Free Will & Brain Science

Whether humans have conscious choice about their actions is an important question when discussing subjects such as morality and the soul. If God exists and has made us in His image, then we have a soul, are not merely body, and can make decisions of our own accord, without prior cause. If God does not exist, then all that exists are natural forces and humans are but complex biological machines that operate on natural forces. Surprisingly, I have found many atheists who in one breath maintain that everything that exists is reducible to matter and energy, then in the next breath hold that we have free will and can make moral choices. I sometimes find myself having to explain to atheists that if God does not exist, we are left with pure physical and chemical forces, and we do not have the free will to make moral choices; but if we do make moral choices, then physicalism is denied, and God exists. (For a detailed argument supporting human agency, start here).

Atheist philosophers who have thought this through are in agreement. In his book Free Will atheist writer Sam Harris denies that humans have free will or make free choices, and holds that all thoughts and decisions are caused by natural forces. As evidence, Harris provides the following:

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.

These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next–a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please–your brain has already determined what you will do. (p.8-9)

Harris goes on in the remainder of the book to explain the implications of this, telling us that we do not have free will, cannot make free moral choices, and all our actions are fully determined. Harris maintains free will is an illusion.

Harris spends a great percentage of the book asserting his position, but this point about neurons firing before we are aware of our thoughts is one of the few evidences he presents in the short book. Therefore this point is significant to his argument.

I will admit up front that I am not qualified to evaluate neuroscience, I do not claim expertise in this field, nor do I keep up with the literature. I cannot say whether or not Mr. Harris understands the field well and presents the best current research. Perhaps he does.  If someone more qualified than I tells me my reasoning is hair brained, then I will stand corrected. I do not claim to speak authoritatively about brain science.

However, I do know a bit about how systems operate, and the human neurological system is indeed a system. All control systems have some similar characteristics, and I see no reason to hold that the human brain and nerve system should be exempt from these fundamental principles. I will illustrate using a simple example. Let’s say Bob has a heating system in his home. It operates like this:

Bob: I feel cold.
Bob: I will turn on the heater.
(time goes by)
Bob: I feel hot.
Bob: I will turn off the heater.

This works for a while, until Bob gets tired of constantly switching the heater, and decides to install a thermostat. It has several components that operate like this:

T1: Thermometer indicates too cold.
 T2: Control circuit tells heater to start.
T3: Heater starts.
 T4: Thermometer indicates too hot.
 T5: Control circuit tells heater to stop.
 T6: Heater stops.

We can know some things about this system. We know that time passes between T1 and T2, between T2 and T3, etc. We also know that time passes within each of these steps; a heater does not instantly start, but takes a bit of time to go through the starting process. These time periods may be short, but no step happens instantaneously. Further, even afer the control tells the heater to start, the room will continue to cool for a while before the thermometer recognizes a rise in temperature. So if we were to graph the cycle, it might look like this:

Drawing1
Figure 1. Temperature rise with T2 and T5 events.

Note in this sequence that the temperature continues to decrease after T2, and continues to rise after T5. There is a lag between the event and the result. This is typical control circuit logic that could be true for any machine, continuous chemical process, or biological system. Even plants have a system to recognize stimuli and respond with hormones and changes in the plant.

The point is that all systems have a time lag between the steps in the process. All control systems have natural factors that result in time lags in the system. It would only make sense that the brain, as a biological control system, would also have a lag between the initiation of an action and the realization of the event. Just like our home heating system has a lag between the control system deciding to start heating and the recognition that heating has begun, our consciousness could very well be experiencing a lag between the initiation of our thoughts and the realization that we are thinking. This would be especially true for something as subjective as me realizing when I began thinking, or trying to determine the exact moment that someone else began thinking. I see no proof here that neurons firing a millisecond prior to human awareness would eradicate all human agency and conscious choice. The logic does not appear to follow. Merely recognizing a sequence of events does not allow us to draw conclusions about causation. Even though some neurons fire just prior to a person recognizing they are thinking, it does not follow that ‘your’ brain determines what ‘you’ will do, without ‘you’ being in control. It could be the person initiates the first neuron firing, then becomes aware of the event a fraction of a second later.

But we can take this even further. Imagine the following conversation:

Mary: Wow, your heater started all by itself. It must be alive, and started itself up all by itself. 
 Bob: No, that’s not it. I have a thermostat that controls it. The thermostat started the heater.
Mary: Oh, I see, you’re right. Now I realize that there is a material cause for the heater starting. Therefore the system must have come to exist on its own, without a designer or builder.

Such a conclusion would be absurd. Just because we have figured out a proximate cause, we cannot conclude that there is no ultimate cause. In fact, the more complex the system, the greater the need for a designer. Thomas Aquinas knew this 750 years ago, and Aristotle a thousand years before that.

We therefore hold that humans have free will, materialism is an insufficient explanation, and a non-material cause is required. This we call God.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Atheism, Philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Free Will & Brain Science

  1. I read Free Will a few months ago, and was very disappointed. Did Harris even try to deal with the question philosophically? William Lane Craig addressed the implications of Libet earlier this year, and there are some common points to yours. But your explicit reference to systems theory is a new insight to me. Good work.

