January/February 2012

Editorial: Rob Mason

Written by Rob Mason

“Professor, do we have a free will, or are all our actions determined by our unconscious mind?”

Everyone would agree that people have preferences of their own and these at least influence what we do. However the question of free will seems to depend upon whether our choices are influenced or determined by these preferences. A distinguished social psychologist, John A. Bargh in a recent book “Are We Free” frames this question as follows;

“Are our behaviors, judgments and other higher mental processes the product of free conscious choices, as influenced by internal psychological states (motives, preferences) or are those higher mental processes determined by those states.” John then goes on to provide a metaphoric example of how this definition might be interpreted.

“The influence model can be likened to an executive officer who takes suggestions from subordinates as to what to do but nonetheless makes the decisions; the determination model has those subordinates directly in charge with no need of an independent Decider."

Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson, believed that our personalities are essentially products of complexes and crises from upbringing. This theory emerged as part of the script of the film musical West Side Story when the ‘Jets’ explained the situation of their upbringing to the local police sergeant;

“We’re depraved on accounta we’re deprived.” Dear Kindly Sergeant Krupke, You gotta understand It’s just our bringing up-ke, That gets us out of hand. Our mothers all are junkies, Our fathers all are drunks. Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks!"

Determinism is described as the doctrine that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedent states of affairs. It could also be added that although these choices and decisions are made in full consciousness they may have been made beforehand by unconscious processes. What does this mean? An article in Nature Neuroscience, April 13th 2008) explains;

“Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain. This is shown in a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with the Charité University Hospital and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made.

"Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by  our current findings."

The feeling of free will is very real, just as real for those scientists who argue against its actual existence as for everyone else, but this strong feeling is based on an illusion, just as much as we experience the sun moving through the sky, when in fact it is we who are doing the moving. The usefulness of the experience of conscious will is that it gives us something we can communicate to others - a feeling of doing something that we can tell the world what we believe we have done. The people interviewed in this issue; Jasper, Ben, Katie, Tom and Sasha all believed they had free will and their decisions were made consciously. Tom even said that it made him feel happier to believe in free will despite the fact that causal evidence shows we are not the authors of our actions.