Mind & Body

Do We Have Free Will? Neuroscience Might Have an Answer

We've written before about how metaphysics is the place where science and philosophy meet. But that particular discipline exists at the fringes of regular physics, where only philosophers are qualified to come in and start wildly speculating about the nature of reality. The question of free will also plants its flag in both camps. Philosophers have been arguing for and against it ever since Plato, but suddenly a couple of scientists burst in and rudely answered it for them. The only thing is, maybe their answer isn't so certain after all.

The Choice Is(n't) Yours

Before we let those spoilsport neuroscientists in to ruin the fun with their "reproducible results" and "objective truth," let's explore the rich history of philosophers discussing what, exactly, free will is. (It should be noted that this all assumes reality has something called determinism, which means that the laws of the universe can only go one way.)

According to philosophers, there are generally two conditions that have to be met for a person to have free will. First, she needs the option to have taken a different action than the one she chooses, and second, she must be the source of her action. For example, let's say you first present your friend Susan with an awesome robot suit. It's her choice to climb into it or not, but you've got the remote control. Once she's inside, she doesn't have free will anymore — you control whether she uses her lasers or her jetpack. Now, say there really is a set of controls inside the robot suit, but she doesn't know how to access them. Even though she could, technically, do something other than what you choose for her, you remain the source of her actions — she still doesn't have free will.

Why does that matter? Well, to a lot of philosophers, if you can't be said to choose your actions, and you aren't the source of them, then you can't be held responsible for them. After all, the havoc caused by that robot suit isn't the responsibility of the poor woman trapped inside.

Now, consider yourself. Just like everything else that's made up of atoms, your brain and body are subject to all of the laws of physics. Just like the person with the remote control to Susan's robot suit, thermodynamics could be said to strictly determine all of your actions, even if that strict control isn't obvious from the perspective inside your brain.

"But wait!" you might be saying. "Susan might be trying not to blow up the old water tower, but the person with the remote control is forcing her to do it. Yet thermodynamics isn't a robot suit to me — I'm not trying to do one thing while the laws of physics force me to do another; I just do what I choose to."

That's fair. You can decide you want to eat a chocolate-chip cookie and easily make it happen, understanding that you also have the option not to. The question is, why do you want to eat that cookie in the first place? In a way, didn't the laws of physics determine that decision for you, as well? That says you're not the source of the action, which violates one of the conditions of free will. In that case, you aren't Susan in the robot suit metaphor — you're the suit. Eesh, we're even worse than we were at the beginning.

Free Willy

With the way we've been framing free will so far, it almost seems incompatible with determinism — fittingly, this view is called incompatibilism. After all, if determinism says the laws of the universe can't be changed, and those laws constrict my possible actions, then how do I have free will? Luckily, that's not the only way to think about free will. There are lots of compatibilist arguments as well. Maybe the appropriate answer to that argument about the laws of the universe constricting your actions is, "No, duh." Because of gravity, I can't just choose to float up into the stratosphere — does that impinge on my free will? Intuitively, the answer is "no," because it just means that the physical world has some limitations that my imagination doesn't.

Or maybe the issue is that we're framing moral responsibility all wrong. Maybe we should start with what our sense of morality is and work backward from there. In an influential 1963 paper, philosopher P.F. Strawson suggested that we consider what he called "reactive attitudes" when we consider moral responsibility. Reactive attitudes are emotions like gratitude, resentment, or forgiveness, and they arise in response to the actions and attitudes of others. Our understanding of morality arises from our understanding of reactive attitudes, argues Strawson, so the truth or falsehood of determinism shouldn't have any effect on our views of morality. If the existence of morality is contingent on the existence of free will, then, free will would also be unaffected by determinism as well.

Did you follow that? Maybe this example will make some sense of it. Let's say you're waiting for the bus, minding your own business when suddenly someone clumsily drops their coffee and spills it all over your new blazer. Ugh. Couldn't they be more careful? Right now, you're feeling the reactive attitude of resentment as you blame the person for the accident. But then you realize that the person only dropped their coffee because they were shoved by someone behind them, and suddenly, your resentment shifts to that jerk instead. But then, you realize that person shoved the coffee-holder because an out-of-control car was careening down the street. Now, it's a lot less clear that there's anybody to blame for the accident, and your reactive attitude of resentment has nowhere to go. These kinds of complex interpersonal judgments are not reliant on a deterministic or non-deterministic universe, so perhaps morality, and thus free will, don't really have any relationship to determinism either.

Science Weighs In

As it turns out, while philosophers have been going back and forth on what counts as free will, and whether morality is a requirement for it, scientists were working on ways to actually test for it. In a study published in 2016, neuroscientists Adam Bear and Paul Bloom found strong evidence that we aren't actually making our own choices — at least, not consciously.

Participants were presented with five white circles and asked to predict which one of them would turn red. Then, they were asked to report whether they guessed correctly. In the first version of the test, the circles turned red very quickly, and in the second version, they took a little more time. When participants had more time to reflect on their choice, they reported correct predictions 20 percent of the time — precisely random, given there were five circles. But when the circles turned red more quickly, the participants reported correct guesses 30 percent of the time. That suggests that the choice happened backward: They saw the circle turn red before they were done deciding, but it happened too quickly for them to consciously realize it. Therefore, they thought they had made their choice freely even though they had already seen the red circle. "Our minds may be rewriting history," Bear said of the results.

Framed as proof that free will was an illusion, the story predictably blew up on social media. That interpretation is understandable since it suggests that the choices we make aren't the choices we think we make. But that doesn't take into account the fact that, first of all, given time, we're more likely to accurately describe the choices that we make. After all, we have more time than the blink of an eye to think over most of our moral decisions. Second of all, there's not necessarily a reason to think that unconscious influence somehow means the chooser didn't have free will when they decided. Of course, you're free to think otherwise.

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One question that we left alone in this article was that, even if we don't have free will, maybe we need to keep believing that we do. Sam Harris's "Free Will" tackles that particular angle head on, and it's free with your trial membership to Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 1, 2018

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