A while back I said I'd post a paper I was writing for English (got an A in the class!). I'd just like to preface this by meantioning that this isn't meant to be anything on level with a doctoral dissertation, just what I gathered (with the help of some of you ) over the few weeks that I studied it. I apologize for any lack of spacing. Think of this as an introduction. If anyone is interested in looking up the links I'd be willing to add them. With no further adieu, here ya go:
To the average person the concept of free will is as simple as pie, and his or herpossession of it is a given. To deny that one has this free quality might seemas laughable as denying that the earth is revolving around the sun. But we can recalla time when humanity thought the earth was in fact the center of the universe.As the human race continues onward in its scientific endeavor, it’s makingdiscoveries which don’t always seem to line up with what common sense woulddictate. The earth is not flat, our planet is not the center of the universe,and the beautiful stars that fill the night’s sky burnt out long ago. It wouldseem that history is repeating itself, at least that’s what’s being claimed.Due to a perceived predictability of choices, neuroscientists are questioningwhether or not we have free will but being met with a fair amount ofresistance.
Perhaps the common, and most basic, conception of free will is that people have “the ability to choose what they want”(O’ Connor). A person can devote their life to curing cancer or spend it lyingon the couch. One has the choice to live as he or she pleases. As long as oneis not made to choose “x” by an outside force, the choice is their own. That’snot to say, however, that they’re not accountable to the laws of the land orcultural convictions. Only that it’s within their power to break those lawsshould they choose. One can look at a given scenario, take into account all thefactors, and execute a course of action accordingly. While they may beinfluenced by their environment, ultimately they are the ones making the choices.
When discussing the nature of free will we look to the mind, where our choices are made. In an attempt to betterunderstand phenomena such as consciousness and volition, scientists havestudied the brain. The field of neuroscience has surely made an impact on howwe understand free will. An early example of neuroscience shedding light on thenature of free will is the work of Benjamin Libet. He hooked his subjects up toan EEG which enabled him to track electrical activity in their brains. He then askedhis subjects to simply flex their finger. They were to do this while watching adot as it circled an oscilloscope (like a second hand would rotate around aclock), and asked to remember the position of the dot when they had decided toflex their finger. What he found was that “although conscious awareness of thedecision preceded the subject’s finger motion by only two hundred milliseconds,the rise of Type two readiness potential was clearly visible at about fivehundred and fifty milliseconds before the flex of the wrist. The subjectsshowed unconscious activity to flex about three hundred and fifty millisecondsbefore reporting conscious awareness of the decision to flex.” (The InformationPhilosopher). ‘Readiness potential’ simply refers to the electrical signals inthe brain that initiate an action. It was found that a readiness potentialcould be detected by up to one and a half seconds prior to an action. The implicationwas that the decision to move their finger did not originate with their conscious decision.
For a more recent example of Neuroscience weighing in on the nature of free will, one can look to the workof John-Dylan Haynes. "He put people into a brain scanner in which adisplay screen flashed a succession of random letters. He told them to press abutton with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt theurge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they madethe decision" (Smith). By observing neuronal patterns in real time, Hayneset al. found that they could predict their subjects' decisions with an averageaccuracy of sixty five percent. Not only that, they were able to predict theirdecisions by up to ten seconds prior to their subject's conscious awareness ofhaving made a choice. The data clearly showed that decisions are not initiatedin the conscious mind. Rather, choices originate from electrical charges in thebrain. Libet’s work may have caused one to wonder about the conscious’ role involition, but Haynes work seemed to greatly diminish its input.
In light of discoveries such asLibet's and Haynes', it would be reasonable to view mental events such asthoughts as secondary causes, participating in decision making but not the onlycausal factor. However some interpretations have gone from simply treatingmental events as secondary causes, to viewing them entirely as effects whichlack any causal power of their own. The thought is that all choices can bereduced to electrical signals in the brain. One does not consciously choose togo for a walk without it first being decided by the subconscious. Asneuroscientist Sam Harris put it, "the contents of consciousness are bornof an unconscious mental life" (Harris). This particular philosophy ofmind, known as epiphenomenalism, is not new with these findings (It can betraced back to the eighteenth century) but is seemingly undergirded by them. Onthis philosophy, "To assume that mental and physical events- volitionsfollowed by appropriate behavior, fear followed by an increased heart rate,pains followed by wincing etc.- reflect causal process is to commit the fallacyof post hoc, propter hoc." (Walter). The conscious mind was said to beoutsourced by the subconscious brain.
