Thinking Christian

Thinking Christianity for church, home, and community

Here We Go ‘Round the No-Free-Will Bush ♫

Posted on Jun 22, 2014 by Tom Gilson

Sheesh.

SteveK [told us[(http://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2014/06/to-seek-god-sensibly-on-his-own-terms/#comment-101165) about this report, Free will could be the result of ‘background noise’ in the brain, study suggests.

I’ve seen enough bad science journalism to know that the real experiment may look very little like the one reported there. (In fact, I have real trouble believing the research is as weak as that.) Taking the report at face value, though, with that disclaimer, this appears to be what’s happening:

  1. A cue appears on screen at random intervals.
  2. When the cue appears, volunteers are supposed to decide whether to look left or right.
  3. Random brain noise preceding the cue can predict what their decision will be.
  4. The researchers know that the volunteers are doing no free-will-related pre-decision mental work that might influence their decisions when they make them.
  5. Therefore the pre-decision firings in the brain are not based in free will.
  6. Therefore this experiment provides empirical support for the absence of free will.
  7. Therefore the researchers conclude that what was going on in volunteers’ brains before their decisions was random and unrelated to free will.
  8. Therefore the researchers know that the volunteers are doing no free-will-related pre-decision mental work that might influence their decisions when they make them.

… so early in the morning.

Print Friendly

36 Responses to “ Here We Go ‘Round the No-Free-Will Bush ♫ ”

  1. Tom Gilson says:

    Distorted science journalism is everywhere. Tentatively and until shown otherwise, I’m going to file this under “lousy reporting” in my mind, not “lousy research.” The former is much more likely than the latter.

  2. Billy Squibs says:

    I was on the Unbelievable? facebook page and one of the regular atheist contributors posted the link suggesting that it was yet another knock for the free will defence of evil.

  3. JAD says:

    The brain has a normal level of so-called background noise; the researchers found that the pattern of activity in the brain in the seconds before the cue symbol appeared – before the volunteers knew they were going to make a choice – could predict the likely outcome of the decision.

    That sounds like precognition to me. Am I reading it right?

    Anyway, it remind me of this famous experiment.

  4. SteveK says:

    Don’t forget this one.

    9. Therefore the researchers know that THEY are doing no free-will-related pre-decision mental work that might influence their decisions when they make them.

  5. JAD says:

    I’m wondering if the article linked above in the OP above is an example what psychologists term expectancy effect?

    In the early 1960’s psychologist Robert Rosenthal, after noticing some biases in some of his own experiments work, started to do research into what has been called the experimenter expectancy effect or the “Pygmalion Effect”. Basically it’s the tendency for experimenters to find the results they are looking for.

    For example,

    Rosenthal and colleagues… tried an experiment with student researchers who were teaching rats to run through mazes. Half the student experimenters were told their rats had been specially bred for good performance. The other half were told they rats had been bred for poor performance… [in truth the rats for both groups had been randomly selected] the student experimenters seemed to create the effects they expected. The bright rats (which were actually no different from the dull rats) performed much better at maze-running and other tests of rat intelligence.
    http://www.intropsych.com/ch15_social/expectancy.html

    In other words, unbeknownst to them, the student experimenters were actually the subjects of the experiment.

    Is it possible that due to her own the materialistic presuppositions the science writer, doing the story on some fascinating new research, has herself fallen prey to some form of the expectancy effect. Is she perhaps interpreting the results according to her own expectations?

  6. JB Chappell says:

    It is highly unlikely that one study would prove or disprove anything. So trying to set up hypotheses/inferences/interpretations as a deductive argument is somewhat of a strawman. Instead, ask yourself these questions:

    – if free will is true, would you expect that “random brain noise” could reliably predict an action BEFORE a decision was to be made?

    – if determinism is true, would you expect that “random brain noise” could reliably predict an action BEFORE a decision was to be made?

