Let me explain the point of reference. Ever drive a route so familiar you don’t remember getting there? It is as if your brain was on autopilot. Many scientists think this zombie-like behavior is the norm. They say that even when we are aware of having done something, it was willed subconsciously, and we only became consciously aware after the fact. This has led to a common notion among scholars that free will is an illusion. At least that is the argument promoted long ago by scholars like Darwin, Huxley, and Einstein. Many modern scientists also hold that position and have even performed experiments they say prove it.
These experiments supposedly show that the brain makes a subconscious decision before it is realized consciously. Well, I am not intimidated by science’s giants, past or present. In a paper in the current issue of Advances in Cognitive Psychology (Vol. 6, page 47-65), I challenge a whole series of experiments performed since the 1980s purported to show that intentions, choices, and decisions are made subconsciously, with conscious mind being informed after the fact.
But these experiments do not test what they are intended to test and are misinterpreted to support the view of illusory free will. In the typical experiment, a subject is asked to voluntarily press a button at any time and notice the position of a clock marker when they think they first willed the movement. At the same time, brain activity is monitored over the part of the brain that controls the mechanics of the movement. The startling observation typically is that subjects show brain activity changes before they say they intended to make the movement. In other words the brain issued the command before the conscious mind had a chance to decide to move. All this happens in less than a second, but various scientists have interpreted this to mean that the subconscious mind made the decision to move and the conscious mind only realized the decision later.
- Decisions are not often instantaneous (certainly not on a scale of a fraction of a second).
- Conscious realization that a decision has been made is delayed from the actual decision, and these may be two distinct processes.
- Decision making is not the only mental process going on in such tasks.
- Some willed action, as when first learning to play a musical instrument or touch type must be freely willed because the subconscious mind cannot know ahead of time what to do.
- Free-will experiments have relied too much on awareness of actions and time estimation of accuracy.
- Extrapolating from such simple experiments to all mental life is not justified.
- Conflicting data and interpretations have been ignored.