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Brain Study Calls Free Will Into Question

kdawson posted more than 6 years ago | from the choose-wisely-young-jedi dept.

Science 733

siddster notes an account up at Wired of research indicating that brain scanners can see your decisions before you make them. "In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them... Caveats remain, holding open the door for free will... The experiment may not reflect the mental dynamics of other, more complicated decisions... Also, the predictions were not completely accurate. Maybe free will enters at the last moment, allowing a person to override an unpalatable subconscious decision."

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Predict the prediction. (4, Insightful)

0100010001010011 (652467) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058326)

So there's a 7 second 'thought to action' lag. When they start predicting what the scanner is going to say call me.

Re:Predict the prediction. (5, Funny)

Simon Simian (694897) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058482)

I was going to call you, but then I didn't.

Re:Predict the prediction. (5, Funny)

infonography (566403) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058524)

I was going to call you, but then I didn't.
I knew you were going to say that.

Re:Predict the prediction. (5, Funny)

Simon Simian (694897) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058600)

Shingle Donkeys

Re:Predict the prediction. (5, Interesting)

siddster (809752) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058648)

Actually the lag can vary. In another one of Benjamin Libet's experiments (not mentioned in the article) he stimulated different areas of the human brain (he had a neursurgeon friend that he worked with during surgeries) and asked the subject to press a button when he perceived the stimulus.

It turned out that no one pressed the button until 500 milliseconds after the stimulus. So, there appeared to be at least a 500ms lag between stimulation and conscious acknowledgement of the stimulus.

Here's the funny bit: a 500ms lag time to perception is incompatible with a whole bunch of human activities. Take tennis for example; if there's a 500ms lag between watching the ball getting hit and actually perceiving it as getting hit the ball has already flown past you. (assuming a ball hit at 200km/h=55 meters/sec)

Yet we play tennis.... Intriguing eh?

Obey! (1)

goombah99 (560566) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058710)

7 seconds! ha!. I knew minutes ago you would post a reply to this. Prove me wrong. I dare you. (I knew that too)

Re:Predict the prediction. (1)

Simon Simian (694897) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058718)

When they start predicting what the scanner is going to say call me.

You're suggesting that we build a scanner scanner. Presumably it would know which button the subject's subject is going to press 14 seconds before the act.

Then we build a scanner scanner scanner, and so forth.

The answer is left.

7 seconds (2, Funny)

iamhigh (1252742) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058334)

In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them
... a bunch of stuff about brain activity...

Taken together, the patterns consistently predicted whether test subjects eventually pushed a button with their left or right hand
Who the hell takes 7 seconds to decide left or right? I hope they all took the bus... or maybe the shortbus?

Re:7 seconds (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058356)

Making a decision is a process. There may be early indications of which way you decide before you make the actual decision.

Re:7 seconds (4, Funny)

The MAZZTer (911996) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058370)

If you had read your first quote more carefully the second one would have made more sense. What it's saying is the scanner picked up on unconscious decisions people made. In this case the decision was trivial with no (known) consequences either way so the subjects likely didn't hesitate and just picked one consciously. What this is saying is that they had actually subconsciously decided which one they were going to pick seconds in advance and the scanner was able to see that.

Re:7 seconds (1)

Architect_sasyr (938685) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058394)

What thought process do you go through to come to the decision of choosing left or right? Ignoring reactions (i.e. something throws a large object at you) in which you'll probably respond a hell of a lot faster, I can see how 7 seconds would work. Countdown:

7 seconds: Hmm that person is reaching out to grab the news paper. They are in my path.
6 seconds: /me glances around
5 seconds: There are $x people also on the path with me, I must go around them
4 seconds: Only two people are in my immediate way after shifting right to miss the first person.
3 seconds: his trajectory will put him there, hers will put her there
2 seconds: optimal position will be to go right again and pass between them
1 second: feet, you heard the brain, do it.
0 seconds: Action performed.

Ok that's a very basic example and I for one would suggest that my own thought process' move a lot faster than that, but having grown up with a bunch of tradesmen and truck drivers around me, I can see how seven seconds works out.

Re:7 seconds (1)

Anguirel (58085) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058508)

Who the hell takes 7 seconds to decide left or right?
You do. That's the entire point of the study. The people thought they were taking a second at most to make the decision, but there was precursor activity in the brain which accurately predicted the final choice well before conscious deliberation on that choice occurred.

Re:7 seconds (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058570)

The theory is (and it's not a new one) that your conscious mind merely interprets and rationalises decisions that your subconscious mind already made in a non-free-will manner. You fondly imagine that your conscious mind is doing the decision making - when in fact it's merely organising those decisions into a consistent result.

Our conscious minds have been shown to reorder events in order to 'edit out' the effects of prolonged reaction delays and other processing artifacts.

The brain does this kind of thing all the time - for example, if you look off to your left - then very quickly look off to the right - your conscious mind makes it appear as though you saw continuous 'video' as your eyes traversed the intervening distance. In truth, once the rate of motion gets more than some certain amount, your eyes turn off and your brain fills in the intervening imagery from memory or imagination.

(Actually - that's an over-simplification - this effect is called 'Saccadic Masking' and there is a great Wikipedia page that describes an experiment you can do with no more equipment than a mirror and a friend.)

Re:7 seconds (5, Insightful)

Metasquares (555685) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058716)

But who says the unconscious decision process isn't an exercise of free will? The big assumption in the article is that free will cannot exist in the subconscious. I think that free will is a property of the whole mind, and all they're doing is demonstrating that they can predict decisions by reading the choices already made within the brain.

Oh, and since this is a binary classification problem (left/right), 50% accuracy means you're not doing any better than guessing - 60% isn't very good in that light.

