Naturally, They Had to Say That

According to a brief report in World Science entitled Brain may prepare decisions in advance, human beings may not have free will because the brain makes decisions about 10 minutes before the person making decisions is consciously aware that the decision has been made.

Cer­tain pat­terns of brain ac­ti­vity pre­dict peo­ple’s de­ci­sions up to 10 sec­onds be­fore the peo­ple are aware of them, ac­cord­ing to new re­search that casts fresh doubt on wheth­er we have free will.

The an­cient de­bate over free will cen­ters on wheth­er it’s an il­lu­sion to be­lieve our thoughts and de­ci­sions are in­de­pend­ent, since our brains really con­sist of atoms bounc­ing around ac­cord­ing to their own rules.

The new study sug­gests the ques­tion­ing may be jus­ti­fied.

Re­search­ers tracked brain ac­ti­vity while peo­ple viewed a stream of let­ters on screen, and then pressed a but­ton. Each par­ti­ci­pant was asked to de­cide freely which of two but­tons to press and when to press it.

Scan­ning the brains with a tech­nique called func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors used a sta­tis­ti­cal meth­od known as pat­tern rec­og­ni­tion to ex­am­ine brain ac­ti­vity as­so­ci­at­ed with each choice. Ac­ti­vity in two brain re­gions, called the pre­fron­tal and pa­ri­e­tal cor­tex, pre­dicted which but­ton the per­son would press, they found. These ar­eas have pre­vi­ously been linked to self-re­flec­tion, se­lec­tion amongst choices and ex­ec­u­tive con­trol.

This ac­ti­vity oc­curred up to 10 sec­onds be­fore sub­jects were con­sciously aware of hav­ing made a de­ci­sion, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers. The find­ings, they added, sug­gest high-lev­el con­trol ar­eas start to pre­pare an up­com­ing de­ci­sion long be­fore it en­ters con­scious awareness.

The first comment that comes to mind (or, at least, appears to come to my mind although the question apparently was decided in my prefrontal and parietal cortex regions of the brain about 10 seconds before I realized that I had a comment) is that the scientists only concluded this because their prefontal and parietal cortex regions of the brain told them to do so. That would naturally leave no reason for me to believe that they actually said anything meaningful -- or, at least, my prefontal and parietal cortex regions of the brain made me decide that they had nothing meaningful to say.

More seriously, I don't see where this changes a thing in the debate about free will from those who believe that human beings are free moral agents who can actually exercise free will in making decisions. All this study does is demonstrate, in part, how the brain operates in arriving at decisions. Christians don't hold to the view that the mind is totally independent of the brain. The brain is not the mind, but the two interact with each other. Problems with the brain can certainly affect the thinking process, but it does not mean that the thinking of the mind is totally a physical activity. The mere discovery by these scientists that the prefontal and parietal cortex regions of the brain are involved in the thinking process does not mean that thinking is the result exclusively of atoms and electrical impulses bouncing around in the brain.

At least, that's what my prefontal and parietal cortex regions of the brain tell me to say.


Jason Pratt said…
{{about 10 minutes}}

I'm pretty sure you meant to write "about 10 seconds", btw.

Preparation for decision-making in advance isn't anything especially new (I've been having to deal with it in AfR disputation for ten years at least); and wouldn't be particularly problematic here, except that the researchers claim to be able to predict from the advance pre-conscious behavior which button the participant would press. (And when to press it? Not stated in the micro-article.)

However, I would want to see more details about the study, to check correlations (or lack thereof) between the testing methodology and the lobe preparation. For one thing, I don't understand why the test required viewing a stream of letters on screen. This looks like asking the test-subjects to begin looking for criteria for when to press a button. I'd be more impressed if the experiment didn't feature what looks like potential salting data.

Even without a data stream being clearly pre-processed before the button-pushing, though, I would want to know what kind of controls were in place to help insure that the test subjects only pressed a button when they actually decided to, and weren't pre-deciding to press 'A' and then only deciding when to press 'A' at some future time shortly afterward.

In short, the experiment so far looks hinky. {g} But to be fair, it cannot be anything but under-reported, too.

Leslie said…
Good points on all accounts. This experiment seems silly to me, and if I'm right it's not really that new of a concept. Just another excuse for people to try to rid themselves of responsibility.

I actually did a blog entry of my own on this. You can check it out here if you like.
JD Walters said…
Christian neuroscientist Donald MacKay in his Gifford Lectures, "The Mind's Eye", has a very good discussion of these kinds of experiments and the implications for free will. Basically if you could tell someone what they're going to do before they do it, they can react to that new information and change their course of action. The decisions we make are a function of the information we receive, so advance knowledge of our current course of action is information that has to be taken into account. Of course this is just a very brief and misleading sketch. But I think Christians will have to think more rigorously about neuroscience in the future.
Steven Carr said…
'Christians don't hold to the view that the mind is totally independent of the brain.'

When does the brain decompose after death, and does this have any effect on the consciousness of the dead person?
Steven Carr said…
Basically if you could tell someone what they're going to do before they do it, they can react to that new information and change their course of action.

I see. So if God tells you that he has infallible knowledge of what you are going to do before you do it, you cn react to that new information and change your course of action.
Jason Pratt said…
{{When does the brain decompose after death}}

Depends on the local environmental conditions. You'd have to ask a pathologist for the ranges.

{{and does this have any effect on the consciousness of the dead person?}}

Oddly, sometimes no. {g} I'm sure you're aware there have been medical incidents recorded where brain death was considered final, and yet the person not only recovered but proved he had been conscious of local environmental occurrences.

Usually, though, a dead person is no longer conscious of anything going on in this world. (Or if they are, you'd have to ask them. {g}) See the quote to which you replied: Christians don't hold to the view that the (human) mind is totally independent of the brain. We just think it's also dependent on something more independent than Nature is.

{{So if God tells you that he has infallible knowledge of what you are going to do before you do it, you can react to that new information and change your course of action.}}

Whether God has infallible knowledge of what I am going to do, it would make no potential difference unless He communicated this knowledge to me, adding to the data for me to make decisions about. And by the terms of the case, it wouldn't be infallible knowledge unless the situation was such that either simply or complexly I was eventually put in the position to decide and then decided after all. (The Spielberg film Minority Report is an interesting case-study in that concept.) God would simply be seeing my decision from His vantage--but He would only be able to report it to me if doing so would not alter the situation. (Even God cannot do that which is flatly self-contradictory.)

Thus if God tells me I will marry a particular person, I can trust (assuming I understood the communication correctly and that it was actually from God--two rather large assumptions!) that eventually that situation will be set up and that either it will occur accidentally (or in some other fashion without my intent) or that the situation will be such that I will willingly choose to do so. However, I can also expect the prophetic foreshadowing to drastically under-report the forthcoming circumstances, and that allows a lot of leeway for fulfillment to occur. Depending on how much of a rebel I am, God might send me foreknowledge that leads me through egotism and selfishness into a losing situation! (Most of the prophetic foreshadowing in my novels is done by rogue Agents, who have a tendency to either willfully misread what they're seeing or see only enough of the truth to set a trap for them to fall into out of greed.)

None of this however is properly analogous to the kind of thing JD was talking about. The scientists (supposedly) are claiming to predict choices in advance from within the same timeline; but God's omniscience occurs from outside the timeline. This introduces important categorical distinctions. (That being said, many theists, even when they're trained theologians, either don't know or don't understand the important distinctions involved, and so frequently represent God and His omniscience as though it necessarily operated within natural timeline constraints--which is a technical heresy.)


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