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Brain Study Calls Free Will Into Question 733

siddster notes an account up at Wired of research indicating that brain scanners can see your decisions before you make them. "In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them... Caveats remain, holding open the door for free will... The experiment may not reflect the mental dynamics of other, more complicated decisions... Also, the predictions were not completely accurate. Maybe free will enters at the last moment, allowing a person to override an unpalatable subconscious decision."
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Brain Study Calls Free Will Into Question

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  • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @09:52PM (#23058326)
    So there's a 7 second 'thought to action' lag. When they start predicting what the scanner is going to say call me.
    • by Simon Simian ( 694897 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:11PM (#23058482)
      I was going to call you, but then I didn't.
      • by infonography ( 566403 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:18PM (#23058524) Homepage

        I was going to call you, but then I didn't.
        I knew you were going to say that.
        • by Simon Simian ( 694897 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:27PM (#23058600)
          Shingle Donkeys
        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 14, 2008 @12:07AM (#23059294)
          When you model human behavior in terms of deterministic principles (i.e. the laws of physics and the metaphysical assumptions that underlie them), you shouldn't be surprised to find no room for the expression of free will.

          If your first premise is "not A" then any subsequent premise which affirms "A" will be seen as the logical contradiction that it is.

          So long as reduction is king, we shouldn't expect to find "free will" lurking among the emergent phenomena either...wherever it emerges it will just again be reduced to deterministic expressions, and hence seem to be deterministic (and hence profoundly unfree).

          Our analysis of the brain doesn't disprove free will anymore than the English language disproves that nouns have tenses. Nor, by the same token, does any mystical tradition prove it.

          The key is in how you model it, and whether or not your model is useful. That is all.
    • by siddster ( 809752 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:35PM (#23058648) Journal
      Actually the lag can vary. In another one of Benjamin Libet's experiments (not mentioned in the article) he stimulated different areas of the human brain (he had a neursurgeon friend that he worked with during surgeries) and asked the subject to press a button when he perceived the stimulus.

      It turned out that no one pressed the button until 500 milliseconds after the stimulus. So, there appeared to be at least a 500ms lag between stimulation and conscious acknowledgement of the stimulus.

      Here's the funny bit: a 500ms lag time to perception is incompatible with a whole bunch of human activities. Take tennis for example; if there's a 500ms lag between watching the ball getting hit and actually perceiving it as getting hit the ball has already flown past you. (assuming a ball hit at 200km/h=55 meters/sec)

      Yet we play tennis.... Intriguing eh?
      • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:07PM (#23058920) Journal
        This is decision making through trained thought processes. We hit the ball with some expectation of where the opponent will return the ball, or at least most professional tennis players do. Given that we have already predicted the likely return path of the ball, reacting to visual signals based on the other players body actions gives us quite a large lead time in terms of milliseconds in that process. By the time the other players racket hits the ball we are already headed toward the most likely direction of the return of the ball. You will see in pro games where a player totally fucks up that process and just lets the ball go. It is the high tension precision of play/guess/play/guess that makes sports the exciting thing that brings fans. The ability to mentally guess based on available knowledge where to be and when is what amazes us, though to the players it's as much reaction as it is a trained instinctual movement.

        I write code, and some of it relies on the predictable processes of other code. That is how things work. We all use the best information we have to make decisions of free will. What was painful decision making process becomes trained reactive processes after time and practice. Some people seem to have a 'knack' for some things... they usually become professionals. This happens in every walk of life. Sales people are different than engineers and both are different from sports players. Each has a set of decision making processes that are honed to a certain group of tasks. There is a reason that sports players don't generally retire to become insurance sales people.

        Free will is the ability to use available information to arrive at good outcomes of any decision. This, at it's most basic, is seen in survival situations. This, survival situations, is what I like to call failure-mode analysis. It works for code, it works for anything. Break it down to failure mode and see what happens, how each component reacts. In sports we see failure mode use repeatedly. Tennis is basically run that way the entire match. Each mistake is a failure. Each failure leads to one of two outcomes: further failure or success. This is survival mode.

        In that mode, we have to use free will as simply repeating what we have done before leads to failure. We have to learn and use free will to assert that learning to gain success... unless you simply wish to surrender, and that is free will also.

        I choose not to replace main bearing seals on my car's engine... I surrender. If I had to, I could learn how and do it, but I CHOOSE not to.

        In most cases in life where there seems to be no free will, we simply have chosen to surrender or not learn what is needed to complete the task or defeat the puzzle.

