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Scientific American

Free Won’t

published August 2012 | comments (32)
Volition as self-control exerts veto power over impulses
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AT A RESTAURANT RECENTLY I faced many temptations: a heavy stout beer, a buttery escargot appetizer, a marbled steak, cheesecake. The neural networks in my brain that have evolved to produce the emotion of hunger for sweet and fatty foods, which in our ancestral environment were both rare and sustaining, were firing away to get me to make those selections. In competition were signals from other neural networks that have evolved to make me care about my future health, in particular how I view my body image for status among males and appeal to females and how sluggish I feel after a rich meal and the amount of exercise I will need to counter it. In the end, I ordered a light beer, salmon and a salad with vinaigrette dressing and split a mildly rich chocolate cake with my companion.

Was I free to make these choices? According to neuroscientist Sam Harris in his luminous new book Free Will (Free Press, 2012), I was not. “Free will is an illusion,” Harris writes. “Our wills are simply not of our own making.” Every step in the causal chain above is fully determined by forces and conditions not of my choosing, from my evolved taste preferences to my learned social status concerns—causal pathways laid down by my ancestors and parents, culture and society, peer groups and friends, mentors and teachers, and historical contingencies going all the way back to my birth and before.

Neuroscience supports this belief. The late physiologist Benjamin Libet noted in EEG readings of subjects engaged in a task requiring them to press a button when they felt like it that half a second before the decision was consciously made the brain’s motor cortex lit up. Research has extended the time between subcortical brain activation and conscious awareness to a full seven to 10 seconds. A new study found activity in a tiny clump of 256 neurons that enabled scientists to predict with 80 percent accuracy which choice a subject would make before the person himself knew. Very likely, just before I became consciously aware of my menu selections, part of my brain had already made those choices. “Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control,” Harris concludes. “We do not have the freedom we think we have.”

True enough. But if we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.

Support for this hypothesis may be found in a 2007 study in the Journal of Neuroscience by neuroscientists Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who employed a task similar to that used by Libet but in which subjects could veto their initial decision to press a button at the last moment. The scientists discovered a specific brain area called the left dorsal frontomedial cortex that becomes activated during such intentional inhibitions of an action: “Our results suggest that the human brain network for intentional action includes a control structure for self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions.” That’s free won’t.

In addition, a system has “degrees of freedom,” or a range of options that may result from its complexity and the number of intervening variables. Ants have a few degrees, rats more, chimps many more still, humans the most. Some people—psychopaths, the brain-damaged, the severely depressed or the chemically addicted—have fewer degrees than others, and the law adjusts for their lowered capacity for legal and moral accountability.

These vetoing neural impulses within a complex system with many degrees of freedom are part of the deterministic universe. Thinking of volition as a component of the causal net lets us restore personal responsibility to its rightful place in a civil society.

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32 Comments to “Free Won’t”

  1. Don Morton Says:

    I’m not sure about this, and I sense just a tiny bit of waffling here, away from the notion that we have absolutely no free will, by saying somehow that there is this magic “spark” that allows us to veto our actions at the last minute. Yet, you go on to insist that it’s completely deterministic. I’m not sure what the point of this column is, other than a wishful search for a possible loophole in our deterministic destinies, yet, you just can’t find it, it’s not there.

    But then, I have to admit that despite the author’s wonderful columns over the years, I have harboured a personal grudge against him ever since he tried to blow away the “magic” of the Airborne “anti-cold” product a couple of years ago. Though I still take it religiously every day (and I haven’t had more than a mild cold for years), I “choose” to veto the author’s attempted extension of his own logical doubts and act on my own behalf, all in the glorious illusion of free will.

  2. Dave Says:

    I just recently read your book, The Believing Brain. I’m trying to wrap my head around how one can both be a monist and believe in free will. Maybe this is a stupid question, but who is making the “choice?” Free will seems like a very dualistic notion in that it asserts there is a “higher mind” making a choice over the impulses of the brain.

