Good Science, Bad Philosophy

According to a much bally-hooed study, “Certain patterns of brain activity predict people’s decisions up to 10 seconds before the people are aware of them, according to new research that casts fresh doubt on whether we have free will.”

confused anti-free-will argument

This seems to me an extraordinarily bad argument, a case of ignoratio elenchi (the fallacy of attempting to refute a position without first ascertaining what the position to be refuted actually says).

First, the study assumes without argument that the correct theory of free will is incompatibilism rather than compatibilism. Obviously if compatibilism is correct then the existence of causally sufficient conditions antecedent to one’s choices is no obstacle to those choices’ being free. (And most philosophers will agree that if we turned out not to have incompatibilist free will, then incompatibilism rather than free will would be the thing to reject.)

Second, even if (as I think) the correct theory of free will is incompatibilist, I can’t see that this study poses any obstacle even to incompatibilist free will. For it seems to assume two dubious things.

First, it assumes that if the preparatory brain activity precedes consciousness of the choice, then the preparatory brain activity must therefore also precede the choice itself. I can’t see what warrants that assumption. Choices aren’t instantaneous, they’re processes that take time; and awareness of the choice seems likely to come later rather than earlier in the process.

Second, even if we assume (unwarrantedly) that the preparatory activity does precede the choice itself, that still doesn’t show that the choice is causally determined by antecedent circumstances. All that it shows is that the choice is made extremely probable by antecedent circumstances; and the incompatibilist libertarian need have no objection to that. After all, given quantum physics, and given that we’re made of matter that’s governed by quantum physics, we already know that nobody’s choices are causally determined by antecedent circumstances (unless this study is claiming to have falsified quantum physics, which would be a wee bit ambitious).

This study illustrates the perils of scientists trying to draw conclusions about a philosophical topic without knowing very much philosophy ….

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8 Responses to Good Science, Bad Philosophy

  1. Jon Cogburn April 18, 2008 at 2:57 pm #

    I agree with all you’ve said above.

    But in addition, why think that brain activity is deterministic? First, quantum effects do percolate up, if they didn’t we could not have Geiger counters.

    In addition, on the authority of people who actually understand these things I have it that it is not at all clear that classical physics entails determinism in any case (and this has nothing to do with “chaos theory”). Real classical physics has almost nothing in common with popular philosophical construals of it, from the original popular determinism to the Theory T (I personally prefer T prime) folks in the 1950s whose last refuge seems to be the philosophy of mind via participants in Fodor/Kim debates about reductionism (none of whom seem to have read Mark Wilson’s relevant work).

  2. Administrator April 18, 2008 at 3:17 pm #

    I agree. But I actually think they don’t need to percolate up in any sense as strong as a Geiger counter in order for the brain to be indeterministic.

    I have a PowerPoint presentation on this topic: Part One, Part Two.

  3. John Markley April 18, 2008 at 5:44 pm #

    “Second, even if we assume (unwarrantedly) that the preparatory activity does precede the choice itself, that still doesn’t show that the choice is causally determined by antecedent circumstances. All that it shows is that the choice is made extremely probable by antecedent circumstances; and the incompatibilist libertarian need have no objection to that.”

    This is an important point, and it’s something people often ignore about the celebrated Libet experiment, which also showed motor impulses to act preceding conscious awareness of choice. Libet pointed out that his subjects would occasionally show the usual electrical activity in the motor center, and then choose not to act. So it’s a jump to assume that the electrical buildup demonstrates that the act is truly predetermined, and not merely an indication of a strong disposition to act.

    Another issue with Libet that appears to be the case here as well, based on the linked article, is that the actions taken by Libet’s subjects were consciously preplanned. In Libet’s work, the subjects watched a clock, and were instructed to choose a random moment to hit a button, then report the time they perceived themselves willing to hit the button. The problem there is the intention “hit the button” was, in an important sense, already consciously formed and chosen before the clock had even started. The subject had already decided to hit the button, already knew they were going to hit the button, and the only intention not yet consciously formed was the exact moment. In that sort of case, it’s hardly surprising that the motor center was lighting up before the actual final decision, regardless of whether the subject actually had free will or not.

    I suspect there may be a similar problem here, based on the way the experiment is described. The articles says, “Researchers tracked brain activity while people viewed a stream of letters on screen, and then pressed a button. Each participant was asked to decide freely which of two buttons to press and when to press it. Activity in two brain regions, called the prefrontal and parietal cortex, predicted which but­ton the per­son would press, they found.”

    So, again, the subject had already decided to hit the button, and he knew that, barring some sudden freak occurrence that forced him to flee the room, he would carry out that decision. So, once again, the brain gearing itself up to act before the final moment of decision is to be expected with or without free will. The only new wrinkle appears to be having a choice of two buttons. The fact that they could predict which would be chosen is neat, but not terribly decisive, since it’s not at all hard to imagine a free-willed person starting with a very strong predisposition for one button over another without consciously realizing it.

    Theses sorts of experiments are limited by the limitations of human focus. Since the subject has to concentrate on precisely monitoring and reporting his own mental state, he can’t really engage in any acts that aren’t tainted by this sort of lengthy gap between resolving to act and actually acting- say, a conversation with another person where the subject to be discussed is not known beforehand. Once genetic engineering really takes off, we should crank out some huge-headed humans with four-lobed brains who can maintain two separate trains of thought simoultaneously.

    There is indeed an unfortunate tendency for people- to be fair, it’s not always the researchers themselves- to make unjustified claims about the philosophical ramifications of scientific discoveries. This is a very good example, because neuroscience seems to be one of the worst areas in this regard. Evolutionary biology is another, presumably because they both deal closely with human nature, which everyone has an opinion on, whereas most people have no strongly held convictions that hinge on the existence of Hawking radiation or strange matter stars.

  4. Laura J. April 18, 2008 at 6:52 pm #

    A neat study, in and of itself. I would fault any interpretation of it, however, that assumes that this contradicts free will on the basis that the most prominent layers of consciousness are the only true self, and any other layers of thought are simply a box that these layers go in, such that any elements of decision-making that come from processes that one is less consciously aware of represent some terrible constriction on conscious will, rather than being constituent parts that enable the functioning of conscious processes in the first place. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the brain, and I see no to judge processes that are usually running in the background as less constitutive of a person’s selfhood than the ones that are more obviously foregrounded on a regular basis. Considering that brains exist in time and space and signals between neurons take time to travel across the regions of the brain, why would one NOT expect different parts of the brain to show signs of awareness of the outcome of a process of choice at different times, when different parts have different roles in formulating those choices, evaluating them, and implementing them, even under the assumption of free will?

  5. Administrator April 19, 2008 at 1:07 pm #

    When I was in college I worked for a behaviourist psychologist named Michael Commons, who likewise thought he had proven something about free will (though he was philosophically savvier — he was arguing for compatibilism rather than hard determinism). His argument: run an experiment asking people to tell two things apart, and then ask them how free they felt in making the choice. Turns out (actually at the time I knew him he hadn’t yet run the experiment, but he predicted, plausibly enough, that this would be the outcome) that the harder it is to tell the two things apart, i.e. the less their choice is determined by the data, the less free their choice feels. Hence, he inferred, free will requires determinism.

    Which would be a great argument if there were any connection between being causally determined and being informed by data, but there isn’t.

  6. Geoffrey Allan Plauche October 21, 2008 at 1:25 pm #


    It looks like you have the same file linked for both Part 1 and Part 2 of your PP presentation.

  7. Geoffrey Allan Plauche October 21, 2008 at 2:02 pm #

    Actually, turns out I can’t even open pptx files. I have an older version of MS Office.


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