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Free Will in the Laboratory

Published by marco on

As reported in I think therefore I am, I think by Stephen Cave (Financial Times), there are reports of repeatable experiments, which have the potential to obviate vast swaths of philosophical hypothesis and religious theory: science has its hands wrapped around free will’s throat and is starting to squeeze.

I Made You Read This

First, there’s the experiment by “American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet”, in which he tested brain activity of participants as they were performing various activities. Participants swore up and down that they were choosing when to perform the assigned activity. However, Libet discovered a timing problem gainsaying this claim, in that the brain was very busy before the participant claimed to have initiated the action. This suggests that:

“…your conscious experience of making a decision − the experience associated with free will − is just a kind of add-on, an after-thought that only happens once the brain has already set about its business. In other words, your brain is doing the real work, making your hands turn the pages of this magazine or reach over for your cup of tea, and all the time your conscious mind is tagging along behind. In other words, your brain is doing the real work, making your hands turn the pages of this magazine or reach over for your cup of tea, and all the time your conscious mind is tagging along behind.”

Another experiment builds on this discovery and attempts to influence the participants’ decision while preserving their feeling of free will.

“Two neuroscientists working in Australia have taken Libet’s discovery one step further. They found that, when asking people to choose to move either their left or right hands, it was possible to influence their choice by electronically stimulating certain parts of their brains. So, for example, the scientists could force the subjects always to choose to move their left hands. But despite their choice being electronically directed, these patients continued to report that they were freely choosing which hand to move.”

Continued research in this direction may cement, once and for all, that our completely convincing feeling of free will is a mirage. That even the supposedly completely creative act of typing out this article is not done of free will, that the mistyping and subsequent correction of errors in the previous sentence was preordained—a fixed part of the fixed flow of space-time. That, in effect, our feeling that we are observers of this universe is a cruel joke played on us by an evolutionary aberration. The feeling of despondency one gets as this realization sinks in? Preordained. The decision to reach for a bottle of scotch to drown the recursive echoes of predestination, which threaten to squelch every desire to do anything at all? Unavoidable. The subsequent huddling in the corner and going quietly insane? Your only possible destination from the very first breath you took. Thanks very much, inexorable laws of physics.

Implications for Society

Some feel that there might be a breakdown of the fabric of society as more and more people slowly wake to the realization that their waking to a realization was just as inexorable as the rising and setting of the sun, that their decision to go with the red slacks and the pink sprinkles on the donut was all unavoidable and slotted into an unfathomably large and complex web of events that are, have been and will ever be. Perhaps. Perhaps not. People, in general, have shown themselves capable of far greater feats of cognitive dissonance than ignoring a subtle psychological issue like whether or not they really have free will. After all, everything about us (as decided by nature and space-time) leads us to believe that we do have free will. It’s the way we seem to be built, so fighting it or trying to force ourselves to be conscious of the fact that our consciousness is a joke is a bit much for most people and, quite frankly, doesn’t put a lot of food on the table. If science proves that we have no free will, things could get a bit tricky for societies and their governments, though.

“…the implications for our systems of morality, of crime and punishment, are shattering. We only punish those we think voluntarily did wrong − not those who literally had no choice but to act as they did. But if there is no free will”

I mean, perhaps we’ll just sink into anarchy with a shrug, noting as we slaughter and adulter our merry way into the abyss, that “the universe made me do it”. This line of reasoning is hyperbolic and leads nowhere (except to the aforementioned catatonic state of rocking in a corner, hugging one’s legs to one’s chest). Where this kind of research could be interesting is in finally pushing our society towards a form of civilization that stops ostracizing the less evolutionarily fortunate—or at least stops torturing them like ants under a magnifying glass. Not too long ago, anyone deviating from the absolute norm in society was deemed insane and locked up. Different opinion and no wealthy family to shield you? Locked up; insane. Demented, unintelligent, handicapped? Insane, insane, insane. Things have gotten better to some degree and we’ve managed to shrink the group of people we treat this way, having moved on to deeming many aberrent—but essentially harmless—individuals as criminals, instead. If they aren’t a danger to society, we put them through the wringer of our society until, in no time at all, they’re aberrent and dangerous, like a dog, which has been kicked one too many times. With a “tsk, tsk”, we shut them away, averting our eyes as they rot. In fact, we use them as fodder to keep other amoral layers of society (e.g. prison guards) happy and productive.