  3. Brandon Osborn Says:

    Dan Dennet’s quip about how “Evolution is smarter than you.” is running around in my head right now.

    Until we chemically engineer bacon-cheesecake to be as nutritious as a salad bar with a multivitamin, and / or genetically engineer ourselves to quit hoarding fat into our thighs and midsections, the bacon-cheesecake eaters die faster with “free won’t” as a selector for fitness. So, once we do these and many other things to co-opt, accelerate, even completely usurp the process of human evolution; then, can we start seriously talking about free will?

  4. Another point of view Says:

    I don’t know whether free will exists or not, but prefer to act as though it does. Physicists know that the universe is not deterministic, so I’d guess that neither is free will since we are part of that universe.

  5. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Interesting…

    It raises further questions about free will.

    For a starting position – no (skeptical) one would argue that free will means you have an option of doing whatever the hell you would like to do. Free will doesn’t mean that you can flap your arms and fly like a bird if you want to bad enough.

    So free will is about choosing available options.

    Now, extend the factors that limit our options beyond the external to the internal. As a man, I cannot choose to give birth (at least not in any ‘normal’ way) – does that mean I have no free will? My senses limit me – if I were deaf I’d have no choose over listening to music.

    My emotions also limit me – I cannot choose not to feel certain thing after receiving certain stimuli… although I may decide to squash those feelings (and that is key to where I am headed).

    My knowledge limits me – I cannot choose between options I am unaware of.

    My internal drives – hunger for steaks and hunger for physical fitness also limit me. I cannot choose not to hunger for the steak nor not feel desire to be physically fit.

    Same with impulses in my brain…

    Schermer points out that, although our free will may be severely limited by internal and external factors that does not mean that all of our choices are, in fact, deterministic. A restricted choice is still a choice. Which urge you choose to indulge could still be perfectly free will.

  6. George Ortega Says:

    The problem with asserting that “free won’t” decisions are freely willed is that these decisions would have to be either causal or random, however, either prospect makes free will impossible, and there is no third option.

    I did an episode on this on my show Exploring the Illusion of Free Will – Episode 14. Why Both Causality and Randomness Make Free Will Impossible. Here’s a link to the transcript –

    http://causalconsciousness.com/Episode%20Transcripts/14.%20%20Why%20Both%20Causality%20and%20Randomness%20Make%20Free%20Will%20Impossible.htm

  7. theequalizers Says:

    do a search on ytube for “james randi tam 10″ some interesting results

  8. Maxus Empiricus XXI Says:

    I agree with Bad Boy Scientist: “free will is about choosing available options”, considering the “external and internal factors that limit our options”. I like that. It sounds almost like an excellent approximation to a sound operational definition of the concept of free will. And, in my opinion, that is precisely what is much needed in all the “scientific” statements coming from the field of neuroscience and psychology, including the book “Free Will”, by Richard Harris.

    As it can be clearly seen or inferred from most discussions on the subject, there appear to be two or more diverse implicit or explicit understandings of free will, all carrying a set of totally divergent and usually incompatible connotations, and all contaminated either by religious, political, cultural, or simply pseudo-scientific notions, so common in our days of “reason”. But generally speaking, it is just a mix of all these aberrations.

    I began reading with a serious interest the intellectual developments on the subject of free will, which captivated my curiosity at a very early age in my life. For example, according to Otto Fenichel, the psychoanalytic theory suggests a very limited range of options for our free will, as our choices are dictated by the subconscious interplay of psycho-biological drives and defenses. The profound but very valid concept of Dasein from the existential psychiatry, on the other hand, offers some hope to the possibility of free will, provided that we can brake “free of the unbearable burden of the Dreadful” (The Case of Lola Voss, by Ludwig Binswanger).

    I have also read extensively on diverse cognitive psychology studies and theories from the last seventy years. But up to this point, I’m very disappointed. To begin with: Where is a solid operational definition of the elusive concept of free will on which all researchers and commentators agree? Shouldn’t we have already such foundation of concept before we engage in all subsequent observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusions? If anyone has an answer to these questions, your comments will be very much appreciated. Thank you.

