Thursday, November 5, 2009

Free Will and Science

I just returned from a talk by Brian Knutson, who is an assistant professor at Stanford University doing fMRI investigations into decision making. Through brain scans, Dr. Knutson has been able to pinpoint portions of the brain that are activated before we make certain decisions. These are the first steps to being able to predict individual choices.

And which decisions, you might wonder is Dr. Knutson studying? Which essential decision making process is he doing his best to flesh out? You guessed it: the decisions we make when we...spend money. The experiments he presented were based in trying to figure out when someone is going to buy something or not, or when they are going to make risky investment decisions. A majority of neuroscience research into decision making, in fact, has been focused on economic choices of the individual, as you can find here. I'm not going to speculate on why, when it comes to the vast array of decisions human beings make on a day to day basis neuroscientists have been most engaged with how people make economic decisions, but so it is.

But anyway, what it does bring to the forefront is something that has been looming in neuroscience, and science more generally, for a while now. Basically, what has always been an implicit project of science, figuring out specific causes of events so that they can predicted in the future, has now become an explicit project of neuroscience, and our conception of free will hangs in the balance.

Scientists disagree widely about when or how or even if these discoveries will be made. But to me, the point is that thousands of scientists in our country are engaged in the project of making it happen right now. Even if they are only mildly successful, our current notions of free will and moral responsibility will be fiercely challenged. If scientists are looking for ways that they can use your neurological and genetic information to predict events and behavior that you will experience, where does your free will lie? This is hardly a new question posed by science, but I think it is becoming more urgent that we think long and hard about how to address it. This way, if the data arrives, we will know how to interpret and communicate it long before we are actually presented with it.

Groups like the law & neuroscience project are already starting to deal with these issues as they come to the forefront in legal matters. But this is not enough to address the effects this information will have on average individuals' conception of themselves. How can we experience ourselves if we come to know all the reasons we will do the things we do? Sometimes, I think that there is no way to conceive of there not being free will, and that's enough to keep the concept intact. But at other moments, when I concentrate really hard, I can imagine reliable information about what decisions I'm going to make or experiences I'm going to have could be at the same time freeing and extremely limiting.

This is both exciting and scary to me. Could we be on the edge of a new paradigm, a whole new way of looking at the universe and ourselves? It would be exhilarating---but I have no answers, only questions. And the hope that we can get more smart people to really think about this question.

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