Here's another episode in my so-far never-ending quest to convince readers of this blog that free will, as normally understood, is an illusion. (For previous attempts, type "free will" in the Google search box in the right sidebar.)
Below is a letter to the editor in the July 30 issue of New Scientist, a British publication. Which explains the weird spelling of "randomize" and "recognize." Damn, can't those Britons speak English correctly, like us Americans do?
Anyway, I digress.
I thought Carpenter's last paragraph was right-on. Along with reflexes, intuitions seem to be another example of unconsicous brain processes that we aren't aware of being prepared in advance.
With rational, conscious, deliberative step-by-step thinking, by contrast, we are aware of how the brain is going through the process of making a decision. But awareness of a mechanistic process doesn't make it any less mechanical.
If the hood (or bonnet) of a car is closed, the existence of an engine isn't obvious. With the hood open, it becomes clearer that when the car moves, it is because of the engine. Closed or open, though, the same mechanical processes are making the car move.
Not a perfect analogy to the brain and our illusory feeling of free will, but sort of close. Here's the letter:
We can see brains randomising choice
From Roger Carpenter
Nial Wareing speculates that the brain might make its decisions probabilistically, and that in some circumstances it might deliberately randomise its actions (Letters, 2 July). It has long been known that this is what it does.
Recordings show that neurons in the brain encode probability and run races with each other to make decisions. A good deal of randomness is gratuitously injected into this process. To an outside observer, the resultant unpredictable responses look like “free will”, and would indeed be highly desirable in predator/prey interactions.
To the owner of the brain, the crucial difference between those responses that we recognise as unconscious – like reflexes – and those that we think we have “willed”, is that we experience the latter being prepared in advance, but not the former. But both are equally mechanistic. Free will is a pretty meaningless expression.