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Free Will Is Not An Illusion

Are we zombies or free-will agents?

Many scientists and philosophers think that free-will is an illusion. That is, intentions, choices, and decisions are made by subconscious mind, which only lets the conscious mind know what was willed after the fact. This argument was promoted long ago by scholars like Darwin, Huxley, and Einstein. Many modern scholars also hold that position and neuroscientists have even performed experiments since the 80s to prove it.

These experiments supposedly show that the brain makes a subconscious decision before it is realized consciously. In the typical experiment supporting illusory free will, a subject is asked to voluntarily press a button at any time and notice the position of a clock marker when they think they first willed the movement. At the same time, brain activity is monitored over the part of the brain that controls the mechanics of the movement. The startling typical observation is that subjects show brain activity changes before they say they intended to make the movement. In other words the brain supposedly issued the command before the conscious mind had a chance to decide to move. All this happens in less than a second, but various scientists have interpreted this to mean that the subconscious mind made the decision to move and the conscious mind only realized the decision later.

In a paper in the current issue of Advances in Cognitive Psychology (Vol. 6, page 47-65), I challenge the whole series of experiments performed since the 1980s pur-ported to show that intentions, choices, and decisions are made subconsciously, with conscious mind being informed after the fact. These experiments do not test what they are intended to test and are misinterpreted to support the view of illusory free will.

My criticisms focus on three main points: 1) timing of when a free-will event occurred requires introspection, and other research shows that introspective estimates of event timing are not accurate, 2) simple finger movements may be performed without much conscious thought and certainly not representative of the conscious decisions and choices required in high-speed conversation or situations where the subconscious mind cannot know ahead of time what to do, and 3) the brain activity measures have been primitive and incomplete.

I point out 12 categories of what I regard as flawed thinking about free will. Some of the more obvious issues that many scientists have glossed over include:

• Decisions are not often instantaneous (certainly not on a scale of a fraction of a second).

• Conscious realization that a decision has been made is delayed from the actual decision, and these are two distinct processes.

Decision making is not the only mental process going on in such tasks.

• Some willed action, as when first learning to play a musical instrument or touch type must be freely willed because the subconscious mind cannot know ahead of time what to do.

• Free-will experiments have relied too much on awareness of actions and time estimation of accuracy.

• Extrapolating from such simple experiments to all mental life is not justified.

• Conflicting data and interpretations have been ignored.

A basic problem is that scientists do not yet have a good independent brain-function measure of the conscious generation of intentions, choices, or decisions. Without such a measure, it is not possible to measure the time at which a willed action occurs.

My paper concludes with a series of suggestions that scientists can use to test free-will issues. Equally important, the research I suggest would not only help identify reliable markers of conscious decision-making but would also help scientists learn what the brain does to achieve consciousness in the first place.

In the real world, subconscious and conscious minds interact and share duties. Subconscious mind governs simple or well-learned tasks, like habits or ingrained prejudices, while conscious mind deals with tasks that are complex or novel, like first learning to ride a bike or play sheet music. Most deliberate new learning has to be mediated by free will, because subconscious mind has not yet had a chance to learn.

The implications of this debate are profound. It determines our world view of whether we are victims of genetics and environment or bear responsibility for our intentions, decisions, and choices. I contend we are responsible for what we make of our brains and for our choices and decisions in life. In a free-will world, people can choose to extricate themselves from many kinds of misfortune - not to mention make the right choices that can prevent misfortune.

William Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D., is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University.

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