The problem of free-will

One of the aspects of new insights into the functioning of the brain that will be most disturbing to most people is the idea that ‘free will’ may not exist, at least in the way we have thought of it for a long time.


If we assume that the science is sound then:

(1) We spend time and effort in making decisions about whether and how to act. In other words, we do actually create an intention to act after a decision process.

(2) That intention results in action. The intention, the initiation of action and the action itself may or may not enter consciousness. There is not that much difference, if any, between a decision process that results in a totally unconscious action and one that is reported as a conscious action. Whether an intention is conscious or not seems to depend on whether or not we conscious focus takes it in.

(3) When the intention, initiation and action are registered consciously there is a time lag which implies that the conscious feeling of intent, initiation or action is not in any sense causal. A cause cannot happen before its effect. There is no even reliably enough time for a veto of action to be actually caused by consciousness.


To many people this seems to mean that they are some sort of automaton with no control over their actions and no responsibility for their behaviour. This idea of loss of control is enough to make people fight the idea that our decisions are not created in some sort of conscious ‘mind’. People can see themselves making decisions in some sort of conscious process and are not willing to lose that self image.


Kock and Mormann in a Scholarpedia article talk about the activity that is required to put an intent into consciousness.

“A particular aspect of the mind-body problem is the question of free will. The spectrum of views ranges from the traditional and deeply embedded belief that we are free, autonomous, and conscious actors to the view that we are biological machines driven by needs and desires beyond conscious access and without willful control. Whether volition is illusory or is free in some libertarian sense does not answer the question of how subjective states relate to brain states. The perception of free will, what psychologists call the feeling of agency or authorship (e.g. “I decided to lift my finger”), is certainly a subjective state with an associated phenomenal content (quale) no different in kind from the quale of a toothache or seeing marine blue. So even if free will is a complete chimera, the subjective feeling of willing an action must have some neuronal correlate.

Direct electrical brain stimulation during neurosurgery (Fried et al. 1991) as well as fMRI experiments implicate medial pre-motor and anterior cingulate cortices in generating the subjective feeling of triggering an action (Lau et al. 2004). In other words, the neural correlate for the feeling of apparent causation involves activity in these cortical regions.”


I have never been able to understand why people have a lack of identification with their unconscious thought. Why is it not their thought? Why are they not responsible for it? Why is it important to believe that their thoughts be made in a fictitious conscious process rather than a real unconscious process? Why distrust your own brain? What gives?

2 thoughts on “The problem of free-will

  1. Yes, intentions are crucial if we want to understand <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>the ghost in the machine</a>. I always considered the question of the self (and the related question of self-consciousness) more fundamental as the question of free-will. How can ‘we’ have a free will if ‘we’ don’t exist, if a unified ‘self’ is only an illusion?

    JanetK: It is a bit of encouragement to me that you have read some of the older posts and commented on them. Thanks.

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