“A report released last month suggested over a quarter of the UK’s almost 80,000 prison population have an IQ of lower than 80 and suspected learning disabilities, such as forms of autism and dyslexia. Another study carried out at the Young Offenders’ Institute in Aylesbury showed that if prisoners were given minerals and fatty acids essential for proper brain functioning, they committed 37 per cent fewer violent offences.”

These statistics are more than just numbers; they show quite clearly that poverty and lack of education (which go hand-in-hand) have more to do with criminality than voluntary evil. What we call the dregs of our society could be any one of us, but isn’t—not because of free will or self-control, but because of the inexorable skein of destiny. Because some are raised with enough food on the table and some are not. In that light, society might finally crawl one step closer to true civilization, where morality is enforced through education and rehabilitation rather than retribution and vengeance. This does not lead to anarchy, nor does it make the world more dangerous—just more charitable.

“Suppose that a serial killer continues to pose a grave danger to a community. Even if he is not morally responsible for his crimes, it would be as legitimate to detain him as it is to quarantine a carrier of a deadly communicable disease.”

The difference in this brave new world is that the killer, instead of being psychologically tortured for the remainder of his days, would be looked on with pity as a victim of fate. It’s a difficult concept to swallow in one go. John Searle, a preëminent American philopher asks how we are to cope with such a world:

“how do we humans, with our conception of ourselves as free, rational, moral agents, fit in to a universe ”of mindless, meaningless, brute physical particles”?”

Others—like How Quantum Mechanics is Compatible with Free Will by Aaron Schwartz[1]—argue that perhaps we won’t have to. The idea that free will is a chimera constantly regenerated by our brains in response to some spurious evolutionary signal triggered like the first domino at the beginning of time is difficult to reconcile with the reality being played out for us by our treacherous senses. In other cases where we are told that our senses are betraying us—as in games with colors or perspective that fool our highly optimized visual sense—we can use brute concentration to do an end-run around the automatic filtering imposed by our brains. This filtering (adjusting color or guessing actual size based on perceived distance) is extremely useful in 99.9% of all situations, keeping us alive. However, we can override it if necessary and with sufficient effort; we can force ourselves to see that the square is really gray in both cases and not white in one and black in the other, or we can focus hard and ignore our automatic filter to see that both squares are the same size, regardless of the trompe l’oeil imposed by the deceiver.

“This simply isn’t possible with free will. If someone tells you that you do not actually have free will but have actually been acting under an illusion, you cannot sit back and let determinism take over. When the waiter asks you whether you like soup or salad, you cannot say “Oh, well I’ve just learned that free will is an illusion and all my actions are completely determined by the previous state of the world, so I’ll just let them play themselves out.” I mean, you can say that, but the waiter will look at you like you’re crazy and you will get neither soup nor salad.”

As you can see, free-will experiments can leave you quite hungry. It seems that we do what we do, but when we stop doing that, it’s also what we do. As in the song, Free Will by Rush: “If you choose not to decide, still you’ve made a choice”. The act of not acting was also predetermined—mind-twisting though that may be—and you’re back at square one. The universe is like that annoying fourth-grader who’s discovered that he can annoy you by claiming that he “made you do/say that”, regardless of which action you undertake or phrase you utter. It’s this seeming spuriousness, this complete lack of justification for predeterminism that makes it so hard to believe. It’s kind of easy to see how the universe, ruled as it is by the cold, hard laws of physics might function like this, but to what end do we think that we have free will? Why hasn’t evolution erased this aberration? Perhaps it’s in the process of doing so—thinking for oneself is clearly on the decline.


[1] For those interested in more reading on the subject of free will, the comments attached to this article is filled with more hypotheses, several of which mention the Libet experiments cited above and also the great mathematician, Roger Penrose, who is deried as madman by some and lauded as genius by others. YMMV.