On Free Will

by F.

You don’t got none, and if you still can’t accept the evidence, this nice piece in the FT outlines the compelling evidence against it. In brief:

But of course we have free will, you might be thinking. You could prove it by, for example, choosing to raise your arm at some point in the next five seconds. Go on then. Done it? There, that was easy. Of your own volition, at the time of your choice, you moved your arm: QED.

But the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet has shown that before every such movement, there is a distinctive build-up of electrical activity in the brain. And this build-up happens about half a second before your conscious ”decision” to move your arm. So by the time you think, ”OK, I’ll move my arm,” your body is halfway there. Which means your conscious experience of making a decision – the experience associated with free will – is just a kind of add-on, an after-thought that only happens once the brain has already set about its business. In other words, your brain is doing the real work, making your hands turn the pages of this magazine or reach over for your cup of tea, and all the time your conscious mind is tagging along behind.


Two neuroscientists working in Australia have taken Libet’s discovery one step further. They found that, when asking people to choose to move either their left or right hands, it was possible to influence their choice by electronically stimulating certain parts of their brains. So, for example, the scientists could force the subjects always to choose to move their left hands. But despite their choice being electronically directed, these patients continued to report that they were freely choosing which hand to move.

The explanation for all this is that free will is an explanation: it is part of your self-theory. You’re brain sees the rest of the body do someing and things, “Why did that happen?” Then you answer yourself: “Oh. I wanted to.” And then you go back to eating your Twinkie. This is an extention of our Theory of Mind to ourselves.

And it does have some interesting implications for criminal law. But not as interesting as you might think. Yes, there are some folks who think that there is a moral element to criminal law, and for them the discovery of determinism will be hard to accept. Those of us who don’t believe morality has any place in the criminal law—who believe that morality is a sham—don’t have as much trouble with it. I’ve long thought the Kantian idea of punishment was incoherent. It just doesn’t make any sense, like the theory of the “deodand” doesn’t make any sense.

What is the deodand? Oh, I’m glad you asked. That was the medieval theory of criminal law according to which things like wagon wheels were thought to have “an evil will.” So they were punished. Yeah. Right. And if you want your leprosy cured, all you need to do is excise that imp who has lodged himself in your pineal gland, or perhaps release some of your noxious humours with leeches.

There is progress, and this is what it looks like: that sound you hear is eternal verities being vaporized.