The belief in free will appears to be a widespread notion, suggesting that our consciousness plays an important role in our everyday decisions. Moreover, the indications of our subjective experiences lead many to believe that their consciousness is responsible for their behaviors. However, the question remains unanswered: Does free will exist?
Understanding the underlying mechanisms of consciousness has been examined in various fields of research, resulting in a multitude of conclusions and discoveries. Furthermore, the concepts of free will and consciousness have dominated a large domain of academic fields, resulting in many controversial conclusions regarding the existence of free will.
Many feel as though they are completely autonomous and self-determined in their behaviors and decisions. However, many researchers claim the opposite, suggesting that free will is a false notion, which presents threatening implications to the existence of humanity. From a philosophical point of view, if free will is an illusion, what is our purpose in life? Exploring a wide range of research helps lay out this controversial concept.
Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet conducted experiments in 1983, which seemed to suggest that there is subsequent activity occurring in the brain before people make a conscious decision (Libet, 1985). In Libet’s experiment, participants were asked to perform simple tasks and make note of when they were conscious to act upon their decision to move (Libet, 1985). During the experiment, participants’ brain activity was monitored using EEG electrodes, which showed that the brain reacted before the participants’ muscles moved as well as before they noted when they consciously were aware to make the decision (Libet, 1985).
The image above displays these results in a graph, showing the detection of brain activity prior to consciousness of the decision to react. As a result, neuroscientists have used this evidence along with other studies for their argument against the existence of free will (Ringmar, 2017).
Evidently, the implications of these findings are threatening to society in various ways. Thinking about free will as nonexistent raises many concerning questions about the functionality and operability of humanity. If we truly don’t have free will, then is inducing people in society to think that we are autonomous just a way for humans to coexist? Could convincing people they are self-determined just be used to promote independent thinking? Exploring additional research provides insight on these questions.
Researchers have explored the potential positive and negative implications of the belief in free will in society. Researchers Vohs et al. (2008) suggest that the belief in free will can help promote prosocial behaviors. Additional research has extended these findings to show that inducing and encouraging the nonexistence of free will resulted in heightened levels of aggression and a decreased willingness to help (Baumeister, Masicampo, & DeWall, 2009). Baumeister et al. (2009) highlighted the social and cultural implications of these results in relation to the effectiveness and operability of society. Results from these studies help outline the benefits of inducing members in society to think they are in complete control of their decisions. However, the existence of free will remains controversial and these results add to the complexity of this debate. While these results highlight the importance of encouraging the belief in free will, the previously mentioned literature only touches on a sector of some of the social and cultural implications.
As stated earlier, we attempt to function in coherence in society as we assume that individuals’ consciousness is an important contributor in their behaviors. Members of society hold one another accountable and responsible for their actions. The U.S. Justice System also operates under this assumption as well with what is deemed lawfully (and morally) right and wrong, which signifies the assumption that members of society make their own decisions. In accordance with some of the neuroscience research, if we aren’t consciously responsible for our decisions, then why are we held responsible and accountable when the law is broken?
On a separate note, it’s also important to mention that our decisions are complex with varying biological and environmental influences that ultimately shape our behavior. While some tasks are simple, other tasks are more complicated, requiring additional cognitive processes that involve more conscious-based thinking as oppose to natural reactions.
Researcher Erik Ringmar offers insight around the consciousness of free will and the influence of moods on diverse tasks and decisions (Ringmar, 2017). Simple actions are associated with intuition, including our natural responses, while more complex actions require more intensive thought processes (Ringmar, 2017). In response to neuroscience that suggests free will is nonexistent, how can these claims be established based on evidence that has examined simple tasks? I would argue that additional literature needs to examine these cognitive processes that are involved in more complex decisions more closely, while carefully considering both biological and environmental factors that influence behavior.
Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky emphasizes this importance of examining biological and environmental influences on our behavior (Sapolsky, 2017). In Robert Sapolsky’sBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, he offers thought-provoking insight on the developmental stages during adolescence as he discusses the delayed maturation of the frontal cortex during this time (Sapolsky, 2017). He refers to this as “adolescent turbulence”, alluding to the importance of individual exploration and creativity during this adolescent journey of development (Sapolsky, 2017). In connecting Sapolsky’s discussion with the controversial free will debate, it seems as though consciousness is an essential component to this developmental stage. Can the brain really be capable of this explorational journey without consciousness?
All the literature mentioned above is important to consider in the discussion of the existence of free will. Reviewing extensive research on the existence of free will shows the controversy and complexity of this topic, as well as the need for additional research to be conducted.
I strongly believe humans have free will to a certain extent, and that our consciousness is arguably limited, due to the influence of biological and environmental factors. While some literature suggests that our brain makes decisions for us, there are still many unanswered questions regarding the complexity of decisions in relation to our consciousness.
While some neuroscientists suggest that free will is nonexistent, other researchers claim that we have “free won’t” (Roskies, 2013). I argue that the concept of “free won’t” exhibits free will from a different dimension that needs further examination.
Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & DeWall, C. N. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(2), 260-268. doi:10.1177/0146167208327217
Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8, 529–539.
Ringmar, E., Department of Political Science, Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, Lund University, & Lunds universitet. (2017). Outline of a non-deliberative, mood-based, theory of action.Philosophia, 45(4), 1527-1539. doi:10.1007/s11406-016-9809-5
Roskies, A. L. (2013). The neuroscience of volition. In A. Clark, J. Kiverstein, & T. Vierkant (Eds.), Decomposing the will (pp. 33–59). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. New York: Penguin Press.
Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 883-898.