Humans have struggled with the concept of freedom and free-will since the Stoic philosophers debated the nature of being. We are aware of our existence in a larger sense, aware of the decisions we’re capable of making and the implications of those actions. There are also always outside forces working in conjunction with our own urges and subconscious desires in every decision that is made. At the core of philosophy, biology, and psychology remains the question: can one predict the outcome of another person’s life, their actions or motivations? Those who believe there is an accurate or predetermined path for those functions count themselves as determinists. Determinism is often cited as the “nurture” factor in the nature vs. nurture debate (McLeod). Researchers have cited environmental, genetic, or physical traits as the ways they can predict or explain a subject’s behavior. Those who believe that humans act on their own inclinations or internal motivations purely (or could if they desired) believe in the concept of free will. In class I was assigned the group that had to argue that free will does not exist. In reality, my position is that free will does exist.
All of this starts at defining what consciousness is and how humans decide on what actions to take. Consciousness is defined as a person’s awareness of their existence and surroundings, and compounds all of the sensory, physically, and emotional experiences one goes through while being alive. Agency is a person’s ability to make choices about their actions, and awareness of those actions. From a more biologically focused standpoint, decisions are made by the brain in the prefrontal cortex (Prefrontal Cortex). The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for personality expression and social behavior. One of the most notable cases that pinpointed the prefrontal cortex as responsible for these behavior or trait representation (before the discovery and invention of the fMRI) was found in Phineas Gage. Gage was working as a foreman on a railroad and was struck in the head with a metal rod. He survived, but the damage done to him besides blindness in his left eye was observed more in his personality post-accident. A normally hard-working and agreeable man, he turned into a bitter and completely erratic person. He was fired from his job and moved away from his family. His case was studied back when he was first injured and observed but eventually it became clear that this pattern could be observed in the modern day (Gazzaniga). After a traumatic brain injury it’s common to find different personality expression. This is observed in subjects with Alzheimer’s who become more aggressive or confrontational due to the disintegration of the prefrontal cortex. Another famous case that comes to mind is that of Charles Whitman who murdered 16 people and documented that he knew something was wrong in his journal and requested an autopsy where the physicians discovered a small tumor and widespread necrosis in his brain. There have been huge advancements in observing brain activity in the past few decades. After the invention of the MRI, scientists were able to use the principal of mapping the brain structure and use a variation of the test/machine called the fMRI to track brain activity in specific areas in response to specific activities. An EEG is also a common test done with patients suspected of having neurological problems ranging from internal bleeding to various psychological disorders. It works by attaching electrodes to the scalp and tracking the electrical impulses/signals from the brain in response to various stimuli including flashing lights, sporadic sounds, or long-term studies on attention span or sleep brain wave activity (Hopkins).
Researchers are starting to use human behavior and these forms of tracking and apply them to business. Neuromarketing is a technique that’s starting to be integrated by tracking subject’s responses to advertisements through fMRI tests. Elements of advertisements tested included price, instantaneous reaction to images (appealing or not), and reception of facts. Machine learning is also becoming popular as data collected from humans is evaluated through a series of algorithms designed to evaluate their decisions and predict their next choice or guide them to their next choice. Most people will recognize these traits in many popular apps, including movie recommendations from Netflix, weekly playlists of new music from Spotify, and traffic evaluations from Waze while driving (Harvard Business Review).
All of these algorithms are improved as the user interacts with the algorithm and is able to provide more information on general decision-making skills as the data is collected from thousands of users. As these machines or businesses learn more about human reaction the question arises whether free will is lost if a program can effectively predict what a person will like or decide what to do.
The concept of free will was biologically tested by Benjamin Libet in 1983 through his wrist-flexing experiment. He measured the subject’s brain activity and told them to self-report the time when they decided to flex their wrist. The EEGs overwhelmingly showed a pattern of the brain preparing the wrist to move approximately 0.4 seconds before the subject reported deciding to flex the wrist. Libet’s experiment was praised as proof that actions by the brain can be predicted before they occur. How-ever there were issues with the experiment. The brain had already made a subconscious decision before action was taken on the conscious decision, but that doesn’t necessarily prove that people’s actions are completely predictable through brain waves. Humans are recorded as having urges that they think about acting on but ultimately never do; for example, someone hiking close to a cliff thinking about jumping off or a person driving a car may think about swerving for no reason.
These are unspecific urges and can’t be taken to be predictive of human behavior. Even with data or algorithms that may become very good at predicting human behavior they will never be able to determine every person’s actions from data alone. Even with Libet’s test and the studies done by Vohs and Schooler those studies only show that humans may be inclined to think a certain way, but it doesn’t necessarily confirm how or why people make the decisions they do (Cave). It’s much clearer that people have the capacity to choose what they do at all times. The thing that changes is their outside influence. In the case of criminals whose actions are found to be caused by exterior factors like mental illness, brain trauma, or other psychoses there is still a choice. That person may be affected by what has happened to their brain (and its decision-making cortex) but the choice is still theirs. Just because these factors may trigger a criminal or violent act does not mean these factors are the deciding element in why a person chooses to do something. A person’s environment may also be questioned as part of the reasoning in their decisions but ultimately, people always have a choice to make. The biological studies can’t prove anything conclusively and the human brain is too complex for every action to be pre-determined.