A recent study conducted by The Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California has prompted some interesting headlines. The study offers evidence that our individual decision-making may be the result of “background noise” in our brain rather than “free will.” It led to headlines such as “Free Will is Just an Illusion” (CNET) and “Free Will May Just Be the Brain’s Background Noise” (livescience.com). This is a bunch of overblown hype.
A few things first: the idea of free will has been subject to scrutiny since the dawn of philosophy, with some thinkers arguing we are independent agents capable of making decisions that are not directly determined by outside factors and others making deterministic arguments that free will is an illusion and we are, in fact, all on predetermined paths set by the cosmos. It has been a source of contention not just among philosophers and scientists, but also among theologians who wrestled with the question of God’s omniscience and whether God predetermines whether we go to heaven or hell. I’ll leave that question for others, but the conclusion that free will is an “illusion” is a bit premature. The media and perhaps some scientists appear to using a “jump to conclusions mat” ala Tom Smykowski in “Office Space” (“It was a ‘Jump to Conclusions’ mat. You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor… and would have different CONCLUSIONS written on it that you could JUMP TO”).
The idea of free will is the basis for the idea of good and evil, justice and law, right and wrong. Without free will we could not judge something as right or wrong but merely determine that it “is.” If free will were determined to be an illusion, it would absolve all people of wrongdoing, as they were caused to act by forces beyond their control and thus not guilty of their crimes. This is a rather common idea among defense lawyers who argue their defendant should not be found guilty of murder because he was abused by his father, etc., etc., etc. The idea of liberty and freedom would also be eliminated, as we could determine that people are never truly free to act as independent agents and therefore bureaucratic means should be used to ensure equality and fairness based on extenuating factors (sound familiar?).
Free will has been the bane of social engineers, government, philosophers, theologians, and all-around smart people for centuries precisely because it means that we cannot determine with precision what individuals or even groups of individuals will do in a given situation.
In actuality, whether you believe in free will doesn’t really matter because the number of influences, both external and internal, in individuals and groups are so complex and numerous that they cannot be fully known or understood in their entirety, even by computers. There is simply not enough information even if you believe the universe is entirely deterministic. John Gribben, in his book Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity, notes that “a computer with an infinite memory is required to specify the state of a single particle. No computer can be bigger than the entire Universe, and if you define the Universe as ‘everything there is,’ this means that the only system that can replicate the behavior of the Universe in every detail is—the Universe itself… Whether or not we have free will, the Universe behaves as if we have free will, which is all that really matters.”
So what does this mean for the Center for Mind and Brain study? Well, the experiment itself was simplistic. While attached to an EEG, participants were given random cues on a screen, at which point they would either look right or left. The scientists were able to monitor brain waves and determined that the decision to look either right or left was generated in brain’s “background noise.” So what is this “background noise?” As one of the researchers explained, “This random firing, or noise, may even be the carrier upon which our consciousness rides, in the same way that radio static is used to carry a radio station.”
The background noise of the brain, then, can be envisioned as all the pre-existing, influencing factors that make up our lives and individual personalities: our personal history, genetics, social lives, hopes, dreams, goals, fears, and everything else that makes us who were are. That decisions should emanate from this highly complex plane of consciousness certainly rings true enough, but the idea that it somehow eliminates free will or renders free will an illusion is a quantum leap to conclusions that are beyond the ability of science (at this point anyway) to make. In the study of complex systems, consciousness is believed to be an emergent quality. Emergence occurs, to put it simply, when the product is greater than the sum of its parts and a new quality emerges. A common example is that a molecule of H2O is not wet, but when combined in massive numbers, we get water, which is wet.
A Computer The Size Of The Universe
The same, it is believed, with consciousness. In the context of this experiment, the “background noise” is a complex intermingling of everything that has created that individual up to that point. In order for us to say that free will is an illusion, we would have to believe that we can accurately account for every single influencing factor in a person’s life. If it would take a computer the size of the universe to determine where a single physical particle will be at a given moment, what would it take to determine the decision an individual will make, particularly when we factor in belief systems and culture?
To be sure, these findings are interesting despite the simplistic nature of the experiment itself, which only allows for one of two decisions—right or left. However, those who would like to declare the death of free will believe they can make determinations based on only a few relevant factors, such as race, class, and gender. While social engineers and government bureaucrats would love if the complexity of humanity could be whittled down to few influencing factors, the evidence, no matter how tested or envisioned, is not there. As Gribben wrote, “The Universe is ignorant of its own future, and is its own fastest simulator.” Likewise, we cannot determine an individual’s future decisions or the nature of free will based on laboratory simulations or a test that is anything less than a man or woman and their relationship with the universe in its totality.