Reasonable Doubts Blog

Raise Your Hand if You Believe in Free Will

Posted in science and religion by Cheryl Berman on the July 28th, 2010

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” - Albert Einstein

“The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate.” – Stephen Hawking

“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.” Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)

My first act of Free Will shall be to believe in Free Will.”William James

As I read the latest round of the Free-will/Determinism battle in the New York Times over the last couple of weeks I couldn’t help but to wonder at how far these arguments have developed. The seeming contradiction between what science tells us and what we experience day to day has confounded man for centuries. Democritus’ theory of tiny bits of matter called Atoms making up the material part of the world led to the first Western deterministic philosophy in the 5th century BCE. It was not well received. Epicurus, who relied heavily on Democritus’ Atomic Theory, later introduced a curve to the atomic path allowing for the possibility of free will. Since then new terminology has been introduced. Science has made vast discoveries in fields like neuroscience that have lent new perspectives to the issue. And yet the question remains where it was in the 5th century BCE: unanswered.

A few days ago William Eggington, professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, added his two cents to the centuries-long debate ( ) and I have to say that I very much enjoyed his two cents. Eggington discussed an experiment that was aimed at discovering the neuro basis for decision making. The experiment was written up in The Annual Review of Neuroscience by Josh Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington. In the experiment sensors were hooked up to the parts of the brains of monkeys that are responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were taught to respond to a cue by looking at one of two patterns. Computers that were interpreting the sensors were able to predict the patterns the monkeys would choose a fraction of a second before the monkey chose the pattern. The computers were literally reading the monkey’s minds.

If a computer could predict what a human will decide before he makes his decision, like it did for the monkeys, what does this say about free will? Have our decisions been made for us?

Eggington explains that this logic is based on a false premise. We are imagining Space and Time as if it were in some type of legible code of codes that can interpreted. So when the the computer predicted the monkeys choice it was reading from some type of code of the future as opposed to simply reading the mind of the monkey. Instead of interpreting the experiment as a statement about the neural processes of a monkey’s brain (in which the unconscious mind is a fraction of a second faster than the conscious mind) we have extrapolated about some future as if it were already written down in some secret but ultimately decipherable code.

I can’t claim to have read all or even most of the recent literature regarding the issue of free will and determinism but it seems to me that Eggington is on the right track. He reminds his readers of Kant, the limits of the human intellect and the dangers of trying to stretch reason too far. There is only so much we can know. And when we reach our limit we can’t keep using our intellects to create hypotheses so that we can prove some pre-determined theory (pun very much intended). That’s probably what Tolstoy was sensing as he raised and lowered his arms of his own free will and dared philosophers to challenge him. There are limits to the elasticity of our brains. Sometimes we need to concede to the illogical.

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One Response to 'Raise Your Hand if You Believe in Free Will'

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  1. Jerry said,

    on September 15th, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    At last an excellent writing about the subject, maintain the good work and therefore I hope to examine more of your stuff in the future.

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