Neurobiology and Free Will By Brian Simpson
Academia never ceases to amaze me. If it is not producing absurd politically correct material, then it delights in producing debunkings of the “life world” of common sense reality. This applies to physics right through to biology and neuroscience. There, the research strategy has been to deny the existence and/or causal powers of the mind, and to reduce the mind to the brain, and eliminate the mind. The less than hidden agenda is to get rid of the soul, so this is all a long argument against Christianity. Readers almost certainly have not heard of the attack by neuroscience on the idea of human freewill, so here is a good summary of what they are up to:
“It is quite likely that a large range of cognitive operations are necessary to freely press a button. Research at least suggests that our conscious self does not initiate all behavior. Instead, the conscious self is somehow alerted to a given behavior that the rest of the brain and body are already planning and performing. These findings do not forbid conscious experience from playing some moderating role, although it is also possible that some form of unconscious process is what is causing modification in our behavioral response. Unconscious processes may play a larger role in behavior than previously thought.
It may be possible, then, that our intuitions about the role of our conscious “intentions” have led us astray; it may be the case that we have confused correlation with causation by believing that conscious awareness necessarily causes the body’s movement. This possibility is bolstered by findings in neurostimulation, brain damage, but also research into introspection illusions. Such illusions show that humans do not have full access to various internal processes.
The discovery that humans possess a determined will would have implications for moral responsibility. Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris believes that we are mistaken in believing the intuitive idea that intention initiates actions. In fact, Harris is even critical of the idea that free will is “intuitive”: he says careful introspection can cast doubt on free will. Harris argues “Thoughts simply arise in the brain. What else could they do? The truth about us is even stranger than we may suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion”.
Neuroscientist Walter Jackson Freeman III nevertheless talks about the power of even unconscious systems and actions to change the world according to our intentions. He writes “our intentional actions continually flow into the world, changing the world and the relations of our bodies to it. This dynamic system is the self in each of us, it is the agency in charge, not our awareness, which is constantly trying to keep up with what we do.” To Freeman, the power of intention and action can be independent of awareness.
A pioneering experiment in this field was conducted by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, in which he asked each subject to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he measured the associated activity in their brain (in particular, the build-up of electrical signal called the Bereitschaftspotential (BP), which was discovered by Kornhuber & Deecke in 1965). Although it was well known that the Bereitschaftspotential (sometimes also termed “readiness potential”) preceded the physical action, Libet asked how the Bereitschaftspotential corresponded to the felt intention to move. To determine when the subjects felt the intention to move, he asked them to watch the second hand of a clock and report its position when they felt that they had felt the conscious will to move.
Libet’s experiment: (0) repose, until (1) the Bereitschaftspotential is detected, (2-Libet’s W) the volunteer memorizes a dot position upon feeling their intention, and (3) then acts. Libet found that the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that he had decided to move. Libet’s findings suggest that decisions made by a subject are first being made on a subconscious level and only afterward being translated into a “conscious decision”, and that the subject’s belief that it occurred at the behest of his will was only due to his retrospective perspective on the event.
The interpretation of these findings has been criticized by Daniel Dennett, who argues that people will have to shift their attention from their intention to the clock, and that this introduces temporal mismatches between the felt experience of will and the perceived position of the clock hand. Consistent with this argument, subsequent studies have shown that the exact numerical value varies depending on attention. Despite the differences in the exact numerical value, however, the main finding has held. Philosopher Alfred Mele criticizes this design for other reasons. Having attempted the experiment himself, Mele explains that “the awareness of the intention to move” is an ambiguous feeling at best. For this reason he remained skeptical of interpreting the subjects’ reported times for comparison with their ‘Bereitschaftspotential’.”
Obviously this is all complicated, but the general thrust is not too hard to see: the experiments allegedly show that unconscious processes determine what we do before we consciously do them. These unconscious processes are almost certainly caused by other neurological events and physiological processes that are not conscious. Hence, free will is an illusion, and we are determined in all our actions by forces outside of conscious control, going backward in a chain of causation before our birth. There goes Christianity, or so they think. The problem of free will vs determinism has puzzled philosophers and theologians for thousands of years, and it cannot be quickly solved here.
I think the solution requires positing the existence of an immaterial soul and mind, which constitutes the Self, which may also be influenced by unconscious processes, but is free by virtue of the power of God. But, the idea that all of our actions are unconscious is logically incoherent. It would mean that reasoning was not possible at all because reasoning requires the capacity of “choosing otherwise,” having the capacity to accept a conclusion because of reasons rather than causes that go back before one’s birth. There is thus something fundamentally wrong with the determinism of the neurologists, but it would take extensive research funding to run it to ground: