Tag Archives: free-will

Click bait PR in science

ScienceDaily reports on a recent paper (Leon Gmeindl, Yu-Chin Chiu, Michael S. Esterman, Adam S. Greenberg, Susan M. Courtney, Steven Yantis. Tracking the will to attend: Cortical activity indexes self-generated, voluntary shifts of attention. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 2016) which looks at the areas in the brain involved in volition. Here is the abstract:

The neural substrates of volition have long tantalized philosophers and scientists. Over the past few decades, researchers have employed increasingly sophisticated technology to investigate this issue, but many studies have been limited considerably by their reliance on intrusive experimental procedures (e.g., abrupt instructional cues), measures of brain activity contaminated by overt behavior, or introspective self-report techniques of questionable validity. Here, we used multivoxel pattern time-course analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data to index voluntary, covert perceptual acts—shifts of visuospatial attention—in the absence of instructional cues, overt behavioral indices, and self-report. We found that these self-generated, voluntary attention shifts were time-locked to activity in the medial superior parietal lobule, supporting the hypothesis that this brain region is engaged in voluntary attentional reconfiguration. Self-generated attention shifts were also time-locked to activity in the basal ganglia, a novel finding that motivates further research into the role of the basal ganglia in acts of volition. Remarkably, prior to self-generated shifts of attention, we observed early and selective increases in the activation of medial frontal (dorsal anterior cingulate) and lateral prefrontal (right middle frontal gyrus) cortex—activity that likely reflects processing related to the intention or preparation to reorient attention. These findings, which extend recent evidence on freely chosen motor movements, suggest that dorsal anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal cortices play key roles in both overt and covert acts of volition, and may constitute core components of a brain network underlying the will to attend.

I have not been able to read the original paper but I assume that it is a careful and useful study of how intentions and decisions happen when there is no compulsion involved. It has further evidence of the dorsal anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal areas being involved in preparation of voluntary action. I assume that the authors do not stoop to ‘click bait’ in the original paper; I assume they use the sort of language that they use in the abstract. The press release put out by Johns Hopkins University is the problem. There are repeated uses of the phrase ‘free will’ and even the phrase “volition, or free will” implying that these words are interchangeable. And ‘free will’ is even used in the title of the press release, which seems like clear click bait to me. There is still debate on whether free will exists and if it does what its mechanism is. Because of this many people would be interested in a scientific paper that deals with free will. Mentioning free will in the PR for the paper is click bait unless the paper actually deals with the subject. Instead the paper seems to be about how decisions prepared and executed. The problem is that the study did not involve any measure of if-when-how the intention or the act was felt in the subject’s consciousness. We do not know what the subjects thought.

There are a number of definitions of free will: in religion it is lack of predestination; in philosophy it is lack of material determination (classic dualism); in jurisprudence it is owning the responsibility for an action (not coerced, accidentally or unconsciously done but in involving conscious intent); in neuroscience it has come to mean a decision taken under conscious control (an action that is started or can be stopped by conscious intent) – very similar to the legal meaning. What the last three have in common is control of intent/execution by conscious thought. Volition is a word without any necessary connection to consciousness. Unless an experiment tracks conscious events as well as other events, it has nothing to say about free will. It can have a great deal to say about volition, decision, intention, motor control, action plans etc. etc. but without involving consciousness, it has absolutely nothing to say about free will. As I said above, I have not been able to read the original paper, but if as I suspect it does not measure or time conscious feelings of intent or execution then its PR is misleading.

Free Will has lost all meaning

A headline got me going and the summary got me laughing, “Even worms have free will.” ScienceDaily has the item (here) on a paper about reactions of a worm to odors (A. Gordus, N. Pokala, S. Levy, S. Flavell, C. Bargmann; Feedback from Network States Generates Variability in a Probabilistic Olfactory Circuit; Cell, 2015)

This is not just any worm that has free will, it is C. elegans, a microscopic worm whose brain is completely known, all 302 neurons and their few thousand connecting synapses. Each neuron has a name and has been individually studied. Most of the little networks in the tiny brain have been studied to some extent. What can they mean when they say that C.elegans has free will? “If offered a delicious smell, for example, a roundworm will usually stop its wandering to investigate the source, but sometimes it won’t. Just as with humans, the same stimulus does not always provoke the same response, even from the same individual.

So it appears that free will can be ascribed to anything that is not completely predictable. Until, that is, it is understood enough to be predictable. But no, it does not even have to be unpredictable. They appear to have an understanding of the little 3 neuron web that controls whether the worm stops at an odor. “We found that the collective state of the three neurons at the exact moment an odor arrives determines the likelihood that the worm will move toward the smell.” So it appears that anything that can do more than a single thing when triggered with a particular stimulation, has free will. I think that would include all living things and a good many inanimate things too. Weather seems to fit the bill.

