The Fight Over Free Will

The Fight Over Free Will

There is still no peace in the war over free will. Philosophers and scientists regularly talk past each other, and it can be difficult to know exactly what someone means when they say “free will is an illusion!” or “free will is real!”.

There is still no peace in the war over free will. Philosophers and scientists regularly talk past each other, and it can be difficult to know exactly what someone means when they say “free will is an illusion!” or “free will is real!”. People start with different definitions of what it means to be free, which naturally leads discussions deep into a rabbit hole.

Many long and painful debates have focused on what people are thinking when they use the phrase “free will”. So you first need to decide what _you _think it means to be free. Do you feel as though you have a mind plus a brain, and that your mind makes a decision which your brain then implements as an action? Would it shock you if scientists could read your unconscious brain activity to predict some decision you were going to make — “you” being your conscious mind — before you had made that decision yourself?

Beliefs about mental events preceding brain activity are typically “dualist”. This is the idea that there are separate substances for mind and brain: the mind is an immaterial substance like a soul, and the brain is a material substance made of biological matter. Sometimes, people don’t _believe _that they’re dualists, but many of their beliefs and actions suggest that they adopt those kinds of assumptions implicitly. Rather than the mind being simply a function of the brain, dualism would mean that the mind can cause events to happen in the brain. The dualist behavioral sequence of buying a coke in a store might look like this:

  1. First awareness: “I’m really thirsty. I think I’ll choose this coke”
  2. Brain: [_activity that moves your body to pick up the coke from the shelf_]

The dualist notion of a decision _beginning _with a mental thought rather than brain activity is unscientific. For any intention, thought, or decision you make in your mind, there _must _have been prior brain activity that determined it, because there’s no other way you could have developed a thought. Thoughts depend on brain activity and cannot emerge independently through any substance outside of the biological matter in your brain and body.

So if your very first awareness of wanting a coke emerged at number 1 in the sequence above, some brain activity pattern must have come before it to create that feeling of wanting a coke. And if the brain activity came before your very first experience of a conscious intention, then you must have been unaware of that activity by definition. Therefore, unconscious brain activity determines your conscious thoughts, and a realistic coke-buying sequence would look more like this:

  1. Brain: [_activity linked to feeling thirsty_]
  2. First awareness: “I’m really thirsty”
  3. Brain: [_activity that makes you want a coke_]
  4. Next thought: “I think I’ll choose this coke”
  5. Brain: [_activity that moves your body to pick up the coke from the shelf_]

psychology free-will mental-health science philosophy data science

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