The Neuroscience of Free Will: Everything You Need To Know

Neuroscience of Free Will Everything You Need To Know

Who are you and how did you become interested in free will?

 

I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Iona College where I also serve as a faculty member for the Iona Neuroscience program. I have previously worked in the Scientific and Philosophical Studies of Mind program at Franklin and Marshall College as well as previous appointments as a Lecturer at King’s College London and the University of Alabama.

My recent and forthcoming publications focus on issues of autonomy in terms of philosophical accounts of free will as well as how it intersects with neuroscience and psychiatry. One of the main questions I investigate is what neuroscience can tell us about meaningful agency (see here for my recent review of the topic as part of an extended review of research on agency, freedom, and responsibility for the John Templeton Foundation).

I became interested in free will via an interdisciplinary route. As an undergraduate at Grinnell College, I majored in psychology with a strong emphasis on experimental psychology and clinical psychology. During my senior year at Grinnell, I realized that I was fascinated by the theoretical issues operating in the background of the psychological studies that we read and conducted, especially issues of how the mind is related to the brain, prospects for the scientific study of consciousness, and how humans as agents fit into a natural picture of the world. So I followed these interests to the study of the philosophy of psychology and eventually found my way to the perfect fusion of these topics: the neuroscience of free will.

 

What is free will?

Free will seems to be a familiar feature of our everyday lives — most of us believe that (at least at times) what we do is up to us to some extent.

For instance, I freely decided to take my job or that I am acting freely when I decide to go for a run this afternoon. Free will is not just that I move about in the world to achieve a goal, but that I exercise meaningful control over what I decide to do. My decisions and actions are up to me in the sense that they are mine — a product of my values, desires, beliefs, and intentions. I decided to take this job because I valued the institution’s mission or I believed that this job would be enriching or a good fit for me.

Related: Neuroscience of Anxiety in the Bright Brain

True Love Is Built On Free Will

Correspondingly, it seems to me that at least at times I could have decided to and done something else than what I did. I decided to go for a run this afternoon, but no one made me and I wasn’t subject to any compulsion; I could have gone for a coffee instead, at least it seems to me.

Philosophers take these starting points and work to construct plausible accounts of free will. Broadly speaking, there is a lot of disagreement as to the right view of free will, but most philosophers believe that a person has free will if they have the ability to act freely, and that this kind of control is linked to whether it would be appropriate to hold that person responsible (e.g., blame or praise them) for what they do. For instance, we don’t typically hold people responsible for what they do if they were acting under severe threat or inner compulsion.

 

How do neuroscientists study free will?

There are plenty of sensational claims about the brain science of free will out there and lots of back and forth about whether or not science disproves free will (e.g., “My brain made me do it”).

Related: The Neuroscience of Drumming

Given the strong link between free will and systems of moral and legal responsibility, like punishment, the stakes are high not just for our conception of human nature, but also for our everyday practices that matter.

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