I hate to be pedantic but why use the phrase ‘free will’ with a meaning that is not remotely related to its philosophical meaning or its legal meaning. It either means that a choice is made outside the brain in some spiritual mind or it means that a choice was made consciously and carries attached responsibility. It should not be reduced to a meaning like: a worm will stop for a smell or go on depending on the state of 3 of its neurons. If sensory information is going to have only one effect on motor action, we do not need a brain at all; the sensory neurons can connect directly with the motor neurons with no need for other neurons in between. C. elegans may have a very small brain but it is a brain and it’s function is to nuance behavior – not a surprise when it does.

Here is the abstract, unlike the press release, it is very reasonable and does not mention free will:

Variability is a prominent feature of behavior and is an active element of certain behavioral strategies. To understand how neuronal circuits control variability, we examined the propagation of sensory information in a chemotaxis circuit of C. elegans where discrete sensory inputs can drive a probabilistic behavioral response. Olfactory neurons respond to odor stimuli with rapid and reliable changes in activity, but downstream AIB interneurons respond with a probabilistic delay. The interneuron response to odor depends on the collective activity of multiple neurons—AIB, RIM, and AVA—when the odor stimulus arrives. Certain activity states of the network correlate with reliable responses to odor stimuli. Artificially generating these activity states by modifying neuronal activity increases the reliability of odor responses in interneurons and the reliability of the behavioral response to odor. The integration of sensory information with network states may represent a general mechanism for generating variability in behavior.


Which is the illusion?

There is a nice recent review of the state of play with regard to ‘free will’ (here). I must say that the comments on this blog were very frustrating. They seem to bypass important questions and facts.

  1. Almost everyone seems to believe that determinism and free will are opposites. There are compatibilists who say the free will can be defined so that it is not in opposition to determinism. Fine, but why do this? I don’t like the phrase, ‘free will’; I don’t want it saved; I want to be rid of the phrase and its baggage. We do not have to accept determinism either. They are not one right and one wrong, not both right, but they are both wrong, in my opinion.
  2. What is wrong with free will is the insistence that we make conscious decisions. We make decisions, freely in the sense that they cannot be predicted before we make them. But that does not mean they are in any sense conscious at that point. They (at least some times) rise into conscious awareness, but that does not mean that they were ‘made consciously’; they were made and then entered consciousness. The decision is ours whether we are aware of it or not, and if we are aware of it, that awareness is after the decision is made.
  3. Our conscious awareness of the justifications for a decision – that is not necessarily the real reasons. It is an illusion that we know our actual reasons. We guess, usually correctly but sometimes very incorrectly. Our justification mechanism can be fooled.
  4. Our conscious awareness takes responsibility for any action that appears to be ours, even if it is not. In a situation where we never made a decision or moved a muscle, we can be fooled into being mistakenly aware of doing both.
  5. In order to learn we need not only to remember actions and their outcomes, but also whether we caused the actions or not. We learn by making causal hypotheses. In episodic memory, we remember only the events that reach consciousness. It is important that the fact that we did something involved in an event is remembered along with the event. So we remember decisions as appropriate, but those decisions are not ‘made in memory’ any more than they are ‘made in consciousness’. Without this information about causes, we could not learn from experience.
  6. We are of course responsible for every single thing we do. But we are responsible to an extra degree (some would say morally responsible) if we have taken ownership of that action by labeling it with a ‘decision tag’. Again, we can fool ourselves, and some people are very good at not taking responsibility, or taking responsibility but fudging the justifications. People can also through false memory, take responsibility for an action they were not involved in.
  7. Absolutely nothing has been lost. These effects are noticable though carefully planned experimental set ups, that are most unnatural. But the experiments can fool this system and bring to light the picture of all thought being unconscious in its construction. This does not mean that we cannot continue to function normally.
  8. Calling what we have ‘free will’ is dangerous. It carries implications that are false. Forgetting ‘free will’ and just talking about decisions is a much better way to go. And given what we know about quantum mechanics (not to mention the practical impossibility of predicting as complex a system as the brain and all that might go into a decision) we should jettison ‘determinism’ too.
  9. The really important change in viewpoint is about the nature of consciousness. Simple consciousness is not an illusion – we have that stream of awareness and we know it. The idea that consciousness is more than an awareness-attention-memory sort of thing is the illusion; conscious mind as opposed to consciousness is an illusion; introspection is an illusion; conscious decision is an illusion; conscious thought is an illusion; a self watching consciousness is an illusion. We do our thinking unconsciously and then, not before, we may or may not be consciously aware of our thoughts. Even in the step-wise linear thinking that appears to be conscious, the creation of each step is still unconscious.

Who’s phrase is ‘free will’ anyway?

