Free will and electrodes

Hook a guy up to some device that monitors his brain activity, set him in front of a screen with images on it, and tell him to pick any one of the images and tell him to announce the moment he makes the decision. Turns out, you can tell better than chance which he will pick before he decides.

The interpretation of the results is that there is no “free will”. The experiment might very clearly disprove the existence of some meaning of free will, the question is, was it ever reasonable to believe in the sort of free will that is disproved in the experiment?

For St. Thomas, free will is presupposed in the instructions of the experiment: “choose one”. Note right away that the freedom is not implied in the word “choose”- this would be to beg the question- it’s implied in the word “one”. Of the objects on the screen, which one does “one” apply to? The question is absurd: it’s like asking, “Which dog is “dog”: Lassie or Fido?” “One” is indeterminate, and so there is a necessary indetermination in “choose one”.

That said, this sort of indetermination is utterly compatible with some ability to foresee the results someone’s action, especially when all one must do is foresee it in a way more accurate than sheer chance. My wife and my mother could probably foresee my choices before I make my decision more accurately than sheer chance. Even if they couldn’t, this would just show that brain scans could give more reliable information than familiarity.

Besides which, when someone tells yu to pick something more or less at random, don’t you go into a mode where you clearly feel more “moved” than “mover”? Don’t you actually try to surrender your faculty of choice? When someone says “pick something random” isn’t the experience something like this: you try to suppress any criteria and just “go with the flow” of your mental processes? Is it any shock that the brain forms some determination before we decide? Weren’t we trying to make it do this?


  1. W Ryan said,

    December 30, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Another thing those experiments don’t take into account is that the person has presumably chosen to be there and in theory, at least, could choose to pull the electrodes off his head and walk away. As you said, his “choice” is to allow himself to be constrained to the terms of the experiment, and then the probability that you can pick out which random “choice” he makes after that is something very discrete and limited, sort of a “micro” rather than “macro” analysis.

  2. Mike said,

    December 30, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    I’ve sometimes had to point out that a free choice
    is not a random choice,
    is not an unpredictable choice,
    is not a choice lacking consequences,
    is not an inconsidered choice
    is not a choice uninfluenced by the intellect
    and so on.

    Mr. Ryan is correct to point out that those studies which claimed to predict the choice ten seconds before it was made left time for the student to walk out, if he so chose, after “his brain” “decided for him” which switch he would flip. But researchers see what they expect to see.

    Where was it that Aquinas dealt with involuntary or habitual choices? He used the example of a scholar absent-mindedly stroking his beard, IIRC. This seems much in line with the sort of bodily motions that are the subject of the experiments. Heck, those can come directly from the perception, without the intellect (and the intellective appetite) fully engaged.

  3. John said,

    December 31, 2009 at 2:13 am

    For me it is only “conscious free will” that is of philosophical interest: Can I make a conscious decision that is not predetermined?

    The first obstacle to conscious free will is that I can only know I have made a decision after I have made it. If I am asked to choose between “A” and “B” then it is only when the decision “I’ll choose ‘A'” enters my consciousness that I know which to choose. Conscious experience containing a decision always occurs after something non-conscious has put “I’ll choose ‘A'” into my conscious experience.

    On the face of it the fact that I only know my decisions after they have been made looks like it is impossible to have conscious free will. However, it is also true that I cannot make an informed decision until after I have received data on the results of previous decisions. So non-speculative conscious free will must occur after a succession of previous decisions by myself or others which can be used to inform future decisions. These previous decisions train me in how to make the correct decision when challenged in future. So conscious free will is the result of training.

    But is the “training” for a particular decision predetermined? That depends upon the extent to which my mind is a predetermined entity (See Conscious free will and empiricism).

    • Joseph A. said,

      December 31, 2009 at 4:30 pm


      Just to be picky, let me ask – how do you know that your decision “always occurs after something non-conscious”, including whatever “put” your choosing of A into your conscious experience? If there’s something that is responsible for your choosing of A, how would you go about determining that something was conscious or non-conscious?

