Some of the philosophically inclined readers have probably followed the recent internet discussion of “free will.” I am referring specifically to that between evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (blog: Why evolution is True) and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci (blog: Rationally Speaking). It been interesting partly because the debate has also encompassed commenters on each blog. Regulars who might otherwise have lined up with the specific blogger but disagreed in this case.
I have no wish to get into debates on “free will” – I find them frustrating because people often argue past each other. And it seems to me that the debate often really boils down to how we define “free will.” So I just want to restrict my comments here to the matter of definition.
I think much of what Jerry writes is good – but in this case I find his definition of “free will” too mechanical. And I think this leads him to doubtful conclusions. Here is how he defines “free will” in his USA Today article (see Why you don’t really have free will):
“. . .let me define what I mean by “free will.” I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it’s your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice – if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way – you could have chosen differently.”
It is the “consciously” which I wish to take issue with. It’s important because part of his argument refers to work indicating that decisions on an action may be taken by a person well before that person is conscious of the decision. As Jerry describes it:
“Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. . . . “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.”
Consciousness is much over-rated
I think this work is interesting because it suggests an important role for the subconscious (or unconscious part of the brain) in decision-making which, on the surface, appears conscious. In a way this isn’t surprising because most of the work the brain does is, has to be, unconscious. Just imagine if all the ongoing work involved in homeostasis were controlled by conscious decisions. That you had to consciously decide how to respond to every incoming biological threat and then pass those conscious decision on to the immune system!
So, I don’t think it is wise to differentiate so sharply between the conscious and subconscious working of the mind/brain. I have written before about the role of the subconscious in moral decisions and think this stretches to many more areas of our decision-making than we might think. And that is a two-way street – our conscious mental deliberations also influence our subconsciousness brain – and that in return feeds back into later conscious decisions. Our academic and social learning involves, over time, constant interaction between the conscious and unconscious brain.
My suggestion is that when we “freely and consciously choose” this decision is not restricted to the conscious, self-aware brain. It also, and inevitably, involves the unconscious. Using the particular definition Jerry has, and limiting the process of decision-making to the conscious brain, is just too mechanical.