Researching Free Will

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Cranial image

The John Templeton Foundation has just awarded $4.4 million to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to research the question: Do we have free will? As the press release explains:

The project, "Free Will: Human and Divine — Empirical and Philosophical Explorations," is not quite as esoteric as the topic might suggest. For thousands of years the question of free will was strictly in the domain of philosophers and theologians. But in recent years, some neuroscientists have been producing data they claim shows that the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises. If true, conscious control over action — a necessary condition of free will — is simply impossible. Likewise, some social psychologists believe that unconscious processes, in tandem with environmental conditions, control behavior and that our conscious choices do not.

Mele, a prolific scholar whose most recent book, "Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will" (Oxford University Press, 2009), was an effort to debunk those claims, falls clearly in the pro-free will camp. But he acknowledges that he doesn't have the answers, and he is open to different interpretations of free will for different disciplines. His goal is that scientists, philosophers and theologians will be closer to the truth when this project is complete in 2013.

"What I want to do is make significant progress on discovering whether we do or don't have free will," Mele said. "It's not as if in four years, we are going to know. But I want to push us along the way so that we can speed up our understanding of all of this."

Personally, I am determined to reject the idea of contra-causal free will. However, the research results could have signficant societal consequences:

"If we eventually discover that we don't have free will, the news will come out and we can predict that people's behavior will get worse as a consequence," Mele said. "We should have plans in place for how to deal with that news."

His prediction about the degeneration of people's behavior is based on experiments in which psychologists induced a disbelief in free will among study participants to find out how that disbelief would affect their behavior. It wasn't pretty: When participants believed they had no control over their actions — and therefore presumably felt they were not responsible for their behavior — they cheated and were more aggressive.

But as I explained in my column, "Prozac Justice," it will be necessary to hold all doubters and believers in free will responsible for their actions. For more on the free will versus determinism debate, see also my interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett, "Pulling Our Own Strings."

Disclosure: I have received small grants from the Templeton Foundation in the past for reviewing proposals and for research.

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  1. I don’t have free will.

    1. I am NOMAD, you are the Kirk.

  2. [See if anybody detects the perfunctory contradiction of what I stated above…]

    1. I know that I know nothing – knowledge is impossible. BTW, what makes people think that they can think? 😉

  3. Was I forced to post this comment?

  4. But in recent years, some neuroscientists have been producing data they claim shows that the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises.

    Like, for instance, the decision to write the report and such . . . right?

    Stupid.

    1. the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises.

      Is the supposition that this subconscious process is not informed by what we learn and evaluate?

  5. I paid for my will

  6. “If we eventually discover that we don’t have free will, the news will come out and we can predict that people’s behavior will get worse as a consequence,” Mele said. “We should have plans in place for how to deal with that news.”

    How can anybody get away with shit like that?

    “Oh, people don’t have free will and in case they find out, we should act and place plans for such a contingency.”

    1. Very interesting study.

    2. But if we don’t have free will, it really shouldn’t matter if we plan for it or not, since the decision to do so or not would have been simply the product of eddies in the primorial soup eons ago and not the failure of anyone’s volition.

      I can do this shit all day.

  7. I love that ancient song.

  8. “the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises.” I wonder how that applies to genetics and separated twin studies.

  9. His prediction about the degeneration of people’s behavior is based on experiments in which psychologists induced a disbelief in free will among study participants to find out how that disbelief would affect their behavior. It wasn’t pretty: When participants believed they had no control over their actions ? and therefore presumably felt they were not responsible for their behavior ? they cheated and were more aggressive.

    If people had NO free will, it would not have mattered what you tell them.

    1. Why do you think that? I can write a computer program that will respond differently depending on it’s input. Does that mean my software has to have free will? I don’t think you understand what free will means…

      1. Joe,

        Why do you think that? I can write a computer program that will respond differently depending on it’s input.

        The inputs you give your program are discrete and precise. There is nothing discrete about telling a person that his actions are not his fault – if he had no free will, it would not have mattered, his or her actions being predetermined.

        1. How is it any less discrete than any other input. Ultimately, speech is just a collection of pressure waves that get turned into electrical signals in the listener’s brain. Some of those electrical signals change neural connections in the brain, altering the “programming” that affects our future actions. I just don’t see how you have to have free will in order to have your behavior change because you are told that you don’t have it. You just have to have the fact “I have free will” stored in your brain as part of your world model, whether it is true or not.

          1. You and the reductionists are confusing two different contexts. Free will is a psychological and philosophical concept – it has no meaning in either a phisiological context or an atomic one.

          2. This argument makes a superficial amount of sense when applied to the “completed” system of our verbal society, but not when you consider the full range of our verbal society’s history.

