Thursday, December 08, 2011

Is Free Will an Illusion?

Shaun Nichols argues that we should not trust our instincts about free will or consciousness.
The debate over free will is one example in which our intuitions conflict with scientific and philosophical arguments. Something similar holds for intuitions about consciousness, morality, and a host of other existential concerns. Typically philosophers deal with these issues through careful thought and discourse with other theorists. In the past decade, however, a small group of philosophers have adopted more data-driven methods to illuminate some of these confounding questions. These so-called experimental philosophers administer surveys, measure reaction times and image brains to understand the sources of our instincts. If we can figure out why we feel we have free will, for example, or why we think that consciousness consists of something more than patterns of neural activity in our brain, we might know whether to give credence to those feelings. That is, if we can show that our intuitions about free will emerge from an untrustworthy process, we may decide not to trust those beliefs.
Is Free Will an Illusion?: Scientific American

1 comment:

Anthony said...

From a layman's perspective, much of the philosophical texts that I have read could be interpreted as a less empirical type of psychology or an alternative form of math. That being said, philosophy will benefit immensely from using scientific processes when dealing with issues like free will, consciousness, etc.

As for free will, I would assume that quick actions, such as the decision about whether to move left or right when running for a baseball, are instinctive and not "free" decisions. A deer makes the same type of instantaneous "choices" when fleeing from a predator.

Human beings, unlike most other animals, are able to plan out projects; in these instances, we often take days/months to come to a decision and seem to utilize our rational mind to achieve this action. I don't see how science could ever determine whether or not these types of choices are free or not. I can't think of any experimental design which would answer this question. Maybe one exists.

Perhaps it is better if we are not able to determine whether our decisions are "free" or not. If scientists/philosophers ever prove beyond a reasonable doubt that free will is an illusion, it will have significant, unpredictable ramifications on society (at least on American society).