Re:7 seconds (4, Interesting)

TheRealMindChild (743925) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058646)

I took a research study doing tests like this at UPMC. A lot of it was horrible tests such as:

A green or red square will appear every 15 seconds, along with an arrow that points right or left. If the square is green, you press the mouse button that corresponds with the direction of the arrow (if it points left hit the left button. If it points right, click the right button). If the square is red, you press the button opposite the direction the arrow is pointing.

Now, imagine doing this for an hour or more straight, with wet electrodes attached to your head. After about 10 minutes (at most), you can't help but completely wander off mentally and stop paying attention to what you are doing. Maybe that is the intention. Your goal is to do your best, because this is a "worth while" study after all on how the brain operates. Things start to flash up and you consciously don't pick up what just flashed, so you spend a good part of those 15 seconds trying to dig up any memory of the past 15 seconds. Maybe you had to be there. You don't even want to know the torture of doing these kinds of tests for HOURS inside an MRI machine.

I have free will (4, Funny)

Lucas123 (935744) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058340)

I've chosen not to comment on this story. There's my free will. Wait, I mean, I'll comment but I'm not leaving an opinion, except for the one that states that I have free will. Hold on. OK. I'm not leaving an opinion as much as statement. Oh, forget it. You're right. I have no free will.

Will or Wii? (5, Funny)

blantonl (784786) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058342)

For a second or two there... I thought for sure the study called my Wii into question.

My "will" is rock solid... my "Wii" challenges me evey day.

How does this eliminate Free Will? (5, Insightful)

mudetroit (855132) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058354)

Just because there is a delay in the person being able to be cognizant of making the decision doesn't eliminate the potential that there was free will in making it. To put this in terms the programmers among us can relate to. This is the difference between generating a result and outputting the result. They aren't necessarily directly tied together.

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058416)

"There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." -- Morpheus

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (5, Insightful)

Anguirel (58085) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058458)

In programming terms, it's exactly that difference. However, the person thinks their conscious decision is 1 second before the press. Consider that an I/O interrupt request after the output has been generated but before it can be displayed. The conscious mind (the OS in the metaphor) thinks it is making the decision to output something specific, but that decision was made by the subroutine well before the OS got involved. In flow chart terms...

(unconscious decision is made in background processes) -> (person thinks they make a conscious decision using their own Free Will) -> (action occurs which matches the unconscious decision)

Under that model, Free Will is "eliminated" because the final result matches activity that occurs before they consciously deliberate on it and can utilize conscious Free Will. Essentially, Free Will becomes an unconscious process of some sort.

Cue the Mr Subliminal cracks (1)

LrdDimwit (1133419) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058478)

They don't even try to account for the Insightful same situation where the Halting Problem fails Insightful. I ask the scanner what I'm going to do Funny, then do something else Hot sex or flip a coin. Let alone anything where the truly interesting Troll aspects of free will. For example, Insightful doing this brain scan on someone who thinks he has discovered a way to embezzle a million dollars Flying chair without getting caught, but isn't sure. Do I do it? Will I get caught? Insightful Even if I will get away with it, should I? How badly do I need the money?

If they could predict THAT before the person makes the actual decision -- not in a simulation, in the actual situation -- then this scan might shed light on the idea of free will. Flamebait Otherwise it's a giant leap.

Re:Cue the Mr Subliminal cracks (1)

i.of.the.storm (907783) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058824)

Err, is this supposed to be a poor attempt at subliminal messaging to get moderators to mod you the way you want, thus proving that there is no free will? WTF is the hot sex for then?

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (2, Interesting)

Admiral Ag (829695) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058510)

No. There is a real problem here. Our ordinary conception of personal decision making is that it is conscious and occurs at the time the decider is aware of making the decision. This experiment goes a long way to proving that conscious experience of making a decision is epiphenomenal.

Let's conduct a simple thought experiment. We'll hook you up to a machine that replicates the experiment and which predicts pretty much everything you choose before you are aware of it. How long is it going to take you, personally, to become convinced that you, as a conscious being, have no free will? Not long, I'd wager.

The only reason people believe in free will is that much of religion makes no sense without it, and some people believe that libertarian politics makes no sense without it. The first is true, the latter is not, since political freedom and metaphysical freedom are distinct.

This is another in the series of nails being driven into the coffin of the religious conception of humanity. Evolution was the first major one. Brain science threatens to complete the project.

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (1)

mudetroit (855132) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058736)

Personal religious opinions aside, the free will question and the question of religion are not tied to one another. And, in fact, the question of free will is one that can actually lead to a dilemma in many religions, omnipotent or omniscient god anyone?

The debate of free will is one that provides a number of problems for human society as it is currently constructed. If people truly lack free will can you punish them for crimes that they commit, or honor them for accomplishments made?

Bottom line, don't make this discussion about something that it isn't really about.

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (1)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058754)

I know continental philosophy isn't popular in the US, but Alain Badiou's account of the emergence of a subject in what he calls a "situation" which calls forth a deliberative reorganization of one's worldview, one's priorities, etc. is probably going to be the best you can get for "free will." The continent gave up on free will for decision-making ages ago, and Heidegger recognized the rote nature of most so-called "decisions."

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (1)

nanostuff (1224482) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058536)

How does this eliminate what never existed in the first place? To put this in programming terms, both the generation and the output of the result are side effects of the program. How can a program be 'free' of it's own operation?

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (1)

mudetroit (855132) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058792)

This is the common complaint I have with arguing against free will, and one I partially walked myself into by making the programming example in the grandparent post.

The problem here is that you are equating the programming techniques that we have at our disposal currently with all possible programming techniques.

