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Thread: Is free will just an illusion?

  1. #1

    Is free will just an illusion?

    Long before you’re consciously aware of making a decision, your mind has already made it.

    If that’s the case, do people actually make decisions? Or is every choice — even the choice to prepare for future choices — an unthinking, mechanistic procedure over which an illusory self-awareness is laid?

    Those questions are raised by a study conducted by Max Planck Institute neuroscientists and published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience. Test subjects chose whether to push a button with their right or left hand;
    seven seconds before they experienced making the choice, their brain activity already predicted their final decisions.

    For more on the experiment, see my story, for which I had the privilege of speaking to Martha Farah, director of the University of
    Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and a prominent neuroethicist. As is so often the case in journalism, we had a fascinating (email) conversation that didn’t fit into the article itself, and I decided — ha — to publish it here.


  2. #2
    Senior Member FasterNow's Avatar
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    Oct 2006
    Wyandotte, MI
    I'm now following the logic on how being able to predict which hand is going to push a button shows a lack of free will. If there is seven seconds to play around with changing the predicted outcome surely there are ways to show that a new circumstance can allow one to override the prediction. For example, to prove free will exists, a strong motivation can be presented to use the opposite hand. If the opposite hand is used, the subject receives a substantial reward. If the predicted hand is used, the subject receives a substantial punishment. Proving free will is as simple as showing the subjects have the ability to choose the reward in the seven seconds after the prediction.

    Can someone explain the actual experiment?
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  3. #3
    Senior Member DaleB's Avatar
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    Sep 2006
    Tidewater, VA
    Choosing a hand seems a weak, almost irrelevant allegory to the process of deciding on actions of genuine consequence. We can't 'decide' to hold our breath until we die, either, does this obviate the notion of free-will? There are only 2 choices when picking a hand, not something that requires a great deal of deliberation, too boot.

    "Most thoughtful neuroscientists I know have replaced the concept of free will with the concept of rationality — that we select our actions based on a kind of practical reasoning."

    Hmmm...obviously I'm not a neuro-guy, my education was in philosophy and language (semiotics, specifically). I labor under the notion that 'free-will' is our capacity to override instincts and cost/benenfit rationality, more so than the mechanical process of making decisions. Free-will is about whether we are bound to particular actions or decision making processes, not about how we come to decide, IMO.

    Good examples are people who risk their lives to defend or help others. That is a plain act of free-will, by my definition, lacking a purely rational or purely "mechanical" motive.

    I think it would be self-evident if human decision making was based on a system of purely mechanical or economic rationality - we'd all make the same decisions! As it stands, there are nearly as many beliefs, and other types of decisions, as there are people!

    He who hears not me but the Logos will say: All is one.

  4. #4
    mmm I don't buy it. Sometimes when you reduce something to its least common denominator such as in the study discussed , I believe the answer may not be to the actual question posed?

    In Judo, I can (could) initiate a harai gosghi makikomi (complex throw) in ~ .3-.5 seconds, with my opponent on the mat in ~1-1.5 seconds. It takes nominally .3 seconds for comprehension of the event and .3 sec to react. If I'm slow the opponent can, mid throw, shift or react to the extent of my not winning the match. He must choose the correct one of several options to negate my particular style of throw.

    Same in Kendo, the timelines become impossibly small yet we decide and act. While reaction is important incorrect reaction leads to failure so you must decide where the entire "event" is measured in tenths of a second.

    Don't know how this flies by you, but tells me they have an answer but not necessarily the right question, especially with habits, right v left handed etc.

    Anyway I can't buy it.


  5. #5
    I posted this because I thought that it illustrates the wierd notion that people think that "free will" is necessarily a conscious decision. After all, a subconscious decision is just as much of a decision by you as a conscious decision where you think in words that you will do something. In fact, to me, it suggests that many of our decisions are actually non-verbal and, once made, percolate to the cortex where the decision is translated into words and justification. The verbalizing of a decision and the rationale for the decision occurs after the decision. It doesn't mean that we don't have free will. Our free will is just non-verbal and not always manifested in awareness of having made a decision.


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