Mind Over Masters: The World Science Festival’s Strange Decisions on Free Will

The World Science Festival doesn’t shy away from heady topics. Through their “Big Idea Series,” every year they examine some of the most fundamental and often puzzling problems that science can address. On the evening of May 30, physician and journalist Emily Senay led a discussion on the concept of free will — specifically, whether we have it or not. Well, not exactly.

“The way you answer that question may say more about you than it says about whether or not free will actually exists,” she said. Given the panelists thoughts on the subject, you could tell pretty clearly none of them are physical scientists.

“I’m sort of the set up person, so I’ll start with a set-up,” said philosopher Alfred Mele, before describing the work of physiologist Benjamin Libet. Up until recently, Libet was one of the few people to experimentally test the idea of free will, and thus his research from the 1970s is brought up — and, by some, torn down — whenever the subject is mentioned.

Libet wanted to know if you could look at someone’s brain activity and tell when they were about to make a decision. It turns out you can, and that this apparent “readiness potential” actually occurs about 300 milliseconds before the person is even aware they’re making a decision.


readinessThe obvious implication there is that something in our brains is already “deciding” before we even know we’ve made a choice. Some researchers have interpreted the result differently, though, arguing that when a person realizes they’ve made a decision has no bearing on how it was made. Libet himself didn’t think his experiment smashed the facade of free will, believing that a person can “veto” a decision during the fraction of a second between the observed ramp-up of electrical activity and the action itself. He never really explained how that would work.

Neuroscientist Kristoff Koch upped Libet’s ante, describing a recent experiment that utilized electrodes implanted in the brains of epilepsy patients, which can be helpful in the treatment of severe cases. Removing the noise of an electroencephalogram and going to straight to the source replicated Libet’s result, and even pushed the time between “decision” and “realization” to a second and a half.

Despite that, Koch and Mele both insisted on their belief in free will, with Koch later quoting Invictus that he is the captain of his soul. Poetry aside, the pair made it clear they don’t actually expect there’s some non-physical entity inside us, overruling biochemistry on a whim. That’s not a trivial clarification, considering the World Science Festival is sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, an organization mistrusted by some for the perception that they try to slyly legitimize religious belief with a veneer of science.

So what’s their hang-up? Why do they continue to cling to an idea that has the evidence piling up against it? Are they worried about potential social consequences?

“What does a post-free will world look like?” asked psychologist Azim Shariff. If everyone stopped believing in it, would we “descend into some sort of lawless dystopia,” in which people indulge in bad behavior and blame it on fate?

shariffAzim Shariff, from worldsciencefestival.com

According to Shariff, studies show that when people are told there is no free will, they do indeed tend to cheat and steal more, and be more aggressive. But on the other hand, test subjects are also less likely to want retribution when wronged, seeking to address the cause of the problem and not punish the perpetrator as much. That’s gotta be a good thing, right?

Whether or not free will actually exists, it’s clear we all experience the feeling that it does, and that starts early in life.

“All of this begins before children can even talk,” says developmental psychologist Tamar Kushnir. Her research shows that 4-year-olds understand they can’t choose to jump and never come down, but they do believe they can choose to, say, stand rather than sit.

A typical 4-year-old does think some decisions are per-ordained, though. When presented with a tasty dish, for example, it must be consumed.

“You have to eat the noodles because it’s yummy,” one test subject revealed. But once kids reach about six years old, Kushnir says, they begin to understand they’re not powerless against tempting starches.

kushnirTamar Kushnir, from worldsciencefestival.com

Shariff and Kushnir were more noncommittal about the reality of free will, but all four panelists seemed to agree that if free will doesn’t exist, it’s at least a useful fiction the dispelling of which could lead to grave problems.

Of course those who don’t want to accept evolution often say something similar — if people believe in evolution, we’ll all start acting like animals. Or we’ll use the theory to justify something even more ghastly, like eugenics. Those are silly arguments to most, but are they any worse than those that defend the propping up of free will to avert anarchy?

Obviously, how humans react to a fact doesn’t make it any more or less real. If the evidence points in a particular direction, you’re kind of stuck, whether you like the consequences are not. At least if you face up to it, you can make reasoned decisions (or maybe just the appearance of such) about how to handle it. Over time, (most) people have gotten over a lot of hard truths — from not being the center of the universe to not being all that different from beasts. But a little lack of agency will wreck the whole system? That thought says more about the panelists’ confidence in humanity than it does the reality of free will.

Watch the whole discussion right here!

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