The free-will myth: further evidence that conscious “decisions” are made unconsciously in advance

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by Neil Godfrey

Jerry Coyne has published another post discussing another recent experiment that stacks more evidence against the notion of us freely making conscious choices.

It is based on a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Predicting free choices for abstract intentions.

Jerry raises the obvious social implications for this theses, including one that has particularly interested me for some years now — the foundations of our entire legal system, based as it is on the concept that lawbreakers/anti-social criminals are freely (consciously) responsible for their actions, and the requirement to punish for making decisions that cause harm.

On the other hand, the enforcing of rules with threats of punishments is a fundamental part of all social behaviour in probably all social species. Is it possible, or is it even really ethical, for us to be able to accept that our Jack the Rippers should be treated and cured — as opposed to punished — when caught? I hardly think so.

What will a social species do when or if it is eventually confronted with the evidence that the decisions of its members are somehow determined and concluded before those decisions register in the consciousness?

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2013-03-26 19:22:18 GMT+0000 - 19:22 | Permalink

    Interesting. I just preached a sermon of how Christian views of sins are actually compatible with this view of the subconscious…

  • 2013-03-26 19:47:20 GMT+0000 - 19:47 | Permalink

    What will a social species do when or if it is eventually confronted with the evidence that the decisions of its members are somehow determined and concluded before those decisions register in the consciousness?

    I’m betting that the answer is “continue as normal”. Notions of “free will” are part of our superficial commentary about ourselves (instead of being a foundation or underpinning of our natures and our judicial system) and thus we can adjust them or do without them with little consequences.

    It’s a bit like the question the Christians ask: “What happens to our morality if we no longer believe in a God with a big stick?”. The answer, to first order, is not much, our basic morality continues just the same. We can change our superficial commentaries (god, freewill) without changing our natures and without any profound consequences for society.

  • 2013-03-26 23:59:03 GMT+0000 - 23:59 | Permalink

    The only problem is that our justice system is primarily based on vengeance and not rehabilitation. A rehabilitative justice system would work whether we had free will or not.

    • 2013-03-28 06:51:27 GMT+0000 - 06:51 | Permalink

      Have you ever considered evolutionary selection as a mechanism for rehabilitative purposes? Think about it, an individual striving for self-improvement in order to re-enter the community.

  • 2013-03-27 01:55:02 GMT+0000 - 01:55 | Permalink

    My own theory is that you have free will until you’re 30 years old or until you appear on the Jerry Springer show.

  • 2013-03-27 03:58:02 GMT+0000 - 03:58 | Permalink

    There is no free will, that’s an illusion. We have free choice but first we must have known choices available from which to choose. We cannot make an un-caused choice. We can only make caused choices. We can never choose, of our own free will, anything that we’ve never known about or heard of.

    NO, we do not enter into any bogus contracts of our own free will, we were conned into signing that contract. Somebody or some thing causesthe choices we make – every time – therefore, no free will.

  • David Hillman
    2013-03-27 04:55:31 GMT+0000 - 04:55 | Permalink

    Freedom practically is freedom from external coercion – freedom to meet what appear to be our material and spiritual needs without other selfish agents preventing or starving us. Can we be free of ourselves? Well perhaps if the ego is a bit of an illusion covering contradictory proto personalities we can try to rid ourselves of viscious habits and unthinking prejudices. But it is a logical contradiction to decide to go against our own decisions however they are made. To separate a person into body, soul, mind and spirit is to separate aspects of one entity. That decisions are made pre consciously does not negate the possibility of cogitation on future action – which cogitation affects our mind and thus of course ultimately our body. The only alternative to seeing mind and spirit as ultimately aspects of a material body is the idea of an homonculus – either a little man in our brain or a disembodied soul somehow communicating to a material body – and critics of Descartes have shown this can not be made to work.

  • Bob Moore
    2013-03-27 05:33:09 GMT+0000 - 05:33 | Permalink

    We may unconsciously adjust the algorithms (if X then Y) in our minds to suit what is agreeable to us personally. And, there’s evidence that decisions of multiple minds are generally better than individual decisions. So one would think that allowing society to help it’s own survival — by determining what will be most collectively agreeable– offers the way ahead.

    • David Hillman
      2013-03-27 06:33:20 GMT+0000 - 06:33 | Permalink

      I was not arguing for individualism. Freedom is absence of oppressive coercion. But cooperation is liberating!

  • 2013-03-27 09:26:26 GMT+0000 - 09:26 | Permalink

    Coyne observes that free will has been “defined in various and contradictory ways.” That alone raises suspicions about its reality.

    • 2013-04-02 11:41:23 GMT+0000 - 11:41 | Permalink

      No it doesn’t. The reason its defined in multiple ways is because the jackasses who want to assert it doesn’t exist define it in such a ridiculously stringent way as to turn it into a straw man. Calvinists, for instance, love to define free will as the ability to do ANYTHING you want, including like sprout wings and fly. Oh, so you can’t sprout wings and fly whenever you want to. Well then, (concludes the Calvinist) there is no free will.

      • 2013-04-02 12:28:18 GMT+0000 - 12:28 | Permalink

        All the jackasses would like to know: how do you define free will?

  • 2013-03-27 10:15:07 GMT+0000 - 10:15 | Permalink

    Forgive me if I posted this before, but it’s relevant to the subject at hand. John Searle talks about consciousness, the problem of free will, and artificial intelligence:

  • 2013-04-02 11:37:07 GMT+0000 - 11:37 | Permalink

    This simply requires a fresh evaluation of terminology; its semantics. The scientific notion of conscious versus subconscious is undoubtedly backwards as far as which part of the brain is which. Or rather, in other words, what religion has always called the soul, the part that makes the decision, is in the part of the brain scientists call the subconscious region, and the part they call the conscious is just the animal part that takes the orders from the soul residing in the subconscious part.

    • 2013-04-02 12:31:16 GMT+0000 - 12:31 | Permalink

      Are you suggesting that there’s a ghost in the machine?

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