        500ms is a long time in some respects, yet it is a very short time. It has been scientifically proven that when adrenaline is pumping, our body clocks (sense of time) is sped up. That is, 500ms under physical duress seems like it was 3-4 seconds, giving our brains time to react faster than what we normally perceive.

        The measurements of 500ms are common in vehicle safety parlance. Seldom does anyone speak of that 1/2 second lag under duress. In sports, it's all under duress. Predictive analysis of the current events gives us the ability to see and react faster than the 500ms being discussed.
      • by eno2001 ( 527078 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:29PM (#23059066) Homepage Journal
        I'm reading a great book that addresses this. Julian Jaynes' book entitled, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind works through a lot of examples to prove that nearly all human activities are done in the absence of conscious thought. The general theory he puts forth in the book is that human consciousness only happened 3,000-3,500 years ago. He suggests that before this change (over a great deal of time, not instantly) humans had split minds where one half would communicate it's type of information to the other half via auditory and visual hallucinations. To support his theories he uses early written language examples which lack the concept of free will, let alone will at all. He argues that it was much more than just a literary device, but was in fact an accurate representation of human thinking in that time.
        • by Cassius Corodes ( 1084513 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @12:05AM (#23059280)
          Furthering what you are saying, there are some interesting experiments referenced in steven pinkers book "The blank slate", which are done on patients that had the connections between the two brain hemispheres removed (due to crippling epilepsy) - they instruct one side of the brain to do something (ie go out of the room) and then ask the other side of the brain why they did it. The other side never says "I don't know" it always makes up a reason, and the patients can get quite heated insisting that they had a reason. This would suggest that consciousness is a story telling device to explain our actions rather than the source of our decision making.
        • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @12:14AM (#23059340)

          The general theory he puts forth in the book is that human consciousness only happened 3,000-3,500 years ago. He suggests that before this change (over a great deal of time, not instantly) humans had split minds where one half would communicate it's type of information to the other half via auditory and visual hallucinations.

          Well, that's one theory which is absolutely impossible to prove either way. It is, after all, impossible for anyone to prove that they have subjective consciousness, rather than being puppets being guided by hallucinations - which, I presume, would still originate from a consciousness of sorts, but whatever.

          Then again, it might be easy to disprove: if it happened so recently, long after the current main groups of humanity split from each other, there should still be plenty of people in this split-mind state today. So make predictions about the difference between us and them, and go find them.

          To support his theories he uses early written language examples which lack the concept of free will, let alone will at all. He argues that it was much more than just a literary device, but was in fact an accurate representation of human thinking in that time.

          Of course, it could simply be that writing at that time was mainly used for bookkeeping, not to mention philosophy hadn't yet developed to the point of making this a problem... And besides, as far as I can tell, my dog has free will, and stubborn one at that.

          Anyway, this theory is very likely rubbish, because plenty of old kingdoms - such as ancient Egypt - already existed far before 3000 years ago, and it's hard to imagine how merely following hallucinations without conscious forethought could build and upkeep large and complex societies; for that matter, it is hard to imagine just how the heck such a double-mind could develop. Getting sudden hallucinations while you're hunting woolly mammoths is not a good thing.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Orgasmatron ( 8103 )
            You might want to read the book, rather than that very short summary of it. You are right that it is essentially unfalsifiable, making it not-science. (Note that most history and anthropology are similarly not-science).

            To quickly address some of the issues you mentioned:

            There are essentially no groups left on the earth where the split mind is "normal", but there are isolated cases. Some forms of schizophrenia, for example, can be considered as very similar to the split mind. One big reason they are
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Weedlekin ( 836313 )
          "To support his theories he uses early written language examples which lack the concept of free will, let alone will at all. He argues that it was much more than just a literary device, but was in fact an accurate representation of human thinking in that time."

          I also have a theory which says that pissing and crapping didn't happen in ancient times because the texts that we have don't say things like "And the Pharoah Ramses said unto the Hittites, Lo, I have marched many a day eating of dried dates and figs,
      • by Gibbs-Duhem ( 1058152 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:48PM (#23059182)

        First, I want to compliment the GP of this thread. He hit the nail on the head -- seven second lag between a decision and realizing you've made a decision is very different from not having free will. I can very easily imagine people subconsciously (or even consciously) knowing what their decision will be well before they "decide". I find personally that most of my "decision making" is trying to understand why I feel a particular choice is correct, not deciding which choice is correct.

        Secondarily, to comment on the parent. I teach karate, and in fighting matches I have observed this in quite a bit of detail. If you try to decide what to do, you are invariably ~100ms too slow in reacting (varies from person to person and experience level).