    With the former, at best we might just shrug (??), but odds are most would not expect that. A determinist might not expect the noise to be “random”, but certainly would expect the decision to be pre-determined. So, while it’s certainly not decisive, the results of the study (assuming it was well done) would still seem to fall in favor of the determinist camp. And there are a number of others similar to it.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    Libet’s studies have been pretty well undermined for deterministic conclusions. What other studies are there like this one?

    If the noise were truly random, that would be one thing. I don’t know how researchers conclude that it’s just noise and not influenced by mental processing.

  8. W. R. Klemm says:

    Isn’t this just simple reflex stimulus-response situation. Actual decision-making and the value judgment, analysis, planning, and perceptual feedback controls are not involved here. This is the same over-simplification problem seen in the Libet studies. See my paper at http://www.acx.com/help/authors-as-narrators/200626860

    W. R. Klemm, Professor of Neuroscience
    http://WRKlemm.com

  9. JB Chappell says:

    I think it’s fair to say that analyzing a stimulus-response scenario is not on par with, say, studying how the brain operates when planning something. It’s also fair to point out that you have to start somewhere, and simpler scenarios are easier to test. But understanding the limitations of a study is important, no questions.

    Tom (re:7), I’m not sure how they would know the noise is actually random, and that is a good question. However, scientists are aware of quite a few typical mental pathways when it comes to “mental processing”, so it would seem reasonable that if the noise was similar to those that the conclusion of the study would have been more like “people contemplate decisions before they’re supposed to in neuroscience study”.

    The study is hardly conclusive, but it is part of growing body of evidence. That doesn’t mean the body of evidence is conclusive, either. Like I said, however, there are many other studies that are similar, with similar results. Many of them are variations of Libet’s, of course – testing various criticisms of his studies. A recent example: http://bit.ly/1iJ2lfA . I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Libet is not the only one to do this kind of research in the last 30 years.

    But it is not over-reaching to say that such studies are evidence for determinism, even if all of the evidence is not necessarily conclusive. If nothing else, it significantly muddies the waters. Call me crazy, but I think Descartes (or whoever) would have been quite surprised to find out that what we often think are conscious intentions are realizations of unconscious processes.

  10. Tom Gilson says:

    JB, I’ll definitely agree this counts as inconclusive evidence for determinism. I think everything you’ve written here is fair and worthy of consideration by theists and skeptics alike.

  11. JB Chappell says:

    I’ve poked around a bit on the “Free Will and Determinism” topic and haven’t seen it addressed (although admittedly I have not made it through all comments on the different posts), so I may as well ask it here – although feel free to re-direct me as necessary:

    How does one “ground” free will? One can peruse all the scientific data in the world, but it’s still provisional, and we all know most free-will adherents will just assert that it is the result of the immaterial. But even moving from science to philosophy, it is difficult (maybe impossible?) to account for how this works.

    Presumably, any action/decision is caused or uncaused. I don’t know of a third option. For most theists, God is the only uncaused cause, so free will choices cannot be uncaused. If they are caused, then they are done so either deterministically or indeterministically (again, not sure of a third option here). Obviously (I think), the free will advocate is not going to want to say that agency is determinately caused. Which leaves the option of indeterminate causation.

    The only example(s) of such that I know of are probabilistic scenarios like quantum fluctuations. It doesn’t seem to me helpful to compare free will to randomness. The only solution, then, is to simply assert that free will is a special kind of non-random, causally indeterminate phenomenon. But how is this not simply begging the question?

  12. JB Chappell says:

    BTW, thinking further on that “random noise” in the brain…. If it holds any kind of predictive power, then it cannot, by definition, actually be “random”, right. Obviously, it had to have had some kind of pattern in order to have predictive value, correct?

  13. SteveK says:

    @11

    The only solution, then, is to simply assert that free will is a special kind of non-random, causally indeterminate phenomenon. But how is this not simply begging the question?

    If it’s predicable, it’s not random, it’s ordered. So who or what is causing this outcome? Whatever the answer, it must be capable of causing order – and no, ‘chance’ doesn’t cause anything to occur.