  9. Bill Newnam Says:

    I think the problem in all this is confusing mind with brain. Mind is a construct only and does not exist apart from the brain. So when the brain makes decisions before conciousness arises, then when the “mind” – the “I”- consciously knows about it, it is still the person’s brain making the decision. There is no separate mind or I making any decisions. The brain is all there is. And the brain is making decisions all the time in response to whatever environmental pressures arise. While it functions as an organism within its physical, chemical and biological restraints, the requirements of survival require a variety of decisions to be made to a varying environmental situation. That is the organism’s brain “willing” to react as needed beyond mere physiological processing. Within the above limitations, a degree of free will is clearly involved.

  10. Dave Says:

    Frankly, I’ve never really given much thought to free will before. I’ve just sort of accepted the idea that I have a choice in the things I do and, consequently, I am responsible for what I do. However, since reading this article I’ve been nagged by what seems logically inescapable: free will is a supernatural concept. As I understand free will, it suggests that there is some transcendent “Me” that can, with intent, override or somehow alter the determined calculus of chemical/physical reactions that are going on in my brain and alter my actions away from where unhindered nature would normally lead me. This leads me to believe that, if I indeed have free will, that this “me” is endowed with the same sorts of supernatural capabilities (though perhaps more limited) as are commonly ascribed to gods and ghosts: that there is some part of me that operates outside and can interfere in the rules that govern the physical universe. I don’t want to believe that we don’t have free will, because it has some seriously nasty implications for my world-view. But I have difficulty believing there’s some super-natural “me” that lives inside of the physical bound-to-the-universe “me”. I just can’t seem to find a way out of this quandry. Help?

  11. Stephen Says:

    I don’t believe that society or the legal system are in jeapardy. Just because there is a time lag between when my brain is putting together a decision and when I become consciously aware of my choice, or even that brain scans can have some predictive capacity, doesn’t mean to me that my choice is not my own. I am my brain. It is I who make my choices all day long every day, whether they are conscious, not conscious, or a mixture of both. I pay the piper when I eat bad food or drink too much, and that logically extends to the choices I make that harm others. Conscious or not.

  12. Jack Says:

    Yes! Thank you, Stephen! We still could be making a choice if there’s an apparent lag time. An apparent lag time and the determination of choices beforehand through imaging experiments do not necessarily show that the adaptive unconscious is making the decision for us. And even if it did, it is still a part of us. Shouldn’t there be more exploration of the difference between “conscious control” and “unconscious control”? How does one show a true demarcation between the two? Is there one?

    This leads to my next question concerning the experiments. Our choices are not simple choices between one food item and another. And, more importantly, even if they were, our brain is constantly gathering information from our past experiences that inevitably influence iterations of an experience.

    So, when Dr. Shermer is choosing his menu item it’s not like this is the first time! If he wants to eat healthier for next time, it is VERY POSSIBLE that his conscious thought to do so will influence his unconscious so much so that the next time he encounters the menu, he’s choosing the healthier option. Our choices are not just one and done. Several choices occur over and over again. Will I exercise today? Will I eat wheat bread or enriched bread? Will I sleep early?

  13. Sextus Empiricus XXI Says:

    Thanks Bill Newman for your helpful and opportune post. In a search for some valid operational definition of “free will”, I find your comments very valuable:

    “I think the problem in all this is confusing mind with brain…” “And the brain is making decisions all the time in response to whatever environmental pressures arise. While it functions as an organism within its physical, chemical and biological restraints, the requirements of survival require a variety of decisions to be made to a varying environmental situation. That is the organism’s brain “willing” to react as needed beyond mere physiological processing. Within the above limitations, a degree of free will is clearly involved”.

    Key conceptual elements here are: 1) “confusing mind with brain”, 2) “brain making decisions all the time in response to environmental pressures”, 3) “required by survival”, 4) “the organism’s brain is “willing” to react as needed”, 5) “within (various) restraints”, 6) “a degree of free will clearly involved”.

