Exploring the Boundaries of Free Will

Sud Alogu
10 min readJan 15, 2023

The concept of free will has been the subject of much debate and discussion throughout history. While many people believe that we have the ability to make conscious decisions and control our actions, others argue that our actions are predetermined by a combination of factors such as genetics, environment, and past experiences. Recent scientific research has provided evidence that supports the latter viewpoint, suggesting that our subjective awareness of decisions is very unreliable.

One of the most influential experiments in this field is the Bereitschaftspotential (BP) experiment, first conducted in 1964 by German neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. The experiment used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity in participants as they performed a simple task, such as pressing a button. The results showed that a specific brain activity called BP, also known as readiness potential, occurred before participants were aware of making a decision to press the button. This finding suggested that the brain had already begun the process of making a decision before the participant was aware of it.

While the BP experiment has been widely cited as evidence for the lack of free will, it has also been the subject of much criticism. Some scientists have argued that the experiment was flawed, as the task used in the experiment was too simple and did not accurately reflect real-life decision-making. Others have pointed out that the experiment did not take into account the role of consciousness in decision-making, and that the BP may simply be a reflection of the brain preparing for an action rather than actually making a decision.

Despite these criticisms, the BP experiment has had a significant impact on the field of neuroscience and has led to further research on the topic. A more recent study, published in the journal NeuroImage, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural basis of decision-making. The study found that different regions of the brain are activated at different stages of decision-making, with some regions activated before participants were aware of making a decision. This supports the idea that there is a neural process underlying decision-making that occurs before conscious awareness, but also highlights the need to consider the role of consciousness and the influence of other cognitive processes in decision-making.

Another important study in the field of investigating the nature of free will is the neuroscience of free will (SoFW) project, led by neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes. The project aimed to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying decision-making and free will. The project used a combination of techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to study brain activity during decision-making. The results of the project showed that activity in the frontopolar cortex, a brain region involved in decision-making, was related to participants’ subjective sense of making a decision, while activity in other brain regions such as the parietal cortex, was related to the objective timing of the decision. This suggests that there is a complex interplay between different brain regions and cognitive processes in decision-making, and highlights the importance of considering the role of other cognitive processes in addition to the frontopolar cortex in understanding the neural mechanisms of free will.

Another study published in the journal Nature Communications, used a combination of EEG and fMRI to investigate the neural mechanisms of decision-making. This study found that activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in decision-making and planning, was related to participants’ subjective sense of making a decision, while activity in the parietal cortex, a brain region involved in attention and perception, was related to the objective timing of the decision. This suggests that there is a complex interplay between different brain regions and cognitive processes in decision-making.

The debate over free will and the role of consciousness in decision-making is a fascinating and intriguing topic that continues to captivate scientists and philosophers alike. The BP experiment and other studies have provided valuable insights into the inner workings of the brain and the neural processes that underlie decision-making. However, it is important to remember that the brain is a complex and mysterious organ, and that the true nature of free will and decision-making is far from being fully understood. The question of whether our actions are predetermined or under our conscious control is a fundamental one, and one that will continue to be explored and debated for many years to come. It’s a journey that will take us to the depths of our own consciousness, and reveal the secrets of the human mind.

In the field of philosophy, the concept of free will and the relationship between consciousness and decision-making has been a topic of ongoing debate for centuries.

One of the earliest and most influential philosophers to tackle the question of free will was Aristotle, who argued that individuals have the ability to make rational choices and that this ability is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. He believed that our actions are not determined by fate or external forces, but rather by our own rational choices.

In contrast, the Stoics, such as Epictetus, believed that the universe is determined by fate and that individuals do not have the ability to make free choices. They argued that individuals should accept their fate and strive to align their will with the natural order of things. Similarly, the Epicureans, such as Lucretius, believed that the universe is determined by chance and that individuals do not have the ability to make free choices. They argued that individuals should focus on pleasure and avoid pain, but they also held that moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church adopted a position similar to the Stoics, arguing that individuals do not have the ability to make free choices, but rather, that God predestines everything. This idea was challenged during the Renaissance, when philosophers such as René Descartes and Thomas Aquinas argued that individuals do have the ability to make free choices, and that this ability is a necessary condition for moral responsibility.

During the Enlightenment, philosophers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant argued that individuals have the ability to make free choices and that this ability is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. They also believed that our understanding of the world is based on our experiences and that our actions are determined by our own rational choices.

The debate about free will continued in the 19th and 20th century with philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that individuals have the ability to make free choices but that these choices are not determined by moral principles, and Kierkegaard, who believed that individuals have the ability to make free choices but that these choices are not determined by reason or logic.

In summary, the historical debate about free will has seen a range of perspectives, from Aristotle’s belief in the ability to make rational choices, to the Stoics and Epicureans’ belief that the universe is determined, to the Catholic Church’s belief in predestination, to the Enlightenment philosophers’ belief in the ability to make free choices and the importance of moral responsibility. Each philosopher used different arguments to justify their positions, such as reason, logic, religious beliefs, and experiences.