    @12
    Correct.

  14. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Tom Gilson:

    “JB, I’ll definitely agree this counts as inconclusive evidence for determinism.”

    I beg to differ; it only counts as (inconclusive) evidence for determinism because of sloppy and fallacious thinking.

    Among the books I am reading right now, is Alfred Mele’s “Effective Intentions: the power of conscious will” where he addresses Libet’s experiments, among others. But others could be cited; given my bent and propensities I like everything by Bennett and Hacker.

  15. JB Chappell says:

    @SteveK (re:11)

    “If it’s predicable, it’s not random, it’s ordered.”

    What is predictable? Free will? Or quantum fluctuations? Not sure what you’re referring to. Also not sure how it answers the question I was posing. (if that what was what you meant to do).

  16. JB Chappell says:

    @G. Rodrigues (re: 14)

    What is sloppy and fallacious about thinking that the results of the studies done by Libet et al. would be more expected (a priori) given determinism than free will? Sure, we can add a bunch of hypotheticals or ad hoc hypotheses to try to make free will fit the data, but I don’t see anyone in the free will camp attacking the interpertations of the data by saying “no, this was more expected given free will”.

  17. G. Rodrigues says:

    @JB Chappell:

    “What is sloppy and fallacious about thinking that the results of the studies done by Libet et al. would be more expected (a priori) given determinism than free will.”

    Tell me in your own words why exactly you think that “the results of the studies done by Libet et al. would be more expected (a priori) given determinism than free will”.

    If my guess on what you are going to say is right, I will then say that that is not the main target of the “sloppy and fallacious” charge.

  18. Tom Gilson says:

    G. Rodrigues, I have an expansive definition for “evidence:” E is evidence for x just if E’s being true increases the likelihood that x is true, or our confidence that x is true, etc. My definition does not specify how much it has to increase that likelihood or confidence, nor does it take into account the possibility of other, potentially overwhelming, counter-evidence.

    I tend to think that this experiment increases the likelihood of determinism being true. I also believe strongly that it does so in the face of overwhelming philosophical and existential counter-evidence, including all the very credible alternate interpretations for it.

    Now, if it were known that some of those alternate explanations were considerably more credible than the no-free-will explanations, then it would cease to be evidence at all for determinism; it would be evidence instead for whatever was involved in those other explanations instead.

    Even if that’s not the case, though, the chance that any experiment could lead rationally to a conclusion of determinism comes down to effectively zero, for philosophical reasons. It’s a conclusion that no one could rationally arrive at if the conclusion were true. Determinism and rationality cannot exist in the same set of processes.

  19. JB Chappell says:

    @G. Rodrigues (re: 17)

    Tom and I have a similar concept of “evidence”. Basically, if X makes Y more probable, then X is evidence for Y. Alternatively, if given Y we would expect X, and that is what we find, then X is evidence for Y. It seems to me that we would expect results very similar to what is found in a lot of these studies if determinism is true. Therefore, it is evidence for determinism. We can go a little farther, I think, and say that we really wouldn’t expect these kinds of results if there were free will (of a sort). Now, we can certainly modify the concept, but ad hoc hypotheses make it more complex and less likely to be true.

    So that’s why these studies, to me, fall in favor of determinism – even if they aren’t conclusive. And all this assumes that they aren’t completely worthless methodologically of course – and I do realize there’s some debate about that. And none of this is to say that there is no evidence in favor of free will.

  20. G. Rodrigues says:

    @JB Chappell:

    Tom and I have a similar concept of “evidence”. Basically, if X makes Y more probable, then X is evidence for Y.

    My guess was not totally unfounded as I have no (great) problems with *this* per se. So allow me to reformulate my question more precisely: what have these studies found that is incompatible, or “not expected”, if we indeed have or had Free Will? If you could explain it in your own words, then I could also try and explain my “sloppy and fallacious thinking” charge.

