The Neuroscience of Free Will and the Illusion of “You”
How hard determinism could inform the true nature of the self
Posted November 8, 2014 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Yamaoka Tesshu, a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.
Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”
Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly, he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”1
Do human beings have “contra-causal” free will? Do we consciously choose to carry out certain actions and, under the exact same conditions, could we chose to do otherwise? This is a question that has been debated for thousands of years, by philosophers and armchair philosophers alike. Last year, I published a paper in the journal Psychological Medicine entitled “The Neuroscience of Free Will: Implications for Psychiatry” that represented my own efforts at trying to make sense of the free will question, taking into account relatively recent discoveries in neuroscience that have shed new light on the issue. And when I say shed new light, what I really mean is that a variety of experiments performed over the past 20 years have provided some objective data supporting some very solid arguments against free will.
This is important, to say the least, because for all the time that people have debated free will, there really hasn’t been much data to speak of beyond our own subjective experience. And while personal experience does form the foundation of so many of our belief systems, one of the central themes of this blog is that subjective experience is one of the most unreliable kinds of data upon which to base those beliefs.
Instead, in order to have an updated discussion of free will, it is now necessary to account for objective findings arising from experimental studies. These studies begin with the work of Benjamin Libet, who demonstrated in a series of experiments performed in the 1980s that prior to the conscious intention to move one’s hand in an apparent act of free will, unconscious brain activity correlated with that movement (called the “readiness potential”) is detectable by electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings. In other words, your brain appears to decide to move before any conscious intention to do so, suggesting that the conscious decision “I choose to move” is more of an afterthought than the causal determining force during a simple motor task.
These results have been reproduced and refined in numerous subsequent studies, including a recent experiment published in 2011 by Itzak Fried, a neurosurgeon and researcher at UCLA. Fried replaced Libet’s EEG recordings with electrodes monitoring single neurons and found that the readiness potential isn’t just some nonspecific preparatory signal as some have argued, but brain activity that predicts both whether a subject will move and what hand they will use before they make that those conscious decisions. Again, this seems to give lie to our subjective sense of free will in which our experience tells us that our conscious decision to move is what sets that decision in motion. In actuality, things are already set into motion long before any conscious awareness of that decision is made.
Beliefs about free will are typically distilled into three basic philosophic stances, depending on your rationale. If you believe in free will because you believe that the universe is not necessarily deterministic – that is, rigidly bound by the laws of physics – then you are a “libertarian.” Psychologists have suggested that we all tend to be natural libertarians who, drawing from our own subjective experience of free will, believe it from birth and are loathe to let it go.
If on the other hand you concede that the universe is deterministic, but believe that free will exists anyway, then you are a “compatibilist.” Compatibilists sometimes argue that there is wiggle room for free will at the level of the brain, mind, or consciousness. For example, one popular argument is that quantum mechanics might apply to the molecular functioning of neurons such that random events could occur, thus freeing the will from determinism.
And finally, if you believe that the universe is deterministic and you therefore don’t believe in free will, you are a “hard determinist.” In my experience, hard determinism is the least popular stance and I suspect that many think of its proponents as some kind of cold nihilists who, not unlike Yamaoka Tesshu, close themselves off to a world of experience.
While it remains possible to adopt any of these stances without being delusional, any position should account for the experiments of Libet and Fried. Of course, as with most scientific data, there is plenty of room to dispute their interpretation. You could say that these studies are simply flawed, citing various methodological problems such as lack of precision in measuring the time of one’s conscious decision – maybe it occurs earlier than the experiments suggest. Or maybe, despite Fried’s findings, the readiness potential isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – after all, it only predicts movement with about 70-80% accuracy, not 100%. Critics have raised these and other issues many times before in the academic literature (additional specifics on the studies by Libet and Fried and the many subsequent counter-arguments to explain their findings are referenced in my paper). And in discussing these findings with colleagues, students, and friends over the past few years, I’ve heard countless other objections, some more reasonable than others. Libet himself believed that while free will might not exist, human beings might have the ability to veto decisions, leaving room for a kind of “free won’t.”
While I’m going to claim to be agnostic on the question of free will with no intention of debating or resolving the issue here, I am going to briefly explain why some people find hard determinism appealing, discuss why most others favor libertarianism or compatibilism, and propose some alternative views about what hard determinism could contribute to our understanding of the “self.”
