Free Will and Autonomous Will: A Physicist's Perspective on How We Are Accountable for Our Actions

By Stenger, Victor J. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Free Will and Autonomous Will: A Physicist's Perspective on How We Are Accountable for Our Actions


Stenger, Victor J., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN A RECENT SHORT BOOK NEURO-scientist Sam Harris pulls no punches on one of humanity's oldest philosophical problems: "Free will is an illusion." (1) We don't exist as immaterial conscious controllers, Harris claims, but are instead entirely physical beings whose decisions and behaviors are the fully caused products of the brain and body.

Even having an immaterial soul as many suppose, Harris notes, would not give us free will: "The unconscious operation of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does." He thus concludes: "We are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way people suppose ... The idea that we, as conscious beings, are deeply responsible for the character of our mental lives and subsequent behavior is simply impossible to map onto reality." (2)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

After centuries of disputation philosophers have identified several different positions on the question of free will. Incompatibilists hold that free will conflicts with determinism--the idea that our behavior is fully determined by antecedent causes such as fate, acts of God, or laws of nature. (3) Incompatibilists are themselves split into two camps. Libertarians hold that we have free will since humans transcend cause and effect in ways that make us ultimately responsible. In an actual situation as it occurred, we could have done otherwise. (4) Determinists hold that we do not have free will, either because determinism is true (we could not have done otherwise in an actual situation as it played out) or indeterminism (randomness) doesn't give us control or responsibility. (5) Both of these groups are opposed by compatibilists, who argue that free will is compatible with determinism, or indeterminism for that matter. (6)

A Physicist's Perspective

In this article, I will argue from a physics perspective that although quantum mechanics reveals that the universe is fundamentally indeterministic and that randomness plays a much bigger role in nature than most people realize, the human brain is basically a Newtonian machine. That is, quantum indeterminacy cannot be called up to provide a break with determinism that can be interpreted as some kind of free will. However, we will see that the human brain is performing such complex tasks and has to deal with so much data that it is forced to generate a simplified model of conscious decision-making that feels free. So, while our notion of conscious free will is an illusion, we--defined as both our conscious and subconscious brains--are still responsible for those actions that are not either forced upon us or are the result of brain injury or disease.

The Unconscious Will

Research in neuroscience has revealed a startling fact that revolutionizes much of what we humans have previously taken for granted about our interactions with the world outside our heads: Consciousness is really not in charge of our behavior.

We have generally assumed that our senses take in data from the world and send it to our brains where it is stored in our memories to provide us with a knowledge base for our actions. These actions are then performed consciously by an entity called the "self" or "I" that's thought to be the essence of our personhood. For example, when I lift a fork to my lips at the dinner table, my conscious self performs a deliberate act by telling my arm and hand what to do. This is, at least, the common understanding of what we call free will.

However, laboratory experiments pioneered in the 1980s by physiologist Benjamin Libet have shown that before we become aware of making a decision our brains have already laid the groundwork for that decision. (7) While the interpretation of Libet's original results remains controversial, (8) continuing research has strongly confirmed the main feature of the phenomenon, which is the significant time delay between the brain beginning to shape a decision and our awareness of making that decision, which ranges from a fraction of a second to several seconds in length. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Free Will and Autonomous Will: A Physicist's Perspective on How We Are Accountable for Our Actions
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.