Holding on to free will

The question of whether we have free will is rising up the media agenda again, partly as a result of Jonah Lehrer’s new book, The Decisive Moment. Or there’s the chapter on the matter in 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks. That chapter stands out in the book as the one which instead of questioning the consensus goes with it – namely, that free will can be thought of as an illusion.

But surely, what the science shows is that free will is a more subtle question, not simply a deluded one. The experiment that everyone refers to is Libet’s, the one about the brain unconsciously anticipating the bending of your finger, i.e. you don’t bend it, your brain does, and so disappears free will. But the presentation of the experiment begs huge questions.

For one thing, no-one seems to notice that the subjects always bend a finger. If they were sat there and involuntarily bent a leg that would be impressive. But they bend a finger because they are complying with the instructions of the experiment. which is to bend a finger. That is, they are exercising their free will.

Also, there is this ‘the brain did it’ talk. But whose brain, you can ask? Well, my brain. And is there a division between me and my brain? Presumably not. So even if ‘my brain did it’, that is still me. There’s no dualism. Free will, then, is just shown to be more subtle than pure conscious intent, which strikes me as pretty obvious.

Third, another set of experiments that are routinely referred to use transcranial magnetic stimulation, essentially being zapped by a pinpoint magnetic field. Hit the right part of the brain and, say, that’ll make your hand move ‘against your will’. Except that it doesn’t show that at all. All it shows is that we are psycho-somatic creatures, in part machine-like, but only in part. If, on the other hand, the TMS beam led to your hand not just moving but producing a Shakespearean sonnet then that might be the end of free will.