Study shows Free Will is an Illusion. Really?

[~1,100 words, reading time: ~6 minutes]

Image of computer keyboard with brain key
Copyright: maxkabakov / 123RF Stock Photo

If you were being programmed to believe something that wasn’t true, and that lie was leading you to a harmful end, would you want to know? If there was an agenda to lead you to abandon reality and ultimately give up your freedom, would you be upset?

Several weeks ago, we had cordial and thought-provoking discussion of free will here. Since that time, a new study was trumpeted across national news outlets, promoting a study that suggests free will is an illusion.

The popular tech news site Slashdot referenced a new paper in the journal Psychological Science, saying the author, PhD student Adam Bear, “has attempted to define and investigate the subject of free will.” It goes on to describe the study, which you can also read in more detail here and here. The short summary is: A group of 25 college students were seated before a computer screen and asked to guess which one out of five white circles would randomly turn red. When researchers changed the software to decrease the time to make the guess to well under half a second, student accuracy rose from the expected 20% (1 in 5) to around 30%.

The explanation from the Yale News summary of the study says:

What happened, Bear suggests, is that events were rearranged in subjects’ minds: People subconsciously perceived the color red before they predicted it would appear, but consciously experienced these two things in the opposite order.

So, when measuring a quick reflex action, it appears that our subconscious may sense the event a few thousandths of a second before we are consciously aware of the sensation. It’s like when a fly lands on our arm and we jerk it away before realizing why we did it. Instinct.

The gap between this study and the claim that we don’t have free will is truly astronomical: it would require us to travel faster than the speed of light to cross that distance in a lifetime. It is a shining example of a non sequitur or the false cause fallacy, even less likely than thinking that increasing the number of pirates will cool the planet. Our perception of instinctual responses is light-years away from deciding whether we have the ability to make the conscious choices we typically identify with free will.

Here’s a simple example of a conscious choice this study doesn’t debunk. I’m writing at a quiet library right now. There is a sign that asks me to keep my phone silent, and to take calls in a nearby hallway. So I think to myself: if I get a call, what will I do? Will I grab my computer, leaving my bag and jacket, and run to the hallway in time to answer it? Or will I let it go to voicemail, see who it is, and then perhaps return the call later? I’ve decided to take the voicemail route. Now, if I get a call, I have already decided what I plan to do. I’ve decided, using my authentic and active ability to choose.

Comparing my example of conscious choice with the study promoted as evidence that free will is an illusion is like apples v. oranges. How we perceive a quick reflex event has no bearing on whether we have the ability to make deliberate, conscious choices.

Given the gap between this study and proving that free will is an illusion, I’m left wondering: why the constant drumbeat in the name of “science” against free will? What benefit is there in propagating what is logically unprovable using flawed “scientific” claims?

Most people have a sense that a scientist is someone who objectively follows truth wherever it leads. In their minds, a scientist doesn’t have an agenda, but is open to any and all possible outcomes. It’s a picture of a really smart person in a white lab coat who only wants to discover how the world really works. Science has instant, almost unquestioned credibility as a result.

This study and the conclusion drawn from it flies in the face of our “unbiased scientist” stereotype. Had it been truly unbiased, the headlines would have said something like “study suggests that people can react on instinct before they realize it.” Instead, the headlines are more like indoctrinating propaganda, not a reflection of people who seek to objectively share what they are learning.

Though not a fan of Bertrand Russell in general, I think he made a wise observation when he wrote:

Men sometimes speak as though the progress of science must necessarily be a boon to mankind, but that, I fear, is one of the comfortable nineteenth-century delusions which our more disillusioned age must discard. Science enables the holders of power to realize their purposes more fully than they could otherwise do. If their purposes are good, this is a gain; if they are evil, it is a loss.
Bertrand Russell, Icarus or The Future of Science, (emphasis mine)

Why do I think the promotion of this study is an attempt at programming the culture? Because in our distracted age, leaders of news sites know that most people won’t get past the headline. They’ll just scan it, maybe read the first paragraph, think “science” has “proven” something, take their word for it (they are “objective scientists” after all) and accept a conclusion that has no scientific merit.