        One of the most critical elements of training is to move intellectual responses into the automatic response regime, which gradually reduces the reaction time while simultaneously freeing conscious brain-power for higher level guidance. For example, at a low level, your body is handling blocking and striking without your conscious intervention while at a high level, you're observing the rhythm of the fight and observing your opponent's posture and techniques.

        Then, you set up a "trigger" in your reactions so that as soon as a particular opening appears again, you immediately capitalize. Usually you do this by repeating a motion many, many times, but it eventually happens. That capitalization definitely happens in under 100ms (I can punch about 6 times in one second, and in order to break the rhythm you need to get at least a factor of four faster than that).

        To see this (maybe), imagine that your opponent does a quick punch. If you notice that he's a bit slow to recover, a good option is to sidestep and punch before his punch is over -- but a punch is over in 200ms, tops. You have to start your punch in at most 50ms after she starts hers (switching genders for the sake of the female karateka in my club). Of course, I might be convinced that this is more a matter of picking up on a rhythm and predicting a punch... but if you do this then you're screwed by a fake, and it wouldn't explain quick responses to the very first attack of a sequence, so I'm fairly sure it's a real reaction time.

        p.s. Can you tell I teach at an engineering school? It's always entertaining when the class is completely at a loss to understand a move until I draw a force diagram.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by zmollusc ( 763634 )
        I would see that as a 500ms lag between wanting to press a button and your muscles pressing it(if that is the way the experiment recorded when the person felt the stimulus). Like when you play a game and see imminent disaster, you want to press shield or hyperspace or whatever (and may have a finger over that button throughout the game) but cannot press it in time. Apologies if it was done differently.

  • 7 seconds (Score:2, Funny)

    by iamhigh ( 1252742 ) *

    In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them

    ... a bunch of stuff about brain activity...

    Taken together, the patterns consistently predicted whether test subjects eventually pushed a button with their left or right hand

    Who the hell takes 7 seconds to decide left or right? I hope they all took the bus... or maybe the shortbus?

    • by The MAZZTer ( 911996 ) <> on Sunday April 13, 2008 @09:59PM (#23058370) Homepage
      If you had read your first quote more carefully the second one would have made more sense. What it's saying is the scanner picked up on unconscious decisions people made. In this case the decision was trivial with no (known) consequences either way so the subjects likely didn't hesitate and just picked one consciously. What this is saying is that they had actually subconsciously decided which one they were going to pick seconds in advance and the scanner was able to see that.
    • What thought process do you go through to come to the decision of choosing left or right? Ignoring reactions (i.e. something throws a large object at you) in which you'll probably respond a hell of a lot faster, I can see how 7 seconds would work. Countdown:

      7 seconds: Hmm that person is reaching out to grab the news paper. They are in my path.
      6 seconds: /me glances around
      5 seconds: There are $x people also on the path with me, I must go around them
      4 seconds: Only two people are in my immediate way after sh
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The theory is (and it's not a new one) that your conscious mind merely interprets and rationalises decisions that your subconscious mind already made in a non-free-will manner. You fondly imagine that your conscious mind is doing the decision making - when in fact it's merely organising those decisions into a consistent result.

      Our conscious minds have been shown to reorder events in order to 'edit out' the effects of prolonged reaction delays and other processing artifacts.

      The brain does this kind of thing
      • Re:7 seconds (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Metasquares ( 555685 ) <> on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:43PM (#23058716) Homepage
        But who says the unconscious decision process isn't an exercise of free will? The big assumption in the article is that free will cannot exist in the subconscious. I think that free will is a property of the whole mind, and all they're doing is demonstrating that they can predict decisions by reading the choices already made within the brain.

        Oh, and since this is a binary classification problem (left/right), 50% accuracy means you're not doing any better than guessing - 60% isn't very good in that light.
        • Re:7 seconds (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Belial6 ( 794905 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:06PM (#23058918)
          That's what I was thinking. The news article should read. "People subconsciously think ahead" I'm not sure that this should be a big surprise, and I don't see what it has to do with free will.

          Well, really it should read "Sometimes people subconsciously think ahead"
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mrbluze ( 1034940 )

          Maybe free will enters at the last moment, allowing a person to override an unpalatable subconscious decision.

          Maybe, but it's far more likely that decision modification at the last moment is due to something smaller and less easy to detect. Truly free will (in the philosophical sense) has to depend on something that cannot be physically manipulated (and isn't something that science can prove the existence of). Basically, free will is a religious concept, and a threatened one. Science has not left many shadows here.

