it almost translucent with frailty. Pain makes one so weak that the whole world is experienced through its omnipresent filter. Pain drains everything into its core. Pain can be focused as the point of a pinhead or as dispersed as one’s consciousness and, if suffered long enough, the pinpoint can seem to grow and swallow one’s entire physical being. Pain can be as hard as steel or as soft as a ripe pear. Pain shudders. Pain shivers.

More here.

Posted by Abbas Raza at 09:35 AM | Permalink 

Pain is also very intractable from a medical point of view because nociception is still largely unknown.

nociception is interesting. It's interesting that Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation TENS units, or acupuncture work to relieve pain.

Of course bee stings, and pollen also works  -  leave out nonsense about "Swarms."

Antihistamines are  interesting. Cetrizinizine Hydroloriinide (Allegra)  -[ did I spell that right]. Have made people a lot of money. I'm glad it's available.

And what about creativity and free will?

If, as some insist, our choices are not a result of free will, how is it possible that there is a creative process?

How could Bach have composed such a vast range of expressive music without free will?

How could Beethoven have composed the Fifth or Ninth Symphonies without free will?

How could Bell have invented the telephone without free will?

How could scientists have put men on the moon without the freedom to choose to do so?


It's a good question. But of course dependent on how we define "creativity", not only how we define 'free will".


One of the commenters on the NatureNews article pointed something similar out, at least with respect to scientists:

Before trying to eliminate free will from their world view, scientists should carefully evaluate its role in the scientific method. Setting up an experiment or reproducing someone else's setup for verification both require that the experimenter has free will. In a purely deterministic or stochastic universe, scientists are reduced to mere observers of singular, non-reproducible events. Theories become deterministically or randomly popping up thoughts that observer-scientists can compare to other observations, but not really test in the sense that we like to claim. While such a view is not fatal to the scientific method, as long as observation and comparison remain possible, it seriously degrades science from a noble activity to some process that just happens.
  • 2011-09-02 08:22:30 AM
  • Posted by: Konrad Hinsen

It's an interesting point, but wouldn't the illusion of free will be sufficient to allow us to feel free enough to make scientific tests?

As far as creative force in art, I'm not an artist but many artists say that their creations are simply in them, they come out of them as something spawning, something that they could not avoid creating. I've heard writers describe the writing process as basically that, a story popping out of their brains, whether they liked it or not, or a painter say this is the way they paint, stuff simply flows out of their brains onto the canvas. Obviously art also involves technique, and that can be perfected (not only can, but needs to be perfected). An artist experience, described like that, sounds a bit like an unconscious process like your "brain" making the decision before you are aware you made it; then it appears in the realm of consciousness, and the artist creates the piece.


Of course I needed lots of training to become a scientist, but I'm not sure I was free to choose to become one. My husband has often told me I was "born a biologist" and somehow this rings true. It was a passion and not a conscious choice, when it started. Then of course I had to decide to go and get the training. But what did this decision entail? The decision could have been born as an unconscious process preceding or even parallel to the conscious one.

While it is true that some composers / artists works simply "flow out" of them - as was the case with Mozart and certainly with Bach - others find it a laborious process. Beethoven, for example, wrote and re-wrote and then re-wrote and re-wrote yet again.

Then there's this matter of "prior physical states" which are purported to trigger a cascade of other physical states.

I have grave doubts as to whether this idea of prior physical states can be applied to the creative process. The act of creation is so extremely personal and such an intimate function of one's consciousness that I do not see how these prior physical states can exert themselves on, for example, the choice of a word in a sentence, or the choice of a key to which a composer may modulate a theme, or the choice of a singer to color a lyric by singing a note a little sharp or another note a little flat.

And what of reactions to artistic works? I went to Avery Fisher last to hear Shostakovich's 13th symphony. It alarms - and even frightens - me to try to believe that my emotional reaction and the tears on the face of the woman in the row in front of me at the end of the second movement were determined by prior physical states.

I'm not as alarmed as you are by prior experiences or physical states because they are me. I am a combination of the genes I got and what happened to me, simplifying it a bit. But most people really find it alarming to think that we are the result of prior physical states. But your emotional reaction is not willed by you, is it? (unless one works as a professional actor), your emotions, in reaction to art or anything else, are not something you are in control of, at least at their start.

What about if the choice of a word in a sentence was a result of how our neural networks interact (and interacted) with the environment? It is no less of an impressive feat of humanity, even if that's what happened in Dante's case, to write the Divine Comedy.

Jonathan Leighton, who is a member here, wrote a book on empathy and he has a very nice chapter on free will, which he linked to in this comment, and is freely available. The way he explains why if free will is an illusion, it's actually not so scary, is very nice, IMHO.


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