    In this non-equivocal formulation, we can see a realistic concept of free will, or operational definition of the brain making the decisions within certain natural limits, which can logically lead us to the possibility of free will, in the manner so defined.

    In contrast, a very opposed logical conclusion: “no free will is possible”, is the only inference we can make from definitions like the one endorsed by George Ortega in his series Exploring the Illusion of Free Will, as follows:

    “What do we mean when we say free will? Basically, we mean that our decisions are completely up to us, and that nothing that is not in our control is influencing, or compelling, us to make a decision”. “We have a will, in the sense that we make decisions, but all of these decisions are caused by factors outside of our control. Causality means that things happen according to the principle of cause and effect”.

    Key conceptual elements in this definition of free will are: 1) “decisions completely up to us”, 2) “nothing that is not in our control is influencing, compelling us to make a decision” 3) the fundamental supporting logic for all his series is the conceptual antimony “causal vs. free” (reminiscent to me of the dualistic theologies of some religions.)

    I suspect, nobody who is able to reason logically can infer from this peculiar formulation that an act of free will, so defined, is even remotely possible. In fact, there is no need to demonstrate anything else here. The concept is logically self-demonstrated. But curiously, based upon this suggestive and gratuitous concept of “free will”, many authors proceed to lecture us on countless arguments about every conceivable scientific discovery or theory on the planet, cause and effect, quantum mechanics, neuroscience, the Big Bang, fact or speculation from every field. A real thought derailment. Although interesting as many of these commentaries may be, the problem is in the starting concept, the sophistic definition of “free will”.

    As Pyrrho, the “skeptical about skeptics”, said some 2,200 years ago, I inquire: Under what grounds the authors of this definition have established this “angelical” concept of free will? The concept is flagrantly absurd, because such a human being, with “nothing influencing or compelling her decisions”, does not even exist in this world, and never existed. Not even the gods of the religions had the luxury of “that kind” of free will (they were compelled by their passions, with a very limited range of options indeed). Therefore, such an “uninfluenced agent of free will” is only a mythological entity, an entelechy (as in the system of Leibnitz, the soul or principle of perfection of an object or person; a monad or basic constituent); or perhaps a Platonic Idea, unaffected by any determinism, in the luminous Topos Uranus, well above the Cave where we live.

    We are not any of those mythical beings with such an unconditioned free will. Thus, we can not agree with this fictitious concept of free will at all. First, it does not apply to us, real human beings, only may apply to the Platonic Idea of Man, or to some grotesque dualistic homunculus; and second, because this corrupted concept of “free will” appears to be the source of all the confusion and endless arguments made by self-proclaimed “atheists” or “skeptics”. We can patently see in many pseudo-scientific discussions and books on the matter, enthusiastically disseminated by some authors, like divinely inspired gospels: “free will is uninfluenced, unconditioned choice”. It reminds me of the futile discussions among Christian theologians of the Dark and Middle Ages: “Being a perfect and free angel, could Lucifer have chosen not to believe he was equal to God? Or was he compelled to defy God by a rebellious impulse created in him by God in order to carry out His Divine Plan on Earth?

    A similar entelechy is behind current futile discussions of free will, as Dr. Shermer clearly illustrates in his brilliant opening statements, supported by Richard Harris:

    “AT A RESTAURANT RECENTLY I faced many temptations: a heavy stout beer, a buttery escargot appetizer, a marbled steak, cheesecake. The neural networks in my brain…”(etcetera)”…were firing away to get me to make those selections. In competition were signals from other neural networks…”, (etc.) “In the end, I ordered a light beer, salmon and a salad with vinaigrette dressing and split a mildly rich chocolate cake…” “Was I free to make these choices?” Of course not, according to Richard Harris.

    All that burlesque reasoning on “free will” leads to preposterous conclusions. It creates too much cognitive noise, it pollutes knowledge. We can’t envision the mere possibility of a scientific study of the “free will” based on such an ill defined concept; much less conduct serious investigations on the matter. This is not any sound operational concept that we can all agree upon. It is only an arbitrary notion profoundly contaminated by theological aberrations from the Dark Ages, or maybe from Plato’s doctrine of Ideas, if you prefer.

