Yet psychologists widely agree that unconscious processes exert a powerful influence over our choices. In one study, for example, participants solved word puzzles in which the words were either associated with rudeness or politeness. Those exposed to rudeness words were much more likely to interrupt the experimenter in a subsequent part of the task. When debriefed, none of the subjects showed any awareness that the word puzzles had affected their behavior. That scenario is just one of many in which our decisions are directed by forces lurking beneath our awareness.
Thus, ironically, because our subconscious is so powerful in other ways, we cannot truly trust it when considering our notion of free will. We still do not know conclusively that our choices are determined. Our intuition, however, provides no good reason to think that they are not. If our instinct cannot support the idea of free will, then we lose our main rationale for resisting the claim that free will is an illusion.
Is Consciousness Just a Brain Process?
Though a young movement, experimental philosophy is broad in scope. Its proponents apply their methods to varied philosophical problems, including questions about the nature of the self. For example, what (if anything) makes you the same person from childhood to adulthood? They investigate issues in ethics, too: Do people think that morality is objective, as is mathematics, and if so, why? Akin to the question of free will, they are also tackling the dissonance between our intuitions and scientific theories of consciousness.
Scientists have postulated that consciousness is populations of neurons firing in certain brain areas, no more and no less. To most people, however, it seems bizarre to think that the distinctive tang of kumquats, say, is just a pattern of neural activation.
Our instincts about consciousness are triggered by specific cues, experimental philosophers explain, among them the existence of eyes and the appearance of goal-directed behavior, but not neurons. Studies indicate that people’s intuitions tell them that insects—which, of course, have eyes and show goal-directed behavior—can feel happiness, pain and anger.
The problem is that insects very likely lack the neural wherewithal for these sensations and emotions. What is more, engineers have programmed robots to display simple goal-directed behaviors, and these robots can produce the uncanny impression that they have feelings, even though the machines are not remotely plausible candidates for having awareness. In short, our instincts can lead us astray on this matter, too. Maybe consciousness does not have to be something different from—or above and beyond—brain processes.
Philosophical conflicts over such concepts as free will and consciousness often have their roots in ordinary intuitions, and the historical debates often end in stalemates. Experimental philosophers maintain that we can move past some of these impasses if we understand the nature of our gut feelings. This nascent field will probably not produce a silver bullet to fully restore or discredit our beliefs in free will and other potential illusions. But by understanding why we find certain philosophical views intuitively compelling, we might find ourselves in a position to recognize that, in some cases, we have little reason to hold onto our hunches.
This article was originally published with the title Is Free Will an Illusion?.