Sunday, September 18, 2011

Clear I-sight

Kerri Smith:

The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person's actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. "We feel we choose, but we don't," says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.

You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it. For Haynes, this is unsettling. "I'll be very honest, I find it very difficult to deal with this," he says. "How can I call a will 'mine' if I don't even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?"

The only reason this seems so unsettling to people is because of the ingrained assumption that "I" am distinct from "my brain", and that my brain would do one thing if it were allowed to run on autopilot, but "I" would do something differently. This research doesn't deny that we choose between alternatives, it just demonstrates that more of the decision-making process is unconscious than we thought.

1 comment:

noel said...

Unconscious decision making is not compatible with free will in the normal sense of the word. If we are unaware of an impulse, then it's involuntary. That doesn't mean we are not responsible in some way, but it makes moral judgements much more problematic.
Have you read any Eagleman? He seems to be the pop star of this kind of research/thinking. My sister invited him to our church to speak. His agent scoffed at her suggestion that he speak for an honorarium ("Dr. Eagleman gets $10,000 for speaking engagements."), but she contacted him and he's coming in November.
http://www.eagleman.com/