        • Re:7 seconds (Score:5, Insightful)

          by node 3 ( 115640 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @01:55AM (#23059966)

          But who says the unconscious decision process isn't an exercise of free will? The big assumption in the article is that free will cannot exist in the subconscious.
          If it happens in the subconscious, then it *can't* be free will, it's merely will.

          The *free* means you are making a conscious decision.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            You present it as fact, but that assertion is in fact only your opinion.

            Some (if not most) decision are made subconsciously. The 'free' part may only consist of an ability to override subconscious decisions.

            And then again, the conscious/subconscious terms (AFAIK) originate with Freud and are only a model, and not a very usefull one at that, in my opinion.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by node 3 ( 115640 )

              You present it as fact, but that assertion is in fact only your opinion.

              Close. I present it as a definition, because that's what it is. The idea of free will is that you get to make a conscious choice.

              To illustrate what I mean, imagine our will exists entirely in the subconscious, and that by the time we're aware of our choices, we cannot alter them. In such a case, we'd still have a will (after all, we still make choices and act upon them), but that will is not free, because we are not free to consciously control it. The notion of freedom (in this context) is meaningless if i

    • Re:7 seconds (Score:5, Interesting)

      by TheRealMindChild ( 743925 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:35PM (#23058646) Homepage Journal
      I took a research study doing tests like this at UPMC. A lot of it was horrible tests such as:

      A green or red square will appear every 15 seconds, along with an arrow that points right or left. If the square is green, you press the mouse button that corresponds with the direction of the arrow (if it points left hit the left button. If it points right, click the right button). If the square is red, you press the button opposite the direction the arrow is pointing.

      Now, imagine doing this for an hour or more straight, with wet electrodes attached to your head. After about 10 minutes (at most), you can't help but completely wander off mentally and stop paying attention to what you are doing. Maybe that is the intention. Your goal is to do your best, because this is a "worth while" study after all on how the brain operates. Things start to flash up and you consciously don't pick up what just flashed, so you spend a good part of those 15 seconds trying to dig up any memory of the past 15 seconds. Maybe you had to be there. You don't even want to know the torture of doing these kinds of tests for HOURS inside an MRI machine.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by kae_verens ( 523642 )
        yeah, and I bet that at about minute 40, someone in a gorilla suit walked straight in front of the MRI machine and you didn't even see it.

        seriously, though - I think you've answered yourself. If you are studying the subconscious mind, then you need to somehow get the conscious mind out of the way - the best way being to bore the mind into reacting instead of thinking.
  • by Lucas123 ( 935744 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @09:55PM (#23058340) Homepage
    I've chosen not to comment on this story. There's my free will. Wait, I mean, I'll comment but I'm not leaving an opinion, except for the one that states that I have free will. Hold on. OK. I'm not leaving an opinion as much as statement. Oh, forget it. You're right. I have no free will.
  • by blantonl ( 784786 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @09:55PM (#23058342) Homepage
    For a second or two there... I thought for sure the study called my Wii into question.

    My "will" is rock solid... my "Wii" challenges me evey day.
  • by mudetroit ( 855132 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @09:57PM (#23058354) Journal
    Just because there is a delay in the person being able to be cognizant of making the decision doesn't eliminate the potential that there was free will in making it. To put this in terms the programmers among us can relate to. This is the difference between generating a result and outputting the result. They aren't necessarily directly tied together.
    • by Anguirel ( 58085 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:08PM (#23058458)
      In programming terms, it's exactly that difference. However, the person thinks their conscious decision is 1 second before the press. Consider that an I/O interrupt request after the output has been generated but before it can be displayed. The conscious mind (the OS in the metaphor) thinks it is making the decision to output something specific, but that decision was made by the subroutine well before the OS got involved. In flow chart terms...

      (unconscious decision is made in background processes) -> (person thinks they make a conscious decision using their own Free Will) -> (action occurs which matches the unconscious decision)

      Under that model, Free Will is "eliminated" because the final result matches activity that occurs before they consciously deliberate on it and can utilize conscious Free Will. Essentially, Free Will becomes an unconscious process of some sort.
      • by bug1 ( 96678 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:50PM (#23059186)
        My subconscious is still a part of "me", if _my_ subconscious exercises free will, then i exercise free will.

        I dont have to know i have free will to have free will.

        • by Anguirel ( 58085 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @01:05AM (#23059704)
          Actually, you do. [] Free Will must be a conscious act for it to matter in all the senses that philosophy cares about -- if agency is to exist, it must exist in a conscious form. If some subconscious process is "making" your decisions prior to your "self" (where "self" is your conscious and self-conscious awareness), you don't really have Free Will, since conscious deliberation on possible actions has no effect on the resulting action you take.

