Philosophers and famous writers have pondered the existence of free will in countless ways for many years, but the question is not just for philosophers and famous writers.
It’s for scientists brain scientists. Neuroscientists have stepped up in recent years, presenting important research that could finally answer the age-old question: does free will truly exist?
Until now, most of their research has only been read, debated or heard by degree-bearing scholarly ears, but now it’s time for you to weigh in and consider your brain’s role in your mind’s decisions.
Two main camps of thought exist within the brain science community: believers and skeptics. Believers believe in the existence of free will, while skeptics, well, don’t.
Believers point to studies that show split-second responses can be altered by a whim. The skeptics, on the other hand, point to studies showing neural circuitry superceding conscious decision making. For the sake of time, I will focus on impulsivity as an indicator for or against the existence of free will.
Our ability to control our impulses and automate biological circuitry is a fundamental part of free will. So it should be no surprise that impulsivity is on the forefront of this free will debate.
A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience announced success in pin-pointing the brain’s mechanism for free ‘won’t,” an action that defies impulsivity or changes premade plans.
This part of the brain, the dorsal fronto-medial cortex, becomes most active when a person decides against performing an action that was already planned.
Scientific American’s Nikhil Swaminathan called this the ‘brain stop button” in his August 2007 article ‘Impulse Stopping: When the Mind Exercises “Free Won’t.'”
Based on this evidence, free will exists! We can stop right before we pick up that last cigarette or eat a pint of Ben ‘ Jerry’s.
Skeptics say that, while this discovery is important, it lacks several other pieces that would more aptly answer the question of free will.
Evidence against the existence of free will includes a wide spectrum of studies.
I will only give a broad overview of two main arguments that free will skeptics put forth in the realm of brain science. The first argument is based on pure physical capacity of the brain as relating to the function of the mind.
For example, if an electric stimulator was temporarily shutting down the language-producing parts of your brain, you would not be able to talk.
Therefore, people’s free will is completely dependent on the existence of biological processes. This may imply that there is no free will beyond biological function.
Of course, if you have a lesion in Wernicke or Broca’s areas, the main language centers in the brain, you will not be able to speak properly. But this does not mean that you will not have free will.
Biological limitations have no real influence on the idea of free will because free will is not meant to mean freedom from aging or accident.
The second argument is based on the idea that our brains make our decisions for us. For example, people get full of food. Before this happens, there is a set chain of neurological events that predetermines it.
First, the biological need for food arises, then your brain decides you will eat.
After this, strange thoughts of food begin (mmm… Ben ‘ Jerry’s, philly cheese steak…) a conscious decision to eat is made (I want a philly cheese steak), and then you eat.
This seems valid enough, but if this argument were valid, then studies showing people can control their own impulses would have to be proven to be conducted in such a way that would make their results invalid.
Regardless of which camp of thought is right, Florida Atlantic University psychologist David Piven, author of ‘The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People,” points out that people are more apt to feel satisfied if they feel some sense of autonomy, such as believing in free will.
In fact, he says that people who believe in their free will are three times more likely to be satisfied with their life than those who do not.
But if people are so skilled at deceiving themselves, then how are they supposed to believe their belief in free will?
If you make a free choice to do it, then it should absolutely work.
Philosopher William James put it quite simply. ‘My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Then again, he may have been predetermined to write that.
Goodman is a member of the class of 2010.