I don't doubt that there is some equivalent to "programming" locked in the human mind. What I do question is whether or not the programming is of the sort that we are currently using, where the results can always be predicted by present state plus inputs, or if there is something else slightly more complicated at play.

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058542)

I knew you would say that.

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (1)

Azarael (896715) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058560)

I agree, but I think it's more accurate to say that, we can see part of the result before it is outputted, and correlate that to a likely value. So basically, what they're showing (in a novel way) is that some conditions make you predisposed to make a certain decision. This is one of the aspects of how neural networks operate.., so the idea isn't really new.

It doesn't (1)

itistoday (602304) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058574)

Wonder why this debate is still around after hundreds of years of argument? It's because it's nearly an identical analogy to the question: "Is it a particle or a wave?"

Re:How does this eliminate Free Will? (1)

a whoabot (706122) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058612)

But if the decision was made before you were conscious of it, was it really free will on your part? Sounds more like it was the work of something in your brain and then your mind only becomes aware of it, but doesn't make it.

How does this call free will into question? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058364)

So we just make decisions seven seconds before we act on them. How does that destroy free will?

They admit they were wrong sometimes, but won't say how much.

The only thing this study shows if that our brain begins choosing an answer well before it acts, and even then you can't know for certain what action is taken.

How in the hell does that question free will?

Its like saying I saw someone start to draw their gun, and I predicted they were going to fire it. Then a few seconds later they took a carefully aimed shot.

Yeah that DESTROYS free will.

Re:How does this call free will into question? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058404)

1) Yes, this is not evidence against free will.

2) Free will is still a stupid idea. Every decision is the result of a calculation by your brain based on environmental inputs and its current internal state. If you want to call that "free will" you're free to, but it's also no different from what a computer does.

Re:How does this call free will into question? (1)

aGuyNamedJoe (317081) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058686)

It's not that we take seven seconds to act after making decisions -- rather, we make the decision and about seven seconds later tell ourselves we made the decision. That's when we update our internal model of ourself that we call "me" and is what we mean by "consciousness".

I don't think most people, including scientists, have a clear understanding of how "consciousness" relates to the body. I think these experiments will make it much clearer.

Those of us educated primarily in the sciences often fail to recognize the parts of ourselves that aren't part of our internal dialog, and it's not easy to do. I think that'll change as we try to build autonomous robots -- and then we'll discover where we've misunderstood the proper relationship between "science" and "mysticism". Statements like like "the way that can be told is not the real way" are not really as weird as most of us think they are -- it's a simple truth -- think about riding a bicycle vs. talking about how to ride a bicycle.

That should tell you something about the delay between doing something (like turning the wheel to keep from falling over) and being aware that you decided to do that.

Jedoc (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058374)

Free will is an important concept because it FEELS like we've got free will.

I hypothesize that a society with a widespread belief in free will would produce a higher proportion of "moral" behavior (based on local ethics and standards) than one which believes that free will is an illusion. If we take the concept of free will out of the decision-making process, even if it is only as a theoretical construct not backed up by neuroscience, we remove one more barrier to society-damaging behavior.

Of course, this entire theory depends on my ability to convince anyone of anything.

Re:Jedoc (4, Insightful)

NIckGorton (974753) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058470)

Except that since I know free will is an illusion, when the kid last night took a swing at me in a drunken stupor, I understood that as no more his decision than my decision was to treat him decently, and make sure he didn't injure himself or others as he metabolized himself to freedom in the morning.

Its more of a Buddhist concept of suffering and the necessity of working to end the suffering of others (or at least think you are doing so) that motivates moral action in people who don't believe in free will. How much better of a world would it be if when someone broke into your car to steal, you saw that person as someone less fortunate than you and felt it was your responsibility to, instead of punishing him, make his life better?

Though lucky for us, people who have the insight to understand a world without free will are also people who are more often endowed with that kind of sentiment.

Re:Jedoc (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058552)

Buddhists are inferior to atheists. There is no logic behind buddhism.

Re:Jedoc (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058592)

The fact that you think those terms are mutually exclusive just shows you are either ignorant or simply trolling.

Re:Jedoc (1)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058790)

What is your point of reference for a claim of superiority or inferiority?

Nietzsche thought that simple "truth" was a less important category for the value of a statement or belief that whether that statement or belief affirmed and enhanced life.

Putting aside the absolutely historically and empirically incorrect claim that there is no logic behind Buddhism, on what basis do you privilege what you are calling, here, logic as making anything superior or inferior?

Re:Jedoc (1)

LordLucless (582312) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058638)

I don't know about better, but I'm pretty sure it would be a world with a lot more car thieves.

Re:Jedoc (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058788)

If we take the concept of free will out of the decision-making process, even if it is only as a theoretical construct not backed up by neuroscience, we remove one more barrier to society-damaging behavior.

Billiard balls affect each other but they don't have free will. If a society implements a system of rewards and punishments then there will generally be an effect on individual behavior. The notion of free will is only relevent if you want to claim that people "deserve" to be rewarded or punished rather than taking the pragmatic approach of affecting individual behavior regardless of "deserving".

Re:Jedoc (1)

shawnap (959909) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058798)

I believe that hypothesis has been shown (at least in some part) empirically.
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080129125354.htm [sciencedaily.com]

_going out on a limb_
It may be the case that feeling like you have free will is an adaptive behavior, and won out over the alternative.

Um, not so much of a newsflash (5, Insightful)

NIckGorton (974753) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058398)

Um, not much of a newsflash. Hell the major monotheistic religions figured this out way back. If God is omniscient, then he knows what I am about to do and everything I will do in my life. If he knows that, than I can't truly have free will. (Even if you try to weasel out that God decides to blind himself to my future, if it is knowable then its pre-ordained.) So unless you are willing to say God isn't omniscient, then there is no free will, kids.

