The Science of Free Will

Do humans have free will? Philosophers have discussed and debated free will for thousands of years. The question used to be, "Do we get to decide our actions or does God dictate them?" Later it became, "Is our soul a separate entity from our body that tells our body what to do?" Today, science isn't in the business of testing for God or the soul, and we believe that the mind is a product and part of body. Thoughts are patterns of neurons firing in your brain.

Now, scientists are beginning to probe the connection between thought and action. In a series of blog posts over the coming week, I'll discover how far that research has come--and how far it has yet to go.

Part 1: Free Will in the Lab

Part 2: Is Free Will an Illusion?

Part 3: In Defense of Free Will

Part 4: Does Free Will Matter?

As individuals, we believe that our thoughts bring about our actions. First we ask a question to ourselves: "What shall I do now?" Next we make the decision: "I will bake a cake now." Finally, we perform the action; we bake the cake. We believe we baked the cake because of that inner dialogue. But what if the brain "decided" to bake the cake long before the inner dialogue gave voice and awareness to the decision? The brain may have been sending signals to the body to go get the flour before we even thought, "I will bake a cake"! If this is true, you were going to bake that cake all along, and your thoughts arose in order to explain your actions to yourself--the thoughts are, to torture a metaphor, just the icing on a cake that your brain baked before you ever knew it.

With modern science we have the ability to watch brains as they function, something the ancient philosophers could barely have imagined. Does this mean we can now finally figure out how free will works? Can scientists witness our decisions in action? Or will it turn out that free will is just an illusion? The results of experiments in the field and what they mean for free will is hotly debated. In this series, I hope to untangle the science from the semantics and the data from the dogma--without getting stuck in the mire of metaphysics.

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