However, there seems to be an obviousflaw in one of the underlying assumptions of epiphenomenalism. It’s said thatfor every mental state of consciousness there’s a physical subconsciouscounterpart upon which it is contingent. If the conscious is contingent uponthe subconscious, any causal power that conscious possess is likewisecontingent upon the subconscious. It’s been charged that in order for theconscious to be credited with having any real causal power, it must possess acausal power that the subconscious does not. Yet if conscious thoughts are contingentupon unconscious activity it would seem impossible to show that a mental eventhas causal power in the absence of its physical counterpart. It would seemimpossible because the mental event would be contingent upon the physicalevent. (Larry Shapiro, Elliot Sober10-11)
Another problem with the claim that mental events have no effect on the physical world seems so obvious it's hardto see how it’s been missed. The weakness of epiphenomenalism is that it claimsall actions are the result of interactions in the brain. This is anabsolute claim, which can be some of the hardest assertions to verify becausethey require exhaustive knowledge of the subject in question. If it can beshown that the claim is invalid in at least one instance, the claim isdefeated. Avshalom Elitzur has found such a defeater to epiphenomenalism."The fact that humans are baffled by qualia...and express this bafflementby their observable behavior, is a case where qualia per se- as non-identicalwith percepts- play a causal role in a physical process" (14). Qualia arethe mental states that accompany a given action such as smelling a rose orsmashing your finger with a hammer. Though it's hard to deny that they exist,it has been denied that they have an effect on the world. But as Elitzur haspointed out, qualia have quite obviously had an effect on the behavior ofphilosophers (or anyone who's given this issue some thought). Papers have beenwritten, debates have been had, and YouTube videos have been made. Qualia asphenomena have caused behavioral patterns that would likely not have arisen hadthey not existed.
Interestingly, for a more scientific objection to epiphenomenalism one can look toneuroscience itself. The key is in the data, "While replicating Haynesexperiment, Martin Lages and Katarzyna Jaworska were able to predict theirsubjects decision with an average accuracy of sixty four percent”(Lages, Jaworska). Even if one were to grant that current epistemic limitationsdue to current technological disadvantages possiblylowered their degree of accuracy, sixty four percent still isn't close to onehundred percent. The primary reason for this lack of total predictabilitymay have to do with Benjamin Libet’s findings. Again, he showed that thechronological process that results in a given action starts in thesubconscious, moves to the conscious, then finally results in the action. Heargues that since any subconscious decision must first pass through theconscious it must be approved by the conscious mind before being carried out.In other words, “We have free will to abort an action. So we may better thinkof volitional action in this case not as free will, but ‘free won’t.’ We canstop an action initiated by our brain non consciously.”
What is becoming clear in light of these findings is that decisions are primarily plannedin the subconscious, even if those plans aren’t necessarily carried out. So onemight ask what exactly the role of the subconscious is. In simple terms thesubconscious could be thought of as the individual in autopilot. It’s whatkeeps a number of systems necessary for survival running smoothly. For example,the subconscious is responsible for running the digestive, circulatory, andrespiratory systems. If one was tasked with simply keeping their respiratorysystem running for a week it’s doubtful they would be able to do or thinkanything other than, “inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale”. Yet the subconscious isable to keep these systems running even while we sleep. It’s a necessity forsurvival without which one would not last long. What may seem problematic tosome, however, is the thought that the subconscious is not only running vitalsystems necessary for life but attempting to make life decisions as well.
The good news is that the decisions forwarded by the brain are not random; itschoices are actually based of off past experiences. An obvious example is theperson who automatically looks both ways before crossing a street. They don’t haveto have the thought in their mind ‘look both ways before you cross”; the subconsciousautomatically sets the act in motion. It does so based on instructions thattheir parents likely drilled into them in their younger years. Another everydayexample is the ability to drive while not consciously focusing on what one isdoing. “This wasn’t true when we were first learning. Then, not popping theclutch took our full attention. But as adults, most of us drive unconsciously.We cruise down familiar streets while talking to a passenger, listening to theradio, or planning the future” (Bargh). So while these automatic reactions originate in the subconscious, this shouldn’tbe a problem considering they’re based on one’s past.
Science has indeed changed the way we look at the world. Discovery is an exciting endeavor that should be embraced and encouraged by all. We should be willing to have our preconceived notionschallenged, and if need be changed to align more closely to the world as itactually is. However, zeal for new discoveries should be tempered with clearthinking. In this instance, where free will has been declared an illusion by some,it appears that the search party has run a foul. If anything we’ve come torealize the significant role the subconscious plays in our lives. Without itsaid we’d surely find ourselves in a dreadful state. Yet it’s unwarranted to saythat the data proves our mind is only an impotent effect of our brain. This isa case of the expert neuroscientist stepping into the distinct realm ofphilosophy, and doing a poor job of it at that.