New Scientist on free will

The current issue of New Scientist  gives pride of place to place to an article by Tom Stafford with the title: ‘It’s not an illusion, you have free will. It’s just not what you think’.

Libet’s research

Stafford refers to the famous experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s (see Freedom Evolves by Danel Dennett and The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner). Libet seemed to show that brain activity precedes conscious choice by an appreciable interval and many have take this to mean that free will is an illusion. But Stafford disagrees.

These results aren’t the great challenge to free will that they might seem at first. Their apparent force relies on misguided intuitions about what it means to have free will…. The misconception arises because we have difficulty comprehending causation in complex systems.

In a complex chaotic system, Stafford says, you cannot predict the outcome because there are innumerable possibilities, and human beings are so complex that they will always be unpredictable.

To illustrate this Stafford has created an interactive essay which you can tweet; a bot will then allow you to explore “your own unique path through the story, following the areas that most interest you”. This will convince you that “we are free to make real meaningful choices”.

Yes, our thoughts are caused by our brains, our environment and our history, but this causal mix is unique to each individual at each moment. That explains why human behaviour is so difficult to predict.

 

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