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Free Will

Recently there was a post on the New York Times blog by Dr. Galen Strawson about Free Will.

The main argument of this post is as follows: because who we are is based in part upon our biology and in part upon our environment, and because we are not responsible for our biology nor our initial environment, we are ultimately not responsible for what we do because what we do is based upon who we are.

More formally, the author states that:

...you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

My problem with this reasoning is that we—as Deterministic individuals—exist in an environment with other such individuals. Many of them. Our interactions result in emergent phenomena that cannot be explained by the actions of any one person alone.

Our biology (brains) are affected by our decisions, which would then of course affect our decisions, which in turn affect our brains, and so on. We're a complex, iterative, dynamic feedback system. We don't live in a vacuum; rather we are products of our social environment, society, culture, and so on.

This topic has been bugging me more and more lately in terms of a similar fallacy as arises in neuroscience. Neuroscientists talk about functional localization in the brain as if "functions" are things can be placed on a map. Hell, I just wrote a book chapter about why I think that this is not the right way to talk about these problems. Similarly, philosophers talk about Free Will as though it is a binary either/or.

Free will and brain functioning are active, dynamic processes! It may very well be True that a baby or child cannot be held responsible for its actions; that it is not possessed of Free Will but is driven by genetic and environmental factors; that it is Deterministic. But much like a series of particles placed in an enclosed sphere, if you start with one hundred particles all moving away from one another, away from the center, you can precisely map their locations. But soon their intercollisions become more complicated (chaotic) such that tracking them becomes a computationally exhausting endeavor. Scale that up to a thousand, a million, or a thousand million particles and eventually this problem becomes intractable.

Early in our lives we lack Freedom and Will, and though our initial course may be constrained by genetics and early experience, we can shape our surroundings to alter that course. And though those initial choices may themselves be constrained, as time goes on our end point becomes impossible to trace from our starting condition because of the huge number of options with which we are faced.

We exist in a chaotic environment and there is a symbiotic feedback between our physical brains and our environments that provides a route through which the seemingly non-deterministic aspects of free will might arise.


  1. Hi Bradley,

    I like that you don't consider the free will/no free will argument as an either/or binary. This would be a false dichotomy I believe.

    It would be best if those of us that are involved in psychology and neuroscience start to instead refer to a limited capacity willpower. There is considerable experimental evidence that a limited capacity willpower is a much more useful and realistic way of considering human decision making, and also that the use of willpower requires glucose, meaning that it can be depleted in much the same way that our muscles can be fatigued. For example, have a look at this paper by Galliot, Baumeister et al (2007): http://is.gd/dWASg

    (Also other papers by Baumeister et al's group)

    There's also a social and political belief problem here which is unrelated to the science. I would hypothesize that people on the *extreme* left wing politically, i.e. those who believe people are affected mostly by their circumstances, might be less likely to believe in a totally free will, whereas those on the *extreme* right wing, might strongly believe that a person has total free will. I know of no psychological or sociological data to support these hypotheses though.

    Hopefully those of us who are less extreme will recognise, perhaps through the limited capacity self control experimental data, that people's decisions are formed in part from current circumstances, in part from past circumstances and in part from our reasoning skills and willpower which we employ in the present.

    I'd also place a huge emphasis on the role of the orbitofrontal cortex in decision making, which the work of Bechara & Damasio's group have shown is critically important in terms of considering long term consequences, both positive and negative, as opposed to short term, impulsive decision making (I appreciate your work is on the DLPFC rather than OFC, but I'm sure you know what I mean here).

    So, if we conclude that both blood glucose levels and a functioning OFC are required for us to make decisions which are in our longer term interest vs short term interest. Also, it may be that a culture of taking personal responsibility affects our belief in free will (though the data is lacking here). I'd say that doesn't actually bode well for a totally free will (being dependent on so many factors) which is why I prefer to use the term limited capacity for willpower.

    Finally, I really liked your comments about our brains being active and dynamic processes which are interacting with the environment. Its very true that these systems may have emergent properties which are unpredictable. One thing though is that chaotic systems are not necessarily indeterministic or "random". they should (in theory) be totally deterministic, as they are affected by the same physics as everything else. Its just that the chaotic system is not predictable to a good degree of accuracy. Obviously we can be approximately predictable (otherwise us psychologists wouldn't have a job!) but humans are not precisely predictable. We could still be deterministic though.

    I think overall, we need to define exactly what we mean by free will. I may start a blog on this myself! :)

  2. Anonymous09:16

    excellent review. I double majored in philosophy and neuroscience and wrote a thesis called, "Neuroscience and Ethics" in which I discussed these very same issues, but tried to offer a philosophically rigorous argument for basically what you are also saying in this argument (in 186 pages...)

    you should check it out:

  3. Tom:

    I do believe the binary willpower argument presents a false dichotomy!

    That Galliot paper is interesting, and I think it supports the notion of a capacity-limited willpower that dovetails nicely with the work (e.g., Shiv) that shows that willpower can be affected by and interacts with other cognitive functions such as working memory.

    I really think that definitions and the language that is used when discussing neuroscience in relation to cognitive phenomena is a huge problem right now (though creating a formal language for cognition is certainly not a new idea!)

    With regards to the OFC and DLPFC, of course these brain regions interact quite a bit. There's some really new work looking at the relationship between these regions and cognition. One theory (by David Badre) is that the more anterior regions such as the OFC encode/represent abstract rules whereas more posterior regions are more for action execution. The other theory--not necessarily at odds with this--is more related to temporal representations, where more anterior regions encode longer time scales and more posterior regions are for more immediate, action-related plans.