  21. SteveK says:

    @JB #15

    Not sure what you’re referring to.

    Were you not referring to the same predictability issue in your #12 comment?

  22. JB Chappell says:

    @SteveK

    The #12 comment was specifically referring to the study mentioned in the OP. The #11 comment was referring to free will in general.

    Your reply:
    “If it’s predicable, it’s not random, it’s ordered. So who or what is causing this outcome? Whatever the answer, it must be capable of causing order – and no, ‘chance’ doesn’t cause anything to occur.”

    was directed at #11. So, no, they aren’t referring to the same predictability issue. The text you were replying to states that we would have to refer to free will as being “non-random”, but my question is how we could do that when the only example (that I know!) of an indeterminate cause is quantum mechanics, which IS random. No one would think that their actions are free because they are randomly caused.

    So, again, my question is how we can say that free will choices/actions are causes that are not determined without simply begging the question. Or perhaps it would simply be better to ask a more open-ended question: if you think of a free will choice as a cause in itself, how does that cause arise? Is it an uncaused cause? Or are you simply assigning free will choices into its own special category – and if so, how are you justifying that?

  23. JB Chappell says:

    @G. Rodrigues (re: 20)

    Speaking of “free will” very generally is, of course, problematic. There are numerous ways to define/conceive it. Very generally, though, I normally look (and I think most people as well) at free will as the ability to do otherwise.

    Given that, it would be surprising (to me, anyway) to find that there is disconnect (often big) between when the brain indicates a decision has been made and when people report that they have made a decision. The reason for this is that if one had the ability to do otherwise, one would presumably be conscious of the decision being made at the time. We don’t typically consider subconscious actions to be “free”.

    For instance, fMRI analysis of brain patterns has sucessfully predicted a person’s choice of a button (left/right) up to 7 seconds before they report having made a decision. That is expected with determinism (not necessarily the exact time interval, but you get the idea). It is not expected with free will. And to test that, all we have to do is ask whether or not it is likely a free-will theorist would set up an experiment with the hypothesis that s/he could successfully predict what a person would do 7 seconds before the subject knew they did it and consider it a confirmation of free-will “theory” if it was so. I find that highly unlikely.

    Of course, that does not mean we cannot refine free will differently, or find ways to interpret the data differently, etc.

  24. scblhrm says:

    Marcus du Sautoy is an interesting person, a man of faith, who demonstrates the success of the scan. Dawkins’ successor perhaps, he seeks to discover a relationship between Abstract Things and Real Things in the world of mathematics. It is an interesting question of the person who decides on Tuesday that he will push the Left button, and on Wednesday – during the scan’s countdown – consciously decides/acts on – Tuesday’s decision, and upon pushing the Left button, observes the scan predict this with great accuracy. Such hypothetical decisions preceding the scan by 24 hours or more, seem confounding, and if it be the narrow or the wide, it will be the narrow column taken, the wide column too confounding, the study awaits, and if one’s faith demand there be a mathematical formula by which Abstract things surface as Concrete things, then it simply must be so. Perhaps this gentleman is himself immersed within his own brand of platonism, and such brings all of us to interesting boundaries. The Timeless and the Immaterial seem inescapable – the Mind Dependent a regress which precedes the screen’s surface both in Time and in Form. A new book (2014) entitled, “Beyond the Control of God?: Six Views on The Problem of God and Abstract Objects” by William Lane Craig finds all sorts of interesting vectors here breaking through our ceilings. Mind – the first person descriptor embedded within experience – seems the universal solvent, forever liquefying all third person formulae in regress, ever finding Abstraction’s timeless and immaterial Person one bothersome step ahead.

  25. G. Rodrigues says:

    @JB Chappell:

    Very generally, though, I normally look (and I think most people as well) at free will as the ability to do otherwise.

    I do not, at least not without some heavy qualifications, but am willing to defer on this point.

    For instance, fMRI analysis of brain patterns has sucessfully predicted a person’s choice of a button (left/right) up to 7 seconds before they report having made a decision.