          If you haven't, I suggest looking into some Philosophy of Self and Philosophy of Mind books and essays, since I certainly don't have the time right now to get into it as deeply as a subject like this deserves.
          • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @02:14AM (#23060052)

            This is opinion. I notice lines such as:

            Minimally, to say that an agent has free will is to say that the agent has the capacity to choose his or her course of action. But animals seem to satisfy this criterion, and we typically think that only persons, and not animals, have free will. Let us then understand free will as the capacity unique to persons that allows them to control their actions.

            Unfounded assumptions, artificial distinctions between "animals" and "persons". And we haven't even started discussing free will.

          • by Martian_Kyo ( 1161137 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @03:25AM (#23060376)
            I disagree with that definition of free will.

            I think the problem here isn't the existence of 'free will' but with out definition and our perception of it. Just because a definition exists it doesn't mean it can't redefined or proclaimed as invalid.

            So maybe the title should be 'Brain Study Calls current definition of Free will into question.', but that's not as sensational.

    • They don't even try to account for the Insightful same situation where the Halting Problem fails Insightful. I ask the scanner what I'm going to do Funny, then do something else Hot sex or flip a coin. Let alone anything where the truly interesting Troll aspects of free will. For example, Insightful doing this brain scan on someone who thinks he has discovered a way to embezzle a million dollars Flying chair without getting caught, but isn't sure. Do I do it? Will I get caught? Insightful Even if I wil
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Admiral Ag ( 829695 )
      No. There is a real problem here. Our ordinary conception of personal decision making is that it is conscious and occurs at the time the decider is aware of making the decision. This experiment goes a long way to proving that conscious experience of making a decision is epiphenomenal.

      Let's conduct a simple thought experiment. We'll hook you up to a machine that replicates the experiment and which predicts pretty much everything you choose before you are aware of it. How long is it going to take you, persona
      • by Adaptux ( 1235736 ) * on Monday April 14, 2008 @06:10AM (#23061086)

        The only reason people believe in free will is that much of religion makes no sense without it.

        I don't know what precisely you mean when you refer to "much of religion", but it can't be the Christian faith as described in the Bible, which makes very clear that belief in "free will" is not part of the Christian faith, see e.g. Exodus 9:16 [] and Romans 9:17ff [].

        However moral responsibility for one's actions is an essential part of what the Bible teaches. You can be morally responsible for what you do even if your will isn't totally, entirely free. Such moral responsibility requires only the ability to consciously veto proposed actions that the unconscious part of the mind is proposing, and this veto ability has in fact been experimentally observed, See Benjamin Libet: "Do We Have Free Will?" [], Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 8--9, 1999, pp. 47--57.

        Therefore, free will and moral responsibilty are not the same thing. It is true that some people have been preaching a version of Chrstian religion which is based more on philosophical assertions like "free will" than on what the Bible actually says, but that is not a valid argument against religion. It only demonstrates the foolishness of listening to people who try to base religion on human philosophy instead of focusing on what the Bible says.

    • by Azarael ( 896715 )
      I agree, but I think it's more accurate to say that, we can see part of the result before it is outputted, and correlate that to a likely value. So basically, what they're showing (in a novel way) is that some conditions make you predisposed to make a certain decision. This is one of the aspects of how neural networks operate.., so the idea isn't really new.
    • Wonder why this debate is still around after hundreds of years of argument? It's because it's nearly an identical analogy to the question: "Is it a particle or a wave?"
    • But if the decision was made before you were conscious of it, was it really free will on your part? Sounds more like it was the work of something in your brain and then your mind only becomes aware of it, but doesn't make it.
  • by NIckGorton ( 974753 ) * on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:01PM (#23058398)
    Um, not much of a newsflash. Hell the major monotheistic religions figured this out way back. If God is omniscient, then he knows what I am about to do and everything I will do in my life. If he knows that, than I can't truly have free will. (Even if you try to weasel out that God decides to blind himself to my future, if it is knowable then its pre-ordained.) So unless you are willing to say God isn't omniscient, then there is no free will, kids.

    The only chance we have of any free will at all is in quantum weirdness which is not much free will to speak of, and certainly not enough to be palatable to the average American who thinks his success or failure is a product of his own decisions rather than the sum total of a very complicated system that he has little control over and basically just experiences as the phenomena of his mind. We think we are in control, but largely we are along for the ride.