The only chance we have of any free will at all is in quantum weirdness which is not much free will to speak of, and certainly not enough to be palatable to the average American who thinks his success or failure is a product of his own decisions rather than the sum total of a very complicated system that he has little control over and basically just experiences as the phenomena of his mind. We think we are in control, but largely we are along for the ride.

Used to freak me out, and it was hard to swallow since I have that Horatio Algeirs kind of narrative: Grew up on welfare in a house without indoor plumbing and now have a doctorate and am typing this on the toilet I picked (the best... I loves me a good quality toilet) in the house I just remodeled. It would feel very nice to think that I did all of this and deserve this wonderful throne. And to be honest my experience is that I think I have free will in my day to day life. But that's probably because the sum of my experiences also made me, after gaining understand that I don't have free will, accept that I live my life with that illusion and navigate life in such a way that I feel comfortable with the 'moral decisions' I think I make. So I pretend I have free will, and think I make moral choices based on that understanding.

Now I've given myself a headache. No. Wait, I was destined to have this headache as long as that electron spun to the left last Tuesday in Portugal. I'm going to go pretend to decide to take an ibuprofen.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (1)

Todd Fisher (680265) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058526)

The only chance we have of any free will at all is in quantum weirdness which is not much free will to speak of, and certainly not enough to be palatable to the average American who thinks his success or failure is a product of his own decisions rather than the sum total of a very complicated system that he has little control over and basically just experiences as the phenomena of his mind. I knew you were gonna say that.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (2, Interesting)

idiotwithastick (1036612) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058554)

Um, not much of a newsflash. Hell the major monotheistic religions figured this out way back. If God is omniscient, then he knows what I am about to do and everything I will do in my life. If he knows that, than I can't truly have free will. (Even if you try to weasel out that God decides to blind himself to my future, if it is knowable then its pre-ordained.) So unless you are willing to say God isn't omniscient, then there is no free will, kids.
Actually there's an argument (by St. Augustine, I think) that says that there is no contradiction between an omniscient God and free will. The idea is that God is just an "observer"; every decision we make in our lives are still our own, even though God knows how the result will turn out. Essentially, God is just "watching a replay" of what actually happened, so although God knows what happens God does not know it in "advance" because our notions of time do not apply to God.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (1)

largesnike (762544) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058604)

During the early 1600s there was an argument amongst various protestant faiths about whether there was free will or not, particularly in England. It all comes down to your vision of what God is and what omniscient means. I think the grandparent was being a bit absolutist there, implying that there was no room for discourse.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (5, Funny)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058776)

During the early 1600s there was an argument amongst various protestant faiths about whether there was free will or not, particularly in England.
Whether free will exists, or not - why would that fact differ in England as compared to the rest of the world?

Sincerely,
Mr. Pedantic

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058672)

So... kind of like random access memory vs linear access?

That fucker has some 1337 tech, I want it.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (2, Insightful)

CodyRazor (1108681) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058804)

I'm god. You just cant tell because your notions of what god is dont apply to me.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (1)

Oligonicella (659917) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058572)

News flash. A whole lot of people don't believe there's a god. That means they don't see any conundrum there.

No. We are not floating, completely out of control. Nothing prevents us here (U.S.) from just up and leaving and starting over. You simply have to be willing to endure the consequences. The whole topic of lack of free will is bogus as it hinges on the supernatural or extreme pedantry.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (1)

taupin (1047372) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058702)

No. Just no. Belief in God is neither necessary or sufficient to justify a belief in complete determinism. Not sufficient, since as others have pointed out, many believe in both God and free will; not necessary, since many atheists don't believe in free will (myself, for example). In no way does the topic of free will "hinge on the supernatural or extreme pedantry". News flash: an all-knowing God is not the only reason that people don't believe in free will.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (1)

Jurily (900488) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058632)

Laplace's demon [wikipedia.org] comes to mind.

While Laplace saw foremost practical problems for mankind to reach this ultimate stage of knowledge and computation, later interpretations of quantum mechanics, which were adopted by philosophers defending the existence of free will, also leave the theoretical possibility of such an "intellect" contested.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058668)

You may enjoy reading some of the material published by Gregory Boyd on God's ability to see the future. He uses quantum mechanics as an anology to describe how one could know all possible outcomes and allow someone to have free will in determining which one to take. The argument for an omniscience and omnipotent God requires that he possess the mental capacity to see all these possibilities.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058704)

As a member of a sect within one of those monotheistic faiths (Southern Baptist) I just wish others within my faith would stop pretending that free will, particularly in the philosophical libertarian sense, actually exists. You are dead right that in order for God to be truly omniscient the particularity of His knowledge necessitates preordination of all things or at the very least of their essential causes. The issues of God's proximity to various events is debatable I suppose, but in the end God is still the uncaused cause of all things within creation.

Yet experientially we perceive that we possess a will and that it is to some extent "free." But this is merely a perception. The question all this begs is where then does meaning come from, if all things are determined then how can anything have significance? All that depends on your understanding of the God Hypothesis. If you adopt a theistic position then God is the source of meaning just as He is the source of all things and so even the predestined things of creation have meaning because of God who works them together in a meaningful way, this makes passages like Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28 intelligible in light of the manifest suffering of all persons. So, granting a deterministic universe only two options exist regarding meaning: (1) meaning is derived from theistic revelation that reveals the meaning of all things in relation to the God who created or (2) because there is no God there is no meaning and all we have is nihilism or hollow atheistic existentialism.

