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This lesson is a part of an audio course Free Will by Lottie Pike

Hello, and welcome back to the course 'Free Will' on Listenable. Today, we're going to be talking about neuroscience and its contributions to the debate. As I mentioned in the introduction to the course, it is inevitable that there are some conflicting results, given the sheer number of neuroscientists trying to find a conclusive answer to this mystery of free will. Nevertheless, throughout this episode, I'm going to walk you through some of the main experiments and findings from the field of neuroscience – I hope you enjoy it!

In the branch of neurophilosophy that deals with questions of free will, it is common for neuroscientists to look at the decision-making processes in our brains. One of the very first studies on this matter was conducted in 1983 by Benjamin Libet and his team. In this experiment, the scientists asked various volunteers to tap their fingers on a surface, choosing the time at which they did it. By observing the brain – specifically, the motor cortex, the region of the brain involved in planning, control, and the execution of voluntary movements – they were able to record electrical signals used in decision making – before the volunteer tapped their finger. In fact, several hundred milliseconds before. Okay, you might think, maybe it just took a while for the person to act on their freely made decision to tap their finger – it was still them choosing to, right? Well, not necessarily. The key factor here is consciousness – us being conscious of a decision being made. Conscious decision making is fundamental in the assertion of free will. We have to have consciously made a decision to do something to be held responsible for it, in the vast majority of cases. For example, if someone is heavily under the influence of alcohol, they aren't permitted to do certain things – give consent, drive, etc. – as it is unlikely that they are consciously, autonomously making the decision to do so. According to the results of the experiment, our body has already unconsciously decided what we are going to do before we are conscious of ourselves doing it. As Sam Harris writes, 'We are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment. Although we continually notice changes in our experience…we are utterly unaware of the neurophysiological events that cause them', as shown in the experiment just described. Speaking of this same experiment, Harris draws this conclusion: 'some moments before you are aware of what you will do next…your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this 'decision' and believe that you are in the process of making it.' Well, there's some food for thought.

If we remember, when looking at libertarianism in episode 2, I mentioned that sometimes they invoke some sort of metaphysical entity, like a soul, to maintain the existence of free will without having to deny scientific, natural processes like causality and neuroscientific evidence as just presented. A reason for this invocation is in alignment with the rejection of something called 'philosophical materialism,' which essentially states that everything can be reduced to the physical, the material. Basically, a key objection to determinist arguments that invoke this type of experiment and scientific theories like cause and effect, is to reject philosophical materialism as a whole – saying specifically something along the lines of: yes, these experiments might show such and such, but perhaps free will cannot be reduced to the physical. So, a key addition for determinists to consider when formulating their arguments is to ensure that they don't rely wholly on philosophical materialism, as this can be easily refuted by invoking the participation of a soul, or something similar. Realising this, Sam Harris asks the following: do you know what your soul is going to do next? Are you in control of your soul and its actions? I would suggest not. Therefore, by invoking a metaphysical entity to escape philosophical materialism, you don't necessarily come out on top.

So, if experiments are showing that our actions are determined before we are consciously aware of them, why do we feel like we consciously caused them? This is perhaps the most puzzling question of them all when it comes to the free will question, and still hasn't been conclusively answered, though many theories have been put forward. Perhaps the most famous of which was proposed around 20 years ago in a paper by psychologists Dan Wegner and Thalia Wheatley. They suggested that our experience of intentionally willing an action is actually a post hoc explanation that we come up with to mentally fill in the gaps. Seeing as the 'real' cause of our action came about unconsciously, our brains try to come up with an explanation that feels right, that feels correct. That explanation, it seems, is free will.

There are so many resources on this topic within the field of neuroscience, and so many experiments that show fascinating results, which I urge you to look at. This episode has focused on the more empirical side of the debate and has completed our basic understanding of the arguments at hand. So, from now on, we're going to be focusing on the implications – moral, religious, and political – that arise from certain conclusions we have made about free will and its existence – or non-existence. I hope you've enjoyed this episode – bye for now!

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Written by

Lottie Pike