Posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Neuroscience, The Conscious Disbeliever



Do we have freewill?

That simple question does not have a simple answer it seems, and has been cause of a centuries long matter of debate in many fields of human knowledge. It has pitted determinists and libertarians against each other for ages, with compatibilists in between.

If we look to science for an answer, the evidence is in favor of the deterministic view, as neither the libertarian o compatibilist theories pass muster.

In a strict sense we don’t have free will. Our choices are dictated by our circumstance, that is by genetics and environment. The laws of physics put constraints on our actions. In fact many of our choices, ascribed to free will, are initiated in a subconscious manner a few milliseconds before we actually think of doing them.

In the deterministic world in which we live free will is a perception. We have the sense of free will inasmuch as we do not feel externally compelled to decide or to do some action. But it is only that, an illusion, a preception. There is no Ghost in the Machine or Soul as you will, controlling our decision process but rather a series of neural circuits within a large network that are responsible for our decisions. The network within our material brain is hardwired through nature and nurture to respond and have the ability to acquire new information and adjust the decision process accordingly. The areas that intervene in this decision making process are mainly the posterior superior parietal lobe (pSPL) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) in value-guided decisions. And in motor decisions they are originated in frontopolar cortex from where they influence the buildup of decision-related information in the precuneus  (a posteromedial portion of the parietal lobe)and later in supplementary motor cortex (SMC)

So should we abolish the concept?

Well, one thing is in vitro and a very different one is in vivo. We must strive for knowledge and understanding through science but at the same time we must preserve social coexistence. If we decide that free will, selfhood and personhood are invalid, then how can we expect a person to be subject to the norm. If each and every decision is dependent on an external force, I am responsible for nothing. And this is a very irrational argument that goes directly in contravention to basic self preservation and self interest.

So in the end we cannot throw free will in the trash even though science does not support its existence.  We have to refine the definition of free will and accept the importance it has on our day to day lives. We may have to thank cognitive polyphasia for that.  It may be an illusory state but it serves us well. Maybe it is a decision made from a neural circuit in the brain that is limited by the laws of nature, but it is MY brain. Is my brain not me?

There is much that we do not know and much more that I do not know.

See you next time.

Recommended reading

  • Fried, I., Mukamel, R., & Kreiman, G. (2011). Internally Generated Preactivation of Single Neurons in Human Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition. Neuron, 69(3), 548–562. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.11.045Hunt L. T., Kolling, N., Soltani, A., Woolrich, M. W., Rushworth, M. F. S., & Behrens, T. E. J. (2012). Mechanisms underlying cortical activity during value-guided choice. Nature Neuroscience, 15(3), 470–476. doi:10.1038/nn.3017
    Newell, B. (2009). Can Neuroscience Inform the Free Will Debate? Indiana Undergraduate Journal of Cognitive Science.

    Pearson, J., & Platt, M. L. (2012). Dynamic decision making in the brain. Nature Neuroscience, 15(3), 341–342. doi:10.1038/nn.3049

    Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J., & Sakura, O. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11(5), 543–545.


Family man, gamer, neurosurgeon, "Born Again 6.9 Atheist" and of course, Coffee aficionado

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