    I am disappointed by these intelligent, well educated and prestigious authors who can so easily fall into this epistemological trap, and start talking in the same derailed tone as the believers in the supernatural that they so effectively criticize. It would be very depressing if they were causing all this sophistry about the concept of “free will” because of some “unconscious secondary gain” operating in their brains, like the desire of establishing a “monopoly of knowledge”. Why not begin instead with a non-sophistic, operational concept of free will upon we can all agree? And let’s not forget the use of a broader epistemological approach to our considerations, since we are a multi-level integration of a dynamic “bio-psycho-socio-cultural-historic” kind of beings, which exist in the here and now.
    Thank you.

  14. Fred Kohler Says:

    Comment No.6 is technically correct, Quantum probabilistic considerations do not furnish humans with free will which would be a dice game, except that even a dice game is ultimately deterministic. Never the less we need the concept of free will to run our lives and society requires this concept to function. This concept, as is also true of consciousness is a necessary human invention. Its also a matter of degree. You can see this easily by going back along the evolutionary ladder. At what point in human evolutionary development did free will, or consciousness arise. Was there a son who had free will and a father who did not? Its obviously subject to a grey scale.

  15. Dave Says:

    Fred, I’m not sure why we “need” the concept of free will in order for society to function. The concept might be necessary for society to function as it currently does. But that’s a tautology. It seems to me that free will is simply our ascription of agency to “mind” – a belief that our “mind” can override our brain. But if you believe that mind is an illusion created by brain yet still hold on to the belief that you have free will, you’d have to believe in effect that your brain is overriding your brain – a logical absurdity. In the end, I think the key question is what restraint does the concept of “free will” stand over and against? What, distinguishes “free will” from “unfree will”? It seems to me that “unfree will” implies that my desires, impulses and pursuits are determined by chemical/electrical reactions occuring in my brain which are governed soley by the physical laws of the universe and over which “I” (the self-conscious “I”) have no control. To advocate “free will” would imply that the self-conscious “I” is not constrained by physical laws. And, in fact, when all the complicated calculus of the brain is complete and the course of action dictated by nature determined, this transcendent “I” can manipulate that determination.

  16. Al Porterfield Says:

    Exactly what and where is the “I” that’s vetoing these various impulses? Sorry: Free Won’t is just as great an illusion as Free Will.

  17. Fred Kohler Says:

    Dave, I agree that what is called the “mind” in popular speech is the functioning brain in all its electro-chemical complexity. The human invention of the concept of “free will” if believed becomes just an other factor, and a powerful factor in deed, affecting the way we make decisions.

  18. Sextus Empiricus XXI Says:

    Given the serious nature of the matter, I was making the following sequential considerations:

    1) There is a psycho-linguistic level of organization in the human brain (which in order to adjudicate social referents in the communication among individuals of the same clan) it had to produce some symbolic vocal sounds, like our “I” (other sounds in other languages), to differentiate the individuals referring to themselves from other individuals (she, he, they). The vocal sound “I” refers to “someone aware of possessing a personal individuality”, like in the example: “Who did eat the fish?”, “I didn’t”. That’s what the vocal sound “I” meant then, and it still means the same thing today for the vast majority of normal people interacting with others (I don’t know if Neanderthals or Homo Erectus had this ability, or at what point in the evolutionary ladder it was first recognizable).

    2) Freud used the word “I” to designate a hypothetical construct: “the sum of the mental representations of the body and its organs, the so-called body image, which constitutes the idea of “I” and is of basic importance for the further formulation of the ego.”… “It operates as an inhibiting apparatus which controls, by its inhibiting function, the position of the organism in the outside world.” In Freud’s model, the “I” (or ego) differentiates from the “Id”, or the biological drives demanding immediate discharge, many of them unconscious. The “I” was the function of a brain area of the cortex yet to be scientifically identified in the future, as he anticipated in his days. Freud was right in his prediction. As Dr. Michael Shermer indicates, “neuroscientists Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard discovered a specific brain area called the left dorsal frontomedial cortex that becomes activated during such intentional inhibitions of an action”. That’s the brain area Freud was referring to when talking about the “I”, or ego. (That visionary scope gives Freud the right to be present in this considerations).