    This is exactly the kind of sloppy thinking I mentioned. First, and to start with the low-hanging fruit, even Libet qualified his claims and said that even though we do not initiate the movements in the way we think we do, we can at least inhibit them once they are initiated.

    Second, the whole argument *presupposes* that the neural activity in question is the *total* cause of the action, which, since it is part of what is at issue in the debate, is just question-begging against the Free-Will defender. *Both* the neural activity and the *conscious* awareness of having willed it are but two aspects of a single unified act of the *whole person*: it is *persons* that think, decide, will, etc. that, in a single sentence, are the cause of such actions, *not* their proper parts. It is meaningless to attribute such predicates to brains or to souls as substance dualists conceive them (but I will leave aside my beef with them for another time) — these two errors are in fact twin mirror images of the *same* mistake; what one evicts to the soul, the other evicts to the brain. And this is no mere quibbling over words, for after all neural activity and bodily movements as such do not entail action. A spasmodic twitch of a muscle involves both neural activity and bodily movement, but it is not an action in the relevant sense, that is, voluntary and freely-willed.

    Third, and as a corollary of the above, what is the justification for identifying a precise neural activity as *the* cause of the action rather than being merely a contributing cause? And what do we count as *the* action? The moving of the hand? Or is the pressing of the button? It is quite obvious that there are some serious conceptual problems lurking here. Either way, Alfred Mele does a good job in bringing out the multiple ambiguities in Libet’s experiments.

    Fourth, the argument also presupposes a crude model of human action where (intentional) action X is preceded by a conscious, intentional willing of the form “I will now do X”; but a moment’s thought will readily show that this is just wrong. If I now will myself to get up and reach for a cold beer in the fridge and actually get up, walk to the fridge and get a beer, I carry out an enormous amount of actions without consciously thinking of them: getting up, walking to the fridge, opening the fridge, reaching for the beer, etc. It is not like I am consciously thinking “now I will extend my right arm to be able to pick up the beer” or something, I just do it, but the whole action, or the whole succession of actions if you want to talk that way, of getting up, walking and reaching for a beer is no less intentional for all that, in fact, it is the paradigmatic example of intentional and freely-willed action.

    Fifth, not only is conscious willing not necessary for intentional action, it is not even sufficient; after all, feeling an urge to sneeze does not make sneezing a voluntary action. In fact, it counts as the paradigmatic example of a non-voluntary, and thus not-freely willed, action, for to say that some of our actions are freely willed is not thereby committing us to say that all our actions are voluntary and freely willed. That Libet goes on instructing his lab rats to watch out for such “urges” or “feelings” or whatever just foists his sloppy thinking on the lab rats, compounding the problems.

  26. Keith says:

    I’m curious: is there any scientific evidence for free-will?

    As just one example: if the soul/free-will is separate from the brain, there must be some kind of informational transfer, the brain state must somehow be transferred to/from the soul. Obviously, evidence of such a transfer would upend physics as we know it — is there speculation of what that information transfer might look like?

    I’m asking in general: is there any scientific evidence that indicates free-will is true?

  27. BillT says:

    Keith,

    I think there are problems with your question. First, your idea that there “..must be some kind of informational transfer, the brain state must somehow be transferred to/from the soul.” is pure speculation. No one knows what is going on or how it happens. Second, the idea that there is or should be “…evidence of such a transfer…” also is an assumption on your part. There’s no reason to believe that evidence does or should exist.

  28. Keith says:

    BillT@27:

    I think “some kind of informational transfer” is necessary based on “they are separate” — I don’t see it, but if there’s some way the soul and brain could be physically separate, yet share information, without informational transfer, then I’m wrong.

    I meant no statement there is, or should be, evidence of the transfer.

    I’m asking if there is physical evidence pointing to free-will, or even pure speculation of how free-will might work.

