The Science of Free Will

The great philosopher Immanuel Kant once remarked that there are three mysteries that can never be completely resolved by humans: (1) The existence of God, (2) immortality, and (3) the freedom of the will. I think Kant may be right about this. Of these three, however, the freedom of the will seems most closely amenable to scientific consideration. I will use the book “The mind and the brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force,” by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, to reflect on the existence of free will in this post.

Before getting into relevant science, though, let me say how important this issue may be. As the authors of the book suggest:

“To believe in free will, or to deny it, is to imply a position, too, on such profound questions as the reality of fate and the relation of mind to matter, as well as on such practical ones as the locus and source of moral responsibility and the power all of us hold to shape our destiny. . . More often than not, to believe that we have such freedom is also to believe that, without it, the moral order is in danger of collapse. If the human mind is not in some sense an unmoved mover, one cannot reasonably assign personal responsibility, or ground a system of true justice.”

In fact, research suggests that individuals influenced to think that free will doesn’t exist act more immorally. Also, I might add that if an individual comes to believe that there is no free will, there also is less reason to believe that there is a free, conscious Being responsible for the universe in the first place.

Most scientific accounts about free will cite the research of Ben Libet. As noted by Schwartz and Begley, Libet first showed that before a voluntary action (such as the movement of a hand or foot) manifests (between .4 and 7 seconds before), the brain records a slow, electrically negative brain wave termed a “readiness potential.” This led Libet to wonder when the conscious desire to act appears. To examine this, Libet performed some studies in which he asked volunteers to flick or flex their wrist at their discretion. The results showed that the readiness potential in the brain appeared, on average, about 550 milliseconds before the activation of muscles in the wrist. Libet then wanted to understand when people became aware of the decision to move. To examine this, Libet used a time device that allowed individuals to be very precise (within 40 milliseconds). Forty trials – later replicated by other researchers – revealed that awareness of the decision to act tends to occur about 100-200 milliseconds before muscle movement occurs.

What does all this mean? Most people who think about this research seem to focus on the brain activity that can be recorded well before an action. Most seem to interpret this brain activity to mean that unconscious activity in the brain sparks actions beyond individuals’ control, thus meaning that there is no free will. Few commentaries seem to discuss Libet’s later research.

As discussed by Scwartz and Begley, Libet’s later research supports the idea of “free won’t” (as opposed to free will). As they state:

“The 150 or so milliseconds between the conscious appearance of will and the muscle movement allows enough time in which the conscious function might affect the final outcome of the volitional process. . . Libet’s findings suggest that free will operates not to initiate a voluntary act but to allow or suppress it.”

As Libet himself suggests,

“Since the volitional process is initiated in the brain unconsciously, one cannot be held to feel guilty or sinful for simply having an urge or wish to do something asocial. But conscious control over the possible act is available, making people responsible for their actions.”

Of course, this research doesn’t really totally resolve the issue because it is uncertain what causes people to allow or suppress an urge. Perhaps this comes from a free cause, but it must also be influenced by biological and environmental forces. Furthermore, “sometimes the power of those passive, unbidden, and unwanted brain processes – the voices the schizophrenic hears, the despair a depressive feels – is simply too great for mental force to overcome.”

There also are other ways in which free will might work. Schwartz and Begley refer often to William James’ idea that attention may be linked with free will. Consider the following quote from James:

“I have spoken as if our attention were wholly determined by neural conditions. I believe that the array of things as can be attended to is so determined. No object can catch our attention except by neural machinery. But the amount of attention an object receives after it has caught our mental eye is another question. It often takes effort to keep our mind upon it. We feel that we can make more or less of an effort as we choose. . . Effort may be an original force and not a mere effect, and it may be indeterminate in amount.”

Consistent with this, the authors refer to the research for which Schwartz is best known on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Schwartz has shown that individuals treated for OCD with a cognitive-behavioral, mindfulness-based approach show decreased activity in the caudate nucleus of the brain. Other research has shown that psychotherapy similarly produces changes in the brain similar to, but perhaps more long-lasting than, changes that occur because of medication.

All of this supports my contention that the mind and the brain are linked but not entirely reducible to a single entity. Like Schwartz, I believe that there is a “mental force” that can have an impact that is separate from the brain.

Schwartz and Begley speculate on some mechanisms by which this force may interact with the brain. They cite quantum physics and suggest that some of the randomness that appears at the quantum level may, in fact, not be random, but be influenced by mental forces. It seems plausible that our wills work at this level and that outside spiritual forces (such as God, for example) might as well.

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