Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 2 March 28, 2012Posted by Matt in Free Will.
Tags: free will, intentions, neuroscience, Sam Harris
Yesterday I introduced the ideas put forth in Sam Harris’s book Free Will, and today I’d like to take a slightly deeper dive into this interesting work. First we answer the question: From where does the Will originate?
Our brains take in untold amounts of information each moment of our lives, yet we are only aware of a very small fraction of it. Everything we come in contact with is recorded, organized, and analyzed in the depths of our minds, and although we notice that our experiences change (thoughts, moods, perceptions, behaviors, etc), we are unaware of the background workings of our brains that produce them.
For instance, I’ve had two cups of coffee this morning. Why did I not choose to forego coffee and instead choose tea or water? Did I consciously choose to have two cups of coffee this morning? Harris says no.
The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind?” … Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. … The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in the consciousness – rather, it appears in the consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.
Harris then goes on to cite scientific studies to support this idea. Physiologist Benjamin Libet used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be seen 300 milliseconds before a person feels that they have decided to move. A second study employed fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to further this idea. Experimenters found that associated brain regions contained information a full 7-10 seconds before a conscious decision was made. In other experiments, direct recordings of the cortex showed that the activity of 256 neurons was all that was needed to predict (with 80% accuracy) a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before they became aware of it.
Harris carries this hypothesis to its logical conclusion, saying:
These findings are difficult to reconcile with our sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe you are in the process of making it.
I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know – it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?
So, if we do not know what we will intend until the intention arises from our brain, we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions, at least not in the way that we seem to think we are. Thus, in Harris’s view, we are beholden to these neural impulses, based on a combination of collected data and genetics.
To close out this section, he asks and then answers the question, “What would it take to actually have free will?”
You would need to be aware of all factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom – for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.