Academic Nonfiction

The Question of Free Will by William Navarrete Moreno

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?  

Works Cited 

Lavazza, Andrea. “Free Will and Neuroscience: From Explaining Freedom Away to New  Ways of Operationalizing and Measuring It.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience ,  vol. 10, 2016, pp. 1–17. HYPOTHESIS AND THEORY , doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00262.  

Fried, Itzhak, et al. “Volition and Action in the Human Brain: Processes, Pathologies, and  Reasons.” The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 37, no. 45, 2017, pp. 10842–10847.,  doi:10.1523/jneurosci.2584-17.2017.  

Fried, Itzhak, et al. “Internally Generated Preactivation of Single Neurons in Human  Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition.” Neuron , vol. 69, no. 3, 10 Feb. 2011, pp.  548–562., doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.11.045.  

Libet, Benjamin, et al. “TIME OF CONSCIOUS INTENTION TO ACT IN RELATION  TO ONSET OF CEREBRAL ACTIVITY (READINESS-POTENTIAL).” Brain ,  vol. 106, 1983, pp. 623–624., doi:10.1093/brain/106.3.623.  

Harari, Yuval N., and Yuval N. Harari. Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper  Perennial, 2018.  

Harari, Yuval Noah. “Yuval Noah Harari on Big Data, Google, and the End of Free Will.”  Financial Times, 26 Aug. 2016, 

Schurger, Aaron, et al. “Neural Antecedents of Spontaneous Voluntary Movement: A New  Perspective.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 20, no. 2, 2016, pp. 77–79.,  doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.11.003.  

Soon, C. S., et al. “Predicting Free Choices for Abstract Intentions.” Proceedings of the  National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 15, 2013, pp. 6217–6222., doi:10.1073/pnas.1212218110.  

Soon, Chun Siong, et al. “Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain.”  Nature Neuroscience, vol. 11, no. 5, 2008, pp. 543–545., doi:10.1038/nn.2112.