More Than Good Intentions: Holding Fast to Faith in Free Will

New York Times, Science Times, December 31, 2002

When I woke this morning, I stared at the ceiling above my bed and wondered: to what extent will my rising really be an exercise of my free will? Let's say I got up right . . . now. Would my subjective decision be the cause? Or would computations unfolding in a subconscious neural netherworld actually set off the muscular twitches that slide me out of the bed, quietly, so as not to wake my wife, and propel me toward the door?

One of the risks of science journalism is that occasionally you encounter research that threatens something you cherish.

Free will is something I cherish. I can live with the idea of science killing off God. But free will? That's going too far. And yet a couple of books I've been reading lately have left me brooding over the possibility that free will is as much a myth as divine justice.

The chief offender is "The Illusion of Conscious Will," by Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. What makes Dr. Wegner's critique more effective than others I've read over the years is that it is less philosophical than empirical, drawing heavily upon recent research in cognitive science and neurology.

Dr. Wegner also carries out his vivisection of free will with a disturbing cheerfulness, like a neurosurgeon joking as he cuts a patient's brain.

We think of will as a force, but actually, Dr. Wegner says, it is a feeling "merely a feeling," as he puts it of control over our actions. I think, "I'm going to get up now," and when I do a moment later, I credit that feeling with having been the instigating cause. But as we all know, correlation does not equal causation.

When neurologists make patients' limbs jerk by electrically zapping certain regions of their brains, the patients often insist they meant to move that arm, and they even invent reasons why. Neurologists call these erroneous, post hoc explanations confabulations, but Dr. Wegner prefers the catchier "intention inventions." He suggests that whenever we explain our acts as the outcome of our conscious choice, we are engaging in intention invention, because our actions actually stem from countless causes of which we are completely unaware.

He cites experiments in which subjects pushed a button whenever they chose while noting the time of their decision as displayed on a clock. The subjects took 0.2 seconds on average to push the button after they decided to do so. But an electroencephalograph monitoring their brain waves revealed that the subjects' brains generated a spike of brain activity 0.3 seconds before they decided to push the button.

The meaning of these widely debated findings, Dr. Wegner says, is that our conscious willing is an afterthought, which "kicks in at some point after the brain has already started preparing for the action."

Other research has indicated that the neural circuits underlying our conscious sensations of intention are distinct from the circuits that actually make our muscles move. This disconnect may explain why we so often fail to carry out our most adamant decisions. This morning, I may resolve to drink only one cup of coffee instead of two, or to take a long run through the woods. But I may do neither of these things (and chances are I won't).

Sometimes our intentions seem to be self-thwarting. The more I tell myself to go back to sleep instead of obsessing over free will, the wider awake I feel. Dr. Wegner attributes these situations to "ironic processes of mental control." Edgar Allan Poe's phrase "the imp of the perverse" even more vividly evokes that mischievous other we sense lurking within us.

Brain disorders can exacerbate experiences of this kind. Schizophrenics perceive their very thoughts as coming from malevolent external sources. Those who have lasting damage to the corpus callosum, a neural cable that transmits signals between the brain's hemispheres, may be afflicted with alien-hand syndrome.

They may end up, Dr. Wegner says, like Dr. Strangelove, whose left hand frantically tried to keep his right from jutting out in Nazi salutes.

Perfectly healthy people may lose their sense of control over actions their brains have clearly initiated. When we are hypnotized, playing with Ouija boards, or speaking in tongues, we may feel as though someone or something else is acting through us, whether a muse, ghost, devil, or deity. What all these examples imply is that the concept of a unified self, which is a necessary precondition for free will, is itself an illusion.

Dr. Wegner quotes Arthur C. Clarke's remark that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Because we cannot possibly understand how the fantastically complex machines in our skulls really work, Dr. Wegner says, we explain our behavior in terms of such silly, occult concepts as "the self" and "free will." Our belief in our personal identity and self-control does have its uses, Dr. Wegner grants; without it, "we might soon be wearing each other's underclothing."

Maybe I should lighten up and embrace my lack of free will and a self. That's what Dr. Susan Blackmore, a British psychologist and a practitioner of Zen, advises. In her book "The Meme Machine," she contends that our minds are really just bundles of memes, the beliefs and habits and predilections that we catch from one another like viruses. Take all of the memes out of a mind, and there is no self left to be free.

Once you realize you have no control over your destiny, says Dr. Blackmore, you will expend less energy regretting past decisions and fretting over future ones, and you will be more appreciative of the vital present. Be here now, and so on. In other words, true freedom comes from accepting there is no freedom.

Dr. Blackmore's reasoning strikes me as less spiritual than Orwellian. To me, choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Moreover, our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society.

Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a "God of the gaps," who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.

As I lay in bed this morning, however, my faith in free will wavered. Scanning my mind for something resembling will, I found a welter of roiling thoughts and antithoughts, a few of which transcended virtuality long enough for closer inspection. One thought was that, no matter what my intellect decides, I'm compelled to believe in free will.

Abruptly my body, no doubt bored with all this pointless cogitation, slipped out of bed, padded to the door, and closed it behind me.

Selected Works

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Review of "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris, Globe and Mail, Oct. 8, 2010.
Review of "What Darwin Got Wrong," by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 27, 2010
Review of "The Shallows," by Nicholas Carr, Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2010.
Article in Slate, Aug. 4, 2009
Review of "Year Million," Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2008
Neuroscientific critique of the Singularity, IEEE Spectrum Magazine, June 2008.
Article in Discover Magazine, April 2008
Review of biographies of Einstein by Walter Isaacson and Jurgen Neffe, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 2007.
A report on "mystical technologies" for inducing religious experiences, Slate, April 26, 2007.
Q&A with Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, National Geographic, February 2007.
Article on scientific explanations of religious experiences, Discover, December 2006.
Tenth-anniversay update of The End of Science for Discover, October 2006.
Review of The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner, New York Times Book Review, April 16, 2006.
Essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006.
Essay in the New York Times Book Review, January 1, 2006.
Review of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. New York Times Book Review, December 18, 2005
Profile of Jose Delgado, a pioneer of brain implants, Scientific American, October 2005.
An essay inspired by the Centennial of Einstein's revolutionary papers on relativity and quantum mechanics. New York Times, August 12, 2005
Researchers have found evidence for the controversial "grandmother-cell" theory. Discover, June 2005.
An essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2005
An essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 12, 2004
Cover story for Discover Magazine, October 2004.
A critique of Buddhism, published online by Slate (slate.msn.com) February 12, 2003.
Published in Discover Magazine, February 2003. A profile of the Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern and his five-year study of peyote use by members of the Native American Church.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 31, 2002.
An essay published on the oped page of the New York Times Christmas Day, 2002.
A list of articles written for Scientific American and other publications.
Outtakes from Rational Mysticism (published here only)
An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class.
A profile of the German anthropologist and authority on shamanism Christian Ratsch.
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A profile of the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.
A profile of the guru Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment?, with digressions on Yogi Bhajan and Amrit Desai.