Termed variously as “Causeless volition,” and “Moral liberty,” the question of free will is somewhat rigorously posed as: “Given all conditions requisite to eliciting an act, except the act itself, does the act necessarily follow?” Some, classified as “Determinists” or fatalists, and necessarians, answer in the affirmative. Others deny this, and assert that one’s volition is not an inevitable result of one’s nature, state of being, and forceful motives acting upon oneself; one does exercise one’s free will.
That this question has far-reaching implications is obvious: if one lacks the capacity to exercise any free will, how can one be responsible for any act, and be held accountable? Is everything consigned thus to fate, or destiny, with individual selves no different from puppets or mechanical bodies moving along according to simple physical laws? But if not, is this an indication of metaphysics at play? Is there more to life, and consciousness, in the manifestation of free will, that affirms agency (intention and action directed to an end) beyond the physical? It is easy to see why this question has occupied minds across the ages.
While the question is clearly psychological (to do with the ‘psyche’), and philosophical, many have attempted to apply scientific principles to illuminate the subject matter. Some have claimed that just as motion of particles is derived from knowledge of their prior states and of forces acting upon them (Newtonian mechanics), prior conditions and present motivations move individuals inevitably on their respective pathways. Others counter such a position with more recent discoveries of relativity, quantum mechanics, and quantum uncertainty (shown to be the same as the wave-particle apparent duality of sub-atomic components recently) specifically, claiming that these twentieth century findings bring unpredictability into observable outcomes, and thus open the door for whatever other explanation one may wish to slip in.
Yet, while scientific principles are eminently useful in comprehending phenomena in their particular domains, I argue that it is too far a stretch to employ such principles, applicable to sub-atomic particles or inanimate matter, to comprehend decision-making, at the high levels of abstraction, in biological neural networks. Quantum uncertainty in the sub-atomic domain does not map, in any conceivable manner, to decision unpredictability in the human mind, despite the discovery of microtubules in the construction of neurons and quantum effects in such structures. No, the wave-particle duality of sub-atomic components does not affirm any mind-brain duality (or any soul-mind-body trinity) in the biology of living beings. That can only be wishful, fanciful, romantic thinking, putting it euphemistically!
Others, measuring neural activity patterns, have labored to demonstrate that neural activity leading to decisions occurs anywhere from a half-second (the Benjamin Libet experiments in 1980) to four seconds (John-Dylan Haynes’s experiments in 2013) before the manifested act. And in doing so, they’ve argued that since neural activity patterns originated before a “conscious registration” of the decision (about a quarter second before flicking the wrist in the Libet experiments), the conscious mind wasn’t really involved in the inevitable decision! In the most recent such experiment, neural patterns detected some seconds before a decision were seen to predict a binary decision with around 60% accuracy, or a little better than a coin toss.
A recent Scientific American article, by Eddy Nahmias of Georgia State University, argues against such assertions by polling for conviction in free will despite advancement in technology permitting deeper inspection and measurement of neural signalling in the brain. But scientific inquiry isn’t really about what a majority believe, is it? If that were the case, we may yet find ourselves moving about on a flat earth with the sun, the moon, and the stars revolving around us at unimaginably great velocity.
No, such inquiry is subject to many assumptions and limitations…a fundamental assumption being the very subjective definition of consciousness. I think of consciousness as a far more complex phenomenon, manifested by the processes of life, than the subjective registration, in a mental construct of an “I,” of an awareness. Viewed in this holistic continuum, of all processes of life as consciousness, there is no distinction between listening to an experimenter’s requests and carrying out the experiment as described in the consciousness of the experiment participant; any ‘branch’ decision made in this overall process is simply part of the activity.
In these binary experiments, the participant knows that only one of two choices can be made; there are no other choices possible. The fact that conscious registration of a direction taken occurs a short while after initiation of the choice does not prove that the participant was involuntarily acting based upon neural signals in the unconscious or beyond the participant’s domain. It may only indicate that a mental construct or process within – the “I” – may need that much additional time to register such a choice made.
It is these definitions – the “conscious mind,” the “sub-conscious mind,” and the “unconscious mind” (can we blame Sigmund Freud for them?) – that cloud any inferences that may be drawn in such experiments. Does the unconscious and the subconscious not belong to a participant’s consciousness? Are they distinct from the participant’s mind?
Such experiments do help shed light on the complexity of the brain, its processes, and our own recognition of what goes on within. They have little if anything to say about free will, or the ability to make reasoned, illogical, imaginative, or whimsical choices.
What we do know about ourselves, our brains, to put it simply, is that we have instinctual, emotional, imaginative thought, as well as competitive, cooperative, and contemplative capabilities, developed to varying extents through nature and nurture, that afford us a wide range of thought and resolution. Such complexity in any system permits non-linear and chaotic functionality, to put it in scientific terminology, that can depart very significantly from linear, cause-effect determination.
In other words, it is quite conceivable that we have the capacity for free will…to think and act contrary to predictions, contrary to our self-interest, contrary to rational thought and action that is in our domain. Altruism in adulthood, inherent and observable in many living beings (not just humans), is perhaps a manifestation of such ability.
Perspective (the image): If you’ve wondered about the significance of the picture included in this post… We, on Earth, consider ourselves unique, distinct. Yet we are but an insignificant part of an immense and complex Universe. The mental construct, the “I” similarly, is but a tiny part of our complex consciousness…
Update (Sept. 16, 2015): Researchers at Ohio State University attempt to relate irrational decision-making to Quantum Physics