Saturday, May 26, 2012

Weekend Post - Are you in control?

Here’s a test for you. With the index finger of the hand you write with, touch either your left ear or your right ear. It’s entirely up to you to decide which ear to touch.

Done that?

How did you decide which ear to touch? Did you think about it logically? Did you give it a lot of thought or just choose the nearest one?

The question is really about free will. Did you actually have a choice at all or was it predestined that you would choose that ear?

Theologians, philosophers and everyday people have wondered about this issue for centuries. Do we actually have control over our actions or is everything predestined? Can I really decide what I’m going to do or is it all written down somewhere? Frankly I’m not terribly interested in the metaphysical side of things. I want to know, and I think this matters a whole lot more than a bunch of mystical ponderings, what does the evidence say?

Luckily we have now have the technology to investigate the brain. We can measure activity in the brain with some accuracy, we can estimate fairly well when things happen. That’s proved to be fantastically useful to anyone studying the brain and it’s functions.

In the 1980s a neuropsychologist called Benjamin Libet and his team in California did an experiment that had disturbing results. They looked at the time it took for their subjects to take a decision to flex a muscle and then for the muscle to flex. In fact there were three separate events that they measured. Firstly the conscious decision itself, then the activity in the brain that sent the signals to the muscle and finally the muscle flexing. Mind, brain then muscle. That’s surely how it works? A conscious decision leads to brain activity and then the muscular action happens. It can’t be much simpler than that, can it?

Actually it IS more complicated than that and even a bit disturbing. It turns out that the conscious decision occurred, on average, about 200 milliseconds before the muscle flexed. So far so good. The surprising thing is that the brain activity that sent the signal to the muscle started even earlier, on average 500 milliseconds before the muscle flexed. Let me make that perfectly clear. The brain began preparing the signal to the muscle BEFORE the subject had consciously decided to do anything. The correct sequence appeared to be brain, mind and then muscle. Free will would seem to be an illusion if Libet’s findings are correct.

Libet’s work has been heavily criticized but mainly because of it’s implications, not the science. The experiment has been repeated and adjusted to explore the effect more closely and although the findings have been modified slightly, the essence remains the same. The brain is busy BEFORE the mind does anything.

So what role does the mind have in this situation? One role it might play is simply as a mechanism for giving us a “sense” of control, of what philosophers called “agency”, the sense that we exercise some control over ourselves. Another intriguing idea is that although “free will” might be an illusion, we still might have what researchers have jokingly called “free won’t”, a final veto on the actions we take. The role of the mind might be just to stop things happening rather than causing them to. So, male readers, this research does NOT give you that great excuse, “I’m sorry dear, I couldn’t help myself, it was an irresistible urge”.

However, even that idea is under attack. Other experiments have suggested that free will truly is no more than an illusion, an experience created by our brains to give us that sense of agency that we like, that allows us to explain our behavior to ourselves.

Those of a religious persuasion, and even those who are not, find this disturbing. People will say that this means we have no conscience, no sense of morality or ethics, no knowledge of right and wrong. That’s just rubbish, this is NOT what this research suggests. Nobody has suggested that we don’t learn things, that we don’t instinctively have a sense of right and wrong and that our parents and society can’t give us morality.

Of course that all happens. It’s just that the evidence suggests that we don’t consciously think about these things when we make specific decisions. But they’re still there, influencing our decisions, our personalities and our lives. There is no contradiction between having no free will and being a decent, caring person who makes the right decisions, who recognizes morality and who lives a decent life.

In fact I’d go one stage further. I think this places an emphasis on us, as individuals, to think more about right and wrong, to care even more about the morality we teach our children and how we live our lives. It’s just that we can now do this based on real knowledge, science and evidence, not superstition.

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