On a recent free-will experiment

Scientists recently gave test subjects a task that they could only perform correctly 20% of the time but the subjects reported doing it correctly 30% of the time.

(take a minute to ask yourself what conclusion(s) you would draw from this over-reporting)

While one natural interpretation of this would be to say that the participants were lying, the scientists eliminated that possibility by giving the participants slightly more time to think about what they were doing, which caused their reported success to fall to 20%. The scientists concluded that free will was an illusion, arguing that our “choices” are, in fact, subconsciously determined behaviors that get post-hoc justifications geared to painting us in a more flattering light as free, independent, and more successful than we in fact are.

This experiment is valuable but overly limited by the presuppositions of the contemporary neuroscience-free will debate. We can throw more light on the findings if we shift to another interpretive register, in which the experiment manifests something like this:

1.) The object of freedom is truth. This is the true heart of the experiment. The disconnection between word and reality or thought and reality is exactly the evidence that proves one is not free. The experiment would have been far more appropriately done by a group of evangelical scientists trying to manifest the truth of Jn. 8:32, and I say “manifest” because the experiment assumes that the truth makes one free, and then finds a conclusion in keeping with this.

2.) There is a flattering lie in the heart that enslaves us. Since freedom is impossible apart from truth and we find some subconscious tendency away from truth, our subconscious is to some extent enslaved. Most of us are willing to admit to the more minor manifestations of this corruption of the heart: telling fish stories, leaving off unflattering details, making close calls in favor of ourselves, etc (and this is most likely the sort of behavior that the experiment was observing). But this corruption of the heart is often far from innocent: I’ll clean up my act tomorrow, I deserve a little fun, I’ve had a hard day and can’t live without it, I’m just doing my job/ following the rules, If you wanna make an omlet…

3.) The lie is a sort of self-assertion. The experiment is really saying “we have a subconscious bias toward our own competence and ability, even to the extent of rejecting truth”. Exactly. But there is already a vast literature in place that has explored and named this domain. The general name for self-assertion-unto-the-rejection-of-truth was sin, when sin enters into consciousness it becomes culpable, and when the culpable becomes habitual it becomes vice. These illusions of vice congeal and support each other in collective ways to form what Augustine called a city that was based  on the assertion of self to the rejection of truth.

4.) The free will-neuroscience discourse is a subconscious metaphysical-ethical system. From the point of view of this system, describing it as such is seen as “debunking” it, but this is just one of the disagreements I have with the met.-eth. system in question since I say met-eth. can be true. Their system can introduce general concepts like “illusion” but not “pride”; “subconscious” but not “the heart”, but either description is just as well borne out by the facts.

The scientific fact is seen as separate from values except where the values themselves are scientific (viz. skepticism, passing peer review, citing borrowed sources, being secular, etc.) Scientific values are assumed to have a worldwide acceptance which is simply observed and in no way created by the scientific establishment. Obviously, thirty seconds of reflection completely dispels this… uh, illusion. The scientific establishment is recent, conventional, and in no way arose spontaneously but is rather a system of institutionalized gatekeepers that intentionally (but more often systemically) patrol scientific values by a hundred different means. Again, I don’t say any of this to discredit the truth of the values, only the claim that the consensus arises spontaneously, has always existed in some form for as long as there was “science” (as opposed to being created between the World Wars) and is preserved by only by the innocent and free desires of reason itself and not by hundreds of different sticks and carrots.




  1. robalspaugh said,

    May 3, 2016 at 6:14 am

    In a minute I’m going to click the link and read all about this important new science, but before I do: why doesn’t the result of the experiment prove that the task can be completed correctly 30% of the time?

    • May 3, 2016 at 6:17 am

      You’ll see. Basically, the result was determined by a five-sided die while the test subjects were initially told it wasn’t.

      • robalspaugh said,

        May 3, 2016 at 6:19 am

        Excellent proof of precognition or that the human brain can synchronize with machinery in a kind of neuro-telemancy!

        I have read it now and can’t wait for my students to bring up this modest little result–sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking we’ve done something–into a devastating counter to our intrinsic principle to act for an end.

      • May 3, 2016 at 6:54 am

        Every experiment – and in some sense all human knowledge – is trying to get from particular results to universal rules, but particulars don’t come with any labels of what they are instances of.

      • robalspaugh said,

        May 3, 2016 at 7:42 am

        Really nice way to say that. Stolen for class.

  2. Michael 2 said,

    May 6, 2016 at 10:37 am

    Be therefore cunning as serpents and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16, more or less)

    Jesus did not always tell the truth. Neither did he lie. Always telling the whole truth is impossible in the first place but possibly unwise in the second.

    If you commit to always blurting out everything you know any time someone pokes you with a stick is the opposite of freedom; you are re-acting, not acting. When Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar, he dodged the question basically and taught one of the most profound lessons of all time, a lesson that is also challenged by “no man can serve two masters”; yes, you can: God and Caesar!

    So Jesus never lied (so far as I know), but he artfully dodged many questions.

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