Since the Enlightenment era, the enigma of free will has been one of the most fundamental inquiries of human existence. Since then, scholars have debated this question for centuries with the gamut of arguments extending from humans having the ability to make decisions with no external stimuli to human action being derived from deterministic or random electrochemical processes. With the progress that has been made in the field of neuroscience and cognitive science, the question of volition is no longer simply abstract and metaphysical but one of epistemological scrutiny. Answering the question of volition might bring an end to this seemingly endless question but it also has considerable societal implications that disrupt numerous social systems that have been established over the last few centuries.
While attributing free will to humans might have seemed like a factual description of human nature in the times of François-Marie Arouet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke, whose humanistic philosophy set the foundations for a shift in the societal perception of meaning, modern scientific discoveries have challenged this assumption. The evidence presented by neurological and cognitive sciences demonstrates that either deterministic or random processes influence the outcome of conscious and seemingly voluntary actions. These results are in contrast to many assumptions made by liberal humanism. Mainly, the assumption that humans have complete and conscious control over their choices. As the societal perception of meaning has shifted from theism to liberal humanism, importance has increased in the individual free choices each individual makes. Since the main assumption presented by liberal humanism contradicts the evidence presented by cognitive neuroscience, liberal humanism is fundamentally erroneous. One then questions if humans are no longer the ultimate source of meaning, does this lead to existential nihilism? Much like humanism replaced theism in regards to meaning and authority, humanism might be replaced with dataism.
To begin to understand the neurological perspective of volition, one has to define what volition is. In Andrea Lavazza’s article, free will is defined by the attainment of three prerequisites which are, “‘ability to do otherwise’”,”’ control over one’s choices’”, and “‘responsiveness to reasons’” (Lavazza 1). Still, free will implies voluntary actions which in a canonical sense is a self-initiated action defined as “…voluntary action initiated without any sensory cue…” (“Volition and Action” 10843). With this information, one can begin to analyze what empirical data has cognitive neuroscience has provided to the philosophical debate of free will.
One of the most influential studies on volition and neurophysiological processes of it was an experiment conducted by Benjamin Libet and colleagues, often denominated as the Libet experiment. This experiment consisted of six right-handed students whose electrical brain activity was been recorded by an electroencephalogram, often known as an EEG. The subjects were presented with a screen that depicted a dot that moved in a circular, clockwise motion around a circle with lines placed at constant intervals. The subjects were told to wait for one rotation of the dot around the circle and then to flick or flex their wrists or fingers, completing the movement as spontaneously as possible with no preplanning of the action being performed. When they did this task, they were instructed to remember where on the circle the dot was at the time when they decided to flick or flex their wrist or fingers. After multiple trials with various subjects, it was found that subjects experience a negative shift in readiness potential 350 milliseconds before the reported time of the motor movement. From these results, Libet and colleagues extrapolated that the introduction of a voluntary and spontaneous act can arise unconsciously, before the subjective perception that the decision has already taken place mentally (Libet et al. 624). Libet’s findings gave rise to thousands of research papers, launched a new discipline in neuroscience, and created a controversy. While there has been a large amount of criticism in Libet’s interpretations of the data, the discovery of the readiness potential preceding a motor movement has since been proven down to the single neuron (“Preactivation of Single Neurons” 548). One could argue that Libet’s conclusion of voluntary acts originating from the unconscious process demonstrates that free will does not exist since the conscious self doesn’t have control over the decisions made by the unconscious brain.
Yet, one study has empirically shown that Libet’s conclusion about voluntary acts originating from unconscious processes was incorrect. Aaron Schurger and colleagues conducted an experiment that resembles the Libet experiment with the modification. The subjects performed the same tasks as in the Libet experiment. During these tasks, subjects were instructed to click a button immediately if they heard a clicking noise. Aaron Schuger and colleagues discovered that response time would be shorter when the spontaneous neural activity was close to the decision threshold when the subject was disrupted by the clicking noise. This demonstrated that once the background neural noise reaches a certain threshold, a decision is made (Schuger et al. 3). Often, this study is cited as evidence that volition does exist since it invalidates Libet’s conclusion. Yet, the evidence presented by Schuger and colleagues further corroborates the notion that volition does not exist. According to Schuger and colleagues, spontaneous neural noise crosses a certain threshold which leads to the individual making a decision, which implies that decisions are made randomly by the amount of neural noise presented at the time. Random decisions are not decided by the conscious self, signifying that free will is incompatible with the current scientific evidence presented.
