April 17, 2008

Free will and neuroscience

Chris at Mixing Memory takes issue with media reaction to a paper published in Nature Neuroscience which suggests that it's possible to makes predictions about people's behavior from viewing their fMRI scan. The Boston Globe (and others) have got hung up on the idea that the study indicates people don't have as much free will as they think.

Chris puts them right:-
[F]or this study to have any relevance to free will, there would have to be this conscious system (physical or not, it doesn't matter), separate from the unconscious one, that is sitting around getting input from the unconscious system and making its own decisions freely (whatever freely means in this context). You'd have to have a conscious mind that's watching the unconscious mind, and acting separately. If this is your model of how things work in the head, then you've got more problems than this data -- you've got a hundred years worth of data to contend with, along with some difficult logical and engineering problems.

If, however, you treat the conscious and unconscious minds as part of the same system, then any decision made by the latter are as free as decisions made by the former. That is, there's no reason to treat decisions made unconsciously as less free than decisions made consciously. Unless there's some property of conscious awareness that gives freedom to choices, but I have no idea what that property would be, and I don't think anyone else does either.
You might decide to read the whole thing. Or you might not - you may just find yourself reading it and only subsequently feel the need to justify the activity by reference to some sort of conscious decision making process.