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Fri, 11 Jul 2008

Still No Disproof of Free Will

Has science debunked free will? A recent article Nature Neuroscience [1] tells of some research that suggests the answer is "yes." An article in The Wall Street Journal Online [2] explores this research - and its implications for free will - in less technical terms.

According to the research, our brains can show specific kinds of activity about 10 seconds before we make conscious decisions. The findings suggest that when you make a conscious decision, your brain already has "decided" as much as 10 seconds earlier. So what is the role of your conscious decision? Does your act of deciding do anything? It seems as if your feeling of conscious decision is just a side effect of brain activity that already has happened. As one of the researchers pointed out (in [2]), this makes things look bad for free will.

It seems as if science might have debunked free will.

But wait a minute! Things just aren't that simple.

There is a way of understanding these findings that does NOT rule out free will. Maybe your brain starts a decision a while before you consciously decide. However, you can believe this and still believe in free will. All you have to do is admit that your actual consciousness includes more than your so-called conscious mind.

Psychologists (especially psychoanalysts) have long claimed that people have unconscious minds as well as their ordinary conscious minds. Philosopher Ned Block [3] has suggested that contents of the so-called unconscious might actually be conscious in a sense. This raises the possibility that your so-called unconscious mind might not truly be empty of consciousness, but might have a consciousness of its own. This would be a consciousness that you normally can't think or talk about - but that is a real part of you anyhow. (I've explored this idea further in my book, From Brain to Cosmos [4].)

Now what if you made a decision, but the decision happened in your unconscious mind? Since your unconscious mind is part of you, the decision truly would be your own - just as if you had made it with your ordinary conscious mind. For all we know, it could even be a free choice. (Some of the people who commented on the Wall Street Journal article made these two points about the unconscious. [5]) But what is really interesting is that your so-called unconscious choice might really be a conscious choice. This would happen if the so-called "unconscious mind" has some consciousness. Even if this were the case, you might not be able to think or say that you had decided, or act on the decision.

This might be what is happening in the study in Nature Neuroscience. The brain events that happen 10 seconds before the "conscious" decision might really be, or contain, the person's own free decision, involving conscious processing of a sort. However, it is a decision that he or she cannot yet think or talk about, or act upon.

In other words, free will and conscious choice might exist even if the neuroscientists' findings are right. The findings might show that we don't understand ourselves as well as we think. Specifically, they might show that the unconscious parts of ourselves are much more important than we usually suppose them to be. But the findings cannot debunk free will.

Just think about that!

(The argument I used in this post is not new. It's based on the one in my paper, "Yes, We Have Conscious Will." [6] That paper is a response to another line of argument against free will - not the same as the one discussed here, but in the same vein. If you're interested in the details of my argument, in further references on these topics, and in some other rebuttals to arguments against free will, read that paper.)


[1] Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze and John-Dylan Haynes, "Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain," Nature Neuroscience, 11, 543-545, April 2008.

[2] Robert Lee Hotz, "Get out of your own way," The Wall Street Journal Online, June 27, 2008, p. A9.

[3] Ned Block, "How can we find the neural correlate of consciousness?", Trends in Neurosciences (Reference Edition) 19, 456-459.

[4] Mark F. Sharlow, From Brain to Cosmos. Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers, 2001.

[5] Forums, linked from reference [2].

[6] Mark F. Sharlow, "Yes, We Have Conscious Will," 2007. Available at .

Slightly modified 10/9/2010 (one link updated).

posted at: 01:30 | path: /mind | persistent link to this entry


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