Monday, 15 August 2016

Free Will: Has Philosophy Been Eclipsed by Neuroscience?

Norton Junction. With acknowledgement to Adrian the Rock
By Keith Tidman
We make decisions before we are consciously aware of making them. These are the findings of the latest neuroscientific research. Has neuroscience therefore eclipsed philosophy? Has it taken the lead? Does philosophy have anything left to say?
In a much-publicised experiment, a neuroscientist placed people into a ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging’ (fMRI) machine. The aim was to observe brain activity as test subjects performed an activity. The neuroscientist instructed the subjects to press a button either with their right hand or their left hand – but to pay close attention to when they took the decision as to which hand to use. The results surprised the worlds of both philosophy and neuroscience. The scanner revealed brain activity—the brain unconsciously deciding to press the button—a remarkable seven seconds before the test subjects consciously opted to press it. That is, the subjects’ brains committed to decisions before the subjects became aware of making them.

Why should this be important? Why does it matter?

We assume that free will is fundamental to our humanity. Assumptions about free will—conscious agency—engage people on pragmatic levels. In fact those assumptions are the keystone for society’s notions of responsibility. Codes of morality and law necessarily rest—rightly or wrongly—on free will’s existence. Institutions, from government bodies to systems of justice to religions, are built on that keystone. In the absence of an alternative model that ensures order in society, such rules-based institutions hold people accountable for their actions. Human conduct is judged, and responses—praise and reward, or condemnation and punishment—are rendered accordingly. Society assumes that a person may be held responsible only if that person is a ‘morally responsible agent’, in conscious, intentional control of behaviour.

The cautious conclusion to the fMRI experiment was that consciousness may play no role in what a person decides. Other neuroscientists concur in this, based on the results of different tests. But are our conclusions too hasty? Are the results ironclad?

In the context of conscious control, what does the fMRI test really tell us about free will? Is free will an illusion, a tricked brain, misled intuition—and even just a convenience for society to function? The question typically appears something like this: “At the moment a person decides, could she willingly and freely have decided otherwise?” And if we do not enjoy unbridled (‘libertarian’) free will, do we at least have contingent free will? If free will is an illusion, is that so for only those choices made hastily and with minimal thought? Or does free will describe all our decisions? Philosophers have grappled with free will for millennia, of course. But the role of neuroscience in this arena is more recent—and arguably indispensable. This dual track of philosophers and neuroscientists makes it necessary to delineate what unique competencies each field brings to free will. But what are they? And do they each have a role?

By and large, both philosophers and neuroscientists today acknowledge the  cause-and-effect nature of brain activity (the physics, chemistry, biology) and decisions—mind-brain dualism long since having been discarded. Yet our considerations do not end here.

Philosophers, for their part, collaborating with psychologists and anthropologists and others, bring a deep understanding of human behavior. This understanding exists in the context of the roles of institutions and culture in society, informing the ways people make decisions, including whether freely or mechanistically. Philosophers also contribute an understanding of the centuries-long history of conceptualising free will and its alternatives, especially how some of the most brilliant minds have described and debated free will and determinism and the concepts’ variants. This process includes placing those historical notions of free will to the litmus test of analytical logic, to assess soundness. All this vitally informs the science—outside the standard domain of scientists—to ensure that the science remains conceptually and historically grounded.

For their part, neuroscientists, collaborating with physicists and biologists, structure hypotheses and bring increasingly sophisticated technologies and rigorous methodologies to understand cognitive brain function. They correlate those functions to the brain as it makes a decision and the person subsequently is aware of the decision. The aim is to explore—tangibly record and measure through technology—what is happening at the unconscious and conscious levels, and to do so involving more complex decision-making. Independent scientists must duplicate test results. For neuroscientists, this unique framing of the free will-versus-determinism puzzle takes into account diverse factors.  These include the neurons and synapses firing in different regions of the brain, perceptions of reality, people’s genetic makeup, the environment influencing genes’ expression (epigenetics), psychological states, and others. How these factors bear on outcomes of science’s take on free will remains to be explored.

Allowing for the distinctly separate competencies of philosophers and neuroscientists, tackling free choice can best be accomplished jointly: defining the problem, examining alternative models, conjuring hypotheses, developing methods, describing initial conditions, teasing out empirical data, interpreting results. Wherein, it seems, lies the best hope of resolving the free-will debate. Philosophy is far from eclipsed.


  1. Information supplemental to my ‘free will’ essay, by way of background on studies cited:

    Some philosophers have subscribed to variants of Arthur Schopenhauer’s observation: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” Some neuroscientists have (conditionally) concurred. And then gone on to explain . . .

    The fMRI study referred to at the beginning of my essay was conducted by neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes—the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognition and Brain Sciences, and Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience—in collaboration with others. (Footnote 1 in the following paper lists the names of all study contributors and their affiliations.) Their results appear in a 2008 “Nature Neuroscience” article titled ‘Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain’, whose link follows . . .

    My essay cites an earlier study, which was conducted by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, at the University of California, San Francisco—a pioneer in the field of human consciousness. He took a different approach, looking at ‘electrophysiological readiness potentials’. His results appear in a 1985 paper, ‘Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action’, in “The Behavioral and Brain Sciences”, whose link follows . . .

    The Haynes and Libet studies have garnered widespread attention over the years, within the guilds of both philosophers and scientists—bolstering the case for synergies between philosophy and science, challenging interpretations of where reality resides, providing grist for additional research (to continue settling the unsettled), and informing the critical debate over free will. Including in more-complex decision-making. And where moral responsibility fits. Meanwhile other, more-recent studies have led to similar observations—including this one written up in a 2011 issue of “Neuron”:

    “[T]he truth is that I jumped before I was conscious of the snake: I had seen it, but I didn’t know I had seen it. My explanation is from post hoc information I have in my conscious system: The facts are that I jumped and that I saw a snake. The reality, however, is that I jumped way before (in the world of milliseconds) I was conscious of the snake. I did not make a conscious decision to jump and then consciously execute it.”

