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Materialist explains why you should doubt a typical lecture-room argument against free will

In “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?” (New York Times Opinionator, November 13, 2011), Eddy Nahmias explains why – even if there is nothing but the material brain, you shouldn’t believe the bumf that conscious choice is an illusion:

Consider, for instance, research by neuroscientists suggesting that non-conscious processes in our brain cause our actions, while conscious awareness of what we are doing occurs later, too late to influence our behavior. Some interpret this research as showing that consciousness is merely an observer of the output of non-conscious mechanisms. Extending the paradigm developed by Benjamin Libet, John-Dylan Haynes and his collaborators used fMRI research to find patterns of neural activity in people’s brains that correlated with their decision to press either a right or left button up to seven seconds before they were aware of deciding which button to press. Haynes concludes: “How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”

However, the existing evidence does not support the conclusion that free will is an illusion. First of all, it does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it. It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions. If we assume that conscious decisions have neural correlates, then we should expect to find early signs of those correlates “ramping up” to the moment of consciousness. It would be miraculous if the brain did nothing at all until the moment when people became aware of a decision to move. These experiments all involve quick, repetitive decisions, and people are told not to plan their decisions but just to wait for an urge to come upon them. The early neural activity measured in the experiments likely represents these urges or other preparations for movement that precede conscious awareness.

This is what we should expect with simple decisions. Indeed, we are lucky that conscious thinking plays little or no role in quick or habitual decisions and actions.

His whole argument probably doesn’t entirely work, but we can be pretty sure that if he sees the problem quoted, most honest people do.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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One Response to Materialist explains why you should doubt a typical lecture-room argument against free will

  1. I agree with Nahmias. Those arguments against free will are often an enjoyable read, if only because they are usually full of absurdities.

    When somebody provides an argument against free will, I am tempted to ask “Did you come up with that idea of your own free will, or were you compelled to say that on account of blind mechanistic forces controlling your actions?”

    People who argue against free will seem to understand science, particularly physics, as describing a rigidly mechanical universe, in which there would be no room for free will. I have never understood science in that way. I tend to think of the universe as organic (in a metaphorical sense, not a biological sense). That is, the universe does what it does, and we should not expect complete and perfect accounts. I see scientific laws as idealizations such as are useful for us to imperfectly control and predict the parts of nature that we deal with. I do not see them as exact descriptions of the universe.

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