Neuroscience and Free Will

By Jeff Laird

Free will is a complicated topic to discuss, whether in philosophy, science, or theology. Part of the difficulty involves defining the phrase "free will". A neuroscientist, philosopher, theologian, and layman might well use completely different definitions. All discussions, though, touch on the question of accountability: am I really responsible for the things I do, or are my thoughts and actions ultimately beyond my conscious control?

The moral implications can't be separated from the conclusions individual people draw about this issue. Benjamin Libet's original experiment involved measuring brain activity in test subjects who were asked to perform a simple finger movement, at random, without any external cues or direction. Electrodes on the scalp would provide timing and measurement of brain activity. A button recorded timing of finger movement. The subjects were also asked to indicate when they felt "aware" of their choice to push the button, based on their view of an oscilloscope timer. The results of the experiment showed a consistent pattern in event timing: brain activity, then reported awareness of choice, then physical movement. To some, this is seen as a clear indication that both our actions and our "will" to perform them are products of material processes, and therefore "free will", in that sense, does not exist. More recent experiments have lengthened the time between supposedly predictive brain activity and awareness of will, giving further support to those who say that decision-making is ultimately a material, deterministic process.

However, neither these experiments, nor later versions, prove any such thing. Much like the Miller-Urey experiment showed for abiogenesis, those with a strong preference for naturalism tend to draw very naturalistic interpretations from the data, despite glaring flaws in the setup and results. This is clear when reading statements from these researchers, many of whom state that volition is "of course" a product of brain activity. And yet, even those who disbelieve in God, or free will itself, have disputed the more aggressive conclusions drawn from these kinds of tests.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, a major component of Libet's experimental data was subjective: the moment at which the test subject becomes "aware" of their choice. It's not actually measured, but is based on the best guess of the person experiencing it. That introduces a high level of variability and uncertainty. Also, the subjects are really indicating when they became cognitively aware of their choice as an abstract concept, which is not the same as the choice itself, which logically one could assume happened prior to their abstract awareness.

Secondly, there is little dispute that the brain is active during the decision-making process. The mere fact that brain activity can be linked to a decision is not proof that the brain activity caused the decision, even given a chronological sequence. Researchers who disagree are simply arguing in a circle, and assuming beforehand that all decisions are purely material processes in the brain. In other words, it's possible to interpret these results in multiple ways, based on your preconceived notions of free will.

Thirdly, even Libet acknowledged that the recorded brain activity in no way forced the test subjects to act. These pre-action impulses were not infallibly followed by action, meaning there is still some element of choice, or what Libet referred to as a "veto" within the thought process. More recent experiments have also noted that sometimes brain activity is totally contradictory to the eventual action.

Finally, all of the experiments discussed involve extremely low-level actions and non-complex decision-making. Random urges involving actions that are almost reflexive are significantly different than planning, considering, or deciding. This has been acknowledged by researchers as a major point of consideration when interpreting the results, and when considering free will in general.

As believers, we have to recognize the ultimate motivation behind efforts to remove free will. Some experimenters are doing just that: they're not so much looking for information as trying to justify an opinion. And often the impetus for that effort is avoiding moral accountability for certain actions. This, by claiming that something is "born" into a person, or that they "have no choice" but to behave in certain ways. Strangely, few people recognize that as an all-or-nothing proposition. If our actions are not ours to choose, then it's not just sexual or spiritual choices that are immune to criticism. Violence, criminality, murder, and theft would be immune as well. Further, virtues such as charity, sacrifice, honesty, or hard work would be immune to praise, because they'd be similarly outside of a person's control.

The Bible frequently speaks of decision-making, enough so that real, actual, human choice between certain options is simply a given in the Christian worldview (Joshua 24:15, Daniel 1:8, Isaiah 7:15-16, Proverbs 1:28-30, Psalm 25:12, 2 Samuel 24:12, 1 Peter 4:3, Acts 4:19, Romans 14:13, 2 Corinthians 9:17). Even for the non-believer, human experience demands an assumption that people really can choose their own actions, even if they're powerfully influenced by their environment. Denying this is, practically speaking, impossible: how do you act on the belief that no one is in control of their behavior? It's literally impossible to live out. No less of a scientist than Stephen Hawking, hardly a theist, said as much in the mid-1990s:

One cannot base one's conduct on the idea that everything is determined, because one does not know what has been determined. Instead, one has to adopt the effective theory that one has free will and that one is responsible for one's actions.

In other words, arguing against free will is really just much ado about nothing. There is nothing in science to make believers doubt the legitimacy of our own choices, the reality of our own wills, or the sovereignty of God who made both possible.

Photo credit: Lexinatrix; Some rights reserved

TagsChristian-Life  |  Science-Creation  |  Sin-Evil

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Published 11-11-13