As a Christian I actually derive some solace from knowing that all things, even the seemingly insignificant are woven into a grander scheme. How I pity though the person who recognizes the nature or things and their orderly, determined, arrangement yet neglects knowledge of the creator. I pity such a person because they truly have no cause for hope or any reason to acknowledge their own significance because they possess no basis for such things given there is no source of meaning in their worldview.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (1)

nawcom (941663) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058806)

I pity such a person because they truly have no cause for hope or any reason to acknowledge their own significance because they possess no basis for such things given there is no source of meaning in their worldview.

I dunno, I pity people who lack self-esteem who need to find their supernatural purpose in order to live their life. Once you find out where other natural species' purposes are in the bible, let me know. NEWS FLASH! Other living things have "consciousness" as well.

Re:Um, not so much of a newsflash (1)

ragincajun1337 (1271286) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058738)

Um, not much of a newsflash. Hell the major monotheistic religions figured this out way back. If God is omniscient, then he knows what I am about to do and everything I will do in my life. If he knows that, than I can't truly have free will. (Even if you try to weasel out that God decides to blind himself to my future, if it is knowable then its pre-ordained.) So unless you are willing to say God isn't omniscient, then there is no free will, kids.

The only chance we have of any free will at all is in quantum weirdness which is not much free will to speak of, and certainly not enough to be palatable to the average American who thinks his success or failure is a product of his own decisions rather than the sum total of a very complicated system that he has little control over and basically just experiences as the phenomena of his mind. We think we are in control, but largely we are along for the ride.
I call bullshit! The only thing monotheistic religions have ever managed to do right is... well, nothing, but I won't go that far because all I simply have to state is that they took a stab in the dark and just happened to guess something that would later be proven by scientists thousands of years later. And furthermore, I don't think any of these religions or their founders had any real idea what they were talking about when they started spouting stuff out left and right. I think it's simply a mere coincidence that they decided that God gives us no free will and that suddenly scientists have proven that our actions are predisposed to our subconscious decision that was made slightly ahead of our conscious decision.

Furthermore, I think that we do, in fact, still have free will. Perhaps just not conscious free will. Free will of the subconscious to make a decision is still free will, is it not? I think humans are perfectly capable of interpreting, understanding, and manipulating the subconscious on a conscious level. We simply have not figured out the proper way to do so yet.

So does this take away free will? It depends on your definition of free will. But I think a free will decision made unconsciously is still a free will decision nonetheless because our brains, which are uniquely and inseparably a part of each of us, made that decision. And therefore, it is indeed ourselves that made the decision, and so it is can still be considered free will.

1..2..3..4..5..6..7 (1)

dedischado (1272496) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058402)

1..2..3..4..5..6..7..oh okay, it took me seven second to decide and start writing this..

Re:1..2..3..4..5..6..7 (1)

baegucb_18706 (773765) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058622)

took me 8 seconds (I'm old and slow ;)

But what if you choose not to decide? (3, Funny)

sticks_us (150624) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058406)

You can choose from phantom fears
And kindness that can kill
I will choose a path thats clear
I will choose free will!

--oblig.

Re:But what if you choose not to decide? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058628)

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice

If you choose not to decide, you still haven't made a choice

*note/trivia* Geddy sings "still HAVE made a choice" but Neil wrote "still haven't made a choice"

Nothing to do with free will! (1)

robinsonne (952701) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058410)

Looking at brain scans they were able to predict which hand would be used? No kidding. Last time I checked, every time we move a muscle something (the brain/spinal cord in case of reflex) has to tell the muscle to move and would amazingly show up on their nifty scan.

Re:Nothing to do with free will! (1)

Rallion (711805) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058644)

Not several seconds in advance of the person even consciously knowing which hand they were going to use...

The Expirament: (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058414)

I haven't RTFA, but....

If all they did was put a geek in front of a computer with net access, smart money says they'll be jacking off to porn in seven seconds weather they think about it or not.

Duh.

Rigged (5, Insightful)

yomology (1251490) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058434)

Personally, I don't see how this experiment can even remotely call into question "free will." You see, free will and conscious rationality are very nearly the same. Now, when choosing between using the left or right button, there is little to no information to be considered rationally, or consciously, and so this experiment is only testing a choice that is already devoid of free will. The choice is, in effect, subconsciously decided making it easy to predict.

Most decisions are automatic (4, Interesting)

3arwax (808691) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058444)

I am a person who believes very strongly that God gives us agency and that agency is essential to our progression through life. I also believe that most decisions are made automatically. Our brain acts just like a muscle. We train it and it has reflex like decisions. But there are many times when we exercise a higher consciousness to make decisions. But who would ever accuse Slashdot of having over-sensationalized headlines?

Re:Most decisions are automatic (1)

nawcom (941663) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058654)

um. last time i checked, muscles are controlled via electrical signals. from the brain. not from an automatic condition or signal from an invisible superman. People who lack or lose muscular support can NOW get artificial support, which interacts with the brain. yeah.

Why are you trying to link ancient text to current scientific studies? You mind as well claim that our brains are not just a muscle, but a little spirit capsule made out of either fire, water, wind, or earth.

News flash: our brains aren't muscles! they are neural tissue linking many, many neurons together, carrying essentially electricity!

Though if you are really serious about this crazy idea, the next time you talk to your super man, tell him to give us humans a break with his sadistic humour. if he really insists on picking and choosing a single person's fate based on how he feels that day, tell him to go create another 6 millennium old universe to piss on. and give women a more important purpose than serving men. and if he drinks to much and floods the planet with his own piss, don't flush the toilet, we want some decent evidence to support his bullshit claims. 'nuff god ranting for tonight.

I, for one, DO have free will (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058454)

...and I will NOT pay a lot for this muffler!

