Max Planck Scientists Agree With Me That Free Will Is An Illusion

I’ve been trying to explain to people for 20 years that free will is an illusion. I’ve covered the subject on a few podcasts, including this one and this one with Dr Susan Blackmore. I even mad a simple flowchart explaining why it must be an illusion. Now, finally, some neuroscientists have agreed with me.

According to Wired:

Long before you’re consciously aware of making a decision, your mind has already made it. If that’s the case, do people actually make decisions? Or is every choice — even the choice to prepare for future choices — an unthinking, mechanistic procedure over which an illusory self-awareness is laid? Those questions are raised by a study conducted by Max Planck Institute neuroscientists and published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience. Test subjects chose whether to push a button with their right or left hand; seven seconds before they experienced making the choice, their brain activity already predicted their final decisions.

(via Cameron Collie via Is Free Will an Illusion? | Wired Science |

You may say “who cares?” Well you should. It’s incredibly important to understand. It’s easily as important as understanding that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. It will change your life. At least, that’s been my experience and the experience of lots of people I know.

8 thoughts on “Max Planck Scientists Agree With Me That Free Will Is An Illusion

  1. From the information I have seen about it, the result of that experiment doesn’t support an assertion of lack of free will. What it does apparently support, instead, is that decision making happens subconsciously well before it becomes conscious. That is a very different kettle of fish, and far more palatable, IMO.

    However, your flow-chart is a different matter, and raises very interesting questions. One “chemical” mechanism which *may* allow free will is the quantum processes that go on in synapses. According to physics this introduces randomness into the process. But what if quantum processes were not truly random, but had some correlation with consciousness & will? And there is indeed evidence to support this hypothesis – eg. see

  2. Graham, I guess we should start by agreeing on a definition of terms. “Free Will”, as it is usually applied, means that we have the ability to choose our thoughts, decisions and therefore actions FREE OF OTHER FORCES, such as the laws of chemistry and physics. Is that the same way you understand the term?

    This is important for discussing quantum processes and randomness. If the theory that we have free will claims that we are in control of how we think and act, I’d have to ask how we are in control of random quantum events?

  3. That seems a reasonable definition, at least as a starting point, although there may be lack of clarity around what is meant by choosing our thoughts. If we can choose our thoughts then it is implied that there is something above/beyond thought which can control it. And it is therefore that *thing* which would not be subject to deterministic laws of physics in order to allow free will.

    My hypothesis is that the *thing* which is above thought might be what we refer to as “consciousness”. If you believe that consciousness is an artefact of thought, then the implication is that there is no free will. But if you believe that it is beyond thought, then it is also beyond the known realms covered by the laws of physics as we know them.

    So in the end I suspect what it comes down to is this – the laws of physics do not allow for free will, and the nature of the scientific method will never allow them to, even if our current knowledge of them is incomplete.

    The issue is whether or not you believe that the laws of physics rule the entirety of our existence, or whether there is something “more”. Personally I believe that there is more. But if you were right that there was no free will, then I would have had no choice but to think that anyway. 😉

  4. Graham, I have to ask: what reason do you have to believe there is more than what we have evidence of?

    Consciousness and thoughts seem to be two different things – I can be conscious without being aware of having any thoughts. What evidence, though, is there that consciousness is “above” thoughts (whatever “above”, in this context, means, as I have no idea).

    I agree with you though about the murkiness involved in suggesting that “we” control our thoughts. In fact, any investigation of this subject that I walk people through, usually results in a discussion about what “we” actually are. What do we identify as being “me”? The thoughts? Or the thing that thoughts appear in and on? (Which is sometimes referred to as consciousness, but I think that’s a confusing terminology).

  5. The fundamental question to me is: What the hell is this ‘Free Will’ thing anyway?

    I’m not sure which book it was, but I recall an AI addressing this in an Iain Banks novel.. Our experience must operate either on fixed rules, or random chance. (Or some combination of the two) If you rewound our experiences to some previous state and let them run again, would move along the exact same path for the same reasons, or make some random deviation?

    Which would you prefer? Why?

    I think.. That Free Will is concept deeply rooted in a theocratic world view with a supreme being, and is entirely concerned with the degree to which God micromanages mortal lives. In a creatorless clockwork galaxy, evolving relativistic spacetime or formless quantum multiverse, it’s trying to operate far outside of the realm where it has any useful meaning.

  6. I suspect you mean evidence for “more” that is scientifically verifiable, but of course most of the evidence I have is necessarily subjective ie. derived from my own experience and consciousness.

    That said, there are also some interesting bits and pieces of objective evidence that suggest, for example, that mind and brain are separate entities, that consciousness can survive brain death, even that some people have memories of and birthmarks relating to former lives, etc. (I’m not suggesting I want to attempt to debate these, rather just pointing out there are pieces of evidence, even though they may be frequently dismissed out of hand by those who’s beliefs don’t permit such things.)

    My own (ie. subjective) experience of consciousness is that thoughts arise within it (ie. within myself), and that I have a certain degree of control (but not at all times, and not completely) over what types of thoughts I have. I seem able to “guide” them to some extent, and exert some influence over the types of thoughts I have, but not necessarily “control” them outright, and not stop them altogether for any length of time.

    But perhaps one can view thought as multi-leveled, and that when you control your thought all you are doing is using a higher-level thought process to control a lower-level one. Its hard to reach a firm conclusion. But there are some people who’ve devoted their lives to this kind of inner exploration, and most of them seem to conclude that there is something above thought.

  7. It’s difficult to get accurate information from unbiased scientists on this matter, because the whole “problem” is kind of artificial and it’s usually only examined by people with an agenda (for example a religious one).

    The fact of the matter is simply that decision-making is a global process as far as the brain is concerned, but it’s neither instantaneous nor synchronized. Our brains consist of a multitude of modules that work together. No single one of those systems is “the seat of consciousness”. Timing and measuring experiences accurately on this scale for this purpose is completely beside the point, because of the high latencies involved between certain subsystems (especially memory formation).

    Also, it’s a misleading statement to generalize the decision-making process in this way. Different modules are involved in different types of decisions, every module is highly specialized. To put it another way: it matters a great deal how an experiment is set up, and by choosing the setup you can pre-determine the outcome you want to see.

    Making this kind of research into some philosophical point about free will is nothing more than bad science mixed with tabloid journalism. Free will is not a scientific concept at all, it’s not even possible to define it properly. As such, it can be proved or disproved entirely at will, just by changing the way experiments are set up.

    However, this type of research yields a much more interesting point: we perceive our consciousness as a single (more or less) coherent point in time. Neurological research so far indicates that this is an illusion, created by after-the-fact collation mechanisms that our brains perform automatically when committing events to memory. I think this is a far more interesting result than all this semi-religious bullshit about free will.

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