Furthermore, it is possible to predict when an individual is going to decide before the individual has the awareness that they have made the decision, further demonstrating that free will does not exist. One study involving a simple motor task was able to predict the outcome of a decision up 10 seconds prior to the subject reporting they were cognizant of the decision using functional magnetic resonance imaging, as know as fMRI (“Unconscious Determinants”). As there was a dearth of neuroscience research regarding volition and abstract decisions since many of previous studies consisted of simple motor decisions, the authors of this study used arithmetic as a complex choice that subjects were instructed to do. The subjects in this study were instructed to either add or subtract two different numbers that were presented on a screen. Yoon and colleagues found that the free choice to either perform addition or subtraction of two numbers could be deciphered from neural activity in the regions of the medial prefrontal and parietal cortex up to four seconds in advance (“Predicting Free Choices”).
The ability to predict not only simple but complex actions before an individual is aware that they have made a decision is a piece of compelling evidence corroborating that humans don’t have free will since the conscious self isn’t making decisions but the unconscious brain is. While Libet’s interpretation of the readiness potential might have been flawed, overwhelming empirical evidence supports the notion that human actions are deterministic such as the prediction of action before conscious awareness of the decision, or random such as in Schurger’s conclusion.
With the overwhelming evidence showing that free will does not exist, one can conclude that liberal humanism is flawed since its assumptions of human nature have been disproven. This conclusion has many implications for contemporary western culture, folk psychology, law, and philosophy (“Volition and Action”). Most notably, it questions what is the societal perception of meaning, if humans are no longer the source of all meaning and authority. Does the societal perception of meaning turn into existential nihilism or will humans find another way to introduce meaning into life?
Yuval Noah Harari argues that liberal humanism tells individuals to follow their hopes and desires. It asks one to listen to one’s inner feelings, one’s free choices. Yet, one’s feelings are merely biochemical processes that have aided in evolution to ensure reproduction and survival (Harari 306). With advances in neuroscience and computer science, an algorithm can be created begins to know more about an individual than the individual itself. With this comes a shift in the societal perception of meaning and authority. Much like humanism replaced theism, in the light of modern scientific discoveries, dataism replaces humanism. While this might seem like an occurrence in the distant future, it is already happening. The most conspicuous occurrences of dataism are on social media which monitors your behavior to provide the most relevant and interesting content for you, as well as advertise products you might buy. Once data companies like Google can access biometric data, the algorithm will know more about an individual’s desires than the individual knows about themselves. Yuval Noah Harari cites Angelina Jolie as an example of the introduction of dataism in the field of medicine. After taking a genetic test, it was discovered that Angelina Jolie suffered from an alteration of the BRCA1 gene. Data compiled from individuals who suffered from breast cancer had found that with such a mutation in this gene, there was an “ 87 percent probability of developing breast cancer” (Harari). Yet, despite evidence demonstrating Jolie did not currently have cancer, she underwent a double mastectomy as a preventative measure (Harari). Liberal humanism says as long as you feel fine, you are fine, Yet, dataism says that is a probability of developing cancer. Despite her feelings saying she was fine, she listened to data notifying her she had a large probability of developing cancer, shifting authority from human to data.
While free will remains a contentious topic in neuroscience and philosophy, the scholarly articles presented profoundly corroborate that human action is either deterministic or random, demonstrating that human volition isn’t compatible with modern scientific discoveries. As neuroscience and computer science advance, algorithms and data will become the source of meaning and authority in society. Yet, the findings of cognitive neuroscience not only have implications in the philosophical field but in many of the social systems that liberal humanism has created. If humans do not consciously make decisions, what does this mean for democracy? Is the decision made by voters always correct?
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