The Persistent Illusion of Free Will

Free will is perhaps one of the most important concepts governing human life. It touches everything from politics to intimacy, religion to online shopping. We staunchly believe that we can will our choices into being. For example, I’ve chosen to write this sentence. But what if that’s not actually the case?

Human beings have argued about free will and determinism for centuries with no real proof to further either side. Until recently, that is. Modern neuroscience has enabled researchers to track brain activity quite accurately.

Benjamin Libet pioneered the use of neuroscience to test free will. He set up a test in which a subject was told to move their index finger at a time of their choosing. He found that certain brain activity (a “readiness potential” in his word) spiked ~350 milliseconds before the subject consciously made a decision to move their finger.

In The Illusion of Conscious Will, psychologist Daniel Wegner notes that the perceived free will we experience is an epiphenomenon: something that is caused by brain events, not the cause of such events. He argues that will at the conscious level is like a compass, in that it “does not steer the ship in any physical sense.” The will plays no causal role in determining behavior because it is a feeling that occurs after the corresponding action has already begun.

Some argue that Libet’s “readiness potential” was a nonspecific signal that had nothing to do with movement. However, in 2011, UCLA neurosurgeon Itzak Fried replaced Libet’s EEG recordings with electrodes monitoring single neurons and found that the readiness potential is in fact brain activity that predicts both whether a subject will move and what hand they will use before they make that those conscious decisions.

Our decisions seem to come from a sort of path dependence. In our context, this concept derived from physics states that our current decisions depend on the trajectory of past knowledge and decision-making. More simply, what we do in the present is almost entirely dependent on what we experienced in the past.

Free Will

In his book Free Will, Sam Harris remarks that “our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.” The factors that generate the subconscious thought are genetics, environmental factors, previous decisions / learning, etc. Harris claims that since we cannot accurately trace the preceding factors of a given decision, that decision must be caused outside of the conscious will. Indeed, he notes that there’s no way to know whether one would have acted different in a given circumstance. We say we could have done things differently, but in the same circumstances with the same parameters, there’s no evidence that anything would change.

Paul Bloom and Adam Bear investigated why the brain would alter a sequence of events in order to make us believe that we initiated a decision and then the body responded appropriately. They state that “swapping the order of choice and action in conscious awareness may aid in the understanding that we are physical beings who can produce effects out in the world. More broadly, this illusion may be central to developing a belief in free will and, in turn, motivating punishment.” As Cory Clark et al point out “belief in free will is a pervasive phenomenon that has important consequences for prosocial actions and punitive judgments … It is functional for holding others morally responsible and facilitates justifiably punishing harmful members of society.”

Ultimately, free will as we have contemplated it for centuries likely does not exist. However, its persistence forces us to be moral and prosocial. If we believe we control our actions, we can be blamed for wrongdoing and praised for good behavior. This ability to ascribe praise and blame on a societal level allows human beings to cohere together. Without social bonds, our species would have died out long ago. The persistent illusion of free will might therefore be an evolutionary adaptation, as Bloom and Bear hint.


Originally published at Thought Distiller.

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