Are We But Meat Puppets?

FreeWillCafeI wrote a much longer piece on free will here almost a year ago. But in light of my appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, I wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

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Last spring, Rogan had the new atheist thinker and neuroscientist Sam Harris on his show. There, Harris briefly restated his views on free will: chiefly, we don’t have it.

We all think we wake up, consciously sift through a variety of options for our day and begin making choices: Wake up and go to work, for example, or call in “sick,” take a mental health day and hit the Cineplex. Skip breakfast altogether; or eat a peach.

Harris’s argument is grounded in philosophical materialism. Our physical brains are the source of all our thinking and behaviors. As a result, all of our brain’s operations—all our behavior—is subject to the laws of physics. Taken to its logical extent, we cannot be the true author of our thoughts, ideas, impulses, conclusions or, ultimately, actions. Where, in fact, could a notion so vague as our “will” become a cause in this chain of physical phenomena? We receive inputs from our senses and our brain spits out responses: Go to church, or join an atheist social group.

In this view, we are spectators to our own lives. Harris calls us “biochemical puppets,”  while biologist Jerry Coyne ups the ante, referring to humanity more brutishly—for all our achievements in art, science and the like—as “meat computers.”

In a sense, neither man needs to offer up any evidence at all to support his view. The neuroscientific consensus that the brain must produce consciousness, and the obvious fact of the brain’s physical, gelatinous existence render “free will” a kind of philosophical non-starter—at least if the materialist worldview holds. The big bang occurred, and if only we could measure every last variable in play, we could—theoretically, anyway—predict our own actions from now till death finds us.

But what does the evidence gathered thus far in neuroscience indicate? In other words, might we find some clue to save our own sense of ourselves as conscious actors in this play—to rescue free will?

Well, I’d argue the evidence is in a sense hiding in plain sight—in the very studies writers like Harris and Coyne usually site as evidence that “free will” is an impossibility.

One of the most famous is by John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the meatpuppetsBernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin.  Haynes used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of his subjects, who watched a succession of random letters appear on a display screen. Then, when they felt the urge to move their “left” or “right” index finger, they were to keep track of which letter was on the screen.

Haynes, in the science media, described what he subsequently found in near-tremulous terms, saying he designed more “sanity checks” into this experiment than any other.

What did Haynes find that was so incredible?

Well, purely by chance, Haynes should have been able to predict which hand his subjects would ultimately use to push a button—left, or right—50-percent of the time. But after reviewing the data, they found they could predict the subjects’ finger of choice—wait for it—with 60-percent accuracy.

Statistically, that is a significant finding. But does a 10-percent above chance finding truly cut against free will?

What about the forty-percent of the time Haynes’ was wrong?

I’d argue Haynes’ findings are really only a threat to free will if, at bottom, you don’t much care for the concept, anyway. Haynes, for instance, told the media he found his findings “unsettling.” He had no agenda to destroy free will. But he also stated his findings made sense to him. They seemed to fit with a deterministic universe—which Harris and Coyne claim doesn’t have room for free will. In other words, no matter how unsettling John-Dylan Haynes found his own findings they fit with his worldview. And as readers of Fringe-ology know, there is abundant evidence to suggest we will generally choose to believe whatever fits with our preexisting worldview.

It is, in fact, predictable that the brain might engage in preparatory behavior or indicate which way our decision-making process is leaning, even seconds before a final decision is made. From this point of view, Haynes’ findings are completely noncontroversial—even expected. (If anything, his 40-percent inaccuracy rate might even open the door to further speculation that free will does exist.)

For Harris and Coyne, however, there could be a more gut-level need to interpret his findings as a strong blow against free will. To them, free will is a holdover of dualism—the belief that mind is somehow separate from brain.

The conundrum of free will, however, remains as sticky and unresolved as ever. And the question raises up a bevy of possibilities. Perhaps our “deterministic universe” somehow allows room for real choice, according to principles we don’t understand? Perhaps something does exist outside the chain of accepted physical causes, which allows for choice?

In any event, I’d hold the position thinkers like Harris find themselves in is more uncomfortable than they might generally acknowledge. Harris has made quite a name for himself elucidating the ways in which religious belief can harm us. But assaults on free will have themselves proven harmful when put to the test.

In 2008, Jonathan Schooler split test participants into two groups, one of which read passages suggesting free will doesn’t exist, the other neutral about what underpins neurological behavior. Both groups were then asked to take a mathematics test. Before beginning the test, they were informed that sometimes a computer glitch caused the correct answer to be displayed. If the glitch occurred, mid-test, participants were instructed to look away and click to another screen to avoid seeing the answer.

What Schooler was really looking for, however, was data on whether or not one group followed his instructions more than the other. And it turned out the group that was exposed to ideas undermining free will cheated more.

A separate study showed that people who were already predisposed to believe in determinism over free will were more likely to perform poorly at work.

As you begin your new year, then, I suggest you go on believing in your own causal efficacy—your own free will—and use it.



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