Free Will (1)

AstrumPreliator (708436) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058466)

If the universe is ordered, that is there are a set of physical laws which govern the outcome of particle and energy interactions, then wouldn't free will as currently defined be impossible? Perhaps our actions are chaotic in the mathematical sense but still deterministic. Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Re:Free Will (1)

Orange Crush (934731) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058752)

There's no way to know. On one hand, you could say that the first planck second into the big bang everything that would ever happen in the universe was already determined. This assumes that even seemingly random quantum effects are the results of some underlying deterministic principles.

I feel our observations so far all seem to suggest that there's more than enough "white noise" and randomness on all scales from quarks to quasars that we'll never have the ability to predict anything beyond a probability distribution. I don't believe the universe is deterministic. It feels like I have free will, so honestly, who gives sh*t if I really don't? Even if we uncovered all the physical laws and could perfectly model the future, you still can't predict your own future--model your next action, but then revise your model to include what you did modeling your next action, then revise the model again . . . etc. Infinite loop.

Determinism does not invalidate free will. (4, Insightful)

Repossessed (1117929) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058772)

The idea that physical forces control us is silly unless you believe in dualism, we *are* those physical forces.

Re:Free Will (1)

The_Wilschon (782534) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058814)

Only if the Theory of Everything turns out to be nonlocal. Any deterministic theory which is consistent with the predictions of quantum mechanics (and thus also with experiment) must be a hidden variable theory, and only nonlocal hidden variable theories can agree with experiment. See the EPR paradox and Bohm's pilot-wave (an example of a nonlocal hidden variable theory).

Furthermore, IIRC (although I can't find the reference), nonlocal hidden variables place a pretty sharp limit on the amount of computation that the universe can do, and thus may be excluded quite soon (by a quantum computer that can factor numbers greater than ~10000).

+5 Predetermined (5, Funny)

Shaitan Apistos (1104613) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058474)

If you don't mod me according to my post's title I'll understand, you didn't have a choice.

Quicker trigger response? (1)

sweet_petunias_full_ (1091547) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058476)

Scenario: There's a war and a soldier is holding a rifle, but instead of a finger on the trigger, there's a cable going from the brain directly to the rifle. The soldier is alert. A bad guy could pop up from behind a rock at any moment.

Since the decision to shoot can be measured more quickly by this device, this shooter will win all the gunfights... (or at least that's how the Pentagon might see it, if they are funding it).

Once friendly fire becomes a problem, the standard excuse will be: "Oh, that wasn't me, the device must be malfunctioning." So then they'll take it out of the military and just sell it to some less critical force like law-enforcement or something.

And just how... (0, Redundant)

Samuel Dravis (964810) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058480)

So how does this affect anything? Last I heard, what we called "choosing" to do an act was very specific and has nothing at all to do with brain states. That these states correlate with decisions are... accidental. I may be Wittgensteinizing here, but what it means for me to choose to do something is not the same as what it means for some sort of activity to be present in my brain. That both situations are called "choosing" may present some confusion, but they don't appear to have much to do with one another otherwise. This kind of article seems to be much hype over absolutely nothing...

Sigh. Not determinism vs free will again. (1)

gargletheape (894880) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058484)

- I wish neuroscientists would stop getting free press just for saying they observed someone doing something, and (gasp!), there was brain activity. I mean, what did they expect? Unless these people are closet dualists, of course...

- Hume basically killed the silly notion that somehow randomness or chance could give us "extra" free will. Imagine that you have access to some source of perfect randomness, say a radioisotope sample whose individual decays you can observe. This is useful, but basically it just gives you the difference between a pseudo-random number generator and a truly random number generator. This isn't an insignificant difference, mind you, but surely that's not where the difference between volitional and forced deeds lies!

- I think many people who think they object to determinism actually object to lawfulness, or even to the idea of a universe that makes sense. This is why the same problem crops up in theology where people endlessly contrast divine predestination and human free will. What such people really want is magic - just about any problem can be resolved if you allow for mumbo-jumbo and squint hard enough.

- Any chance Hollywood will ever make a film about championing Compatibilism [stanford.edu] ?. In that context, I've always enjoyed Schopenhauer's formulation of human free will:

" you can do what you want, but you can't want what you want"

Re:Sigh. Not determinism vs free will again. (1)

markov_chain (202465) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058692)

My gut feeling is that the universe is a discrete process, like in Wolfram's book, our actions are deterministic, and as such there is no free will. However, that really doesn't say much, since there is a small practical difference between a obscenely, insanely huge search space and an infinite one. It is still extremely rare for something like the human brain to arise, that can operate on that search space continuously and with such capacity.

Obliq Matrix reference (2)

phreakincool (975248) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058486)

The Matrix has you. There is no spoon. You think that's your free will?

Precognition (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058492)

You may think you decided to read this story -- but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it.
But I clicked on the story even before 7 seconds. So, do I have some kind of precognition?

Free wont. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058494)

Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his book The Mind and the Brain [amazon.com] discusses the concept of what he called "free wont" and how it could be observed by brain imaging.

Study doesn't define free will (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058496)

The study mentions implications for free will but doesn't define what "freewill" means. Conscousness is merely the state of percieving time and being self-aware, all decisions are made by some form of pre-determination.

Re:Study doesn't define free will (1, Informative)

Oligonicella (659917) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058578)

Pre-determination by self is free will.