    Let me phrase this differently: AFAIK, the naturalistic argument comes down to “here’s a bunch of physical evidence that free-will doesn’t exist”, and the free-will view comes down to “here’s a bunch of things you can’t explain”.

    It occurred to me I didn’t know that for a fact, so I asked — is there physical evidence that indicates free-will might exist?

  29. BillT says:

    Keith,

    My point is that the “transfer” to which you refer could be anything or nothing. There just aren’t the facts to back up that as a valid description of what is going on one way or another. And it assumes a physical cause/effect that isn’t warrented either.

    And if there “..is, or should be, (no) evidence of the transfer.” then how could there be evidence of free will? Your use of “evidence” again assumes a physical cause/effect. And as for “…AFAIK(s)…“here’s a bunch of physical evidence that free-will doesn’t exist” I think we’d say that “bunch of evidence” isn’t that at all. That’s what the above discussion has been about.

  30. Melissa says:

    Keith,

    IMO this is where you go wrong:

    if the soul/free-will is separate from the brain

    See #25 for an explanation of why, especially the second point.

  31. Keith says:

    BillT @29:

    Yes, the “transfer” could be “anything or nothing”.

    I’m asking if you are saying A Miracle Occurs or if something happens in the naturalistic world of which we should take notice?

    Let’s agree: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood and those laws don’t allow information stored in our brains to persist after we die.

    Which of those laws are wrong, and specifically, how are those laws wrong, what physical law do we misunderstand which allows our soul to persist after we die?

  32. Keith says:

    Melissa @30:

    Doesn’t the soul/free-will have to be separate from the brain, otherwise, how do we survive death?

  33. BillT says:

    Keith,

    I don’t see it as a miracle. Miracles are exceptions to the natural order. And there could be something that happens in the naturalistic world of which we should take notice but it’s not, in my opinion, an either/or proposition. Your questions contain some presuppositions about the nature of free will and it’s physical nature. God can work in the world or have given us free will in ways that could or could not be physically detectable.

    I think the same can be said about our souls. That it exists doesn’t require a physical explanation. Yes, we understand the laws of physics but God, having created them, isn’t subject to them. That there could be things that exist that science in general or physics in particular can’t explain is what we would expect.

  34. Melissa says:

    Keith,

    Doesn’t the soul/free-will have to be separate from the brain, otherwise, how do we survive death?

    No. Free will is not the same as the soul. The soul isn’t like an arm or a leg. Although the human soul survives death it is in a diminished state, human beings are embodied, not spirits that happen to sometimes have bodies hence why the resurrection is so important.

  35. Keith says:

    Melissa @34:

    I was never taught much about the soul, as far as I can recall; do you have any suggestions for books that cover this ground?

  36. scblhrm says:

    The question of freedom as posed is too small.

    As if the derived is all of reality. As if Underived Actuality simply must – should He dip His toe into the pool which we call the contingent – source a ripple atop the water. All margins and borders precede and outdistance both Time and Material whether one posits Theism’s One, Timeless, Immaterial Eternal God or whether one posits Hawking’s One, Timeless, Immaterial, Eternal Imaginary Sphere and therein this obsession with this bit about mass and energy as we know them as some kind of mysterious hard stop to investigation just will not provide any of us with the sightlines we seek. Stop at an MRI’s sightline? Please. The sorts of questions raised within the arena of future (tensed) freedom, Newcomb’s Paradox, un-tensed (timeless) freedom, and so on simply and utterly subsume the tiny sliver of the contingent which we perceive as mass/energy or space/time. It seems the question of freedom period carries us into more expansive and wide open spaces. There are many places to go here, but some basic initiations (perhaps) are (briefly) touched on in the link HERE or perhaps in the link HERE. On a deceptively simpler tier: Mind – the first person descriptor embedded within experience – seems the universal solvent, forever liquefying all third person formulae in regress, ever finding abstraction’s timeless and immaterial one bothersome step ahead of the contingent.

  37.    
Comments RSS Feed
Real Time Analytics