If you haven’t already, check out Eddy Nahmias’ recent New York Times op-ed “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?.” Basically, Nahmias takes on the arguments of some neuroscientists that our increasingly impressive ability to correlate brain activity with actions means that we can explain away free will or conclude that it doesn’t exist. Some experiments have shown that by observing patterns of brain activity, we can predict the decision someone will make a fraction of a second before they’re consciously aware of the decision themselves. Some neuroscientists conclude from this predictive power that we don’t really have free will, that our bodies “decide for us” what choices we make and that these choices only register with our passive consciousness after the fact.
But Nahmias shows that this argument is misleading. It assumes that there’s some self separate from our brains that ought to be making decisions but that is overridden by the brain. However, if we take into account that our brains are not separate from our minds but integral to them, we realize that it is still we who make the decisions, even if brain scans complicate our understanding of the role of conscious awareness in these decisions.
The other (but closely related) main difficulty that Nahmias attempts to resolve is how we should define free will. One of the most appealing ways to do this is to say something like, “Having free will means my future actions are not fixed; I can act in a number of ways.” This idea sets itself against determinism, or the idea that the future is basically fixed and unalterable. Philosophers who accept this definition of free will must attempt to reconcile it with determinism if they believe free will exists, but this is no easy task. Nahmias takes a different approach: he suggests that we’ve been operating under the wrong definition of free will, and that free will is actually both real and compatible with determinism. He would like to see free will as closely tied to rational thinking:
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.
Defined this way, there is no conflict between free will and determinism: we can still be perfectly rational beings whose rationality operates according to deterministic physical processes. With this move, Nahmias claims to have rescued free will from the jaws of science.
Not everyone will be convinced by this (though I was), but I think there’s something more important at stake in this article. In some sense, it doesn’t matter whether we “really” have free will. You can argue about this till the cows come home, but ultimately we experience ourselves as having free will (because, among other things, we are rational), and that’s the most important thing. Sure, maybe our actions are deterministic and could theoretically be predicted by some very powerful computer, but this is never going to happen. For all intents and purposes, we are free creatures, and our ways of thinking about ourselves and our societies should take this fact into account.
By: Aaron Bekemeyer
(Photo by –Tico– under a Creative Commons license)