Free Will on Trial
WYSU Commentary (#132, July 2012)
As I collapse into my recliner to watch a network newscast, I recall the ones available, and then, without coercion, I consciously select the one I want. In other words, my choice is free. Or is it? Let’s see if an experiment will tell us.
Suppose that Sue, a scientist, instructs me to look at pictures on a screen and to press a button with my right or left hand within five seconds after a sailboat appears. Suppose, further, that while I’m doing this, Sue uses a neuroimaging device to track the activity in the prefrontal cortex of my brain. After the sailboat appears a dozen times, Sue shows me that brain waves in the two hemispheres revealed which button I would press before I consciously chose to do so.
In fact, variations of this experiment have been performed hundreds of times by dozens of researchers with similar results. (1) And what does this research tell us?
According to many scientists, it tells us that free will is an illusion. Among them is Sam Harris, a neuroscientist. Harris writes:
Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it. (2)
Thus, for Harris, my choice to watch Diane Sawyer on ABC last night was triggered by
unconscious events in my brain beyond my control. Indeed, all our choices, he insists,
are the product of “background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert
no conscious control.” (3)
What are we to make of this? Here are three points that we should consider.
Finally, if the sharp exchanges about these issues in the scientific and philosophical literature today are a clue, there is no end in sight to the centuries-old debate over free will versus determinism.
© 2012 Tom Shipka
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