A mighty debate has emerged in the corridors of Z block, where I have an office at QUT. As you might expect, I was the instigator of this debate. It all started innocently enough, when I proposed that we examine an article that suggests people do not know their own tastes and preferences (you can find a version of it here http://www.bos.frb.org/economic/wp/wp2005/wp0510.pdf).
If we do no know whether something is good or bad, and simply use our immediate environment for clues, where does our free will fit in? And does the concept even exist?
It is a hard thing to question the idea of free will, and that is probably because there is no agreement on a specific definition. I will try and narrow this down. The definition must certainly cover the notion that each individual is responsible for their own actions, as they are an expression of their free will. This enables us to differentiate actions as the result of personal will as opposed to the will of others. It must also entail the idea of choice. That the actions we choose to take were not set, and that we faced opportunities to exercise our free will to determine which choice to make. Free will must therefore be a necessary precondition for any personal responsibility.
My debate in the corridors started because I suggested that of course free will cannot exist, because free will itself must have a cause. An idea cannot come from nowhere. And if it could, why do we pursue scientific endeavour? If one thing can come from nowhere, what is to stop many other physical occurrences coming from nowhere? This lead nicely into the idea of determinism, which put simply, says that every cause has a cause. So if free will causes my actions, then something must cause my free will. In the article we examined, this free will was caused by the suggestions of the author during his experiments.
I might take this a step further. Recent experiments have shown that decisions that might have previously bee regarded as free will, can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they are made by scanning unconscious brain activity (see http://www.physorg.com/news127395619.html). So in that period between the prediction of the choice, does the participant have free will to change their decision? I suggest not. If you have seen any of Derren Brown shows, this type of control by the subconscious seems all powerful (you can read about him here http://www.derrenbrown.co.uk/ or check youtube for some interesting videos).
So if our decisions are caused by subconscious environmental cues, and are made before we even know it, where does this leave free will and personal responsibility? How can we convict a criminal for his actions when they are determined solely by his environment (and genes of course)? To turn this conundrum around, how would we convict an alternative criminal whose free will appears from nowhere? His defence would be that my free will just appeared in my brain and made me do it – it was beyond my control. So some level of causality is required, although my brain gets tired thinking about these issues. (maybe have a read of http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/)
These are some interesting issues, and point to the heart of scientific endeavour and our understanding of humanity. What are your thoughts? How would you define free will? And do you believe every cause has a cause?