Do we have free will or is it a case of belief driving results?

Posted on under Today's research

For several decades, many researchers have argued that neurosgenetic studies prove human actions are driven by external stimuli—that the brain is reactive and free will is an illusion. But a new analysis of these studies shows that many may have contained methodological inconsistencies and conflicting results.

“Score one for skepticism of claims that neuroscience has proven—or disproven—any metaphysical position,” says the lead author of the paper.

“The problem is that neuroscientists in training are being taught these studies provide definitive proof of the absence of free will, and instructors aren’t being careful about looking at the evidence that supports the claims that are made,” he says. “Teaching uncritical thinking like this in science courses is both unscientific and socially dangerous.”

At issue are studies like those pioneered by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, which assessed brain activity in study participants who were asked to perform a specific task.  Libet found brain activity preceded a person’s actions before the person decided to act. Later studies, using various techniques, claimed to have replicated this basic finding.

But in the first-ever qualitative review of these studies, researchers are finding that the results are far from conclusive. The review analyzed 48 studies, ranging from Libet’s landmark 1983 paper through 2014.

“We found that interpretation of study results appears to have been driven by the metaphysical position the given author or authors subscribed to—not by a careful analysis of the results themselves,” the author adds. “Basically, those who opposed free will interpreted the results to support their position, and vice versa.”

The researchers also found significant variability across studies. For example, a subset of studies that actually looked at where activity was taking place in the brain, and whether it was related to will (or intent to complete a task), often found conflicting results.

“Meanwhile, the journal articles that drew the most forceful conclusions often didn’t even assess the neural activity in question—which means their conclusions were based on speculation,” The researchers said. “It is crucial to critically examine whether the methods used actually support the claims being made.”

This is important because what people are told about free will can affect their behavior.

“Numerous studies suggest that fostering a belief in determinism influences behaviors like cheating,” they said. “Promoting an unsubstantiated belief on the metaphysical position of non-existence of free will may increase the likelihood that people won’t feel responsible for their actions if they think their actions were predetermined.”

And this isn’t a problem solely within the neuroscience community. Earlier work the team found challenges in how this area of research has been covered by the press and consumed by the public.

“To be clear, we’re not taking a position on free will,” the researchers say. “We’re just saying neuroscience hasn’t definitively proven anything one way or the other.”

So, what? This is an important study, not so much for what it says about free will (I note that the latest neurogenetic studies on the subject were not examined since they were all published post-2014) but about the intellectual bias that underlies many of our assumptions, beliefs and actions. We tend to view almost all questions through the prism of our assumptions. If we believe in free will we will examine the evidence and look for a confirmation of our belief—and almost certainly find it!

The same is true of almost anything in science or business, the human desire for our assumptions to be affirmed is almost limitless. Much research, from Harvard and elsewhere (see previous TRs) shows that most (over 70%) of all our assumptions are wrong. That probably includes our assumptions about free will.

What now? It is important to realize that most of our assumptions remain untested, and even unknown. We can only really discover our true assumptions and beliefs by looking back over our decisions over a long period of time and ask ourselves: What is the pattern that I’m seeing? What does that pattern say about my assumptions? Even better, get someone else to do the analysis, they won’t necessarily share your biases and assumptions.