Your Brain Makes Its Decisions Without You: More on Free Will and Identity

There’s little doubt that conscious experience is one of the most perplexing phenomenon that… well that it has ever encountered. Not only do we not know what our inner “observing” subject is, we don’t know how to even think about what it is. Why am “I” (whatever it is that’s experiencing anything at all) linked to not just to a body, but to a specific body? Why aren’t “I” someone else? Why is it “like” anything to be a human being, rather than our brains simply carrying out choice and action without any seeming internal passenger?

Philosophers and Theologians have long tried to lay claim to the mystery with concepts like “Soul” or “Free Will” that purport to explain conscious experience or the nature of willed choice, but their attempts have never delivered any actual tangible, additional insight into the phenomenon. Later attempts like “qualia” have only put more names to things we still do not understand. And perhaps it’s no surprise that these attempts have been so unproductive: their ultimate aim has always seemed less about increasing our knowledge, and more about a turf war over which school or ideology can assert exclusive right to this most precious of philosophical possessions.

But while there’s no guarantee that science can ever fully explain consciousness, there can also be no doubt that if you want to learn at least something about it, rather than merely discover new names for things you still don’t understand, neurologists have far more to offer than most traditional philosophers and theologians at this point. And, indeed, what science is revealing is far weirder than we could have ever imagined from any armchair.

The latest batch of experiments on this subject will seem familiar to anyone who’s heard of Libet’s originals, but they flesh things out in much more detail. They involve nothing more complicated than trying to precisely time when a person feels like they have made a sudden decision, and when the brain seems to have made it.

The unavoidable implication is that our conscious experience appears to be a result of seemingly unconscious decision-making, rather than itself.

Studying the brain behavior leading up to the moment of conscious decision, the researchers identified signals that let them know when the students had decided to move 10 seconds or so before the students knew it themselves. About 70% of the time, the researchers could also predict which button the students would push.

“It’s quite eerie,” said Dr. Haynes.

Even our errors, our failings, seem to have underlying basis in the brain that proceeds our conscious awareness:

And when those networks momentarily malfunction, people do make mistakes. Working independently, psychologist Tom Eichele at Norway’s University of Bergen monitored brain activity in people performing routine tasks and discovered neural static — waves of disruptive signals — preceded an error by up to 30 seconds. “Thirty seconds is a long time,” Dr. Eichele said.

It is. And the unavoidable implication in many of these cases is that whatever our conscious perception is, the thing you think of as “you,” is a seeming result of the brain’s activity, not the master of it. An aftereffect rather than the cause. At the very best, a perception of what it’s like to be a decision-maker, rather than simply being one itself.

That’s a disquieting thought… but then again, why is it so disturbing? Whatever the brain does unconsciously is as much “you” as your conscious perception. Something is making decisions, and that something, for better or for worse, is perceived by others as a coherent, single person. Who else could that person be, aside from yourself?

Why do we want to identify solely with the conscious “voice/gaze” in our heads, and regard the unconscious actions of our brains as somehow foreign to our very identity? Part of this must come from the belief that it is this inner perception is, in some sense, in control: an actor and reactor. Control is something we value and identify best with, and experiments that suggest that the real control lies somewhere else seems too much like, well, losing control. But there is another way to see it: that we have simply been mistaken, or at least too strict, with what we identify as “ourselves.” Not only is what we most easily identify as ourselves apparently not in “control,” but maybe control isn’t so central to our identity after all.

Indeed, if you think about it, the bulk of your identity is not defined by things you have any control over in any case. That’s because the majority of who “you” are actually lies in the past, in your and other people’s memory of your past actions, unchangeable, much less controllable. And without that past, you’d just be a stream of impersonal, generic thoughts, with no particular character or context. So why should we find the unseen workings of our brain so foreign… when we lay claim to events that happened years ago: things we have no choice about?

But what does it even mean to make choices if there isn’t a conscious awareness at the helm? Well, what would it have meant for a conscious awareness to make choices in the first place? It’s not clear to me that the concept ever made any sense anyway. Aren’t awareness and experience, even awareness and experiences of deliberation and the making of choices, just that: representative perceptions of the thing, not the thing itself? However we make choices, there has to be some process to it: some algorithm by which options and expectations are weighed against preferences, fears, and values. What else could “making a choice” even mean, if not that? What would it involve, if it didn’t involve a process roughly of that form?

Many theologians anti-physicalists, of course lay claim to the “weirdness” of conscious experience for precisely this reason: to escape what they see as the limitations of the material world, and locate decision-making in some sort of ethereal soul. But ultimately, this turns out to be a gambit to escape, not the limitations of natural law (the limitations and capabilities of which we don’t fully know anyway), but the very obligation to explain how decision-making “works” in the first place. Even if we posit a soul-realm, we are still left with the task of sorting out how a mere perception of decision-making could actually make decisions. And how exactly decisions get made according to whatever flexibility and extra capabilities this soul-realm supposedly now allows.

At least in my experience, none of this is forthcoming: theologians are content merely to drag conscious experience into their hypothetical supernatural realm, celebrate their acquisition, and then try to change the subject to other matters. Very little in the way of explanation or insight, it seems, has been gained. Perhaps nothing at all.

At this point, most people will be clamoring to know where “free will” comes into the picture. But as I hinted at above, I’ve never quite seen what this concept explains or even specifies when it comes to choice. It seems deeply confused from the start: a will free from… what? Free from outside coercion at the moment of decision-making, certainly, but that’s trivial: self-sufficient to make choices without further aid or direction when presented with them. Even today’s computers are free and autonomous in that sense. So, free from what?

As far as I can tell, what it really means is: free from anyone being able to say that past influences made any determinative difference in the process of our choice-making. I say merely “say” because no proponent of the concept of free will has ever explained how it is that our past influences and nature can be ruled out of choice-making, and then still claim that we are morally responsible for the choices that “we” make.

Instead, free will’s sole purpose seems to be to allow certain actors to evade any moral responsibility for the inevitable effects of their choices have on other people (most notably a God that could not but have helped but, through either design or knowing neglect, give human beings particular natures). Which seems like a rather base and petty motive for a concept supposedly so central and important to our identities (so central and important that its proponents can never be bothered to explain its nature, what it functionally means to have it or not, how it works, what role it plays in the process of choice-making, etc).

Anyway, all that musing aside, we’re still left with the mysterious matter of consciousness and choice. Science, as I said, may never be able to solve it conclusively, but instead of just making obscure excuses, it’s at least revealed more of the puzzle pieces we have to work with.

3 Responses to Your Brain Makes Its Decisions Without You: More on Free Will and Identity

  1. Grendel The Martyr says:

    Pertinent entries from neurosurgeon Dr. Steve Novella’s excellent blog, Neurologica:

    New technology makes it possible to map all the brain’s neural networks:

  2. zxvasdf says:

    We live in a novel, or more generally, a story, hence our seeming possession and lack of free will.

    We may suffer the question of such things, but in the end it does not matter as it’s all about asking the question, not finding the answer. The dance stops when the song ends.

  3. mantecanaut says:

    I’ve been hearing that the idea of “freewill” has been ‘kicked to the curb’…er, first from that meme chick, Susan Blackmore.
    Seems that current investigations have come up with some evidence. Thats what I’m interested in…the evidence.
    “Jus’ the facts Ma’am”

    [ps. Im naked as I write this]

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