80% of what?

Jerry Coyne is talking about free will again, this time in reference to an article in Nature about neuroscience and results that cast doubt on it. And he’s quite impressed by an 80% success rate and claims that that demonstrates remarkable accuracy. The problem is that what it’s accurate about isn’t really a threat to free will:

With about 700 milliseconds to go, the researchers could predict the timing of that decision with more than 80% accuracy.[emphasis added]

Coyne takes this as predicting the actual decision, but it’s about when the decision will be made, not what the decision will actually be. Hayes’ work for the finger press was right about 60% of the time, which is hardly impressive. So there really isn’t any really impressive results to show that we don’t have free will. All we get is that brain activity is involved. But in these cases, it’s quite possible that brain activity is involved without removing the notion that the conscious decision-making process is just that activity. Presuming that any decision requires mental resources, similar decisions will use the same mental resources. Fried’s results could just express that. And for Hayes, it is quite possible that simple decisions can be made mostly subconsciously, and would have to be overridden. Thus he could get his rather small prediction rate simply by tracking these factors and missing the actual conscious overriding that it seems would frequently occur.

In short, the philosophers are right to be skeptical of the neuroscientists here because the neuroscientists have rather unimpressive results that don’t address the actual issues. After all, predicting the final decision before it is consciously made has little impact if the neurons are themselves going through the actual conscious decision-making process. That’s what we need to be free and not entirely determined. If that process results in a specific decision before it is consciously recognized that’s not a problem, because it is the decision-making process that matters. We would hope that at the end of our decision-making process there is only one decision actually made. Materialist views can easily incorporate brain decision-making whose result impacts other brain functions before updating consciousness, and dualist theories can even incorporate it as well. And so far we have nothing to contradict that at all, other than an ideological commitment to the idea that the physical is deterministic and if it is deterministic then there is no free will. Compatibilists quite reasonably challenge the latter and QM proves the former false.

So, even if decision-making is all physical neural activations and as we follow the chain we can eventually predict the decision, that does not mean anything about free will. Think about it this way: If I’m deciding, say, between what I want for lunch, and I work through my decision-making process verbally, and as that progresses you can chop off potential decisions so that, say, 5 seconds before I give my answer you can say that I’ll choose the poutine because at that point in my discussions it always happens to lead to my choosing poutine, does that mean that my decision and even the remaining process is irrelevant since it is, at that point, determined? That does not seem to be the case.

Recall this: Kant declared that we had free will but argued that we could still predict anyone’s in the world of appearances, mostly — I believe, anyway — because we can appeal to the reasons and beliefs that the person expressed and holds and make a prediction from that information. Prediction in practice is not impressive; prediction in principle is what matters.

And I suppose that, in the end, that’s why neuroscience will inform but will never determine the answer to the free will problem; neuroscience gives practice, but not principle, and we need principle to settle the question.


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