Scitech  “It’s not my fault, my brain made me do it!”

Does neuroscience challenge our view on free will?

Imagine you have an important article due the following morning, but you succumb to your desires to spend the night drinking heavily. What drove this decision? Would you accept responsibility for such an action? Could you have acted otherwise? If you think that the answer to the last question is yes, then maybe you believe in what philosophers have called “free will.”

Historically, the question of freedom has been at the forefront of academic and political conversation. Legal systems in most parts of the world are based on the assumption that human beings have the ability to act in accordance with their intentions; however, scientific evidence reveals that this story is not so black and white. Neuroscientific experiments conducted during the 1980s and 1990s revealed controversial results which challenged the commonly-held conception of free will.

One of these experiments was carried out by Benjamin Libet, a former researcher at the University of California San Francisco. He asked participants to perform a simple decision-making task which involved pressing a button while observing a clock. They were asked to report the clock’s position at the moment the decision was made. Concurrently, the brain activity of the participants was measured using electroencephalographic recordings (a technique that records electrical activity in the brain with electrodes attached to the scalp). The researcher found that there was significant brain activity in the SMA (supplementary motor area), a neural region responsible for initiating motor action, 350 milliseconds prior to the time when subjects reported being aware of their own choices.

If the brain is a physical entity, embedded in a physical universe, governed by causal relationships, is there space for free will?

More recently, in 2007, John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues conducted a study using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), a method that assesses neural activity by measuring blood flow and oxygenation in the brain. They tried to more closely assess what was happening in the brain prior to a decision while looking at a decision with two alternatives rather than one. Participants had to press one of two buttons with either their right or left index fingers. At the same time, they were looking at a series of changing random letters, and were asked to recall the letter they observed when the decision was made. The analysis of the results showed an increase in metabolic activity of two motor areas of the brain up to five seconds before the conscious decision.

The findings of these experiments were interpreted by some determinists – who believe that all events are caused by prior events – as evidence that free will is an illusion and that our decisions are predetermined by unconscious brain processes. This controversial position initiated the ongoing discourse between philosophers and neuroscientists, regarding the existence of free will.

These concepts were addressed in IRCM’s most recent Café Scientifique, “It’s Not My Fault, My Brain Made Me Do It!” During this event, three perspectives were presented to the general public, including those of Daniel Weinstock, a law professor at McGill; Lesley Fellows, neurologist and neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute; and Veljko Dubljevic, neuroethicist at the Institut De Recherche Clinique De Montreal (IRCM).

Weinstock started by reviewing the main ideas on the relationship between the brain and mind. He introduced the concept of dualism, which views the physical brain and subjective mind as separate entities. The more prevalent position among scientists is monism, the belief that the mind and brain are a single entity.

“There is an irrational exuberance on the expectations of what neuroscience can tell us. Other levels of description are needed to understand human beings.”

Daniel Weinstock, Law professor at McGill

If the brain is a physical entity, embedded in a physical universe, governed by causal relationships, is there space for free will? Although he is a monist, Weinstock considers that human beings are sensitive to reason (we can rationalize and explain our decisions), and that this fact must be integrated with our understanding of decision-making. Further, he also emphasized the mistaken conception that neuroscience will explain all aspects of human nature. “There is an irrational exuberance on the expectations of what neuroscience can tell us. Other levels of description are needed to understand human beings,” said Weinstock.

Fellows began by addressing the link between human behaviour and brain processes. She affirmed that all human behaviour can be explained by neural activity; however, she considers that the neurological basis of our actions does not threaten free will. Fellows spoke up against the misinterpretation and exaggeration of scientific findings. When talking about the Libet and fMRI experiments, she explained that, “Being able to predict behaviour doesn’t mean it’s determined.” She also believes that only simple systems in our brain are predictable, whereas higher order decisions (e.g., deciding on which school to apply to) are governed by complex circuits and random events. She concluded that none of the neuroscientific evidence removes responsibility for our actions.

The final speaker, Dubljevic, began by stating that misconceptions exist on both sides of the argument: among neurologists and neuroscientists, but also among philosophers and ethicists. In order to integrate the scientific findings and the philosophical concepts, a new discipline has emerged: neuroethics. From his point of view, “free will” is a metaphysical concept and therefore it can’t be explained nor refuted by physical findings. He believes it should thus be reframed as “self-control” and “autonomy,” which are more compatible with the scientific approach to the problem. According to him, there is a meaningful difference between a patient with frontal lobe damage who cannot exercise self-control, and a person without brain damage who can. He then described liberty as the capacity to exercise choices in the absence of coercion or compulsion. Dubljevic believes in the importance of practical applications rather than philosophical debates.

This fascinating multidisciplinary dialogue illustrates the challenges in rationally or empirically validating an elusive concept like free will. Despite the variety of perspectives, the three speakers agreed that there is no neuroscientific annulment of free will. Nevertheless, the evidence derived from recent experiments has opened the door to debate the source of our choices. These discussions not only enrich our understanding of human nature, but also helps to answer the difficult question of whether society considers individuals responsible for their own actions.