Consciousness and Free Will

There has been a lot of literature recently, both scholarly and popular, about the fact that humans’ decision-making processes are not actually carried out in a conscious fashion. That is, experiments have shown that decisions are made in the brain some time — up to several seconds — before we are aware of making them. Google “consciousness free will” for many, many links.

This biological fact leads a lot of people to declare that we don’t have free will and are therefore “actually” mindless automatons, whatever that is supposed to mean. I’m a little bemused by this — I don’t think the fact has any bearing whatsoever on the question of “free will”, whatever that is (I have no idea).

The brain obviously makes a decision somehow, and the fact that we only percieve our brain’s having made the decision after the fact has little bearing on how exactly the brain makes it. Someone will have to define “free will” for me before I can opine on whether or not the brain has it. As to whether or not it’s “me” making the decision, why should I think of the parts of myself whose functioning I am not aware of as not being a part of me? I’m quite comfortable with the idea that my conscious experience of myself is really a summary, a newsreel, of the vaster collection of structures and activities that are me.

I think the real reason people have sensationalized this result is that the sophomore bullshitter in many of us would like to be able to say “since I actually have no free will at all, it doesn’t matter what I do” to get a reaction out of other people.