Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?
In a recent piece at The Stone, Eddy Nahmias tries to untangle whether or not people have any real control over their actions and how our increasingly complex understanding of the way the human brain works does or doesn’t undercut the idea of free will.
Here’s the conclusion:
[D]oes neuroscience mean the death of free will? Well, it could if it somehow demonstrated that conscious deliberation and rational self-control did not really exist or that they worked in a sheltered corner of the brain that has no influence on our actions. But neither of these possibilities is likely. True, the mind sciences will continue to show that consciousness does not work in just the ways we thought, and they already suggest significant limitations on the extent of our rationality, self-knowledge, and self-control. Such discoveries suggest that most of us possess less free will than we tend to think, and they may inform debates about our degrees of responsibility. But they do not show that free will is an illusion.
If we put aside the misleading idea that free will depends on supernatural souls rather than our quite miraculous brains, and if we put aside the mistaken idea that our conscious thinking matters most in the milliseconds before movement, then neuroscience does not kill free will. Rather, it can help to explain our capacities to control our actions in such a way that we are responsible for them. It can help us rediscover free will.
Do you agree or disagree? And what makes you think you have a choice when it comes to your agreement or disagreement?
I love this discussion, and it’s a subject that Marie and I have often- she loves to talk about Neurolaw and Neuroscience. We have differing opinions, but Eddy Nahmias seems to sum up my opinion quite nicely by saying that understanding how our will works doesn’t negate it or make it predetermined, bur rather, “it can help to explain our capacities to control our actions”. Understanding the mechanism of free thought does not render that though chained, but rather just reveal how that free thought works.
Of course, as Marie is fond of pointing out, our brains often act before we make a conscious decision, implying heavily that our understanding of human consciousness is not nearly as complete as I’d like to think it is.
This is a tense debate in modern neuroscience & for good reason. All in all, I think the question of free-will is largely unimportant and we should be questioning the aspects of individual culpability as we come to understand that brain = behavior. As a society we follow this concept of ‘the reasonable man standard' (what would a reasonable man do in a certain situation), but since every brain differs on every measurable axis, such as empathy, aggression & intelligence, we can assume that 'the reasonable man' doesn't exist.
Benjamin Libet’s research showed us that certain motor movements are controlled by the brain unconsciously, I.E. your brain will decide to move before you are consciously aware of the decision. There are also dozens, if not hundreds, of cases in the literature that depict subjects whose entire personality changes from brain tumors & brain damage. It’s also rather easy to see how different behavior is when alcohol, drugs & prescription medicines are involved. See: Phineas Gage, Charles Whitman, Chris Benoit.
All of this points me to the direction that A.) We are less in control of our own thoughts and behaviors than we think and, B.) If free-will does exist, it completely depends on what your biology already consists of - no decision can be purely ‘free’.
I agree with David Eagleman’s point of view: “I believe we do have some amount of decision-making and free choice that we have as humans, but it is not the degree of freedom that people often think. In other words, free will isn’t totally free, it depends on what you are coming to the table with biologically.”
2:54 pm • 21 November 2011 • 126 notes
First Artificial Neural Network Created out of DNA: Molecular Soup Exhibits Brainlike Behavior
Consisting of four artificial neurons made from 112 distinct DNA strands, the researchers’ neural network plays a mind-reading game in which it tries to identify a mystery scientist. The researchers “trained” the neural network to “know” four scientists, whose identities are each represented by a specific, unique set of answers to four yes-or-no questions, such as whether the scientist was British.
After thinking of a scientist, a human player provides an incomplete subset of answers that partially identifies the scientist. The player then conveys those clues to the network by dropping DNA strands that correspond to those answers into the test tube. Communicating via fluorescent signals, the network then identifies which scientist the player has in mind. Or, the network can “say” that it has insufficient information to pick just one of the scientists in its memory or that the clues contradict what it has remembered. The researchers played this game with the network using 27 different ways of answering the questions (out of 81 total combinations), and it responded correctly each time.
1:40 pm • 22 July 2011 • 1 note
Last thoughts and Consciousness
Does the brain remain aware after a guillotining? Are the seconds or minutes after the chop agonizingly experienced by the heads that showed ”irregularly rhythmic contractions” of eyelids and mouths…or were they merely compulsive muscle spasms, left-over signals of a swiftly shocked but unconscious brain?
The subject was considered as early as 1796 in a French pamphlet,Anecdotes sur les Décapités, and again, briefly, in English, by John Wilson Croker in his History of the Guillotine (1853). Doctors, for the most part, insisted that the shock of the blade must cause immediate unconsciousness, and that loss of the blood supply to the brain brings on actual death a matter of seconds later – there is a cardiologists’ maxim that when a heart stops, the brain can retain consciousness for no more than four seconds if the person concerned is standing, eight if he is sitting, and 12 if he is lying down. via
So if oxygen is the problem, just pump some blood in. Here, anyone’s will do….Lord, no - not the cat.
In 1880, a doctor pumped blood from a living dog into the head of the murderer and rapist Menesclou three hours after execution. The lips trembled, the eyelids twitched, and the head seemed about to speak, although no words emerged. via
That implies that any movements of a detached noggin’s eyes or lips “are merely convulsive, and that the severed head does not feel.” But, over the years, a small and frankly dubious body of evidence has accumulated to suggest this view is wrong, and that – in a handful of cases at least – the severed head remains aware of what has happened to it. via
Or does it? Point is, Some experiments with severed heads is what you want to read. Various “medical” studies, skeptical retorts and other historical accounts of what turns out to be a very painful execution.
If you don’t feel like doing all that work, here’s the rub:
…most modern physicians believe that the reactions described above are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is “probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood” Via
So even if the the docs from the 1800’s weren’t that far off, if signals are making muscles twitch, then pain might still be able to be “felt” and maybe thoughts are experienced, at least for those 2-3 seconds. 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi…that’s still a long time to be in pain - or not sure if there is any pain, which is why it’s no longer used as a execution device.
Image: Guillotined Head, Antoine Wiertz, 1855
1:38 pm • 22 July 2011 • 192 notes
FARFROM: Excerpted from “Taking the Leap,” by Pema Chodrön “A few years ago, I...
Excerpted from “Taking the Leap,” by Pema Chodrön
“A few years ago, I was overwhelmed by deep anxiety, a fundamental, intense anxiety with no storyline attached. I felt very vulnerable, very afraid and raw. While I sat and breathed with it, relaxed into it, stayed with it, the terror did not…
1:05 pm • 18 July 2011 • 4 notes
“Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside — remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.”
— Charles Bukowski (via mslistliss)
(Source: montauksunshine, via bitchiestwitch-deactivated20120)
12:25 pm • 18 July 2011 • 7,002 notes
Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips
In four cleverly designed experiments reported in ScienceExpress, psychologists explore how the Internet may be changing the way people handle information. The results, the researchers say, confirm a growing belief that people are using the Internet as a personal memory bank: the so-called Google effect. What surprised the researchers most was not people’s reliance on online information but their ability to find it.
10:49 am • 15 July 2011 • 9 notes
“hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?”
— Bradley Manning (via jonathan-cunningham)
(Source: Wired, via jonathan-cunningham)
12:21 pm • 14 July 2011 • 47 notes