In defending hard determinism, proponents would say that despite our subjective sense of free will, libertarianism just doesn’t fit the actual data. Physical laws, not human whims, determine subsequent events, regardless of whether those events involve an apple falling from a tree, what we eat for lunch, or whether we can put on a Superman cape and take flight. Compatibilist arguments seem to provide an intellectual “out” that preserves free will despite a largely deterministic universe, but often mistake the possibility of random neural events for free will, which are about as different as you can get. Either that or they argue for a type of free will that has nothing to with “contra-causal” free will defined at the beginning of this blog post (“free won’t” is one of these many variants). And while hard determinism may be a kind of nihilism, it’s simply what’s known in science as the “null hypothesis” that is the beginning of any proper investigative inquiry and holds the appeal of Occam’s Razor that favors the simplest explanation to fit the data.
If hard determinism has such scientific appeal, why are most of us so reluctant to accept this philosophic stance? As already mentioned, the main reason is that our daily experience continuously reinforces the sense of free will. It seems like we choose to do things all the time, so how could it be otherwise? If I choose to pick up a pencil, I pick up the pencil. If I chose not to, I can leave it lying on my desk. But now that subjective experience has to be resolved with the findings of Libet and Fried that seem to demonstrate that the free-will choice in a simple motor task like picking up a pencil is in fact an illusion. One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to simply reject the findings of Libet and Fried. But isn’t this just a kind of “denialism” in the service of protecting our subjective experience? Is it so hard to accept that our personal experience might be faulty?
Some have argued that hard determinism must be rejected to preserve morality. If we don’t have free will and no longer believe in the ability to choose our actions, might we behave more selfishly such that the rule of law that provides the framework for society would collapse? But that need not be the case. Morality doesn’t go out the window with determinism – on the contrary, if the self is the sum total of our conscious and unconscious brain processes, then we become responsible for all of our actions, volitional or otherwise.
Others have argued that perhaps more complex decisions than picking up a pencil, like deciding what kind of car to buy, are imbued with greater degrees of free will. We aren’t just victims of reflex—we deliberate, weighing pros and cons, before choosing and freely committing to a course of action. But if we really think about it, are those kinds of decisions really free? Do we make rational decisions about what car to buy or do we buy certain brands based on irrational feelings and unconscious incentives? Do we really decide who we marry by weighing the pros and cons of that decision, or do we “go with our hearts?” And what about the bad choices we make – do we choose to break our New Year’s resolutions because we freely decided that we don’t want to stick to them any longer? What about behavior in the context of mental illness – does someone with obsessive compulsive disorder freely choose to wash their hands a hundred times a day? Or what about addiction – many people think that alcoholism must be a choice because it involves taking a drink, putting it to your lips, and swallowing, but isn’t that just the kind of simple motor act that Libet suggests isn’t free? And if we can accept that some decisions might not be free, why is it such a stretch to acknowledge that maybe none are?
So, let’s instead imagine for a moment that hard determinism is correct. What would it really mean for our lives? And is what it means really that terrible or hard to accept?
At its core, what hard determinism really rejects is duality, the division of self/mind and brain/body championed by René Descartes in the 1600s. In the Libet experiments, free will is threatened when our conscious decisions seem to be little more than an afterthought, as if the unconscious brain activity that actually determines your actions is not “you.” But if we stop thinking of our brain and its many unconscious processes as something other than ourselves, then we might see that while the traditional notion of free will might not be the right way to think about things, this hardly means that human beings are automatons. Instead, human brains do make voluntary decisions, but just as Freud theorized, much of that decision-making occurs unconsciously by something other than our conscious selves.
Hard determinism need not be the nihilistic philosophy it’s cracked up to be. If we were to give up the idea of duality and the belief in free will, it might help us to gain something in the process. For example, if the “you” that says that you consciously chose your actions is an “unreliable reporter,” could it also be an unreliable reporter for other things, like when we tell ourselves that we’re ugly, fat, incompetent, or doomed to fail?
In fact, this updated version of the self is a cornerstone of so-called “third wave psychotherapies” like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness-based therapy. These approaches teach us to be leery about what our “minds” tell us and encourage us to instead observe our conscious thoughts non-judgmentally while also calling them into question or letting them go. ACT asks us, “If I’m not my thoughts, what am I?” Good question. In order to understand the true nature of the self, it may be worth abandoning some of our time-honored intuitions like free will and duality in favor of a more neuroscientifically grounded, ongoing process of self-inquiry. Equipped with such enhanced self-awareness, who knows what mental health benefits might result?
1. Reps P. Zen flesh, Zen bones: A collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings. New York: Anchor Press, 1961.
2. Pierre JM. The neuroscience of free will: Implications for psychiatry. Psychological Med 2013;1-10.