Does Neuroscience Spell the End of Free Will? You Decide!

An interesting devil’s advocate piece appeared in The NY Times recently, addressing the question “Is […]

David Zahl / 11.15.11

An interesting devil’s advocate piece appeared in The NY Times recently, addressing the question “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?” Here author and philosopher Eddy Nahmias argues that recent discoveries about brain function do not in fact equate to the death of free will, that they really only speak to our faulty operating definitions of the term, that free will is not an all-or-nothing faculty, and even if it were, the implications for consciousness (reduced to inner spectator) are too absurd to fathom.

His argument is not unconvincing, but it is also not anything new for those familiar with theological understandings of the “bondage of the will.” Namely, we have a will, it is simply not free or unhampered. We can choose between any number of options – khakis, jeans, shorts, coolots – but there are certain things we cannot choose (i.e. to love God with all our heart, mind and strength), and these limitations are ultimately definitive. As Fitz Allison says,“The amazing thing about the alcoholic is that he can choose between gin and beer and whiskey, but he can’t choose not to drink.” To possess “less free will,” as Nahmias suggests, is to possess a will that adheres to certain neural boundaries, a will that on some level is bound. So we’re not talking about a deterministic view of human enterprise a la double-predestination; we are talking about a constrained one. Which does not seem contradict what the article is saying – it just shifts the semantics a bit.

Of course, it’s always amusing to see the cartwheels that take place when our precious responsibility is at stake… As we’re fond of saying, would the world end if we were held responsible even for those things that we can’t control? Where is it written that the two are always linked? Wouldn’t it be great news if God’s grace and forgiveness extended even to those things over which we have no control? Or is the Gospel only a message for those who’ve consciously made “irresponsible” choices? Along those lines, the weakest section of the piece involves (what sounds like) the arbitrary distinction between little decisions and big ones, ht BG:

Is free will an illusion?  Some leading scientists think so.  For instance, in 2002 the psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote, “It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do… It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion.” More recently, the neuroscientist Patrick Haggard declared, “We certainly don’t have free will.  Not in the sense we think.”  And in June, the neuroscientist Sam Harris claimed, “You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.”

Such proclamations make the news; after all, if free will is dead, then moral and legal responsibility may be close behind… Instead of showing that free will is an illusion, neuroscience and psychology can actually help us understand how it works.

The sciences of the mind do give us good reasons to think that our minds are made of matter.  But to conclude that consciousness or free will is thereby an illusion is too quick.  It is like inferring from discoveries in organic chemistry that life is an illusion just because living organisms are made up of non-living stuff.  Much of the progress in science comes precisely from understanding wholes in terms of their parts, without this suggesting the disappearance of the wholes.  There’s no reason to define the mind or free will in a way that begins by cutting off this possibility for progress.

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires.  We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure.  We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them. These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities.

People are threatened by a possibility I call “bypassing” — the idea that our actions are caused in ways that bypass our conscious deliberations and decisions.  So, if people mistakenly take causal determinism to mean that everything that happens is inevitable no matter what you think or try to do, then they conclude that we have no free will.  Or if determinism is presented in a way that suggests all our decisions are just chemical reactions, they take that to mean that our conscious thinking is bypassed in such a way that we lack free will.


None of the evidence marshaled by neuroscientists and psychologists suggests that those neural processes involved in the conscious aspects of such complex, temporally extended decision-making are in fact causal dead ends.  It would be almost unbelievable if such evidence turned up.  It would mean that whatever processes in the brain are involved in conscious deliberation and self-control — and the substantial energy these processes use — were as useless as our appendix, that they evolved only to observe what we do after the fact, rather than to improve our decision-making and behavior.  No doubt these conscious brain processes move too slowly to be involved in each finger flex as I type, but as long as they play their part in what I do down the road — such as considering what ideas to type up — then my conscious self is not a dead end, and it is a mistake to say my free will is bypassed by what my brain does.

So, does 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.