The nature of free will

Our minds are full of contradictions. We like to think that we are in control of what we are doing, and that we have free will, yet many of us also believe that everything happens for a reason, that we have a destiny, and that our destiny is controlled by a higher power. Some of us are troubled by this contradiction, and manufacture all sorts of convoluted arguments in an attempt to keep both free will and fate simultaneously true. We feel trapped if we are not in control, but feel burdened by responsibility if we are. Fate is very difficult to prove, but we take free will for granted. We can prove that we have free will by being unpredictable. We know exactly what we are going to do, yet others do not. That is surely proof of free will. Or is it?

In 1948, B. F. Skinner published a paper suggesting that pigeons display a form of superstition (link). He showed that if pigeons are left in a chamber and given food at random intervals, they will make false inferences that their behaviour is causing the food to be delivered. For example, a pigeon may turn around clockwise just before food is delivered, and qill subsequently repeat that action the next time it wants food, wrongly believing that its actions caused the food to be delivered. Humans act in exactly the same way. Not only has this been shown experimentally (Wagner and Morris, 1987; Ono, 1987), but anecdotally we can all think of times when we have falsely believed that our behaviour has caused independent events to occur. For example, we might think of someone seconds before they phone, and infer some sort of psychic ability; or we might have a special ritual before a football match. Bizarrely, often when our superstitious rituals don’t work, we will think that we did them incorrectly, rather than realise that they’re completely independent and have no influence whatsoever on future events. This is the first important feature of the way we think, which I will return to later.

In 1965, Kornhuber and Deecke (link) showed that before voluntary hand movements, there is a characteristic electrical signal in the brain, which they called a readiness potential or Bereitschaftspotential. Libet showed in 1985 that that readiness potential takes place before the subject is aware of what they are about to do. This has been replicated by others, including Soon et al. who in 2008 showed that a forthcoming action can be detected in the brain up to 10 seconds before it enters the subject’s awareness. In other words, the timeline of a decision is this: The decision is made, the decision reaches our conscious awareness, the action takes place.

So, combining the last two paragraphs: If humans are able to form false beliefs about causation so easily, it is not difficult to believe that by knowing what we are about to do before we do it, that could be misinterpreted as some form as control, or volition. Every time a decision reaches our consciousness before it its end result, we will believe that our consciousness has in fact produced that decision. In is important to note that many actions do not reach our consciousness until after their end result, or sometimes not at all. Reflex reactions like moving our hand away from a hot surface, or even something complicated like playing the piano can take place without any real conscious awareness. In my research degree last year, I investigated the possibility that even movements that we consider to be ‘conscious movements’ start to take place before we are aware of them.

So is free will and indeed consciousness itself just an illusion? I can’t put this argument into better words than my supervisor, Roger Carpenter, did in his book, Neurophysiology, so instead I will simply post a link to it (link).

But even if free will is an illusion, and what we call our ‘consciousness’ is just a spectator, does it really matter? We are our brain, and just because our decision-making incorporates randomisation, that does not mean that the decisions it reaches are arbitrary. Our brain contains our memories, experiences and desires, and therefore even if all our decisions are simply a product of a stimulus-response mechanism, it is still essentially free will.

I’d like to return to this subject and write about it in more depth at a later date. As I said earlier, I did some work on this subject last year. I’m hoping to get it published at some stage, so I can’t go into too much detail about it, but hopefully one day I will be able to post a link to it!

For references,
References and further reading:
Carpenter, R. H. S. (2003). Neurophysiology. London, Arnolds: 435-438 (and
Carpenter, R. H. S. (2006). The LATER Model. Available on the World Wide Web: (last accessed on 22 June 2009)
Haggard, P., Eimer, M. (1999). On the relation between brain potentials and the awareness of voluntary movements. Experimental Brain Research 126: 128-133.
Haggard, P., Clark, S., Kalogeras, J. (2002). Voluntary action and conscious awareness. Nature Neuroscience 5: 382-385.
Kornhuber, H. H., Deecke, K. (1965). Hirnpotentialänderungen bei Willkürbewegungen und passiven Bewegungen des Menschen: Bereitschaftspotential und reafferente Potentiale. Pflügers Archiv für Gesamte Physiologie 284: 1-17.
Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 8: 529–566.
Ono, K. (1987). Superstitious behaviour in humans. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour 47: 261–271.
Skinner, B. F. (1992). Superstition in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology 121: 273-274.
Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H. J., Haynes, J. D. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience 11: 543-545.
Wagner, G. A., Morris, E. K. (1987). “Superstitious” behavior in children. Physiological Record 37: 471-488


3 Responses to “The nature of free will”

  1. I like this, very straight forward and un-convoluted. I always thought the issue of free will really comes down to how you define it. One of my former Theology teachers thought that Free Will is an illusion because actions have consequences which remove the freedom involved in human will to act in certain ways. I saw that as more of an argument in favour of , there is a least a kind of free will, stimulus and response mechanism included, because your decisions are based on consequences, even subconciously.

  2. Nicely put. Determinism has always made a depressing sort of sense to me and free will is almost a nonsense term IMO, but it ultimately doesn’t matter for our day-to-day lives. We must live under the illusion of having free will for the sake of our mental well-being. Despite what I believe to be true intellectually, I go around acting and thinking as if I’m not an automaton!

  3. Check this out – it describes a world in which Free Will has been proven not to exist:

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