    3) But well before the question of “who did eat the fish?”, and the answer “I didn’t”, was formulated early in our human history, a rudimentary concept of “free will”, in evolutionary degrees of course, may have gradually emerged as a requisite for society to function and to survive. That is, each individual in the group developed the ability to do or not do a certain action in order to be attributed with a certain responsibility for their actions towards others. If that particular fish was reserved for the children’s breakfast the following morning, and late that night you were hungry, unless you were a profoundly mentally retarded individual you hesitated for a moment: “Will I eat the fish, or won’t I?

    4) Let the astrophysicists and mathematicians calculate their quantum probabilities of this phenomenon, I’m no expert in that field. Though very interesting indeed, I still don’t see how those numbers can change the facts or make us gain a realistic understanding of this matter. Say you choose to eat the fish compelled by your hunger, and you proceed to remove the fish from the ice (remember you are in the ice age). You know what you are about to do is wrong, no matter how hungry you are. You care for the children of your group, they are weak and need the food to survive, so you decide to stop, and tell yourself “I won’t”. You go back to sleep, hungry but not with an inner conflict. Unfortunately, a couple of hours later, somebody else ate the fish; it was the imbecile in your group, whose head had been smashed by the stone ax of a rival clan years earlier. You exercised your intact free will; the imbecile didn’t have the same ability of free will, or it was severely impaired, and therefore couldn’t say “I won’t”. The following morning, when the elders of your group ask who ate the fish, you simply answer “I didn’t”. In fact, that’s all there is about the vocal sound “I”, and its associated idea of “free will”, or “free won’t”, however you want to call this socio-cognitive-behavioral function. As with other human abilities, it can be a measurable dimension in the phylogenetic continuum, and any individual’s responses should fall on the above average, average, borderline, or sub average levels of functioning.

  19. Dave Says:

    Is the concept of free will falsifiable? If so, what are the criteria?

  20. Patricio D Says:

    IMO the fact that the last steps of our decision making process (in the presented case the objection to the bacon preference previously taken unconsciously) take place in a different part of our brain and even maybe in the conscious part of our mind does not make them more *free*. They also have to be fully determined by our information and decision criteria and *we couldn’t have not selected the salad*.

  21. Sextus Empiricus XXI Says:

    In search of an operational definition of free will:

    What do we really understand by free will? It depends who you ask. But free will can also be defined, operationally for practical reasons, as the cognitive ability to choose a path of action within a limited range of options available to an individual, not forcefully coerced to perform said choices by any extraordinary external or internal factors (such as a pistol put to her head by an armed criminal gang, some organic brain damage impairing his cortical inhibitory function, or any other demonstrable mental illness causing them severe impairment of cognitive functioning), which could demonstrably diminish their situational degree of free will.

    The human motivations influencing these decisions don’t necessarily preclude the individual’s ability to choose one over other available options, as all choices are motivated anyway. Let’s consider the recent mass murders in America, with our sincere empathy to the victims. It could safely be said that no matter what their motives, these assassins had at least the available option of pointing the guns to themselves and commit instead an “altruistic” suicide before they left their homes. They had plenty of time and cognitive ability to make this alternative decision, or to choose any other given option that wouldn’t have caused any harm to other human beings, like calling 911 and asking for a PET team. Therefore, they most likely acted in full or at least partial exercise of their free will (so operationally defined). Inescapably, they always had a moral degree of responsibility towards others; even in the extreme case they were having said hallucinations or delusions.

