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Is Free Will Just "Your Brain Tricking Itself"?

Michael Egnor


The fallacy of free will denial won’t die. From The Independent, with my commentary:

Free will could all be an illusion, scientists suggest after study shows choice may just be brain tricking itself

Free will might be an illusion created by our brains, scientists might have proved. Humans are convinced that they make conscious choices as they live their lives. But instead it may be that the brain just convinces itself that it made a free choice from the available options after the decision is made.

Brains don’t “trick themselves” or “convince themselves” of anything, because brains aren’t selves and are incapable of convincing or of being convinced. A brain is an organ, and it metabolizes, generates action potentials, secretes neurotransmitters, etc. A brain does things proper to brains, and it doesn’t do things proper to people. Only people are selves, and only people do convincing and only people can be convinced. This distinction may seem academic or even pedantic, but the fallacy invoked by the author (the mereological fallacy — the nonsensical attribution of agency to parts which properly belongs only to the whole) infests neuroscience. It is raw nonsense, and the invocation of the mereological fallacy suggests that the invoker hasn’t a clue about the physiology going on.

The idea was tested out by tricking subjects into believing that they had made a choice before the consequences of that choice could actually be seen. In the test, people were made to believe that they had taken a decision using free will — even though that was impossible.

The… study… says that the brain rewrites history when it makes its choices, changing our memories so that we believe we wanted to do something before it happened.

“The brain rewrites history when it makes choices…” I’m pounding my forehead on my keyboard…

In one of the studies undertaken by Adam Bear and Paul Bloom, of Princeton University, the test subjects were shown five white circles on a computer monitor. They were told to choose one of the circles before one of them lit up red.

The participants were then asked to describe whether they’d picked the correct circle, another one, or if they hadn’t had time to actually pick one.

Statistically, people should have picked the right circle about one out of every five times. But they reported getting it right much more than 20 per cent of the time, going over 30 per cent if the circle turned red very quickly.

The scientists suggest that the findings show that the test subjects’ minds were swapping around the order of events, so that it appeared that they had chosen the right circle — even if they hadn’t actually had time to do so.

Not a surprising finding. When presented with rapid choices under pressure, some people misremember what they chose. So what?

The idea of free will may have arisen because it is a useful thing to have, giving people a feeling of control over their lives and allowing for people to be punished for wrongdoing.

It’s a safe bet that when scientists propose a really inane explanation for a mundane observation, evolutionary psychology is the discipline invoked. So it seems that our delusion of free will, somehow “proven” here by the observation that people under pressure get confused about choices, provided a survival advantage, allowing our simian ancestors to feel better about themselves and to punish miscreant apes in the community with a clear conscience. Evolutionary psychology is a parody of itself.

But that same feeling can go awry, the scientists wrote in the Scientific American magazine. It may be important for people to feel they are control of their lives, for instance, but distortions in that same process might make people feel that they have control over external processes like the weather.

Finally, an evolutionary psychology explanation for belief in anthropogenic global warming!

“Whatever the case may be,” they write, “our studies add to a growing body of work suggesting that even our most seemingly ironclad beliefs about our own agency and conscious experience can be dead wrong.”

The work is published in the journal Psychological Science.

Free will is real. Arguments against free will that depend on science generally invoke determinism and materialism. The fallacious reasoning is that physical processes are deterministic and our choices are wholly material processes determined by physical law and natural history.

Both presuppositions are false. Nature is not deterministic — quantum theory since the 1920s has ruled out determinism in physics, and the non-deterministic nature of physics has been elegantly demonstrated by modern experiments. Furthermore, the human mind is not wholly material. Contemplation of universals — abstract thought — is inherently immaterial, because universals cannot be instantiated in matter, and that includes brain matter. Actions chosen that are based on abstract thought are free of material determinism by their very nature.

Perhaps most egregiously, denial of free will is self-refuting. If our decisions are wholly determined by neurochemistry, then our decisions have no claim to truth, because chemical reactions have no truth-value. One chemical reaction is no “truer” than another. The declaration that opinions are mere chemical reactions is really the denial of the relevance of the opinion expressed. To deny free will is to deny the relevance of one’s own assertion.

Free will is a fact of human psychology. The denial of free will is a self-refuting superstition — an intellectual fad, really — based on illogic, on discredited 19th century science and on 21st century junk science, so clearly instantiated in the research referenced above.

Image credit: Bill Sanderson/Wellcome Library, London, [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.