            In other words, it’s possible that we could all be reacting like computer programs to various inputs, including the speech of everyone else, without any free will. The problem becomes determining why a verbal superstructure that “looks like” and “sounds like” it’s describing the actions of entities with free will would arise in the first place in the absence of free will. Why would we bother? Why would evolution bother? Somewhere, sometime, somehow, someone invented the language that is the input here. If it’s just black magic – we hear sounds, and those sounds make us act – what about the first guy to do it? What was making him act that way? And why do humans have more than one language? Why wouldn’t we all use the same sounds to produce the same automatic responses?

          3. Joe,

            But conceding that speech is only “sound waves”, the fact is that receiving these impulses does not mean ispo facto a reaction is going to happen in the brain that will elicit a specific act without our conscience participating.

            For instance, you may yell to me: “Hey, birdbrain!”. I may turn around because I hear the words and react to them, but that does NOT mean that:

            A) I am going over where you are and beat the crap out of you
            or
            B) I am going to yell back at you

            I may just continue on my way – it would all depend on what I valued more, if my time or my desire to stop you from calling me names. That cannot be determined by simple tests and that is why I say that IF we had NO free will, then it would not matter what you yelled at me – I could just do exactly what my brain evolved to do (I don’t know what that would be since I do not lack free will.)

  10. Personally, I am determined to reject the idea of contra-causal free will.

    Are you determined, Bailey? Or was it determined for you? Dum dum dummm…

    1. I’m curious as to how a person with no free will determines to do anything personally…

  11. Researching free will is for jerks. I am researching Free Willy.

    1. Having you been paying for it all this time?

      1. No, no, no. This is a negative liberty, as in freedom from pants.

        1. I support your kilt-based research.

          1. Grant plz k thx

            1. I’ll toss you my caber hurr hurr hurr

  12. I am a sock puppet and cover many different free wills in any given day.

  13. Even if our brain processes a decision before our “consciousness” gets involved, how does that make it somehow not our thought?

    Those decision pathways are just as much a part of you as your consciousness is. They just operate faster than our consciousness, which is really very practical. Should all our decisions happen at the snail’s-pace of our internal dialogue?

    Does an operating system know about all the actions in the CPU’s caching system? Nah. Do all those actions work together to help the OS to function? You betcha!

  14. I will choose a path that’s clear
    I will choose free will

    1. If you choose not decide
      You still have made a choise

      1. If you make a choise then it’s no choice I would make.

        1. If free will really existed than surely no one would listen to Rush?

  15. Researching freewill is silly. More appropriate is research proving that any of you really exist. Me, I’m sure about. Y’all? No telling.

    1. Cogito ergo sum

      1. Sorry, but only I can say that.

        1. Is that so?

          1. Yep. You’re just an echo in my mind.

          2. Cogito cogito, cogito ergo sum is as close to certainty as any philosopher has ever gotten.

    2. Solipsism is a stinky cologne.

  16. No one will believe that they do not have free will no matter how much evidence is provided.

    It’s like attacking faith — it cannot be done, even with evidence.

  17. But in recent years, some neuroscientists have been producing data they claim shows that the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises.

    The studies that purport to show this are flawed.

    They basically consist asking people to press a button when they have decided to take some action. CAT scans then [supposedly] show that the genesis of the action occurs in the brain a measurable time before the person decides to press the button.

    I think this entire method of analysis falsely identifies the will with our personal narrative about the will.

    There is still an act of willing; it’s just occuring some fraction of a second before we decide to narrate a story to ourselves about our will using “internal speech”. The will to act precedes the will to chatter about our act. Goethe knew this a long time ago so it shouldn’t be so surprising to neuroscientists.

    1. All this really does is push the black box that is decision-making a little deeper. It resolves nothing.

  18. Oops, Wylie got in ahead of me. And more succinctly.

    1. That’s OK, Fluffy.

      You couldn’t help it.

    2. In a parallel universe, you totally pwn’d wylie.

      In another, you have machine guns for for hands.

      1. In yet another, I put everything into out of the money WorldCom and Enron options and made 1000 to 1, and then did the same thing with Bear Stearns a few years later.

        I hate that parallel universe version of me.

        1. He does strut around with an air of self-importance.

          1. And he sends me little emails saying things like, “I harassed Joe Arpaio until he resigned and hung himself today. What did you do?” and when I say, “I got my dry cleaning and then watched a marathon of America’s Next Top Model reruns” he just says, “Oh, that’s nice” or something condescending. He’s a real dick.

            1. He’s probably just lying to make you feel bad.

  19. Oh dear Lord, don’t ANYONE tell the government! The last thing we need is for the rulers to get the idea that the ruled are nothing more than automatons.

    1. Actually, the idea that the *rulers* are automatons clarifies a lot.

  20. the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises.

    To me, the free will is in how I react to my conscious awareness of the urge. For example: some moron runs into my car in the parking lot of the Walmart because they are too bust texting. My brain’s first reaction is to tell me to choke the life out of the offending driver. My free-will calculates fun vs consequences and I choose to let themkeep breathing.

