Just How Free is Free Will?

Researchers are finding that our behavior may be more hard-wired than we’d like to believe. If so, can we handle the truth?

How does free will function in the brain?
How does free will function in the brain? Image courtesy of Flickr user alles-schlumpf

If you have, so far, held true to your New Year’s resolutions, I salute you and wish you much success in this noble endeavor. If, however, you have already tossed them aside like scolding squatters in your psyche, do I have a blog post for you.

Turns out that the more scientists learn about how our brain functions, the less they think we’re as much in control of our behavior as we’d like to believe. Our genetic wiring apparently is a very powerful thing, so powerful that it starts to calls into question just how much we really do control our destiny. Who doesn’t want to believe that if you really needed to, you could change the way you act or think, that ultimately you’re the one running the show inside your skull, not millions of nondescript neurons? But are you really? And if so, how much of it?

This is sobering stuff, although it does give you an out if you’ve already surrendered to the siren song of chocolate cheesecake. That was, after all, out of your control, right?

Alfred Mele wouldn’t be so quick to give you a pass. He’s believes in at least some level of free will and has been researching and writing about these kind of things for many years. In 2010 he was awarded a $4.4 million foundation grant to head a four-year project called “Big Questions in Free Will.” Big questions indeed, from “Is there any scientific evidence that human beings sometimes make free decisions?” to “Is there any scientific evidence that our subjective sense of free choice is an illusion?” and a lot of ground in between.

These questions have been bending our minds for thousands of years. But only recently has technology allowed scientists to track brain activity during the decision-making process. And that has raised some profound possibilities.  One study in particular, by neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes concluded that people seemed to become conscious of making a decision only after their neurons had already fired into action. Haynes asked people to hit a button randomly with their right or left hand and, based on what he observed in their brain scans, was able to predict their decisions seven seconds before they realized they were making them.

Or as Haynes put it, “By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.”

Not so fast, says Alfred Mele.  There’s a big difference between hitting a button in a lab and say, deciding to move cross-country to start a career or a relationship. Only when scientists can see how brains behave during those kind of complex, life-changing decisions, will they be able to draw any meaningful conclusions about how much free will shapes our lives.

What makes Mele’s project particularly innovative is that it’s taking on free will from three different directions, mixing neuroscientists with philosophers and theological scholars. The idea is to merge modern science and ancient wisdom, and through those diverse perspectives bring us closer to figuring out if we’re in the driver’s seat or if consciousness is simply your brain’s way of  tricking you into thinking you have control.

Don’t blame me

Of course, there’s risk that comes with this. If the researchers were to conclude that free will is largely an illusion and behavior is predetermined by a combination of our genes and our environment, well, that opens up one Costco-size can of worms.

Other research suggests that if people believe they have little control–and ultimately little responsibility–for what happens in their lives, they slide  to the dark side. One study found that we’re more willing to cheat, another that we’re more likely to become slackers at work. Still another, that we become less generous.

This was enough to have the researchers for the “cheater” study, Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, conclude: “If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.”

In other words, if free will does turn out to be an illusion, maybe it’s better if we didn’t know.

Who’s in charge here?

Video Bonus: Sit back and pretend you’re a philosophy student at the University of Oxford and hear what Peter Millican has to say about free will.  

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