    I wasn't trying to argue that chaotic systems are random or non-determinable, just that the computational cost for making those determinations are extraordinary. Of course, in order to understand the brain we may not need to map it out perfectly, just infer basic, higher order rules that encode for cognitive functions.

  4. Efrain:

    Your honors thesis was longer than my PhD thesis! :D

    Thanks for the comment. I'll get around to reading your thesis at some point, but I can't now, unfortunately.

    My problem with a lot of these issues in neuroscience (free will, consciousness, ethics, etc.) is that there are a lot of philosophically rigorous discussions of them that are difficult to find as a neuroscience researcher. And then there's a barrier to entry in that the scientific writing style is difficult for some philosophers, and I certainly find the philosophic writing style difficult to approach as a scientist...

  5. @Efrain - Thanks for the thesis link - I remember your name from a similar discussion on free will we were having at Jonah Lehrer's The Frontal Cortex (back when it was at Scienceblogs) here:

    I might have a similar problem as Bradley in understanding the style of writing, but will try to read it soon. Do you have a briefer article we could read in the meantime?

    @Bradley - thanks for your reply. I'm glad we agree the binary free will argument is a false dichotomy.

    Could you give me that Shiv reference? My PhD (which I'm trying to finish over this next year) is about frontal lobe brain injury and self control, from a neuropsychology perspective, so its mainly informed by lesion studies. It'd be interesting to read some more neuroscience literature on the area, esp willpower and working memory theories, as much of my methodology is about making distinctions between different frontal lobe syndromes (which is difficult to do with psychometric tests!).

    I'll google David Badre on the OFC. I've mainly read lesion based studies by Bechara, Damasio et al, although I've recently had a discussion with Colin DeYoung, who has recently published a paper on OFC tissue volume correlating with extroversion. Every time I think I've got something figured out, some other finding complicates things still further...

    Re: Chaos and determinism: I just re-read your initial post, and noticed that I'd missed the word "seemingly" before non-deterministic in your last paragraph. Sorry for that! :)

  6. Tom:

    The Shiv article is:

    Shiv, Baba & Fedorikhin, Alexander, 1999.
    " Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making,"
    Journal of Consumer Research: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly,
    University of Chicago Press, vol. 26(3), pages 278-92, December.

    RadioLab had an excellent episode about it here:


    The Badre paper is:
    1: Badre D, Hoffman J, Cooney JW, D'Esposito M. Hierarchical cognitive control
    deficits following damage to the human frontal lobe. Nat Neurosci. 2009
    Apr;12(4):515-22. Epub 2009 Mar 1. PubMed PMID: 19252496.

  7. Thanks for the papers Bradley :)

    The cake and working memory study is great, because if people are less able to resist temptation when they have a harder working memory task, this implies that DLPFC areas critical for working memory might be necessary, perhaps hierarchically, for someone to engage OFC areas critical for self control.

    This is especially useful for me, as my methodology is using psychometric tests (I don't have any imaging data to match with the behavioural data).

    I'll let you know the correlations I find between the tests of working memory and self control...

  8. Tom:

    I'm running some behavioral experiments right now (prior to adding in the neuroimaging component) looking at the relationship between working memory and decision-making confidence. I'd love to be hear what you find in your study!

  9. Edwin Montoya Zorrilla05:34

    There is a fundamental problem with the framing of the question of free will around material determinants. This stems from the fact that free will, a concept based upon the idea that we always choose between different alternatives- that is- different possible worlds that we imagine ourselves occupying, is predicated upon the ontological separateness between us and world. "I could do this" or "I could do that"- between these two possibilities, the object of doing changes while the subject stays the same. This parallels that Cartesian argument that as the body is divisible but the mind is not, the body is separate from the mind. Yet I do not believe that free will operates at the point at which you make that choice. If it did then all the arguments about that choice being determined by material dispositions would hold. I believe it operates at the point at which you conceive of those choices as different from each other, in accordance with their different correspondence with some internal criterion, and in the process conceive of yourself as separate from the world. This is not a destructive process of making all reality subjective, rather a constructive process of creating the world. This process is something that science does all the time, itself being predicated upon the idea that there is a difference between the world as we empirically perceive it and the subject who perceives it and makes rules to describe it. The argument here would be that the process of description and understanding dialectically reinforces the ontological boundaries between that which is understood and described and that which understands. These are dialectic arguments founded on solid ground. Science has found its limits in phenomena such as Heisenberg uncertainty, and it has shown that at some level we cannot observe the world without changing it. This is also at the root of the anthropic principle- that we cannot perceive and explain a system without in some way affecting it. These ideas show us that the subject and the system are not separate. Rather, when the subject becomes aware of itself as a subject and simultaneously perceives the world as being separate to it, at that point it transforms the world in order to allow the world to be perceived as separate. Effectively, what are to us epistemological boundaries become within the scope of our understanding ontological boundaries. What we feel inclined to call free will is in fact our capacity to "be true to ourselves"- to act towards the outcomes to which we perceive that our dispositions are directing us- and in the process establish a correspondence between our dispositions and outcomes in the world which dialectically reinforces the ontological distinction between the self which gives meaning to "choices" and the world which is the object of those meanings. This debate will only go forward if we conceive of the relationship between our selves and the world as dialectical.