    Used to freak me out, and it was hard to swallow since I have that Horatio Algeirs kind of narrative: Grew up on welfare in a house without indoor plumbing and now have a doctorate and am typing this on the toilet I picked (the best... I loves me a good quality toilet) in the house I just remodeled. It would feel very nice to think that I did all of this and deserve this wonderful throne. And to be honest my experience is that I think I have free will in my day to day life. But that's probably because the sum of my experiences also made me, after gaining understand that I don't have free will, accept that I live my life with that illusion and navigate life in such a way that I feel comfortable with the 'moral decisions' I think I make. So I pretend I have free will, and think I make moral choices based on that understanding.

    Now I've given myself a headache. No. Wait, I was destined to have this headache as long as that electron spun to the left last Tuesday in Portugal. I'm going to go pretend to decide to take an ibuprofen.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Um, not much of a newsflash. Hell the major monotheistic religions figured this out way back. If God is omniscient, then he knows what I am about to do and everything I will do in my life. If he knows that, than I can't truly have free will. (Even if you try to weasel out that God decides to blind himself to my future, if it is knowable then its pre-ordained.) So unless you are willing to say God isn't omniscient, then there is no free will, kids.

      Actually there's an argument (by St. Augustine, I think) that says that there is no contradiction between an omniscient God and free will. The idea is that God is just an "observer"; every decision we make in our lives are still our own, even though God knows how the result will turn out. Essentially, God is just "watching a replay" of what actually happened, so although God knows what happens God does not know it in "advance" because our notions of time do not apply to God.

    • News flash. A whole lot of people don't believe there's a god. That means they don't see any conundrum there.

      No. We are not floating, completely out of control. Nothing prevents us here (U.S.) from just up and leaving and starting over. You simply have to be willing to endure the consequences. The whole topic of lack of free will is bogus as it hinges on the supernatural or extreme pedantry.
  • by sticks_us ( 150624 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:03PM (#23058406) Homepage
    You can choose from phantom fears
    And kindness that can kill
    I will choose a path thats clear
    I will choose free will!

  • Rigged (Score:5, Insightful)

    by yomology ( 1251490 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:05PM (#23058434)
    Personally, I don't see how this experiment can even remotely call into question "free will." You see, free will and conscious rationality are very nearly the same. Now, when choosing between using the left or right button, there is little to no information to be considered rationally, or consciously, and so this experiment is only testing a choice that is already devoid of free will. The choice is, in effect, subconsciously decided making it easy to predict.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by monoqlith ( 610041 )
      Not at all. 'Conscious rationality' is the deterministic(or if you wish, probabilistic) process of the biochemical reactions of your brain. Why would your brain be exempt from the physical laws of the universe? Having had a neurological disorder myself, which has affected the workings of my frontal cortex at times(thankfully not permanently), I have become acutely aware of this. I have come to the opinion a priori that even my most conscious thoughts merely feel spontaneous - but my apprehension of them i
  • by 3arwax ( 808691 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:07PM (#23058444)
    I am a person who believes very strongly that God gives us agency and that agency is essential to our progression through life. I also believe that most decisions are made automatically. Our brain acts just like a muscle. We train it and it has reflex like decisions. But there are many times when we exercise a higher consciousness to make decisions. But who would ever accuse Slashdot of having over-sensationalized headlines?
  • If the universe is ordered, that is there are a set of physical laws which govern the outcome of particle and energy interactions, then wouldn't free will as currently defined be impossible? Perhaps our actions are chaotic in the mathematical sense but still deterministic. Anyone else have any thoughts on this?
  • by Shaitan Apistos ( 1104613 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:11PM (#23058474)
    If you don't mod me according to my post's title I'll understand, you didn't have a choice.
  • The Matrix has you. There is no spoon. You think that's your free will?
  • If you can define free will, then you could prove it or disprove it. It is such an open ended concept that it cannot be considered until all facts about the process is known and it is premature to study the psychological effects of using a tele-port until you have one. --Absolute stupidity, disrupts absolutely--PLM
  • by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:17PM (#23058516) Homepage
    If you actually wanted to answer that question, you'd have to define what "free will" is, in a concrete, scientific way. That means defining what choice is, likely what "you" are, and other things that are essentially undefinable except using other non-concrete definitions you can't nail down.