  2. Great blog post. I spotted the same problem with this same argument in Alex Rosenberg’s book. He and Harris must be reading the same research. It just seems obvious that our conscious awareness of a decision has nothing to do with whether our mind freely decided to make the decision. That is just a complete non sequitur that you very nicely illustrated.

    • The Thinker says:

      Then Descarte and all the other dualistic philosophers were advocating non sequitors when they argued that the conscious mind causes the body to act. This was the view in Western philosophy for over 300 years.

  3. The Thinker says:

    Well it isn’t a milisecond before conscious awareness, it is up to 10 seconds before. That’s a very long time. What the neuroscience show is that it is not conscious will that initiates anything. That means all theories of dualism are false, since they all include conscious will initiating some physical effects. Brain always comes before mind. It is undeniable that this evidence better supports deterministic materialism than dualistic theism.

  4. humblesmith says:

    As for the length of time involved, the argument in the post still stands. The cause of the thought could very well be a long time prior to the awareness, or a very short time, it really does not matter. As the post shows, the realization of the thought (T4) can lag the initiation of the thought (T2) by a time period. The mere fact of a lag does not prove the awareness is caused by some deterministic event. Some control systems have lags of minutes or hours. All you have done is re-stated the original argument without dealing with the argument in the post. The argument in the post is that the free will mind can indeed cause the body to act prior to the self being aware that it has happened. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy.

    As to your other point, I would deny Cartesian dualism. I have written on this subject here:

    http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/soul-body-dualism-or-soul-body-unity/

    So dualism is rejected, but not for the reasons you state, for there is no connection between time lag in brains and dualism. You have merely stated that brain always comes before mind without giving a reason.

    • The Thinker says:

      As I look at your post, I can’t help but notice what a non sequitor your entire argument is at the conclusion.

      It would only make sense that the brain, as a biological control system, would also have a lag between the initiation of an action and the realization of the event.

      Wouldn’t deterministic materialism work better under this series of events? In your analogy the event is the brain deciding on an option and the result is the conscious awareness of that decision. What this shows is that consciousness is not what drives the brain or body. What evidence do you have that the brain’s decision that happens before awareness is the result of something other than determined physical processes?

      I see no proof here that neurons firing a millisecond prior to human awareness would eradicate all human agency and conscious choice. The logic does not appear to follow.

      What logic states that we “decide” to do things before we’re aware of our decision? Had the evidence shown that conscious thought came first, I bet you’d be cheering that dualism had been scientifically verified.

      Even though some neurons fire just prior to a person recognizing they are thinking, it does not follow that ‘your’ brain determines what ‘you’ will do, without ‘you’ being in control.

      Yes it does. You need to make a really good case that is backed up by very strong evidence to show that the determined neurons that are firing are not what determines what you will do. I see nothing in this post that even comes close to making a solid case for that position. All you have is this:

      It could be the person initiates the first neuron firing, then becomes aware of the event a fraction of a second later.

      It could be? How does the person initiate the first neuron unconsciously? What scientific evidence do you have for that? Where is your data showing this to be true? Without evidence, your alternative is faith based. And this is dealing with the physical world, so it is in the domain of science.

      Therefore the system must have come to exist on its own, without a designer or builder.

      Your analogy is absurd. No one is using the fact that neuroscience better supports determinism to argue that there is no god based on this evidence alone. The argument is to show how dualism described in Christian theology is false and that there is no free will. You’ve attacked a giant strawman in your hypothetical dialogue. I see this all the time with theists.

      Such a conclusion would be absurd.

      Because you’ve attacked a strawman.

      Just because we have figured out a proximate cause, we cannot conclude that there is no ultimate cause.

      Yes because the argument is that determinism is true. At most you can argue from this data that any version of god that requires free will is false. But that’s it. The ultimate cause argument is not covered by the arguments from neuroscience, so again you’ve built up a strawman and knocked him down and are now claiming glorious victory.

      We therefore hold that humans have free will, materialism is an insufficient explanation, and a non-material cause is required. This we call God.

      Your conclusion doesn’t follow and is a total non sequitor due to the fact that you’ve provided no explanation or evidence of free will and because you’ve targeted a strawman. This is why free and open criticism is important, you need to be held to a higher standard than the choir is going to give you.

      • humblesmith says:

        I never said that the neurons firing did not cause the body to act. My argument is that the mere fact that the neurons fire prior to our awareness of a thought does not prove naturalistic determinism, but the evidence is consistent with (1) the thought and (2) the awareness that the thought happened are different things. All I have to demonstrate is that my argument is consistent with the data Harris provided, which I have done. My data is in the post, where I deal with standard control systems used throughout industry to control all process systems.

        While some Christians have taught dualism, good Christian theology does not teach dualism, as I demonstrated in my other post.

        • The Thinker says:

          Well we can both agree that dualism is false.

          What the data of neuroscience shows is that consciousness is not the catalyst of our actions, something else is. You have much more to do than come up with an apparently ad hoc explanation of the will that is compatible with neuroscience. Basing your entire defense on the logic of “It could be” can allow anyone to hypothesize anything in any religion or worldview. Control systems are preprogrammed. Once a certain condition is met they always respond predictably. There’s no room for free will. You need to provide evidence how free will can affect the physical world in a way that the laws of physics can take into consideration. And You need to make the case that your explanation is better than naturalistic determinism – if you care about having a sound worldview based on evidence.

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