Saturday, June 21, 2014

End of Free Will (Again?)

Every decade or so some coterie of scientists run an experiment or series of studies that seemingly put the final nail in the coffin of free will. All discussion of free will seems to revert to Aristotle. Yes, there is a cause for everything that happens, but to what degree is a person in control of those causes? A recent study as UC Davis suggests free will is nothing more than "background noise"—very scientific language there—electric currents firing in the brain.

I am inclined to doubt the study on several levels. In the study participants were asked to react to a symbol that appeared on a computer screen. Researchers would analyze electrical currents in the brain and use them to predict reactions. I never thought I would recommend something by Noam Chomsky, but I will recommend to anyone interested in the subject his review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior here. Verbal Behavior was write up on an experiment Skinner conducted in the 1950s with laboratory animals. He created levers in cages that would disperse food to the critters either always or occasionally. The conclusion was that free will does not exist because the creatures felt compelled to get food, having no independent control over their actions. The actual thesis is more complex than what I have crudely adumbrated here, but Chomsky gives Skinner's conclusions a fair summary. Chomsky then proceeds to demolish Skinner's thesis, really the proto-modern thesis for doubting free will. Why, Chomsky asks, must we conclude the animals press the lever to obtain food they need? Could they not be pressing the lever for the sake of novelty? For entertainment? Out of boredom? Skinner, much like the UC Davis researchers, presumed too much in his conclusions and his career never recovered.

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