Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What Does Memorization Say about Free Will?

Scientific and philosophical fashion these days is to claim that humans have no free will. That is, we are basically biological robots, driven to our thoughts, beliefs, and actions by unconscious forces in our brain. Our genes and our experiential programming control everything we do. Free will is an illusion.

So goes the assertions of a clutch of activist scientists, such as Richard, Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Wegner, who have probably gotten rich off their best-seller books arguing the case against free will.

Religion is also nailed to the cross, so to speak. Ideas of moral responsibility originate in views of right and wrong, and every religion expects that followers have the capacity to make the correct choices. Their free-will capacity makes them morally responsible. I think it is no accident that most of the illusory free-will activists I have read are also activists for atheism. Otherwise, their position would be cognitively dissonant.

Legal issues arise, as stated by the legal analyst Jeffrey Rosen, who wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “Since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behavior could potentially be excused? … The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility.”

There are serious social consequences attached to accepting the premise of illusory free will. One is the obvious conclusion one should draw that consciously willed effort to improve oneself or lot in life is futile.

Another consequence of such thinking is the need to proclaim, as many scientists now do, that consciousness cannot do anything. Freely chosen actions would have to come from a conscious brain. Therefore, the conscious brain must not be the source of actions that occur during consciousness. Consciousness is thus seen as audience watching a movie of what is happening.

Of course, the futility argument is not evidence for free will. It is however, a practical reason to believe in it, for otherwise people would not make much effort to change and improve themselves. They would otherwise become intellectually and emotionally paralyzed by such nihilism.

This is not the place to elaborate the research that neuroscientists claim provides the basis for asserting illusory free will. I do that in my just-released book, Mental Biology: The New Science of How Brain and Mind Relate. I point out the uncontrolled variables in the experiments conducted in the 1980s that purported to show there is no free will. Subsequent reports that confirmed those findings had the same poorly controlled variables. Moreover, there are some new studies using better designs that show that the original findings do not withstand scrutiny.

So, is there a reasoned counter-argument? Eddy Nahmias points out that "the sciences of the mind do give us good reasons to think that our minds are made of matter. But to conclude that consciousness or free will is thereby an illusion is too quick. It is like inferring from discoveries in organic chemistry that life is an illusion just because living organisms are made up of non-living stuff."

In my new book, I have a large section defending the position that consciousness IS able to do things, among them exerting at least a significant modicum of freely chosen thoughts and actions. One line of argument, which is in line with the learning and memory theme of this blog site, is memorization. It is true that the brain is forming memories of a day's events while you sleep and obviously unconscious. But the initial encoding and working memory are performed while you are conscious. Moreover, conscious use of mnemonic devices profoundly enhances the formation of memory, as I will demonstrate in future posts about how "memory athletes" do such astonishing working-memory feats as learning the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards in a minute and a half or memorizing 80-digit number strings. Conscious use of mnemonics is required. Using these mnemonics is challenging, requiring intense selective attention and strongly will executive functions. You obviously cannot do such things when you are unconscious.

Skeptics will say that such feats are all driven and performed by the unconscious mind and that consciousness is just around to realize it has happened. But consciousness is also around to recite what was memorized. Try that in your sleep.


Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology. The New Science of How Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.

Nahmias, Eddy (2011). Is neuroscience the death of free will? New York Times. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/is-neuroscience-the-death-of-free-will/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

1 comment:

  1. It seems that arguing about whether free will exists is like arguing whether an original cause (i.e. what happened before the big bang) exists. Can anyone really know? However, I strongly support the idea of free will due to the very many practical applications of this idea. I do, however, think it is a mistake -- at least in theory -- to correlate the proponents of each side of this argument with their views of religion. Various religions are widely divergent on this topic as one can see from Calvinist predestination-ism versus Free Will Baptists.


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