    This experiment raises some interesting questions about the nature of existence, consciousness, and being. I don't think it's going to give us any answers on whether we have "free will" though, whatever that means.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CokeJunky ( 51666 )
      Total agreement here. I suspect that the whole free-will angle is just a great way to get press. Sure it might have been the goal of the experiment to study decision making and the impact of will, but the conclusion drawn is pure sensationalism and has nothing to do with science.
  • Horrible summery (Score:4, Informative)

    by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:20PM (#23058548) Journal
    " Brain Study Calls Free Will Into Question"
    what utter nonsense. The ability to predict an action by looking at what your brain is doing has nothing to do with whether or not free will exists. From TFA:

    In the seven seconds before Haynes' test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration.
    sounds to me that the decision making is started before people think it is, nothing more, nothing less.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 )
      What the problem is partially that philosophy in the US withdrew from historical- or cultural-scaled problems, and started turning itself into the boundary between mathematics and cognitive science. The framing of the question of "free will" thus become wrapped up in the question of decision-making. Too many trivial examples ("whether I decide to wash the dishes", "freedom to decided whether to drop this glass," etc) displaced actual existential decisions (do I fight against an occupying army and risk death
  • the brain makes the choice, not any other factor. isn't that the very essence of free will?
  • Free will is a religious concept, it means that God doesn't interfere in the process of personal decision, but if we take God out of equation (scientists do that anyway, right?) what remains? What is it free from? I really don't understand this...
  • by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:46PM (#23058742) Homepage Journal
    High Priced Trial Lawyer: Your honor, my client pleads not guilty by reason of no free will.

    Judge: I sentence him to life in prison.

    High Priced Trial Lawyer: But...

    Judge: Don't look at me, I don't have free will either.
  • by aepervius ( 535155 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @10:58PM (#23058848)
    On the lowest physical level there are only individual atoms the link they form with their neighbors, or not, forming molecules and electrodynamic interaction. A level higher we have molecule interacting each other forming protein, and various substance. A level higher we have neuron which discharge their neurotransmitter if they reach a certain level, neuro-transmitter which lead to lower or higher the level of other neurons. Up to now I described only physical process which don't per see have any "free will". Then comes a level higher with even more complexity where neuron form complex path and mass, and that is the brain. Show me an ounce of free will. All I see is a very complex system, which accept information from outside, and using chemical pathway, send output to the outside. There is no reason to imagine that for the same input, at the same state, the system would react otherwise , except if some physical phenomenon change subtely the potential of some neuron : aka brownian motion make more or less neurotransmitter reach their target site. Again a physical phenomenon. I contend that free will is an illusion. I contend that it should be called non-deterministic will. Or chaotic will. Or anything. But we aren't really "free" to chose. All those neuron with their potential and physical reaction do it.
  • by Ardeaem ( 625311 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:21PM (#23059016)
    Free will is not a coherent concept. It is rooted in the idea of dualism, that something is "controlling" our body/brain, that is somehow separate from our body/brain. It used to be called a soul, now it is called a mind. The "mind" has free will to somehow control the body. This makes no sense.

    The brain is a complex physical system like any other, and is subject to the same rules as any other physical system, like weather. There is no free will. There is only the interaction between our bodies/brains and the environment. Free will is just an illusion caused by the fact that humans are self-aware and that the brain is an extremely complex, dynamical system.
  • by Tetrad_of_doom ( 750972 ) on Sunday April 13, 2008 @11:50PM (#23059190)
    If we don't have free will, then what's the point? If all of our decisions are predetermined, why debate the origins? Without free will our lives are meaningless. I take the existence of free will as an axiom, because the alternative is stupid.
  • by Rui del-Negro ( 531098 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @01:41AM (#23059880) Homepage
    The article is sketchy (to say the least) about the details of this test. Were people told they were going to have to press a button? How long were they told to wait before pressing it? Did they start thinking about pressing it before they were even asked to do it? Was any of the test subjects a Jedi?

    Just because you start thinking about making a "random" decision a few seconds in advance, that does not mean you cannot change your mind a fraction of a second before, if something else happens (ex., a sudden external stimulus). In fact, the article points this out:

    "Also, the predictions were not completely accurate. Maybe free will enters at the last moment, allowing a person to override an unpalatable subconscious decision."

    I think it's pretty obvious that people can react to external stimuli in less than seven seconds, including stimuli that they had no way of predicting.

    Anyway, unless our brains have some sort of mystical particles, they are essentially very complex and highly parallel (but still fundamentally deterministic) electro-chemical computers, with an insane amount of inputs. So this really boils down to consciousness and a concept of present.

    What this study shows is that decision-making isn't an instant process (did anyone think it was?), that we are not conscious of the early stages of that process (did anyone think we were?) and that there is a significant subconscious stage to random decisions, possibly because our brain tries to "validate" its decisions before submitting them to the "conscious" mind, and random ones have a low confidence level, making them go through extra sanity checks.

