The Blog of Brian Stanton

Free Will (Part 1: The Truth)

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I’ve been planning to write this article for some time now. The thought of it has ambushed me with alarming frequency. It’s materialized on nature walks, in the pages of my journal, and even in the muggy solitude of my bathroom. Today I’m finally hunkering down.

 

And yet, I have no deep understanding of why I made this choice. Did ten hours of sleep last night put me in a compository mood? Did I inhale one less particle of dust this morning? Am I simply feeling the urge to produce something (anything, really) after a few days of loafing around?

 

But none of these answers are available to me, the conscious witness of my mental life. In fact, any story I tell to explain my decision will likely be wrong. The science of psychology has gathered plenty of data on this hindsight bias. In the most famous example, psychologists Fischhoff and Beyth asked a series of judges to forecast the likelihood of specific foreign policy actions by President Nixon. After the events happened (or didn’t), the judges were asked to recall their predictions. As expected, judges vastly overestimated their prior guesses for events that really occurred. We revise the past to sync with present knowledge.

 

Even at the moment of choice, however, our subjective experience tells us little about causality. Conscious actions are preceded by thoughts, but where do thoughts come from? It requires a bit of concentration to properly address this question.

 

Simply notice your next thought. (Just don't think of a seagull).

 

Unless you’re from the Crab Nebula, you just saw a whitish bird. Who put that image there? Me or you? This is Daniel Wegner's white bear. When anything familiar is mentioned, you can't help but imagine it. 

 

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’m wasting your time with this featherbrained exercise. I would answer that those concerns are like the image of the gull: unprompted and uncontrollable. After all, who flipped the switch to activate those specific thoughts? Nobody, of course. They emerged from the same seething darkness as everything else.

 

"If you pay attention," begins author and neuroscientist Sam Harris, "you can see that you no more decide the next thing you think than the next thing I say. Thoughts simply appear in consciousness, very much like my words. What are you going to think next? What am I going to say next? I could suddenly start talking about the pleasures of snowshoeing - where did that come from?"

 

From the perspective of consciousness, the voice in your head is totally unplanned. Some of us, of course, do like to plan things in advance. But do we plan for the planning? I’m not even sure that makes sense. The logic here always spirals downward to a fundamental mystery.

 

Fortunately for non-meditators, discovering the truth about human behavior doesn’t depend on skilled introspection. A glance at the annals of neuroscience, in fact, reveals that conventional free will is simply not compatible with what we know about the brain. In 1985, Benjamin Libet showed, amidst some controversy, that “conscious” choices begin unconsciously. What’s more, a more recent experiment (with the aid of FMRI technology) found that decisions are made up to 10 seconds before they enter conscious awareness. If you were shown a chart that accurately predicted your movements 10 seconds in advance, how would you feel?

 

Perhaps this would make you a bit uncomfortable. Along these lines, a growing number of scholars argue that, in order to safeguard society, we must maintain the illusion of free will. And there are, no doubt, consequences to banishing this myth. But were Darwin and Galileo wrong to broadcast their findings? Should science stay silent to keep us comfortable? It seems to me that many intellectuals are hopelessly confused on this topic. I will cover this scandal in my next post.

 

The truth is, there’s simply no place for free will in any honest account of human behavior. Yet this needn’t rattle us. After all, why should we miss something that we never had in the first place?

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