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Free will? Not as much as you think

  1. Apr 14, 2008 #1


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    Free will? Not as much as you think

    You're going to press that button, right? You know you're going to press it and then . . . you make a conscious decision and you press it, right?

    Maybe not, say German researchers in a new study published in the April 13 online edition of Nature Neuroscience.

    Using sophisticated brain imaging techniques, the researchers found that they can predict people's simple decisions up to 10 seconds before they're conscious of making such a choice.

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 15, 2008 #2
    I read a book a few years back called the "Illusions of Conscious Will" and it discussed just such a concept. Indeed it seems the brain knows what we will do before we actually realize it.
  4. Apr 16, 2008 #3


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    But aren't we our brains? Meaning that "we" make those decisions and it really doesn't matter how long it takes the information to get to the point of being carried out or detected by machinery. We still made the decision.
  5. Apr 18, 2008 #4

    ^^ A most excellent point! ^^

    What do they think "free will" is controlled by, if not controlled by our brain?
  6. May 13, 2008 #5
    Even if it can be predicted, it's still free will because nobody told us to do it ;-)
    And yes, "we"( ie consciousness of oneself) does come from the brain.
  7. May 13, 2008 #6
    Indeed. The entire free will issue seems to rests on what exactly we mean by "up to me".
  8. May 14, 2008 #7
    I don't see how the researchers came to such conclusions.

    You think before you act right?

    Inevitably, the thought would have to go through your mind before you are in the process of carrying out an action. And the length of time it takes to get detected depends on how many other reflexions were carried out before the specific action was performed.
  9. May 14, 2008 #8


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    Our brains are indeed 'us'.
    A few decades back, when I was writing my novel, I had to do a bit of research into brain function. The parietal lobe actually fires in a 'movement' pattern before the movement signal is sent to the motor neurons. The intent is enough.
    This does nothing to negate the concept of free will; it's merely proof that the will precedes the action.
  10. May 15, 2008 #9


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    Think of a distributed computer system -- we can introspect each node and predict pretty well what the end result will be, but the decision has not been made until all nodes report back.
  11. May 16, 2008 #10
    That analogy is pretty rock solid. That's pretty much what I was trying to say when I said the thought can be detected (I guess, from a node) before your decision is made.

    Although I don't have a strong opinion on whether we really do have free will, I just didn't see how the researcher came to that conclusion based on the fact a decision can be predicted beforehand.

    Maybe our brain can be compared to a distributed computer system, but I honestly believe our mood is at least somewhat under our control, and that our emotions can alter the outcome of the background processing.

    Either way, the fact that you and me could do something completely random just for the sake of saying it, makes it seem absurd that it wouldn't be under our control...
  12. May 16, 2008 #11
    That's an old study and it more hints towards a emotional foundations for logically held positions than some sort of strict rationality, though we'd really have to get into the grit of what we mean to not be taken the wrong way...
  13. May 18, 2008 #12
    This subject came up on Peter Watts' (hard sci-fi writer) blog on rifters.com. I just posted on this subject. It's not so much about free will as it is about consciousness. The idea is that a decision is made before we are conscious of it. That leaves us with the question, what is consciousness for? My hypothesis goes down to the definition of consciousness. If I make a decision and don't remember it, we call it an unconscious decision. If I remember the decision, we call it a conscious decision. This seems to suggest that consciousness has nothing to do with decisions, will, or what have you. It's about awareness. All that really means is that a conscious decision is relegated to memory, while an unconscious one isn't.

    The purpose of consciousness isn't to make decisions, per se. It's to make a secondary decision, whether or not to store the decision to memory.

    Even that isn't necessarily the most accurate answer, because the decision of whether or not to remember the original decision is itself unconscious, but I hope you get my point. Consciousness is not a decision making process. It's not intelligence. It is, instead, a memory bank storing what is considered most relevant at the time by the rest of the brain.

    Consciousness is RAM.
  14. May 19, 2008 #13


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    Thanks too much for that post, CJ, you bugger. Now I have to go and think for a while. :grumpy:

  15. May 19, 2008 #14
    I can offer some references to you all on this topic. This list isn't exhaustive, just the writers who came to mind as I am posting this. I've read quite a bit about this topic as it used to be one I was particularly interested in.

    For the philosophy aspects:

    John Searle
    David Chalmers
    Daniel Dennet
    Pete Mandik
    Paul Churchland
    Patricia Churchland

    For the neuroscience of decision-making:

    Benjamin Libet
    Paul Glimcher*
    Daeyeol Lee
    Nathanial Daw
    Xiao-Jing Wang

    For the neuroscience of consciousness:

    Francis Crick*
    Cristof Koch*
    Gerald Edelman
    Kevin O'Regan
    V.S. Ramachandran*

    *-wrote a popular book on this topic.
    Last edited: May 19, 2008
  16. May 31, 2008 #15
    Genes to a point.
  17. May 31, 2008 #16

    D H

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    I like to have multiple projects to work on. One reason is that my subconscious mind is at times a better problem solver than is my conscious mind. I will put some perplexing task aside and work on another if I find myself running around in circles on the first task. When I pick that task up again later the path to the solution is often at hand. The subconscious mind is a powerful problem solver and can often make seemingly illogical leaps needed to get to the answer. Just because I did not solve the problem consciously does not mean I did not solve the problem.

    The same is true regarding making some decision. Should I buy this house or that car? Marry that woman? Take this job? Our conscious mind is not so much rational as it is rationalizing. Our subconscious is more rational and deeper. Rather than thinking for some time about a major decision and then making a conscious decision, it is often better to think about a major decision for a shorter time and then set the decision aside so our subconscious can have its say. This does not rule out free will. It just means our concept of free will is incomplete.
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