SURELY THERE MUST have been times in high school or college when you laid in bed, late at night, and wondered where your “free will” came from? What part of the brain—if it is the brain—is responsible for deciding to act one way or another? One traditional answer is that this is not the job of the brain at all but rather of the soul. Hovering above the brain like Casper the Friendly Ghost, the soul freely perturbs the networks of the brain, thereby triggering the neural activity that will ultimately lead to behavior.
Although such dualistic accounts are emotionally reassuring and intuitively satisfying, they break down as soon as one digs a bit deeper. How can this ghost, made out of some kind of metaphysical ectoplasm, influence brain matter without being detected? What sort of laws does Casper follow? Science has abandoned strong dualistic explanations in favor of natural accounts that assign causes and responsibility to specific actors and mechanisms that can be further studied. And so it is with the notion of the will.
Sensation and Action
Over the past decade psychologists such as Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard University amassed experimental evidence for a number of conscious sensations that accompany any willful action. The two most important are intention and agency. Prior to voluntary behavior lies a conscious intention. When you decide to lift your hand, this intention is followed by planning of the detailed movement and its execution. Subjectively, you experience a sensation of agency. You feel that you, not the person next to you, initiated this action and saw it through. If a friend were to take your hand and pull it above your head, you would feel your arm being dragged up, but you would not feel any sense of being responsible for it. The important insight here is that the consciously experienced feelings of intention and agency are no different, in principle, from any other consciously experienced sensations, such as the briny taste of chicken soup or the red color of a Ferrari.
And as a plethora of books on visual illusions illustrate, often our senses can be fooled—we see something that is not there. So it is with the sensation of intentionality and agency. Decades of psychology experiments—as well as careful observation of human nature that comes from a lifetime of living—reveal many instances where we think we caused something to happen, although we bear no responsibility for it; the converse also occurs, where we did do something but feel that something or somebody else must have been responsible. Think about the CEO of a company who takes credit—and bonuses worth many millions—if the stock market price of his company rises but who blames anonymous market forces when it tanks. It is a general human failing to overestimate the import of our own actions when things go well for us.
Lest there by any misunderstanding: the sensations of the intention to act and of agency do not speak to the metaphysical debate about whether will is truly free and whether that even is a meaningful statement. Whether free will has some ontological reality or is entirely an illusion, as asserted forcefully by Wegner’s masterful monograph, does not invalidate the observation that voluntary actions are usually accompanied by subjective, ephemeral feelings that are nonetheless as real as anything else to the person who experiences them.
Telling Clues from Surgeries
The quiddity of these sensations has been strengthened considerably by neurosurgeons. During certain types of brain surgery, neural tissue must be removed, either because it is tumorous or because it gives rise to epileptic seizures. How much tissue to remove is a balancing act between the Scylla of leaving remnants of cancerous or seizure-prone material and the Charybdis of removing regions that are critical for speech or other near-essential operations. To probe the function of nearby tissue, the neurosurgeon stimulates it with an electrode that passes pulses of current while the patient—who is awake and under local anesthesia to minimize discomfort—is asked to touch each finger successively with the thumb, count backwards or do some other simple task.