New research targets “free will” — or does it?

“How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know
when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”

Free will vs. determinism — it’s one of the oldest issues in philosophy, with not only a long intellectual history but also major consequence for religion, morality, and the foundations of our justice system.

And it’s raising its craggy little head again, it seems, according to research publicized in an article on on August 31st.

In “Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will,” Nature staffer Kerri Smith reports that the Templeton Foundation, that ubiquitous and apparently unlimited source of funding for researchers willing to investigate the purportedly jagged edge between science and religion, has begun a series of studies under the general heading “Big Questions in Free Will.”

We all know that the Templeton group has a vested interest in defending the notion of “free will,” but in the present context that merits no more attention than that given by this reminder.

And fair disclosure requires me to admit that it has been forty-five years since I read Strawson’s Individuals or anything by Wittgenstein or Ryle, or for that matter engaged a well-lubricated Jesuit (is there another kind?) in a three-hour Friday night discourse on this (or any other) subject.

So if you’re looking for a well-documented academic survey of the topic of free will, my apologies, and I’ll see you next time.

The particular research featured in the Nature article is the source of the opening quotation. In tests of different kinds of choices, researchers have found that there is a significant delay between the excitation of brain pathways and subjects’ reported awareness of their decisions. In fact, neural activity preceded consciousness of a choice by not just a few milliseconds, but in some cases by several seconds.

In psychologist John-Dylan Haynes view, these studies bring the existence of free will into question:

The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

And it’s in this assertion that we see an example of the fundamental weakness in all discussions of free will — no matter how much people claim to have accepted materialism, there is a hard to eradicate residue of Cartesian duality lurking in the language with which they express their visualizations of human cognition.

The hidden dualism exists, of course, in the opposition of “subjects” and their “brains.” We are not our brains; but if I reject dualism, I must accept that what I perceive as “I” is a product or projection or representation or creation or narrative or construct or fictionalization or — put your own word(s) here — of what’s going on in my brain. If I’ve rejected dualism, and I have, what else — and where else — could “I” be?

In oversimplified terms, if “I” don’t come from the material stuff and functions of my body, from where then can “I” emerge? It’s not at all a mere semantic question. Indeed, it’s my contention that the entire notion that there’s an “I” separate from the activity of my brain is a semantic — and metaphysical — confusion. Everything is the result of physical processes, except me. Really? And you say that you’re no dualist?

No, I am not arguing that I am what my brain does — but how can I be anything other than a product of what my brain does?

And before I’m accused of an unfashionable hard reductionism, when I say “what my brain does” I am not saying “only what my brain is hardwired to do.” Our innate cognitive structures are modified and rewired by our learning and other experiences — in other words, by culture. We all share the same capacity to feel disgust, for example,  but different individuals and different groups feel that disgust to different degrees and toward different things. That’s not in dispute here.

The narrow point I’m arguing is that there is no way to conceive of “free will” without having first adopted — consciously or unconsciously, but certainly at least linguistically — a view of the self that is irredeemably dualistic. Perhaps Wittgenstein was right when he claimed in the Tractatus that free will is  only a “pseudo-problem.”

In one sense, the position I’m taking regarding free will, à la Gilbert Ryle, is just that — that the entire discussion of “free will” is a category error, based on the simple idea that to speak of “free will” at all is to assert the existence of something which can be “free” of the material conditions in and through which it must operate.

Of course, none of this means that the human experience each of us lives is in any way diminished or denigrated by the reality that there’s no extra-cranial self. Like you, I exist as a complex and unique person. I am no less a person because there’s nothing “outside” that raises me above my physical dimensions. I feel and experience and remember and act, as I always have; and the world my brain constructs for me to inhabit is real, in any relevant or perceivable sense of that word. Nothing in me is less because the brain’s processes are nothing more than what they are.

At this point, I’m tempted to get into a lengthy and only partly coherent (remember my disclosure statement above!) sidebar on determinism (I don’t accept the definition), on compatibilism (I don’t need it if there’s no determinism), and on my fond memories of the aforementioned P. F. Strawson, whose half-century old ideas about the central role of base-level feelings in our notions of responsibility and morality resonate so strongly with what today’s brain research is showing about the way reason hitches a ride onto more primitive brain functions.

But I won’t. These are topics for another day, unless my better judgement reasserts itself and I modestly leave the resulting wordplay to the more recently — and more fully — educated.

Well, for old times sake, maybe just a little article on Strawson? Only because I’ve gone to the trouble of finding my old copy of Individuals, you understand.