    Subconscious: Tell Mr. Conscious to hit the left button!
    Mr. Conscious's P.A.: Did you say something or was that just random noise?
    Sub.: I said "tell Mr. Conscious to hit the left button"!
    P.A.: Why should I tell him that?
    Sub.: Because he asked me to make a random decision.
    P.A.: Not good enough. Mr. Conscious will need assurance that that is the ideal course of action. Please produce the complete paper trail that led you to that decision.
    Sub.: What paper trail? This is a *random* decision, you idiot.
    P.A.: I'm afraid you will at least have to find some evidence that hitting the left button will not have any negative effects. If Mr. Conscious simply followed every random advice he got, how would he justify his salary?
    Sub.: Look, the guy conducting the study hit the button just now and nothing happened to him, right? It's safe. Just hit it.
    P.A.: Well, alright. The left button, you said?
    Sub.: Yes!
    P.A.: I'll transmit that to Mr. Conscious.
    Sub.: About bloody time, too. Wasted seven seconds of my life.

    P.S. - Several studies have shown that top athletes don't have particularly faster reflexes than other people; they just do the "Jedi trick" of starting to react before something happens. How can they react to something that hasn't happened? Experience. Their brain knows what are the 5 or 6 most likely developments, and it starts to plan ahead for all of them. When the times comes to send the decision to the body, the actual action is already buffered. On top of that, frequently we react to indicators rather than to the event itself (ex., in tennis the other player's body position will generally allow you to guess how he's going to serve before he hits the ball; if you wait for the ball to be hit, you won't get to it on time). To put it in computer terms: speculative execution and intelligent branch prediction.

    P.P.S. - In Stanislaw Lem's short story "137 seconds" a news-gathering computer develops the ability to predict reality 137 seconds in advance, so this brain scanner still has a long way to go. ;-)
  • by Fantastic Lad ( 198284 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @02:52AM (#23060242)
    As I understand things. . .

    The human monkey is a vehicle for the soul. Left to its own devices, it is an automatic, albeit complex machine which is a sort of bridge between states of existence. --That is, souls grow and need work to develop, and the human monkey is the vehicle for this process.

    If there is no exertion of the Will, then the human monkey basically is just a reaction machine, responding to stimulus and being generally predictable in its behavior as demonstrated by the neurologists in the article. The Spirit sits between the mind and the body. If the spirit is not exercised, then the monkey is happy to run on autopilot, usually being selfish in nature, seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and thinking of no other individual other than itself unless in a manner to better attain pleasure and avoid pain. The psychopath is just a broken monkey which has learned how to feed on others but with a failure of its own survival circuits. (Psychopaths are very good at feeding, but their actions are ultimately self-destructive. Regular monkeys are more balanced and know how to survive better).

    With the introduction of the soul, which as it grows learns how to care and feel for others, the whole equation becomes more complex and more interesting.

    When you, as a soul, choose to be aware of the flow of instructions between mind and body, and decide to act in a manner different than that which would be automatic, then you are exercising your Will. This takes effort and the monkey and mind push back because it is no longer acting along the path of least resistance, as it were. But the monkey will obey, (that's what it's there to do), and through continued exertion, the spirit and soul grow and become strong and increasingly self-aware.

    A note of interest. . . The point of alchemy is not, as I see it, about turning lead into gold; I think those are just metaphors for the creation and purification of the soul; the effort and resistance of exerting the Will creates 'heat'. In the various alchemical texts, repeated heating of the 'crucible' are described. With repeated heating, the soul is purified until enlightenment comes within reach.

    Anyway, it seems to me that if one pays attention, then one can become ever more aware of the mind/body communication, (during the seven seconds indicated by the experiment under discussion?) Perhaps I am fooling myself in this, but that's the sensation I seem to experience when I observe my own mind in its workings.


  • by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @05:03AM (#23060798) Journal
    For the curious, here's the research abstract for the original article the Wired news bit is based on (unfortunately the article itself is behind a pay/subscription-wall): []

    Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain

    Chun Siong Soon1,2, Marcel Brass1,3, Hans-Jochen Heinze4 & John-Dylan Haynes

    There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively 'free' decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.
  • Uh, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Monday April 14, 2008 @11:44AM (#23064378)

    First, just because there is an inherent lag between the action of the brain and our conscious awareness of that action, doesn't mean the action is not willful. Second, even if the action was being planned by the unconscious brain, again, how does that make the action unwillful? I am not conscious of every calculation my brain performs when I decide to lift my coffee cup to my lips, but this does not mean I did not consciously decide to do it.

    Our brains are chemical devices. Our sense of self has evolved to mask the fact that we are actually "lagging behind reality" by a little bit, because being aware of the lag would serve no purpose except to distract us. That a scientist could leap from this to the "insight" that we are not in control of our own actions is ludicrous.

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