Existence of Free Will Is Called into Question

Big Questions in Free Will

An experiment carried out by John-Dylan Haynes in 2007 has neuroscientists and philosophers up in arms about whether freewill exists. In his experiment, Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, asked individuals to watch a succession of random letters and to press a button with either their right or left index finger whenever they felt the urge.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Haynes was able to watch in real time the brain activity of each individual as they pressed the button. What he saw shocked both Haynes and his team of scientist. The researchers realized that the conscious decision to push the button came about a second before the act, but that there was also a pattern of brain activity that predicted the decision up to seven seconds in advance. Although humans feel as if decisions are within their conscious control, Haynes and other neuroscientists are now arguing that consciousness of a decision may just be a biochemical afterthought.

Philosophers however, are not convinced. Many have questioned the results of the freewill experiment, while others believe that the definition of “freewill” differs too much for black and white conclusions about its existence.

Al Mele, a philosopher at Florida State University in Tallahassee offers his analysis: “Part of what’s driving some of these conclusions is the thought that freewill has to be spiritual or involve souls or something…neatly dividing mind and brain makes it easier for neuroscientists to drive a wedge between them.”

The problem is that most current philosophers believe that everything has a physical basis, Mele explains, which means many consider the freewill findings irrelevant. Instead of debating how decisions are made, today’s philosophers debate the interplay between freedom and determinism.

While philosophers are willing to admit that neuroscience could one day upset the concept of free will, for now, many are just hoping that philosophy and science find some middle ground. A new program launched in January of 2010 may be the missing link. Titled ‘Big Questions in Free Will,’ the four-year, $4.4-million program is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, and strives to support research that bridges theology, philosophy, and natural science.