    —from the book “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain,” by Michael Gazzaniga, of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind and of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute.

  2. Thanks, Keith Tidman for this important post!

    I think that we cannot and must not philosophize against the science... and the progress of the neuroscience's is formidable, and we can't preview it's future results.

    But the inquiries about the essence of the human freedom rest one philosophical probleme. And, about me, this essence is the QUESTIONING !

    The neurosciences itself, the philosophy, the art's etc. itself is not only the results, but the ACTS of the human freedom... Suspending the questioning, means suspending the freedom.

    Philosophically, the Free Will is not the central-essential problem for thematizing Human Freedom


    1. Thank you, István, for your reflective comments.

      Your following advice particularly struck me as both pertinent and wise:

      “I think that we cannot and must not philosophize against the science. . . . [T]he progress of neuroscience is formidable, and we can't preview its future results.”

      Amen. The full promise of neuroscience in this arena is only just being unleashed, and where it will lead remains an open (and exciting) question. Philosophers and neuroscientists must partner and carve out their respective, complementary niches.

  3. In an important sense, this is not new. One forgets today the consternation there was, some 100 years ago, when it was found that we had a subconscious (Sigmund Freud: das Vorbewusste). Richard Gregory suggests we may describe the role of the subconscious as encountering the 'unexpected'. We hold up to the world a world which we anticipate in our minds. When we do not find what we expect, this has everything to do with emotion and motivation (our visceral responses). Even a dog, when faced with food which it does not expect to see in its bowl, is visibly affected.

    This suggests that we do not have control over our own actions or reactions. What we anticipate in the world is already formed in our minds. Or in the words of systematic theologian Charles Hodge: 'Free agency is the power to decide according to our character.' This is putting it bluntly, as the mind is both complex and subtle beyond our imagining. Basically, we form our expectations of the world, rationally -- and on this basis, we respond to the world, viscerally. This permits us to retain responsibility for our actions, even while we act irrationally.

    1. Thank you, Thomas, for your thought-provoking take on all this and rounding out the discussion with mention of Richard Gregory’s and Charles Hodge’s important contributions regarding the subconscious, free agency, and responsibility. Meanwhile, sure, Feud’s seminal work on the topography of the mind did indeed lay the foundation. Which stirred roiling debate and, as you say, considerable ‘consternation’. What’s new today from Freud’s time is, of course, the maturity of the science. At the risk of stating the obvious, twenty-first-century tools and techniques for studying the brain and mind are far more rigorous, precise, predictive, disclosing, confirmable, metric-based, and repeatable—‘hard’ science—than what was at the disposal of Freud and his contemporaries. Less abstract speculation . . . more science-informed instantiation. We’re left to wonder what might have happened if one were able to marry Freud’s brilliant inquisitiveness and today’s neuroscience. But then, alas, that has always been the tantalizing history of science.

  4. "The scanner revealed brain activity—the brain unconsciously deciding to press the button—a remarkable seven seconds before the test subjects consciously opted to press it. "

    Going back to what I think is the core claim in this piece, I am totally unconvinced. This 7 second timelag, after all, begs all sorts of questions about what cause is being related to what effect. Surely a tiny difference exists between 'the brain' sending a signal to press a button, and the actual signal, let alone the button pressing. As Raimond Tallis has argued, magnetic resonance imaging is imprecise and records not precise events, in the manner we imagine of switches being flipped - but rather a mass of synapses reaching a kind of consensual conclusion - with the evidence of their switching being derived second had from measurements of blood flow or electrical activity (I don't claim to be au fait with the details but Tallis is a kind of neurologist and practitioner.

    But the point that strikes me is that if, say, someone is presented with a choice of two colored buttons to press, and opts for one with the report of their decision being foreshadowed indeed belied by changes in their brain state, it would not mean that they ack freewill, only that freewill expresses itself in subtler ways that we normally suppose.

    1. Thank you, Martin, for your observations. They’re well taken.

      Absolutely, the science—and by ‘science’ here, I’m referring more specifically to ‘neuroscience’—has not yet rendered the matter of free will moot. The dance isn’t yet entirely over, of course. If I may mix metaphors, the front pages of the world’s major newspapers haven’t yet blared, ‘Free will resolved!’ And prudently so.

      The reason I added my own supplemental comment, immediately after the essay, was to point folks in the direction of just a little of the relevant science. The obvious rationale of my doing so was that my essay could only lightly brush the science, and then only by way of setting the stage; it would obviously have been inappropriate, given the venue, to get bogged down on that front. Besides, that wasn’t my purpose.

      That said, further online search, of one’s own, would reveal the existence of vastly more science—even today it’s quite prodigious—on the subject than what my supplement even referred to. (And there are many additional facets of the subject, which I couldn’t get into, such as a potentially important ‘veto’ function of the brain.) But again—shamelessly resorting to a third metaphor—the final curtain hasn’t yet come down.

      I do think, however, that—going back to the main thrust of my essay—it would behoove philosophers and neuroscientists to join forces in dogged pursuit of the free-will challenge. As my essay purposefully touched on, each discipline can bring to bear unique knowledge, backgrounds, perspectives, competencies, and tools. Let’s see ‘em double-up. At this point, the ‘science of free will’ is still tinkering with its opening gambit—with a potentially vast and fruitful path ahead, as the science blooms.

      All in all, despite the firewall that sometimes gets in the way, I think it would be a mistake for philosophers to dismiss the science or for scientists to dismiss the philosophy.