Michael Shermer and a measure of ‘free will’

By | July 22, 2012

Juan Bernal

Suppose that I choose a light salad instead of a delicious, but fattening steak at my local restaurant.

Did I exercise some strength of will and make a free choice?

Sam Harris * says no: ““Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making.”

Michael Shermer ** elaborates on this denial of free will: “Every step in the causal chain above is fully determined by forces and conditions not of my choosing, from my evolved taste preferences to my learned social status concerns—causal pathways laid down by my ancestors and parents, culture and society, peer groups and friends, mentors and teachers, and historical contingencies going all the way back to my birth and before.”

Shermer continues: “Neuroscience supports this belief. The late physiologist Benjamin Libet noted in EEG readings of subjects engaged in a task requiring them to press a button when they felt like it that half a second before the decision was consciously made the brain’s motor cortex lit up. Research has extended the time between subcortical brain activation and conscious awareness to a full seven to 10 seconds. A new study found activity in a tiny clump of 256 neurons that enabled scientists to predict with 80 percent accuracy which choice a subject would make before the person himself knew. Very likely, just before I became consciously aware of my menu selections, part of my brain had already made those choices.”

“Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control,” Harris concludes. “We do not have the freedom we think we have.”

But Shermer argues the contrary view:  “…if we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.

“Support for this hypothesis may be found in a 2007 study in the Journal of Neuroscience by neuroscientists Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who employed a task similar to that used by Libet but in which subjects could veto their initial decision to press a button at the last moment. The scientists discovered a specific brain area called the left dorsal frontomedian cortex that becomes activated during such intentional inhibitions of an action: “Our results suggest that the human brain network for intentional action includes a control structure for self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions.” That’s a free won’t.”


Shermer is surely correct and Harris incorrect on the question of free will.   Shermer makes reference to some interesting neurological evidence for the inhibition-of-impulses process in our brains, something that I had not heard before. But this conforms to what a number of philosophers and psychologists have long argued: namely, that we’re able to make significant choices between contrary alternatives despite that fact that whatever we choose to do can be neurologically explained in terms of a number of brain processes, which we don’t control and of which we’re not even aware.  Yes, there are conditions (disease, injury) which rule out a person’s ability to make significant choices, but these are exceptions to the general rule that most of us can make significant choices (for which we’re held responsible or given credit) between a variety of alternatives.

The ability to make significant choices between various alternatives and act on them is what normally passes for free will, or as Daniel Dennett expressed it in his book, Elbow Room, the only ‘free will’ worth having.

A good part of the problem originates with terminology, in my opinion.  Traditionally philosophers have misinterpreted the terms “free” and “will” in the complex term “free will.”   The tendency has been to take “free” as implying absolute freedom, an act or process not conditioned by any causal factors.  Thus, whenever the scientist can analyze an action as caused by certain neurological or genetic factors (or conditioned by environmental factors) many philosophers mistakenly classify the action as determined, hence, not a free act.  Such reasoning ignores the fact the freedom involved in human action is usually a degree of freedom, often an absence of coercion or overwhelming compulsion; but not at all freedom which rules out all factors, neurological or environmental conditions, which condition the action.

The other tendency is to focus on the term “will” and see free will as some mysterious faculty that humans possess.  Then, when the sciences show that there isn’t any such faculty doubts arise as to the possession of free will.  Free will is not a faculty (faculty of the soul, as some old school philosophers held); it is a capacity or disposition assignable to ordinary persons acting in the world; and it has not been proven to be absent, as many enthusiasts of the neurological sciences mistakenly hold.

Jerry Sandusky, the assistant coach charged with pedophilia (2012), may have been moved by impulses beyond his control and acted out his desire for sex with children.  But many people have had similar compulsions (not necessarily pedophilia, but other undesirable, harmful impulses) pressing on them and manage to resist them.  People are not slaves of their impulses or compulsions, although we all fail to resist them from time to time.  But we are capable of resisting them.  At least to this degree, we do have a measure of ‘free will.’
* see Harris’s recent book, Free Will (Free Press, 2012)

** See Shermer’s article at   http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-free-will-collides-with-unconscious-impulses

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