Define god and free will again, I missed that part (2, Insightful)

moteyalpha (1228680) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058506)

If you can define free will, then you could prove it or disprove it. It is such an open ended concept that it cannot be considered until all facts about the process is known and it is premature to study the psychological effects of using a tele-port until you have one. --Absolute stupidity, disrupts absolutely--PLM

Please define free will. (4, Insightful)

Vellmont (569020) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058516)

If you actually wanted to answer that question, you'd have to define what "free will" is, in a concrete, scientific way. That means defining what choice is, likely what "you" are, and other things that are essentially undefinable except using other non-concrete definitions you can't nail down.

This experiment raises some interesting questions about the nature of existence, consciousness, and being. I don't think it's going to give us any answers on whether we have "free will" though, whatever that means.

Horrible summery (3, Informative)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058548)

" Brain Study Calls Free Will Into Question"
what utter nonsense. The ability to predict an action by looking at what your brain is doing has nothing to do with whether or not free will exists. From TFA:

In the seven seconds before Haynes' test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration.
sounds to me that the decision making is started before people think it is, nothing more, nothing less.

People on drugs? (1)

billy901 (1158761) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058584)

What if this were used on people using drugs. It would be quite interesting. If you get someone high enough, they don't appear to have any control over themselves and just do whatever happens, plus it would make some whacky readouts when they're doing the tests.

this only confirms free will. (1)

timmarhy (659436) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058640)

the brain makes the choice, not any other factor. isn't that the very essence of free will?

hope they don't get paid for this dumb conclusion (1)

amped (945110) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058656)

Anyone else notice they're only acheiving 60% reliability, and that number actually DROPS? Seems far from reliable evidence to me, especially given a totally random prediction should be expected to hit 50% reliability. What they're really doing is measuring first impulses, which would rationally be more likely to be chosen when the decision has absolutely NO real importance. (Left or Right button? Are you even kidding me?)

Free will is a religious concept (1)

at_slashdot (674436) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058678)

Free will is a religious concept, it means that God doesn't interfere in the process of personal decision, but if we take God out of equation (scientists do that anyway, right?) what remains? What is it free from? I really don't understand this...

Anyway, free will is not always spontaneous (1)

ghostbar38 (982287) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058690)

And no one can affirm that neither refute it. But my believe of free will is that is just not spontaneous but built from the way we think and we always think in the same way, is not that you could just think different in 10-20 minutes, even hours so your brain should be working in a similar way.

I've been waiting for this.... (1)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058696)

Apologies now for not looking up references, just some rambling here.

For several years we have come to know that there are new 'discoveries' every day regarding the brain or human behavior. This has caused me some serious existential angst, to be honest.

Without belaboring the point, lets just name a few items that have been claimed. Google them for yourselves if you want more info: The gay gene, the sociopath gene(sort of), the cancer genes, the cure-ish for alzheimers, genes that are linked to just about any hot-topic-behavior that there is.

Now we find out that violent video games actually calm us down (mostly), and the ready availability of sexually explicit materials is associated with lower incidences of rape and violent sexual attacks.

Genetic discoveries to protect us from radiation, some advanced in regrowing limbs, growing meat and organs in petri dishes, and on to other esoteric things like the brain events that cause spiritual events in the person experiencing them, the god-gene so to speak, no explanation for ghosts yet, but we do have string theory and the higgs-bosen experiments, quantum computing research, and various other 'discoveries' that come dangerously close to explaining all that we have (until now) held in the realm of the unexplained and mysterious: things that god must be responsible for.

Now, we are gaining a much better insight in to how the brain works, or at least some aspects of it. Imprints of dangerous predators in the minds of babies, links from what we thought only to be animal behaviors to human behaviors.

Not to try to turn this story into a religious discussion, but it looks more and more like we are losing all the mystery, and with it the reason for having a god. Unless of course you wish to blame god for giving some people that genetic sequence that seems to be linked to them being predisposed to homosexuality? Perhaps god is also to blame for the genetic predisposition to autism or dwarfism?

I'm very glad to see that we are making exponential leaps of discovery into how our minds and brains work. Only with such information can we cure things that have brought us down. The longer that we keep the feeble alive, the more it costs us as a society, yet in doing so we learn how to turn their lives into productive ones, and in the long run help ourselves. Science, for all it's involvement with morality and politics will lead us to a place that is not so much unlike what Star Trek (original series) intended for us to understand. Not sure if that is a chicken and egg thing or not, but seems like self fulfilling prophecy really.

Free will is the end result of what we do with all the information that we have at hand and feel the need to use. There are those among us that give up free will to instead do whatever the church of our choosing wants us to do, despite what others might tell us is a better course of action.

Free will is in all animals, humans included. We all have reactive components to our thinking. A pro boxer will react differently to an attack whle walking the street at night than say your or I might. This is trained reactive thought process. We are born with some (so some scientists say) and we learn others. For instance: many people will simply reboot a Windows system that hangs or is running slow as we now have a trained reactive thought process for that action. Free will was used to do that, even though it is reactive. Free will with no trained reactive processes will investigate or surrender.

Free will: My dogs have it, and it is only through training that they learn to do something different than their free will tells them. The thought of pain vs. investigating the strength of this new fence is a process of free will, after some training, my dogs freely modify their behavior. Until I got the fence repaired, they followed free will. Now, they measure natural curiosity and free will against pain, and make a more informed decision.

All of us, animals and humans make informed decisions... shamefully, many of us are ill informed or choose to ignore the wrong information many times. The PHB finds some imaginative ways to do that, I might add.

The point is that there **IS** free will, and it is tempered with experience and knowledge. The more you have of both, the better your free will choice becomes in creating a good outcome.

