Free Will and the Philosophy of Science

Neuroscience and Neurology CategoryFor many years the discussion over the existence of free will was limited to philosophers and theologians. Scientists started talking about free will once science started separating as a discipline from philosophy. However, it wasn’t until the rise of functional neuroimaging that some neuroscientists started studying if the brain and deterministic brain processes could explain away free will. In short, some scientists want to discover whether or not free will is merely an illusion, an idea humans create out of an innate desire to feel in control.

IllusionIn a 2008 article in Nature Neuroscience, researchers believe that their findings indicate that free will is at best highly implausible. They stated they were able to accurately predict, using fMRI and statistical modeling, people’s responses up to 10 seconds before a response was made on a simple task where participants were asked to push a button with their left or right hand. Activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices preceded response by up to 10 seconds. The researchers interpret their results as showing there is no evidence for free will. Because this brain activity occurs before people are aware of their response, the authors feel that free will is nothing more than an illusion. The mechanics of the brain determine our responses.

On the other hand, assuming the findings are valid and replicable, there are other interpretations. I’ll explain an alternative interpretation by explaining a little epistemology and the philosophy of science first. Modern science is founded on the philosophical assumptions of materialism, naturalism, and empiricism — among other ideas. Materialism assumes determinism. Determinism is mechanistic and denies free will.

Because determinism is assumed, it is not possible to really study free will using neuroscience methods because it’s saying and doing the following:

  • Believe that free will may or may not exist.
  • Use methods (e.g., scientific method) that assume that free will doesn’t exist.
  • Conduct free will research that apparently shows free will does not exist.
  • Interpret the results as showing that free will does not exist.

One fault with this research is that the authors assume determinism and mechanism of our material world and then they try to study something that does not exist according to the foundational assumptions of modern science. It is thus not surprising that they view their research findings as pointing towards the nonexistence of free will.

Why is it important to understand the philosophical assumptions that underline modern science, including neuroscience and psychology? In psychology, the question of free will is important because it can change how a psychologist views abnormal behavior (and even normal behavior). It can change how psychotherapy is conducted (e.g., personal responsibility versus repressed early experiences). If a psychologist takes a deterministic approach to science or therapy, her approach can be very different than someone who takes a non-deterministic (e.g., free will) approach.

In closing I’d like to throw out a couple questions for the readers. Is there room for assuming free will in neuroscience research? Are there other ways of approaching the question of free will, especially as it relates to science research?


Soon, C., Brass, M., Heinze, H., & Haynes, J. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain Nature Neuroscience, 11 (5), 543-545 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2112

  • T_U_T

    Modern science is founded on the philosophical assumptions of materialism

    Fail. Scientific metohod does nowhere assume materialism. It could happily be applied to magic or ghosts or whatever if they existed

    Materialism assumes determinism.

    Fail. Quantum mechanics is materialistic but does deal with inherently stochastic processes.

    Determinism is mechanistic and denies free will.

    Fail again. There is no way to define fee will that would not be either equivalent to randomness or be possible even under determinism. Both of which science can deal with.

  • Brook M.

    As the first commenter pointed out, this isn’t an assumption to be made so lightly:

    Determinism is mechanistic and denies free will.

    As Daniel C. Dennett argues convincingly in Freedom Evolves, determinism does not deny free will at all, and in fact may be required for free will to exist. After all, what good is making a choice if the outcome of your actions based on that choice are random?

    I too used to believe that the possible definitions of “free will” were limited to “random”, “mechanical” (meaning non-existent), or “spiritual” (magical). Freedom Evolves is an excellent read on the nature of what “free will” actually means, in a way completely compatible with a deterministic brain.

  • I think this discussion needs to be careful with its terms. Eg ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ determinism need to be distinguished.

    Hard determinism is not compatible with free wiil, soft determinism is (though hard determinists see it as an evasion).

    The assumption of an independant observer is one assumption that positivist science is based on.

    Cause is an assumption that empiricism is based on (I’ve never stubbed my toe on a cause and I bet you haven’t either).

  • Your argument for free will fails because faulting a study for having a hypothesis is illogical. They were able to gather empirical evidence to back up their hypothesis, which you need to refute. You say you’ll do that by re-interpreting the result, but you offered no re-interpretation, instead you simply dismissed the premise of their argument. That’s not re-interpretation…

  • Brad

    I agree with T_U_T, this was indeed a fail argument. From the very get-go my first two questions were:

    (1) Exactly what is the definition of “free will”? The term is too nebulous and conflated as it currently stands in modern parlance to be put under rigorous empirical or theoretical study. And,

    (2) Exactly how would deterministic left-right button pushing be logically extended to all willed choices? A bit jumpy if you ask me.

    You say there are “alternative interpretations” of the data, and that you would outline one for us. I reread this blogpost over and still don’t see said interpretation. The chief erroneous claim in the whole post, though, is “materialism assumes determinism,” which is false – as said above, quantum theory is materialistic but requires elements of randomness. Even if the universe is entirely deterministic at heart – it might not rule out free will depending on exactly what “free” means.

    What does it mean?

    P.S. I’d like to go under that fMRI. What I’d do is select an elementary sequence of numbers and modulate it. Say I take prime numbers modulo 4. If it’s congruent to 1, I go left, if 3, I go right. (And I start at 3 of course.) Would the machine be able to parse my brain patterns corresponding to my convoluted calculations? Doubtful.

