I was thinking about free will the other day. I like to believe I have control over my life and my choices, but how would I know, if I didn’t? My brain might make me believe that I have free will, because it is evolutionarily advantageous or something and I wouldn’t know (whatever that even means; I am my brain, who’s this me that my brain is making believe things?) The other day I got really curious, about the mental workings of walking. See, making robots that beat us at chess is fairly easy, but making robots that can walk like us is really really hard. You have to do a whole bunch of calculations on how to move the legs, where to shift the body weight, the stability of the surface, etc. For a contrast, I’d like to ask you to stand up and walk a few paces back and forth. Notice, how that just sort of happens. Even though there is a tremendous amount of complex calculations going on, you probably don’t feel like you have to do much. Your muscles just kind of figure it out for you. When I do this, I begin believing that I am being carried by somebody else, like my legs are not really a part of my body or myself. They are meant to be within the jurisdiction of my free will, but the sensation of walking feels supernatural occasionally. Even worse, sometimes my legs will do their own thing completely, like bouncing under the desk while I focus on something (see RLS, aka. “I’m sorry I can’t stop them from moving, you’ll have to deal with this” or “I’m tired today, my legs decided to run a half marathon while I was sleeping”).
Interestingly, there is about 35 years worth of neuroscientific research and experimental data done on free will focusing precisely on physical movements. Pretty much all of this research is a variation on an experiment by a guy called Benjamin Libet in 1980s, who tried to measure the difference between performing an action and deciding to perform it. The experiment is simple, you sit in a room with a clock, and a bunch of wires attached to your head. You are told to randomly decide to tap your finger and take note of the precise time at which you made the decision to start moving. This is done a number of times with lots of different people. Their reported times of decision are plotted against when their brainwaves indicate signalling to finger muscles.
Now, how do you measure movement brainwaves? A special bit of the scalp has been discovered back in 1965, which during Electroencephalogram (EEG) reveals Bereitschaftspotential. Bereitschaftspotential, is otherwise known as readiness potential. It peaks just before some physical movement occurs, thus we can (maybe) use it to figure out, when the brain sends signals to muscles to contract and move. Bereitschaftspotential (don’t just skim over it again, actually try to pronounce it this time) is fun to say!
Anyway, Libet’s data indicated that people think they decide to tap their fingers before they start tapping their fingers. He then went on to make a (slightly excessive) conclusion, that free will does not exist and rather, that free will is an illusion our brain creates for us.
Now, I must say this. The experimental methods of this study are not exactly impressive. Neuroscience has discovered some amazing things using EEG, like figuring out that there are two major parts to a sleeping cycle (divided to a bunch smaller subparts). However due to its crudeness, EEG is very limited in pinpointing any more specific brain functions – we are not even sure whether Bereitschaftspotential (don’t skim over it, come on!) indicates intent, action or is simply a side effect of the two.
Following the unimpressive methods, the conclusions drawn are, well, ridiculous. If based on this experiment our bodies moved before we willed them to, we would probably end up being carried around by our legs to places we have no intention going to (for exceptions, see sleepwalking), because they would have their own minds. In fact, the publication drew lots of criticism pointing out various problems to the method, not even related to how ridiculous the conclusions are, including people’s perception and reaction times being unaccounted for.
There is a really curious mental disease, called alien hand syndrome. When certain parts of the brain get damaged, say after a stroke, limb paralysis is often observed. However, sometimes patients may develop a condition, where they have no control over a limb, say a hand, yet it involuntarily performs actions, like moving around, grabbing hold of objects, wiping the face or rubbing the eyes. How do you even perform the Libet’s experiment on people with alien hand syndrome? Does that mean these people have no free will at all?
Many neuroscientists attempted to recreate and modify Libet’s experiment since the 1980s and get a better estimate of when people actually decide that they want to tap fingers, however they didn’t ever veer too far off from the original experiment. Different alternations have been tried, including:
- Tapping a finger rhythmically
- Tapping a finger, but stopping if a tone plays
- Tapping a finger when a green card is shown and stopping when a red one appears
To everyone’s surprise, all these tappy experiments produced data, which indicated an even bigger gap between a person’s initial movement and their perceived decision to move, sadly, concluding that there’s definitely no such thing as free will. And all of them sparked even more criticism and controversy.
The conclusion is sad, because it is a very far fetched conclusion to draw from such data. And even sadder yet – there have been very few studies that had more rigorous methods and analysed things like reasoning and active mental choices. I guess coming up with good experiments is hard. Being a neuroscientist and making sense of the brain is really hard.
One of the worst things about science being unable to explain something is that we still end up forming an opinion about it (talk about the lack of free will, huh). We may still need to act on things that science has no idea about. Say, even if you choose to never choose anything again because you think free will does not exist, that is still a choice of its own. Contradictions!
Where contradictions arise, philosophy and religion shortly arrive too. Philosophers have not been very helpful on the topic, mostly being confused about how to even define what free will is. Some say it is the ability to do something differently if you want to, some believe that free will is about being able to direct your actions based on some sort of mental reasoning, and others have even more contrived definitions still. When philosophers agree on definitions, they are quick to come up with labels, choose camps and have long boring conversations about who’s camp sucks the least. In short – nobody is sure, but some people are more morbid than others.
Religion is not much help either. The Christians and Jews share an all knowing, all controlling god that gives Adam and Eve free will. They then go on to do a very bad thing in god’s eyes and are told off. God then allows them to keep their free will and continue doing very bad things, even though he could stop it because he’s got the power. Hinduism is all about “everything is predetermined”, but then they keep insisting that karma is a bitch. Predestination is actually one of the six holy articles of Islam, but then that’s only some schools of Islam and even the main Sunni view has some leeway.
I invite you to notice that you blink and breathe and how weird it is that last time it captured your attention was probably like a month ago, even though you have been doing it all this time. If you want, however, you can blink three times in succession right now. Or out of free will, you may choose not to, I don’t control your life. Over the past month, though, were you blinking out of free will or without any control?
In a way, I feel too trapped in my own body to even begin to reason about this in any sensible way. Ironically, everyone makes a choice on what to believe regarding free will. I can’t help but contradict myself – my gut feeling keeps telling me I am the owner of my actions, yet every scientific attempt to quantify the idea say I have no control.
One of my housemates saw me writing this post and posed the question about whether I was doing it out of free will. Talk about meta. Well, I hope this was a result of choice. After all, I didn’t choose to browse reddit all day again!
What do you think about free will?