Is free will just a story we tell ourselves?

I recently took another step into the digital age, signing up for an Audible account. Although I have many plans for future audiobooks, I used my first membership credit to subscribe to “To the Best of Our Knowledge“. My inaugural episode was Stories of You, a collection of interviews featuring a psychologist, neuroscientist, and a spiritual leader – and you don’t even have to know of my love of reading to realize that this hour of interviews must have been right up my alley.

I have already spent quite some time considering the extent to which our unconscious minds (or mind-controlling parasites) influence our behavior, but I had not considered the implications this might have for free will, as neuroscientist Julian Keenan has:

[O]ne of the things the self maybe doing is leading you to believe you have free will when you have no free will. For example, a series of elegant experiments from the ‘80s by someone named Labette began to demonstrate that when we reach for an object, so right now I’m reaching for a cup, the arm moves first and then the frontal lobe gets involved, then the self gets involved after the decision is made. What the self does is thinks that it made the decision but the arm was moving before the self even knew that the arm was moving. So, there’s this idea that free will is an illusion and your sense of self helps to create that illusion that you have free will.

The timing of the science is clear, according to a series of even a more recent study by John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues: Volunteers sat in an MRI machine and were allowed to randomly choose to press a button with their left or right hand, as long as they remembered the letter (changed every half second) on the screen when they decided. The researchers could use the brain activity they observed to predict when the volunteer was going to press with the left or press with the right….a full 14 letters (7 seconds) before the one the volunteers reported. The decision came first, and awareness came later.

I’m not about to write free will out of the world based on these findings; it may apply to simple motor movements that have no particular bearing on, well, anything – but that doesn’t necessarily apply even to more complex physical actions, like where we wander on a walk, or to anything that isn’t a physical action.  Although I’ve previously written about the way our unconscious minds can make better decisions than our conscious ones, this “deliberation without attention” is still controversial, with some studies finding no such effect and others pointing out that experts are better off with conscious attention to their decisions. We haven’t quite shoved free will out the door yet.

Personally, I have no problem with the “reptilian old parts” of my brain taking care of more mundane decisions, so that my self – whatever it is – can tackle more interesting problems, like what to write about on this blog. Just last week I was telling my Research Methods students that there are many ways of knowing – the scientific method being the one I was going to teach them for the rest of the semester, but personal experience and intuition being others equally valid in their own time, all with pros and cons. Sometimes free will is to be preferred, sometimes it might be rather inefficient. The trick, as always, is to be mindful of whether free will or unconscious intuition is the driving force behind a given decision.

Or perhaps this is just a story I tell myself.


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