  22. Felipe Says:

    I think we need more skepticism on this matter and have been surprised by Shermer’s submissive position: I read Harris’ book and grabbed a few important moral lessons though was ultimately unconvinced. Yes, we are not as free as we might think but I think there are other models that could fit Harris’ data other than no free will at all; he marries to a single interpretation without considering other alternatives. How scientific is that? Now, I have no formal education on neurosciences, but I can still come up with several hypotheses on how could we still possess free will and explain the cited experiments:

    For one, Harris says the origin of our thoughts appear thanks to external stimuli and unconscious processes. Then, how can our consciousness be free to choose anything if it is limited to what it is shown. Well, what if the consciousness is an input for the unconscious processes as well?; part of the stimuli? If two thoughs arrive to my consciousness but I decide to focus on only one, I would then receive other thoughts related to the one I chose to focus on rather than the other. Think about it: it makes very good sense, and I get a bit of freedom. And it explains the need of the conscious effort to think while Harris’ model fails to explain why conscious thinking takes so much energy if it is suposedly to no end.

    Another one: brain scanning can show decision results before the conscious brain is aware of the results. Fine, desicion-making is not a process where only consciousness is involve. But do these observations really deny that it was involved even slightly. Of course not! What if conscious thinking led to unconscious parts of the brain to finally tilt the balance to one side? I would think of it as a constant exchange of information rather than a agent-observer relationship as Harris puts it.

    I could go on, and probably some of my hypotheses are plain nonsense to someone who really knows this subject. However, I maintain that Harris’ conclusions were taken directly from hypotheses to fact by only considering two extreme positions: total freedom and total determinism. What about the middle ground?

  23. Dave Says:

    Felipe, with regard to your first hypothesis, computers can make decisions and can employ feedback systems similar to what you describe to arrive at an output. But I don’t think anyone would argue that computers have free will. Their output is determined.

    To suggest that human behavior is not determined – that we have “free will” – is to grant to human behavior an exception not allowed by science anything else I’m aware of: that it is not subject to the limitations of cause and effect. To say that humans have free will is to say that, if you could somehow know all the relevant measurable external inputs to the brain and understand how the brain processes those inputs, you still could not predict the outcome because each individual person – at the conscious level – is endowed with something that allows him to free himself from that determined outcome. Short of believing in something supernatural, I don’t see how that’s possible.

  24. Donald Clarkson Says:

    The veto system is surely caused. Just as deciding not to decide is itself a decision, choosing whether to act or not is still a choice. “Self-control techniques” are themselves caused behaviour. Whenever we make a choice, we always choose what we really want to do (or not do) at that moment in time. (Try to imagine something you really don’t want to do, then do it anyway to prove that you have free will.) Although I believe I have no real free choice in my actions, it is still “I” who make the choice. Blaming me for making a bad choice may not be morally justified, but still I am quite literally “at fault” and society must act to protect itself from faulty specimens.

  25. Robert Braverman Says:

    Shermer’s article suggests that the mechanism governing “unconscious forces” in decision making have a poswerful effect on choice, and that there are neurological processes that endcode history previous experiences, values etc. on the decision process which introduce alternative choices besides conscious ones. That these may overcome “conscious processes” or may be reversed by conscious processes does may not solve the question of “free will”, but tends to give at least a preliminary attempt to explain Freud’s notion of the unconscious working process.

  26. hicusdicus Says:

    Freewill, another absurdity that man uses to make himself feel special. Dumb people do smart things and smart people do dumb things. All decisions are based on genetics and hormone flow.