When you are faced with a situation that you know only meager information about, but left to your own devices to complete the task through no fault of your own, you will make decisions based on what you know and what you know how to figure out. Find yourself shipwrecked on a desert island... you'll make decisions, action your free will, and suffer the consequences of both. In our society that rarely happens to that extent so we lose sight of the fact that no matter what, each of us will use our free will to do what we need to do, when it needs to be done, or we'll suffer for not knowing how to. This sort of process only becomes an issue when you have people making it past their 18th birthday without enough knowledge to clothe and feed themselves if left alone on a deserted island, or even in a pre-American midwest area.

Those people just died, and nobody much cared, it just happened. If you were too stupid to live, it was nobody's fault but yours. Today we have LOTS of people that are too stupid to survive in 1850's America, never mind prehistoric days.

We **DO** have free will, we just don't have to use it much in today's western societies. That makes it very difficult to study.

In a failure-mode analysis of mankind, when mankind is forced to survive you will see the true mind at work. Free will has lots to do with whether you live or not. Without society there are no pre-ordained measures of success, there are no guidelines, only survival. We lost this part of life when modern society relieved us of that burden.

You are now free to agree or .. well, not. Make up your own mind? :)

Most wills aren't free (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23058720)

Have you priced an attorney lately? Even the online will kits aren't $0.

Free will is an illusion (1)

hlomas (1010351) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058740)

Of all the possible realities, structures, and designs in the world, why does human society happen to be the way it is? Why is it even "human" society? The universe goes about its way according to physics and you are an extant result of that mindlessness, which just so happens to be weaved into complexity through natural selection and historical 'accident' (occurrence). It's a fact that six billion humans all run on nearly the exact same software and have, generally, the same hopes, fears, pleasures and passions. Ever listen to music lyrics? Isn't it amazing how they often express your innermost thoughts in such a succinct way? How could they capture such a feeling so well? Because they are having the exact same feelings as you. You're all human and you're all operating on the same rules that have been programmed over, technically, billions of years. The mere fact that "society" exists, a vast and incomprehensibly complex interplay of innumerable factors, surviving entire generations and lifespans indicates that the world is marching forward according to the laws of physics and human civilization is the current result of that. All the world's a stage, and you're just an actor. Call me when someone free will's up some anti-gravity. That said, the mind and the world is so complex to us at this point that we can assume and use 'free will' in conversation and practice. Even if we recognize strict determinism, we're still going to continue acting as if we have free will so who cares?

Criminal Court :) (5, Funny)

davidwr (791652) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058742)

High Priced Trial Lawyer: Your honor, my client pleads not guilty by reason of no free will.

Judge: I sentence him to life in prison.

High Priced Trial Lawyer: But...

Judge: Don't look at me, I don't have free will either.

I, for one... (0, Redundant)

charlesbakerharris (623282) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058744)

welcome our new inner overlords.

Standard hidden agenda - extinguish metaphysics (1)

ribman (1066628) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058770)

Yet again, this is not so much interesting as a scientific investigation as being yet another roll of the "Ah, now we have proof of [anyone's choice of God]'s non-existance" dice. Dream, dream, dream ... You won't extinguish humainity's natural mytaphysical bent that easily. "Bring me the severed head of the dead God and then I will believe you." :)

L. Bob Rife? (1)

Rinisari (521266) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058778)

Now we just wait for some well-known religious figure to come along and unleash the nam shub of Enki in its purest form and brainwash the masses...

Predictability has nothing to do with free will (1)

explodingspleen (1267860) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058802)

It's no more problematic for free will if one knows what the choice will be beforehand than if one knows it after the fact. If my choices were random, that would be the opposite of free will, because then the chosen outcome would having nothing at all to do with my sense of self.

It's also not any kind of news that the physical properties of your brain relate to your choices. If I get amnesia I will make different decisions for wont of access to that previous domain of acquired knowledge than I would have otherwise.

The question is whether there is an entity to which the brain's data storage and processing capabilities are merely a tool--not whether these physical aspects of the brain exist and have effect. And the only way we will ever answer that question is to produce a full simulation of the brain.

Not exhaustive (0, Troll)

debrain (29228) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058812)

This study, while ostensibly demonstrating that free will may not exist based on empirical evidence, is not an exhaustive examination of all choices an individual makes. Perhaps a certain subset of our choices are not predetermined, and these choices constitute what we commonly accept as "free will". That leaves the complimentary set of choices as predestined. For example, in a repressed situation or when under duress, there are strong physiological forces which determine the outcome of our choice. Chemicals and the need to survive trump enlightened decisions. In the absence of repression or duress, the choice is made "freely", or at least of physiological stimuli that interfere with our higher order of consciousness.

It is my personal belief that the higher the number of free choices an individual has in life and the greater the meaning those choices have in significance to the individual, the closer that persons life is to a maximization of the person's spiritual potential. I believe we have a limited number of discrete free-will choices, and that these choices manifest themselves only in the absence of a physiological forces which work against them. I also believe that there is a correlation between the freedom to make choices and the maximization of an individual's spiritual (as opposed to carnal) existence, which has an intrinsic value.

For that reason, I conjecture that the purpose of society ought to be to maximize free will. I believe a society that maximizes each individual's free will (insofar as it does not infringe on others' free will) is a transcendent society, an enlightened society.

A caveat, while having thought about it, I'm pretty naive about the topic, and curious about thoughts you may have, or philosophers who have contemplated this.

Random thoughts (1)

kreyg (103130) | more than 6 years ago | (#23058816)

If the human brain is simply a computing device, then problems such as the halting problem should apply to it.

The human brain is involved in a feedback loop with the environment around it. The complexity of this feedback loop is significant enough that it might not actually be predictable (giving the illusion of free will) but that doesn't mean that it's not deterministic.

Of course, this study would suggest that, not only is it deterministic, but is constrained to few enough parameters that it may also be predictable if you watch the right variables.

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