      • John said,

        January 3, 2010 at 11:59 am

        “how would you go about determining that something was conscious or non-conscious?”

        Can anything be “conscious” before it occurs?
        Can anything be “conscious” at the instant it occurs ie: in no time at all?

        When I inspect my experience I can only say that I have events in my conscious experience after they occur. Ryle’s regress is correct: I cannot consciously think of something without having a prior thought that I am going to think about thinking about something. This absurd regress is avoided because thoughts just pop into mind.

      • Joseph A. said,

        January 4, 2010 at 4:15 am


        Re: Can anything be “conscious” before it occurs?…

        The problem is, unless that’s spelled out more, it makes as much sense to me as “can anything be “unconscious” or “non-conscious” before it occurs?” Maybe that’s just a failure of language though.

        Re: Can anything be “conscious” at the instant it occurs ie: in no time at all?

        ..Similar problem as given above. Again, this could just be a communication failure, it’s not a criticism.

        Again, I ask: How do we know what is and is not conscious? How do we know that “whatever preceded” our conscious thoughts was not conscious? Mind you, I’m not necessarily saying here ‘I think I will think about something’. For all I know, whatever occurred didn’t think that, or was not ‘me’ or whatever. But it was non-conscious? I don’t know how to tell if that’s the case.

      • Ed L said,

        January 4, 2010 at 7:36 am

        Isn’t consciousness simply the reflection of the mind upon its own act? So, when I know that “all men are animals”, I become conscious of the fact that I know that I know that “all men are animals.” Similarly, when I choose to do something, the original choice is not “conscious”–that is, the mind doesn’t know that it has been made; yet, nevertheless, isn’t choice made, and if made, why not made freely?

  4. Mike said,

    December 31, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    BTW, did anyone ever state that the “subconscious” was not part of our mind and thus not to be considered in questions of will? Does a freely willed choice need to be a conscious one?

  5. John said,

    January 12, 2010 at 4:54 am

    ” Can anything be “conscious” before it occurs?…

    Joseph: “The problem is, unless that’s spelled out more, it makes as much sense to me as “can anything be “unconscious” or “non-conscious” before it occurs?” Maybe that’s just a failure of language though.”

    Well, I think you took my word “conscious” as non-defined, If you look at the context I was using “conscious” as interchangeable with “the occurrence of conscious experience”. So the question was really “can anything have conscious experience before the conscious experience occurs?”. This is not so hard to answer because “conscious experience” is a sequence of events and prior to that sequence of events is ‘no sequence of events’ ie: no conscious experience, So I would maintain that you cannot have conscious experience before it occurs.

    Similarly, given that conscious experience is a sequence of events then, given that no event occurs in no time at all you cannot have conscious experience in no time at all. “Ed I” reinforces this argument when he stresses the time extension of conscious experience in saying it is “reflection of the mind”.

    • Joseph A. said,

      January 12, 2010 at 3:22 pm


      I’m not trying to be difficult here, and I’m an admitted amateur at philosophy. I took you as saying that nothing “precedes” a conscious event – so a given act of will is my deciding to do act X, but nothing “conscious” preceded that deciding. My response was that (speaking in the terms you’ve given now) what preceded a sequence of events was another sequence of events – for all I know, conscious ones. You said “something non-conscious” has put “I will choose A” into your mind, so I questioned whether that “something” was actually non-conscious.

      Now, you say that no event occurs in no time at all. Alright. But isn’t ‘something non-conscious putting “I will choose A”‘ into mind’ an event itself? You say thoughts just pop into mind – is that an event?

  6. Mike said,

    January 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Do we suppose that the subconscious, assuming it is real, is not a part of the human soul? If it is a part, then why are subconscious choices supposed to be somehow “unfree”? Must a free choice be arrived at consciously?

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