|A dinosaur chooses to question the reality|
of free will.
For some time now neuroscientists have argued that a person's physical brain "makes a decision" up to seven seconds before a person is even aware of making a choice. "A pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided."
Neuroscientists are challenging the idea that persons have free will. "They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person's actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. "We feel we choose, but we don't," says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London." How can we call a choice "mine" if we don't even know when it happened and what it decided to do?
Can recent brain scan studies destroy the idea of free will? "Philosophers aren't convinced that brain scans can demolish free will so easily. Some have questioned the neuroscientists' results and interpretations, arguing that the researchers have not quite grasped the concept that they say they are debunking." Others think that "if unconscious brain activity could be found to predict decisions perfectly, the work really could rattle the notion of free will. "It's possible that what are now correlations could at some point become causal connections between brain mechanisms and behaviours," says Glannon. "If that were the case, then it would threaten free will, on any definition by any philosopher.""
This essay is stronger on neuroscience and biological determinism but weak on real philosophical criticism. So I offer this.
Biological determinism, if true, would have some odd logical consequences. One that sticks with me is this. Take the above quote that says: "[Neuroscientists] argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought." But "to argue" involves decision-making. On biological determinism a neuroscientist's "arguing" is but "a mere biochemical afterthought." The neuroscientist's "decisions" are as much biologically determined as their subjects are.
Further, how could neuroscientific "arguments" "change my mind" or anyone's mind about the problem of free will if persons do not have what has traditionally been called a "mind?" On biological determinism the idea of "reasoning" about the whole thing is epistemically weird.
Take the experiments of neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes cited in the essay. Subjects were asked to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge. Haynes found that "the conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided." OK. But since Haynes's "conscious decisions" are not under his control, who or what is putting forth this theory?
These kind of epistemic dilemmas are at the heart of what has been called the "hard problem of consciousness"; viz., the matter if first-person subjective awareness. I am currently under the opinion that, from the viewpoint of biological determinism, this problem is in principle unsolvable because intrinsically self-defeating. For example, I'm almost through a reading of Eliezer Sternberg's My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility. This text nicely presents the self-defeating nature of biological determinism.
It will be interesting to follow the research and results of Florida State University's four-year project on free will called "Big Questions in Free Will." I like the balance here: "Too often research on free will in the humanities goes on in ways that fail to engage the rapidly growing reservoir of relevant empirical data. However, it is also true that scientific work on free will often fails to reflect on the various models of free will that have been articulated in the philosophical tradition and to utilize the important conceptual distinctions developed within these traditions." (From the website) There's a really nice, thorough list of guiding questions here.