When you decided to read the Science & Tech section of the Daily Nexus today, was it really a choice? Or is this action, and every action you have ever taken, predetermined? Hard determinists would say you never had a choice against this fate.
Hard determinism is the concept that humans do not have free will but, instead, are a mere product of genetic, environmental and unconscious factors outside of one’s control. The philosopher René Descartes, who you may know by his famous quote, “I think, therefore I am,” concluded that humans are conscious by using a thought experiment in which an evil demon could manipulate him into doubting the existence of his senses and the things he thought he knew about the external world.
After all, psychology tells us that sensory experiences do not put us in direct contact with the world around us but rather connect the sensory input we receive to the map of the world that our brain is constantly building.
Descartes concluded, however, that the one thing the demon could never do is trick his mind into thinking he didn’t exist because doing so would require existence itself. Therefore, Descartes concluded that if every part of his body could be fooled except his conscious mind, then his conscious mind must irrefutably exist.
However, many scientists, philosophers, and even UC Santa Barbara faculty, believe that you can possess free will without having consciousness at all. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner’s theory on the illusion of free will suggests that our choices might not be as autonomous as they seem because underlying processes in the brain make decisions before we are consciously aware of them.
Scientist Benjamin Libet performed a study in 1984 that provided support for this theory. Libet had participants press a button while he compared the time at which participants reported being consciously aware of deciding to move with the time brain activity associated with movement was sensed through scalp electrodes. The results showed that the brain signaling correlated to movement was actually sensed 350 milliseconds before the conscious decision to move was reported. Libet’s study suggests that our brain may decide to act before we are even consciously aware of it.
So, if we may not have free will, why do we think we do? In 2008, UCSB psychological & brain sciences professor and researcher Jonathan Schooler conducted a study examining the relationship between the belief in free will and ethical behavior. The study found that messages discouraging belief in free will resulted in a greater tendency to cheat on a self-graded exam, indicating a potential link between our beliefs about free will and our moral behavior. Schooler’s study leaves us questioning whether the idea that the mere belief that we have free will may have evolved to encourage prosocial behavior.
Even if the belief in free will has value, does anything really matter if we don’t have free will in the first place? Is there any evidence that points to us having any power against a predetermined fate? The answer to this question may actually be in the physics of the fundamental units that make up our universe.
By the nature of quantum physics, what happens to the universe at microscopic levels is unpredictable and cannot be described in a deterministic way. This phenomenon is observed through the famous double-slit experiment, which concludes that the behavior of quantum particles is unpredictable and can actually simultaneously take multiple paths at once, in which they are in what is known as a superposition state. It is known that on large scales, quantum effects are not observed, like how we tend not to see a student walking through two different entrances of a physics classroom at the same time. However, there has been evidence suggesting quantum effects play a role in certain functions of living beings, such as in the quantum mechanics of migratory bird magnetic navigation or plants’ synthesis of sugars.
Evidence is beginning to surface pointing to quantum effects on the human brain, leading some physicists to entertain the idea that consciousness and free will could emerge from quantum processes. Physicist and UCSB physics professor Matthew Fisher argues that phosphorus nuclei in the brain may have a quantum spin that allows for a type of superposition, called an entangled state, that can last long enough for human brain processes to occur. However, even if the brain does function at a quantum level, there is still work to be done to connect the quantum indeterminacy of brain processes to proof of humans’ free will.
And so, the question as to whether we really possess free will, or whether it is just an illusion, remains. In this investigation, because of the ever-evolving nature of our understanding of consciousness and free will, you must weigh all the currently available evidence and ultimately decide for yourself.
So, did you really have any choice in reading this free will exposé? Maybe not. But on the off chance that the hard determinists had it all wrong and we do in fact have free will, try to stay honest while taking your exams this finals season … even if the evil demon on your shoulder tells you otherwise.
A version of this article appeared on page 11 of the Nov. 30 print edition of the Daily Nexus.