In reality, we all know we have free will, popular science notwithstanding. Citing flawed studies like the above and the non-scientific claims of Sam Harris discussed in my earlier post, a recent article in The Atlantic says: “There’s no such thing as Free Will, but we’re better off believing in it anyway.” The author takes great pains to reconcile the negative societal fallout of telling people they don’t have free will with the “science” that claims we don’t have it.

While pre-commitments to materialism lead people to think we don’t have free will, they fail to see that their biases invalidate their very ability to evaluate scientifically whether they have free will at all. The very claim is self-refuting.

To clarify, I love science in its basic sense—the idea of learning through the scientific method. I practice the scientific method as a software developer every day. I also love truth seeking. I have lived my life with the deep desire to follow truth wherever it leads.

I’m encouraging us all to be much more skeptical of scientific claims. Just because someone is a scientist, doesn’t mean everything they say is scientific or true. Don’t give scientists a pass, assuming that they are being objective. They are human, like all of us, and sometimes choose to promote an agenda instead of just communicating facts.

2 responses to “Study shows Free Will is an Illusion. Really?”

  1. I think the “indoctrinating headlines” have a lot less to do with propaganda and a lot more to do with lazy scientific journalism. John Oliver did a great report on this a few weeks ago (probably strong language) [link removed as a result].

    Many news sites like to exaggerate the claims of these studies, and it looks like one of the lead researchers – the PhD student – bought into it as well. I would have read the study, but it seems to be behind a paywall.

    “I’m encouraging us all to be much more skeptical of scientific claims. Just because someone is a scientist, doesn’t mean everything they say is scientific or true. Don’t give scientists a pass, assuming that they are being objective. They are human, like all of us, and sometimes choose to promote an agenda instead of just communicating facts.”

    While on the surface I agree, I find that this sort of rhetoric can be troubling. I feel that many varieties of southern conservative Christianity like to construct a narrative in which scientists are trying to push some sort of evil atheist propaganda, and that we all must reject all scientific ideas that run contrary to our faith rather than give our faith a critical examination as well. These are especially prominent in any sort of discussion regarding evolution or cosmology.

    So while I agree that the conclusions drawn from this study seem ridiculous, I’d be hesitant to advocate a distrust of the scientific community. (Scientific skepticism, however, is an important yet distinct concept)

    • Kevin, thank you for your feedback. I appreciate your perspective. I’m an advocate for questioning both theological and scientific ideas as greater light is revealed. This is, and must be, the heart of all truth-seekers.

      Small minorities of Christian faithful may be considered “anti-science”, but I don’t think that fits most Christians today. I wonder whether the cultural caricature of “southern conservative Christianity” is more prejudicial towards them than they are towards the discoveries of “science”.

      With the volume of recent articles claiming to put nails in the coffin of our perception of free will in the name of “science”, I am seeing a troubling pattern that appears propaganda-like to me. The recent piece in The Atlantic I cited even refers to studies that show very negative effects on people’s behavior when they don’t think they have free will and are therefore not responsible for their actions. While I didn’t go so far as calling it “evil atheist propaganda,” I have to wonder why this particular view is getting so much traction. Many people would like to change our justice system, government institutions, and education content based on the “scientific” claim that we don’t have free will. I find that very troubling. (Not that we don’t need tremendous reform in all of those institutions, but not to erase our personal responsibility.)

      If we do have free will (as I think we do), and there is an agenda to convince us that we don’t (and I think there may be, if the pattern is any indication), and that is done in the name of “science” because of its inherent credibility, then, I feel like I need to call it out and ask people to be skeptical.

      Dr. Ralph Westfall shares some interesting related thoughts in a piece There’s No Grand Unity Called Science. His reference to those who label anyone who disagrees with their findings as “anti-science” gets to what I’m trying to shine light on in my article here.

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