Neuroscience Hates Free Will
Well, when you see a report about neuroscientists and free will, you know they'll be gunning for it. Tedious. Very, very tedious. Here
's a wee, breezy summary of some current ideas for research.
I personally think that it's empirical investigation that will ultimately settle issues about free will...but it'll be a long, long time before that happens. The current climate in neuroscience seems to be one of sophomoric iconoclasm and puerile scientism. I really, really want to see good data and conceptually sophisticated experiments. We don't have that now, and we won't have it for awhile, however and unfortunately.
Philosophers, as usual, aren't helping all that much. Compatibilism, that "wretched subterfuge, has gummed up serious discussions of free will even in philosophy, and it's apparently gumming them up in neuroscience as well. For the purposes of doing some science on this, I reckon we should just treat 'free' as ambiguous, make it clear which sense we're talking about, and move on. However, if it really is free will
that these researchers are interested in, compatibilism can safely be ignored. Compatibilists don't care about free will
, but, rather about free action
. The compatibilist holds (ignoring some details) that I'm free so long as I act on the basis of my desires, even if those desires were themselves determined. Libertarians--in the metaphysical sense, not the political sense--think that freedom requires free will
...that is, requires that our volitions themselves be, at least to some extent, under our control.
I'm not sure why compatibilists are even part of this discussion. Nobody (this side of epiphenomenalists, anyway) really doubts that our desires sometimes cause our actions. So nobody really doubts that some acts are compatibilist-free. It's freedom of the will that's the interesting--and, most of us would say--important--issue.
Reports on the relevant neuroscience make it sound almost laughably primitive, though. We get arguments that run roughly like this: something happened in your brain before you acted; therefore your action wasn't free. However, nobody anywhere thinks that there won't be activity in the brain prior to free actions. We should expect all sorts of stuff going on in there, including stuff that's relevant to the action itself. If I'm thinking about moving my right hand, I'd expect that there will be all sorts of twitchy little things happening in my hand, my spinal cord, and all sorts of different regions of my brain. And, if I'm being asked to do some task that can be made automatic or nearly so, we should expect that the role of consciousness will often be minimized. The very kinds of experiments neuroscientists are running--make the cursor follow the dot and so forth--involve the kinds of actions that are likely to cut conscious decisions out of the picture.
Since I do think that the loss of free will would be a disaster for humanity, I have a dog in this fight, and am not entirely objective. However, it's very difficult to avoid the suspicion that the neuroscientists in question are gunning for free will, not investigating it dispassionately. Nobody
thinks that all actions are free; everybody realizes that many are not. What we seem to be getting are inferences like: we see some actions that don't look obviously free, ergo no actions are.