  27. Ake Eckerwall Says:

    Free Will/Won’t —– a different angle
    Before language we lived in groups and members cooperated. When we learned more efficient cooperation it was due to improvements in communication of what the different organisms intended to do. It was done by by signs, sounds and, later, words. The intensions/decisions were formed in the (sub)conscious workings of that organism.
    With time, we got better and better in communications and we even created a word for the ‘announcement': ‘I’ ! But that did not mean that we added a function to our organism: an ‘I’ that suddenly could deliberate and decide about things!
    Through 1000s of years we then used ‘I’ to give agency to decisions that were communicated and then we started to believe that what was communicated was really made by ‘I’, as we had little idea about how a decision came to.
    We are still in that situation; most people have no idea about how an organism makes decisions….they just assume that ‘I’ did it.
    And …. As ‘I’ did it…’I’ have Free Will.
    Voila!
    But…..
    My organism is still doing decisions in the same way as it has done for 1000s of years! Only better due to access to more information.
    A big confusion was created when this witnessing and announcing function of my organism’s deliberations and decisions was also supposed to have the powers to do them; i.e. when the announcement got the confusing ID: ‘I’ ? Or rather: Who is there to have Free Will? There is no one!
    Without anybody to own the Free Will/Won’t mechanism; it can not exist.
    But my organism will continue to make decisions and announce them and many people will continue to believe that a Free Will decision has been announced.

  28. Art Landy Says:

    Our system of jurisprudence, in spite of its many faults, is predicated on the assumption that as human beings we have the ability to exercise the function of free will, for if we didn’t have that ability, the notion of responsibility for our actions would not seem to hold any validity. Part of who we are is what we choose to do, and to what degree it is a function of heredity versus environment can be endlessly argued but does not negate the reality of our ability to make conscious choices for our lives.

  29. My favorite stock is XIN Says:

    Of all the philosophical notions that people argue about, “free will” is among those that most deserve to die. Now we can add “free won’t” to that group. Whether you think your mind is in a sense tantamount to the functions carried out by your brain or you think it’s some sort of supernatural effluvium farted out by God, neither a causal, deterministic worldview nor an acausal, random worldview is compatible with the idea that “you” or your “will” are free (i.e., in control of its preferences, choices, actions). Even if we eliminate all external influences so that we just have a “will” operating in a vacuum (whatever the hell that means), it’s still true that the thoughts and behavior of this will arise from the interactions of its constituent parts. If your will is operating in a causal, deterministic universe, your will ultimately is not in control of what it thinks and does; its thoughts and actions are determined by the mindless interactions of its constituent parts. If your will is operating in an acausal, random universe, your will still ultimately is not in control of what it thinks and does because its thoughts and actions are still determined by the random actions of its constituent parts.

  30. Hominid Says:

    When I read Shermer’s piece in Sci. Am. and many of the comments here, I see ontological assumptions in play that need further questioning.

    What would rule out free will, supposing there’s nothing other than dynamic material organisms in dynamic material contexts? When people oppose impulses and desires to “free will” are they not bringing some vestigial theology into play? (Our higher natures versus our unconscious beastly urges.)

    People are primed to notice things that align with their interests (otherwise grocery shopping would be overwhelming, let alone driving.) I act and perceive according to my interests, but I’m not always conscious of them. So consider Libet’s study. When my impulses register on an EEG before I can express them to others, why does that discount intentionality (will)? Perhaps will is not so thinly “conscious” and situation-specific. Perhaps bringing consciousness to drives and learning to adapt them to circumstances is more like what “free will” is. But even then I doubt it’s that cut and dried. Remember the “tacit knowledge” of chess experts, etc. Drives, impulses, intentions, choices – probably more or less of a cycle or spiral, but nothing that can be neatly defined and dispensed with based on a simplistic methodologically inspired ontology of simplistic prediction and control.

  31. R Wysong Says:

    I’ve been saying this stuff for years (free will is an illusion, since we ultimately make decisions based on the configuration of our brains).

    Only difference is that I bring in determinism, which *really* gets an argument started.

  32. M Bates Says:

    Merovingian: … Beneath our poised appearance we are completely out of control.

    Shermer and a whiff of belief in free will? Surely my eyes deceive me. Free won’t? Really? This is so embarrassing. Let me get this straight. The learned ability to respond to a pattern in a manner which is not primal is evidence of a magical soul fairy in my head (or anywhere in Neverland I presume) that can transcend the laws of physics, chemistry and biology? Michael this is what you are suggesting. Need I point out that even if your free won’t soul fairy existed it would not sustain the proposition of free will?

    Oh my.