Free will, the idea that people are free to make decisions that are not simply the result of their physical reality has been debated among philosophers for centuries. The opposing view, determinism (specifically, causal determinism), holds that if, hypothetically,  it were possible to know every detail about the condition of the universe in the present, and all the laws of nature that govern it, then one could predict the future conditions down to the last detail.

The debate reminds me of a scene from the Matt Groening cartoon, Futurama, where Bender is sent flying through space and runs into God, which is apparently just a cluster of stars that can talk. Even though he is a robot, Bender has questions about the nature of free will.

Bender: So, you know what I’m going to do before I do it?

God: Yes

Bender: What if I do something else?

God: Then I don’t know that.

The existence, definitions, and compatibility of these ideas have been debated for thousands of years. In modern times, people have used science – including genetics, neuroscience, and quantum physics – to try to shed light on the debate. This issue has far reaching implications on science, religion, and also justice, as it raises concerns over moral responsibility for a persons actions.

It was believed by some geneticists that mapping the human genome would show that all behavior, beliefs, and desires could be traced directly to our DNA. It seems, however, that the Human Genome Project, now almost complete, has not shown enough genes to allow all of the psychological diversity of our species.

Some of the most notable challenges to free will have come from the field of neuroscience. In 2007, John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, conducted an experiment that raised a lot of interesting questions. He showed volunteers a screen flashing a succession of random letters and asked them to press a button, whenever they felt the urge, with either their right or left hand, and to remember what letter was being displayed at the time that they made the decision. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brains of volunteers as the decisions were made.

While the decision was typically made about a second before the button was actually pressed, a pattern of brain activity was found to predict the decision up to seven seconds before hand. It seems that our brain can make a decision before we are even aware of it. This led researchers to question whether our decisions are under our conscious control, or if they are the direct result of our brain activity.

Critics of the research point out that the brain activity only accurately predicted which hand was used 60% of the time. Although this is significantly more than chance would predict, it is certainly not enough to prove that the brain is making a decision before conscious awareness. Others question to what extent this type of simple decision can be generalized to real world decision making.

My beef with the research is that it doesn’t take into account the idea of the sub-conscious mind. Is it not possible that some of us make certain decisions sub-consciously before we are aware of it, and that this could account for the brain activity that seems to predict the decision?

Michael S. Gazzaniga is an acclaimed neuroscientist,  director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” In an interview with with Scientific American, he discussed many of the issues involved with studying free will from a neuroscience perspective.

One of these issues is that of an emergent mind. Emergence is the idea that complex systems can arise out of several smaller, more simple interactions. He argues that you can’t understand the overall function of the brain by simply looking at the neurons and their interactions. One must consider the big picture, including the effect society has on a persons thoughts.

Gazzaniga also makes a distinction between mind and brain. He makes a good point that while brain activity can affect a persons thoughts and actions, in a bottom-up way, it can also work the other way around. An example he gives is of patients suffering from depression getting help through talk therapy (top-down) and with medication (bottom-up).

Another branch of science relevant to free will and determinism is quantum mechanics. At the level of particles, events can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. This uncertainty undermines the idea of determinism, however, it does not necessarily allow for free will. If our decisions are simply a result of quantum randomness (as ridiculous as it may seem), then they are not exactly free.

An interesting thing about this debate is that the extreme views, on both ends, lend themselves to religious ideas. At one end, free will, according to some, requires an immaterial soul. At the other end, theological determinism implies that all events are pre-ordained by some kind of deity.

A Muslim Matters article, that explores many of these issues from a scientific and religious perspective, argues that these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They say that not enough is known about the nature of consciousness to rule out the existence of a soul, and that free will doesn’t rule out the possibility that God has knowledge of events before they occur.

One problem with this whole discussion is that it usually boils down to people simply arguing over semantics. It seems to me that if we could all come up with agreed upon definitions of free will and determinism, then we wouldn’t have as much to debate, or at least we could understand the arguments of others much more clearly.

An opinion piece in the New York Times goes into the semantics behind the debate, asking what it means for a decision to be free. Does this mean that a choice can’t be predicted, or that it isn’t caused by anything physical? Also, if it isn’t caused, wouldn’t that make it random and, therefore, not free? A big question is: what is free will free from? Is it simply freedom from outside constraints, or from the laws of nature? There are also several types of determinism, including causal, theological, logical, biological and cultural/psychological.

What’s really important about this discussion are the implications it has about moral responsibility. If people have no control over their own decisions, and they are instead simply the result of our neurons firing, then how can we be held accountable for our actions. According to some research, what really matters is that we believe that we have free will. A Reason Magazine article goes into this idea further.

The research shows that if we induce people to believe that they have no free will, by having them read passages that encourage a belief in determinism, they are then more likely to cheat in experiments and act aggressively rather than in a helpful way. These results are interesting because they suggest that our will can be changed by exposure to certain information. If changing the way we think about something can affect our actions, does that not suggest that our will is free?

Free will is something that most of us take for granted. The fact that science can show that, under certain circumstances, the activity in our brains can affect our decisions before we are even aware of having made one, does not prove that these decisions are not our own. In fact, there is also evidence that our thoughts can affect our biology as well, such as the placebo effect and the success of cognitive behavioral therapy.

The reality is that our decisions are a result of a wide range of influences, including quantum randomness at the particle level, neuronal firing in the brain, our genetic predispositions, and all environmental influences on our lives from conception to the moment a decision is made. The sum of all these is what makes us unique human beings, and whether you simply call it the self, or a soul, it is undeniably us. In all practicality, our decisions must be our own. Determinism might certainly set limits on what decisions are possible, but in the end, any decision we make is ultimately our own.