In recent years, the advancements in neuroscience have provided valuable insights into the neural mechanisms underlying decision-making, leading to a renewed interest in the philosophical implications of these findings. Many contemporary philosophers have extrapolated from studies such as the Libet experiment and the neuroscience of free will (SoFW) project, to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of free will and consciousness.

One of the key insights that philosophers have extrapolated from these studies is the idea that there is a complex interplay between different cognitive processes and brain regions in decision-making. The Libet experiment, for example, showed that the readiness potential (RP) occurred before participants were aware of making a decision to move their finger, suggesting that the brain had already begun the process of making a decision before the participant was aware of it. This finding has been interpreted by some philosophers to suggest that our subjective experience of making a decision is not always reliable, and that there may be unconscious processes at play in decision-making.

Another insight that philosophers have extrapolated from these studies is the idea that the concept of free will is not a binary state, but rather a continuum. The SoFW project, for example, showed that activity in the frontopolar cortex, a brain region involved in decision-making, was related to participants’ subjective sense of making a decision, while activity in other brain regions such as the parietal cortex, was related to the objective timing of the decision. This suggests that there are different neural mechanisms underlying different aspects of decision-making, and that the concept of free will is not a black and white issue, but rather a spectrum of different processes.

One of the most influential contemporary philosophers in this field is Daniel Dennett, who has written extensively on the topic of free will and consciousness. Dennett argues that the concept of free will is not a magical, supernatural property, but rather a product of the complex interplay of different cognitive processes and brain regions. He argues that our subjective experience of making a decision is not always reliable, and that there may be unconscious processes at play in decision-making. Dennett also argues that the concept of free will is not a binary state, but rather a continuum, and that different aspects of decision-making, such as the subjective sense of making a decision and the objective timing of the decision, are mediated by different neural mechanisms.

Another influential contemporary philosopher in this field is Mark Hallett, who has written extensively on the topic of the neural mechanisms of action. Hallett argues that the concept of free will is not a binary state, but rather a continuum, and that different aspects of decision-making, such as the subjective sense of making a decision and the objective timing of the decision, are mediated by different neural mechanisms. He also argues that the concept of free will is not a magical, supernatural property, but rather a product of the complex interplay of different cognitive processes and brain regions.

There are several contemporary philosophers who have put forward critiques of the arguments made by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and Mark Hallett regarding the concept of free will.

One notable critique of Dennett and Hallett’s position comes from philosopher Thomas Nagel, who argues that consciousness plays a crucial role in decision-making and that free will cannot be reduced to a set of neural processes. In his book, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,” Nagel argues that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon and that consciousness cannot be reduced to a set of neural processes. He also argues that the concept of free will cannot be reduced to a set of neural processes and that consciousness is necessary for free will.

Another notable critique of Dennett and Hallett’s position comes from philosopher Galen Strawson, who argues that determinism does not preclude the existence of free will and that human actions can be influenced by both internal and external factors. In his book, “Free Will and the Self,” Strawson argues that determinism is not incompatible with free will, and that individuals can be held morally responsible for their actions, regardless of the neural mechanisms underlying decision-making.

A third notable critique of Dennett and Hallett’s position comes from philosopher David Chalmers, who argues that the concept of moral responsibility is crucial for understanding the nature of free will and that individuals can be held morally responsible for their actions, regardless of the neural mechanisms underlying decision-making. In his book, “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory,” Chalmers argues that moral responsibility is not an illusion and that individuals can be held morally responsible for their actions, regardless of the neural mechanisms underlying decision-making.

The debate about free will is a complex and nuanced topic that has been explored by philosophers for centuries. While philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and Mark Hallett have argued that free will can be reduced to neural processes and that consciousness is not necessary for decision-making, other philosophers such as Thomas Nagel, Galen Strawson and David Chalmers have argued against this position and have emphasized the importance of consciousness in decision-making and the moral responsibility of individuals. These perspectives demonstrate that the question of free will is multifaceted and that there are various ways to approach the topic.

To many people, all this philosophical baggage seems totally unnecessary. But like with other important philosophical debates about the nature of consciousness — the debate about free will is important for several reasons. Firstly, it has significant implications for our understanding of the human mind and behavior. If it were to be proven that free will is an illusion, it would fundamentally change our understanding of ourselves as conscious, rational agents who are capable of making choices. This would have a significant impact on fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and criminal justice, where the concept of free will is central.

Secondly, the debate about free will has practical implications for how we view moral responsibility. If free will is a mere illusion, then it would be difficult to justify holding individuals morally responsible for their actions. This would have significant implications for the criminal justice system, which relies on the notion that individuals are capable of making choices and are therefore accountable for their actions. This could also impact how we view issues such as addiction and mental health, where individuals are often held responsible for their choices and actions.

Thirdly, the debate about free will is also important for our understanding of the nature of consciousness. If free will is an illusion, then it would mean that consciousness is not necessary for decision-making and that our sense of self is illusory. This would challenge our understanding of consciousness as a unique aspect of human experience and would have implications for understanding the relationship between the mind and the brain.

--

--