The Free Will Illusion

Raya's World, Science — By on January 2, 2013 at 5:57 pm


By Raya Bidshahri, 4 January 2013

We human beings like to think that we are in control. The idea that we have free will with our thoughts and actions forms the very foundation for our morality, law, politics, religion, public policies, friendship and even sensations of guilt and accomplishment. Each of us creates a mental image of a world where we are in control. After all, it’s a part of being human. It’s one of the main things that sets us apart from other animals of the natural world. But, fortunately (and unfortunately) it’s not that simple…

The problem with the notion of free will is that not only do we have evidence against it, but we also don’t seem to have any evidence for it either. Simply put, no one has ever observed a neural activity that describes free will.

Before we get to any of that, its important to know what sorts of actions we’re talking about. It’s no news that we have no control over reflex actions such as the contraction of the iris in relation to light intensity. But there are other actions, such as the choices we make and the things we do, that we think we have control over. This includes choosing what to have for dinner, how to move the next chess piece and deciding whether you want to go to this or that party. These are all choices you think you made, but didn’t.

It was the psychologist Benjamin Libet who first used EEG to test the notion of free will and movement. What he discovered was absolutely staggering; the brain’s motor cortex fires off about 300 milliseconds before the person has decided to move. That’s not a very shocking delay, you may think, but recent studies with fMRI have revealed that there is often a 7 to 10 seconds delay. In other words, 7-10 seconds before you feel like doing something, your brain has already decided you will do it.

Even without having to conduct any sort of experiment, we know that all our thoughts and intentions emerge from mainly two things; the environment and the genes, both of which we have no conscious control over. The truth is that we are conscious of only a tiny fraction of information flow in our brains and great deals of our “intentions” come from background causes of which we are unaware.

Does this mean that we can determine what someone will do over a certain period of time just by observing their brain? Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds; the human brain is made of about 86 billion neurons and a trillion synapses. Interpreting such detailed intricacy is beyond our current capability but I can easily imagine a prefect brain scanning device in the future that can determine what a person is going to do before he or she has done it.

But if we are not in control, then who is? Who is this other ‘I’ that is deciding for us? Is it our unconscious thoughts? Is it our brain programmed by evolution?  Is it just someone else who lives in our head?

But that aside, considering that we humans are not in control of what we do and think, what do we do about criminals? The fact is that they, just as any other human being, do not have control over the horrible actions they perform and are clearly suffering from an abnormal imbalance in brain chemistry and networking. The very fact that serial killers feel no empathy and fail to perceive the social consequences of their actions conveys this. But what do we do? Do we go ahead punish them? Do we lock them up out of ignorance? Do we try to “cure” them?

But if we’re going to take the blame away from serial killers and psychopaths, shouldn’t we be taking away the credit from achievers? Some individuals are capable of doing extraordinary things, but who’s to credit for that? Were they simply born with the right set of genes? Could they have simply been raised in the right environment? How much of “free will” had anything to do with it?

But then what about our every day circumstances? Why did you decide to drink coffee today and not tea? Why am I writing this article and not watching TV? Why are you reading this article instead of taking a shower? Whose choice was that?

Of course, we have yet to solve the hard problem with consciousness and find out what and who this “I” is and until then we can’t tell whether “I” has free will. We have a lot yet to discover and learn about the human brain until we can answer any of these questions. However, amongst all the dilemmas and mysteries that we are faced with, it is important to be open-minded.

Editor’s note

Recommended Further Reading:

Raya’s blog:

Sam Harris’ blog post: Life Without Free Will



Free Will by Sam Harris

Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga



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