November 20, 2011

Free Will - Why Do Many Neuroscientists Say There Is No Such Thing?


UPDATE
Brain Might Not Stand in the Way of Free Will by Anil Ananthaswamy, New Scientist, August 8, 2012

Free Will and "Free Will": How My View Differs from Daniel Dennett's by Sam Harris, The Blog, April 5, 2012

The Illusion of Free Will by Sam Harris, Excerpt from Free Will, February 12, 2012

ORIGINAL POST
Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?  by Eddy Nahmias, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, November 13, 2011

I have never accepted neuroscientist Sam Harris' claim in his books and on his blog that free will is an illusion. I knew there was something wrong in his extrapolation from neuroscience to how we make decisions: the brain processes information subconsciously; this subconscious activity has been shown to be the precursor to decision making; this in turn makes conscious consideration of information a mere after the fact reflection or projection of such decisions. It seems to me Harris is using neuroscience to beat the dead horse of dualism: brain=subconscious decision-maker=no role for the conscious mind=to think mind is free to or has a role in making decisions is an illusion.

I've been puzzling for some time on how to articulate my objections to Harris regarding free will but have been unable to put my thoughts together as well as philosopher Eddy Nahmias has in this link. I am a monist. Brain, decision-making and mind are one. But I reject Harris' idea that all we need to really understand is a detailed understanding of the neurology of decision-making; that a belief that our conscious mind is involved in decision making is a illusion, or more accurately a delusion or self-deception. Nahmias' article expresses my objections to Harris' and other so inclined much better than I ever could.

The implications for the value of human freedom and, conversely, absolving the individual of moral and legal responsibility if Harris' and other like-minded scientists prevail in such reductionism are staggering.  I can also see how religious fundamentalists could latch on to Harris' idea and impute God's will into the neurology of the brain - after all, God made our brains and knows our thoughts and decisions before we think about them or make them.

For more on "free will" see my previous post:  Free Will:  Of course we have it!  Don't we?

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