  • Brad hit the nail on the head. What is the definition of free will? To most of the commenters so far it appears that free will = randomness. I disagree with that definition. Free will is closer to choice but even that is incomplete. I also believe that there are gradations of free will – the free will of a human is different than the free will of a snail. I know many would argue that snails don’t have free will (especially because many argue that people don’t) but that’s just my belief. Some people might think that choice = randomness = unexplained behavior/outcome = uncertainty. Those are aspects of free will but none of them is sufficient to define free will. My definition of free will needs some context, which I can’t provide in this comment. I know that’s a cop-out but I don’t think I can do the topic justice in just a few words.

    There were many flaws with my post – I recognize that (namely the part where I said I’d offer an alternative interpretation – I meant to add that it would be in a follow-up post, which I have yet to write). I just wanted it to serve as a jumping ground for further discussion. 🙂

    Brad, “‘materialism assumes determinism,’ which is false – as said above, quantum theory is materialistic but requires elements of randomness.” Ah, but does randomness equal “free will”? That’s the question, isn’t it?

    “The term is too nebulous and conflated as it currently stands in modern parlance to be put under rigorous empirical or theoretical study.” True, it is a nebulous term but you cannot “study free will” using empirical methods. We can set up some operational definition for free will but we are still not studying it; we are studying what we believe is a measurable manifestation of it. Now we can study it using theory (i.e., philosophy) but any other method is untenable.

    Evan, many people today assume soft determinism but the problem is that so-called soft determinism is simply a change in the meaning of the word determinism. There really is no “hard” and “soft” determinism – just hard determinism. What is called soft determinism is something else altogether because it breaks the basic assumption of determinism. Many people try to sugar-coat determinism to fit experience or data or personal belief systems but what they are doing is misapplying a convenient label to something it is not. Even though I try not to assume determinism in my research or theories or general belief system, I have to agree with your “hard determinists” who call “soft determinism” an evasion; it is. It’s applying a label to something that is not determinism.

  • Looking forward to your next post.

  • ylang

    Even though free will is an ‘uncaused’ directional force towards a planned effect, it still must necessarily be determined by the parameters within which its efficacy is permitted to operate ie the framework of beingness and its environs with all its finite possibilities. In other words, free will by its very encapsulation in the human prison, is by definition shackled to the deterministic artefacts of life; thus it is in the ultimately indeterminate probabilistic (but still finite) outcomes that it fulfills its definition.

  • Thanks Evan. I’m working on a follow-up post or two but it might take me a while since school is super busy right now!

    For all readers of the post – when I say “determinism” in my post I’m referring strictly to biological determinism.

    ylang, That’s a very interesting comment. What you are arguing sounds much closer to a monistic approach to this issue rather than the classic dualism that neuroscience assumes. I haven’t explained what monism is (it’s different than the one-sided dualism that many neuroscientists and scientists assume) but basically it’s a philosophical idea or approach to science, particularly neuroscience, that serves as an alternate assumption to Cartesian dualism so many assume today.

  • dm

    Wondering if you’ve seen John Conway’s article in February’s Notices of the AMS. There are also some video lectures on this available.

  • Brad

    @Jared: I figured the alternative interpretation might have been saved for later. I am interested and may drop by later. Or perhaps delve into this blog some more for fun. I dunno, I have schoolwork as well, but then again, I think I can slump off my last few weeks of high school. Unlike you Jared 😛

    Anyway, my rejoinder to your rebuttal: although the overarching question is indeed about the relationship between free will and randomness, the main thrust of this post in particular was that scientific investigation – at least as currently practiced – preemptively rules out free will, thereby making the aforementioned left/right-button-pushing experiment vain. My point was that this argument in particular is unsound because of the false premise “materialism assumes determinism”.

    Second, can you present an actual argument as to why free will cannot be empirically studied, or is that merely an immediate intuition? I cannot think of any way that any particularly cool definition could allow for empirical study, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible in principle.

    As per your response to Evan, I concurrently observe that “determinism” has been sugar-coated to appease our mysteriously disconcerting feelings about it. Sometimes I wonder, even if the brain is able to exploit the randomness of quantum mechanics (if there really is randomness there), and my decisions and personality happen to be stochastic in nature, then would I still be disappointed about it? Emotions are weird.

    @ylang: It’s kind of hard to comprehend your words, but if I understand correctly, aren’t you circuitously presupposing free will and reality are deterministic? (As for the semantics: “free will” isn’t a force and “efficacy” doesn’t operate. That kind of threw me off. Perhaps I need to change brainsides.)

    @dm: I haven’t looked through Conway’s article yet, but I remember downloading the first FWT from and glancing at it. Out of curiosity, does the theorem rest on empirically true axioms this time? I’ll check it out.

  • Re: dm

    I haven’t watched much of the lectures yet. They are on my to do list. I really like what I’ve seen so far of them. Thanks also for linking to Conway’s paper; I didn’t have that link.

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  • Mark

    Here’s an interesting perspecitve

    Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology:
    a neurophysical model of mind–brain interaction
    Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp and Mario Beauregard

    Happy seeking!

  • Pingback: What is Free Will? | Brain Blogger()

  • Free will is indeed an important and fascinating subject. Personally, I only have to look at the growth of a tree, or a human conversation, to see that the universe isn’t mechanical. Your article doesn’t mention God, but God is vital to any discussion of free will. God is imminent in all of creation, and more than that, is the animating force in all creatures. Free will is indeed an illusion, but only because God is the one doing everything.

    I have written on the subject of free will on my blog:

    Many thanks and best wishes, Steven

  • Anonymous


  • anuraag burman

    wow again

Jared Tanner, PhD

Jared Tanner has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in neuropsychology. His interests are mainly neuroimaging and neuroanatomy. He spends his research time looking at the structure of gray and white matter in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. With a focus on neuropsychology, he is also interested in how normal and abnormal brain structure relates to cognitive and behavioral functioning.

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