Friday, June 27, 2008

The Determinists Strike Again

The Wall St Journal carries the intriguing story of neurological research that suggests many of our decisions are made before our consciousness is aware of them. "This doesn't rule out free will" says neuroscientist J D Haynes, "but it does make it implausible." This is the latest in a long line of results - largely since the introduction of MRI technology - that has seen this long standing debate move firmly in the determinist direction. As the article suggests:

Such experiments suggest that our best reasons for some choices we make are understood only by our cells. The findings lend credence to researchers who argue that many important decisions may be best made by going with our gut -- not by thinking about them too much.

5 comments:

Michael Prescott said...

If we think in terms of The Self and Its Brain, then we could say that the self makes the decision first, and the brain becomes aware of it a moment later. This would be compatible with free will ...

Daniel Barnes said...

You've read that one Michael? Excellent. It's not one of the more accessible tomes out there. It's dated from a biological perspective inevitably, but Popper's historical overview of the mind/brain problem doesn't date. Nor does the enjoyable, free-ranging conversations of Eccles and Popper that make up the final part of the book.

gregnyquist said...

"This doesn't rule out free will" says neuroscientist J D Haynes, "but it does make it implausible."

Scientists can be rather crude when it comes to drawing philosophical conclusions from scientific research. What this research suggests is that it is not so much free will per se that is implausible but only the crude models of free will advocated by philosophers like Rand that are suspect. Most of our decisions probably aren't governed by "free will." Why should they be? That would be an enormous waste of psychological resources. So most of decisions have to be made unconsiously. But does that mean that every decision we make consciousness plays no role at all, that consciousness is about as efficacious in willing as the steam whistle is in the movement of a locomotive? Doesn't strike me as a very plausible notion. Why, even the article notes that we often are better off following our gut feelings. But that assumes we have a choice one way or the other: that we can choose to follow gut or become self-conscious and micromanage our decisions.

These results, nonetheless, are important in that they show the inadequacy of the older, more traditional (and more doltish) models of free will: that we are more limited than we previously thought in this regard, and that self-initiative is a lot more complicated than merely focusing our minds.

Anonymous said...

As the article sidebar briefly mentions, this info came as early as Libet's 1983 paper. Philosopher Owen Flanagan wrote one response ("Neuroscience, Agency, and the Meaning of Life") that accepts the biology, yet still defends free will entirely within a physicalist framework.

Bryan M. White said...

Yep, I think I gotta go with Greg on this one.

I can see this pertaining to decisions made in the moment, almost reflexively, such as jumping out of the way of a moving vehicle or even blurting something out without deliberation. It may even pertain to things which have become habitual to the point of becoming almost unconscious, like ordering our coffee the same way every morning. But for the bigger decisions, the things we DO sit down and deliberate on (which job to take, whether to accept a marriage proposal, ect.) I don't really see how these findings apply to decisions like that. We spend hours mulling over things like that. Who can say the exact "moment" such a decision is finally reached, and who can say how much all that mulling colored and effect that preconscious moment, even if we talking about a smaller choice that we just stopped for a few minutes to mull over? Surely the mulling has to count for something, doesn't it? ;D