    Question. If we are scientifically proven to not have free will, can that be used as a legal defense in criminal cases?

    1. Question. If we are scientifically proven to not have free will, can that be used as a legal defense in criminal cases?

      Only if you are compelled to use such a defense.

      Of course, the defense will work only if the judges and juries are compelled to buy it.

  21. The lack of knowledge of the future creates an illusion of free will. Until we have that knowledge, the illusion of free will operates exactly as its actuality would.

    Everything you’ve done up to this moment has made you exactly what you are. This determines what you will do, but it doesn’t undermine the ethical responsibility attached to your actions.

    Reasons are not excuses.

    1. I think you’ve got that backwards. We cannot know the future, so we conjure a hypothesis of what it might we like based, necisarily, on what we do know. The thing we do know that is most like the future is the past, so we create a model of the future that is similar to the past. Hence, fate, or determinism for the more advanced culture–just like the past, the future is unchageable and you are at its mercy.

      1. It’s not backwards, I’ve just assumed what you have asserted.

        just like the past, the future is unchageable and you are at its mercy.

        All I’m saying is that fact doesn’t excuses your choices. It maybe determined that you, say, murder someone… but determination of that action doesn’t provide an excuse for your choice, because you are ignorant of it.

        It’s really a pragmatic argument to forestall violations of self-ownership being excused because of determinism.

        1. Ugh, me write bad. What I was trying to say was:

          The lack of knowledge of the future creates an illusion of a lack of free will.

          That is, because we cannot perceive the future, and because we hate not knowing, we create a hypothesis describing what the future might be like. The determinist hypothesis is compelling because it posits the future as being much like we know the past to be. But the fact that it is compelling does not make it true; it’s just another illusion obscuring an unknown.

  22. In other TANSTAAFW-related news, some junk research that porn = rape.

  23. The Road Not Taken

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I marked the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    1. Aren’t you dead?

      1. Fire and Ice.

        Some say the world will end in fire,
        Some say in ice.
        From what I’ve tasted of desire
        I hold with those who favor fire.
        But if it had to perish twice,
        I think I know enough of hate
        To say that for destruction ice
        Is also great
        And would suffice.

        1. It is not I who will die but it is the world that will end.

        2. And the correct answer is that the world will end in ice from an overexpansion of the universe.

          1. If the cosmos expands to the limits of entropy, wouldn’t that make it impossible for ice (solidified water) to exist?

            1. Atmosphere
              Inscription for a Garden Wall

              Winds blow the open grassy places bleak;
              But where this old wall burns a sunny cheek,
              They eddy over it too toppling weak
              To blow the earth or anything self-clear;
              Moisture and color and odor thicken here.
              The hours of daylight gather atmosphere.

            2. Valid point. Whatever, its just gonna be fucking cold.

          2. The universe will end in “ice”. The world will end in “fire” as the sun balloons up larger than Mars’s orbit.

  24. If free will doesn’t exist it would still be a useful fiction to promote in society.

    1. This is what some say about various religions.

      1. You mean God?

        1. Sure, I think this is one of the things that Allan Moore was getting at in his brilliant graphic novel Watchmen**. That, even if a god (or in his case Dr. Manhattan) is not truly watching over the human race, having that belief can have a powerful and in some ways positive effect.

          **The graphic novel is FAR superior to the film. The film was OK but the graphic novel is brilliant and deeply philosophical.

  25. The past only exists in your memory at this moment, and the future never exists. The only reality is therefore right now, in one everlasting moment. Time is an illusion – break open a clock and try to find it.

    Decision then consciousness? Consciousness then decision? It’s all one. What a waste of…

    1. break open a clock and try to find it.

      I did, now what?

      1. I’d sell it on ebay.

  26. Jeebus H. He got over 4 million for that? What on earth is going to cost that much/be worth that much.

    Hell, I’ll take six months off and write ’em a paper on it for half that.

  27. But in recent years, some neuroscientists have been producing data they claim shows that the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises. If true, conscious control over action ? a necessary condition of free will ? is simply impossible.

    Bullshit. It is quite possible that someone has trained themselves to react in situations in a certain manner and so doesnt need to think thru the action before advancing. Because they did the thinking years before.

    Athletes do this all the time. Its muscle memory.

    Now to read the 50 comments and see if anyone already posted this.

    1. Pre-will?

  28. We have no choice but to believe we have free will. (Paraphrasing I.B. Singer)

  29. The whole question of free will is boring and unimportant. Only one thing happens. We feel like we have free will. What else to you need to know?

  30. The question of whether we have free will or not is tainted with theological and political undertones that simply make the whole matter impossible to resolve. The definition of free will depends on the philosophy and viewpoints of the person who poses the question and cannot be answered with any truthful meaning because a different question posed under a different set of values will result in a different answer.

    From the purely scientific point of view, we know we live in a non deterministic universe, quantum fluctuations are completely random events and cannot be predicted. So, in some way, even inanimate objects have some level of free will, since their future status can not be predicted. If the macro is a reflection of the micro, it can be safely assumed that we have a level of free will too. Some of our reactions are instinctive and absolutely predictable, but the moment that our thought process is activated the process that leads to our actions becomes so complex that it simply can not be predicted. We can have an idea of the probability of someone performing a certain action based on their past, but we are not movie characters (or staunch republicans), we don’t always act on character, and since quantum mechanics already states that we cannot know all the information of any particular system, I think it is a safe bet to say that the process of thought is at least impractical at probably impossible to simulate.

    Even if our universe were deterministic, people who work in computer simulations will tell you that most complex systems are simply inscrutable.

    What about the actions being detectable in the brain before conscious awareness of the decision? I believe that the brain is quite a fast machine. You, after all, are able to react quickly to situations before formulating your response in a logical manner. You know what you are going to say before you are able to formulate the words to say it. An artist sees his picture before he even sketches it. The brain functions in a language of its own. When you speak you translate from that language into whatever it is you speak. So this notion of the action being generated before the decision might just be a simple misunderstanding of what the decision process implies. After all, by the time you figure out what you are going to do about something, you are just finished elaborating on an idea that was formulated instantly in your brain and that just needs to be stated and evaluated logically to confirm it’s validity. That’s a natural and necessary process and it is also the way you can stop yourself from doing something stupid after you have what at first seems like a good idea. If you can have ideas or impulses and then decide not to act on them, isn’t that a proof that you have free will? If you can at one point stop following your own rules and indulge in a pint of ice cream, isn’t that also proof of free will?

    Would acting absolutely randomly and without a sense of purpose be more free will than acting thoughtfully? I don’t think so. I think choosing our actions is better than being unable to predict what you yourself will do, so there might even be a gap between what we understand as freedom and certain definitions of absolute free will.

    1. “The question of whether we have free will or not is tainted with theological and political undertones that simply make the whole matter impossible to resolve.”

      So is economics. This does not mean there are not provable economic laws.

      “The definition of free will depends on the philosophy and viewpoints of the person who poses the question”

      So all you need to do is be more specific. If someone asks “Does God exist? The definition of “God” might be different depending on whether you are a Hindu or Christian but you can be more specific in your question.

      “So, in some way, even inanimate objects have some level of free will, since their future status can not be predicted.”

      Does mere unpredictability equal free will?

      “Would acting absolutely randomly and without a sense of purpose be more free will than acting thoughtfully?”

      The choice to do this would be the act of free will. I will use the analogy of jumping off of a tall building. The choice is made with the initial jump ? not when you reach three floors from street level ? the choice has been made by then. In your example, the choice is to, in effect, throw a pair of dice.

  31. Cool thread. I would argue that “free will” is merely a decision of routes at a choice node. There are so many factors at work when making a choice, it’s hard to appreciate why you made a particular one.

  32. Ron, nice that you’re determined to reject the idea of contra-causal free will, keep up the good (and controversial) work!

  33. So either there is no “free will,” we are bound by this physical world and “you” are a physical, complex black box that takes stimulus inputs and exhibits behavior outputs. Or. There is “free will,” our bodies are bound by this physical world and “you” are a, complex black box that takes stimulus inputs, relays them to a supernatural source(maybe a soul), recovers it’s output then exhibits behavior outputs. Thousands of years of philosophy, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  34. Do we have free will?

    No.

  35. Okay, so the subject was asked to decide to push a button, while noticing where the clock was when she became aware of her decision.

    So, here’s what would happen.

    Conscious Brain to Unconscious Brain: “Flip a coin, and when it comes up heads, tell me to push the button.”

    Unconscious Brain: (begins flipping coin, then) “Holy shit! It’s heads. Hey Conscious Brain, Go!”

    Neuroscientist: “Oh my god! The conscious decision was preceded by unconscious initiation! We are all robots!”

  36. If we are scientifically proven to not have free will, can that be used as a legal defense in criminal cases
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  37. It wasn’t pretty: When participants believed they had no control over their actions ? and therefore presumably felt they were not responsible for their behavior ? they cheated and were more aggressive.
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  38. It wasn’t pretty: When participants believed they had no control over their actions ? and therefore presumably felt they were not responsible for their behavior ? they cheated and were more aggressive.
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  39. .This New Deal experiment in Gimbelism lasted two more years, until finally the NRDGA admitted that there was little difference in retail sales figures
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  40. Cool thread. I would argue that “free will” is merely a decision of routes at a choice node. There are so many factors at work when making a choice, it’s hard to appreciate why you made a particular one.
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