There is a good post by Bill Skaggs on his blog (http://weskaggs.net/?p=1452) in which he comments on the Sam Harris – Daniel Dennett debate on free will. Skaggs puts it nicely: “Both Dennett and Harris agree that the “folk” concept of free will is hopeless nonsense. Dennett has spent a substantial part of his career trying to persuade philosophers and the public to redefine free will in a more reasonable way. Harris does not think that redefining a folk concept is a viable strategy. Regardless of who is right, this is the sort of thing that they should be able to argue about without insulting each other or flaming each other.” Skaggs is not taking sides here.



It has been clear for a long time that the compatibilists do not actually believe in old fashioned free will, but have redefined it so that they can say that they believe in “free will”. Like Harris, I find this the wrong way to go, simply dishonest and confusing. I also think that it just postpones some very needed readjustments. What readjustments?



  1. If we drop the use of the phrase “free will” then we can also drop the idea of “determinism”; we can stop thinking that these are opposites and mutually exclusive. We do not have a conscious will that is free from physical constraints and we also are not part of a clock-work type of causal universe where our decisions are fixed before we do the deciding. This useless argument consumes a lot of time and energy.

  2. We can re-examine responsibility and figure out when, how, why we are responsible for our actions. We should resolve the ways that we are responsible for our values, habits, morals, and unnecessary areas of willful blindness. What is our responsibility to actually put effort into doing things right?

  3. We could find out and face what consciousness is and is not. This is difficult when some of its models are mixed up with theories of free will and others are not. The understanding of decision making is also hampered by the contamination with free will. This is also a problem with other areas of neuroscience.

  4. We can produce a legal system that makes sense. The principles that hold up the current legal systems really need to be cleaned up. And there are other civic ideas that could do with a re-think. I get the feeling that many compatibilists are trying to avoid any changes at all to the legal system at all cost. It is like they feel the system is so fragile that it will collapse without free will. But changes in the system can be good and not lead to any breakdown in law-and-order. I don’t see it as that perfect a system that needs to be protected from scientific knowledge.



Changing the definition of free will makes these tasks harder and postpones facing them. But there is more. I also think that there is something very arrogant about setting out to redefine well established words. What is wrong with coining a new word? So if someone writes a paper or book, redefining a word, does he really expect hundreds of millions of people to say “yes, sir, I’ll obey, sir”.



Some words are fairly easy to hive off with some technical definition. But when the word is used by a large non-technical population in the same or similar contexts, then it is not reasonable to continue using the technical term without some marking of it. For example “tolerance” has an engineering definition and a social one, but the context in which they are used is so different that there is little confusion. But “rational” has a philosophical meaning, an economic meaning and a folk meaning. The economic and folk meanings do overlap in the media and this causes confusion. It would be better to use “economically rational” or a different word entirely. When people insist on causing confusion, they should not be surprised if they get accused of wanting the confusion.



Words change meaning naturally as the knowledge, need and context of their use changes. But changing them by fiat when they are in general use takes a lot of coercive power. Nor can people really control how their statements are put to use. So someone defines their terms and uses those terms to say something but he cannot be sure that the definitions and the quote will not get separated and the quote used to say the opposite of what was intended. Isn’t it better to avoid the confusion?




Should science be dishonest to the public?

There is an idea floating about that people should be encouraged to believe in free-will even if it is not a sensible thing to believe. This is not the way science should work. Why upset people by telling them that the earth goes around the sun? How upsetting! Why tell them that they are descended by evolution from animals? They will act badly if they think they are animals. Why tell them that the world is billions of years old? That would only disturb their faith in the truth of the Bible. And here we go again. Why tell people how they make decisions with their brains? Why tell people that consciousness is not as it appears? Why not just lie about the impossibility of free-will? They may become criminals.

This is not how science is supposed to work. Science is about making our model of the world more and more correct and publishing the improvements. The task is to find a more and more clear picture of the workings of the brain, not to tell convenient lies.

So Vohs and Schooler (see citation) have published a paper that shows that being primed to think of determinism prompts people to cheat more. This one paper appears with no replication to date and yet there is discussion of abandoning scientific ideals. I have four reasons to suspect the paper but even if it turns out to be strong evidence, it does not justify telling people that free-will exists in the sense that they understand it. Libet’s experiments have been replicated and have stood up to attempts to disprove them for a few decades. His was a disproof of free-will as ordinary people used the term. We should not tell people otherwise.

The first thing that bothered me about the Vohs paper was the particular quotation they used to prime people towards determinism. It is about the most negative way to present the issue that can be imagined. What a depressing way to say that your brain makes decisions! There is nothing in this essay from the Astonishing Hypothesis that is not factual. But it is written in a way that makes one feel doomed. It starts: “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons. I don’t know what was used for the free-will or neural primers but I assume that they were not depressing.

Then I noticed that there was all of 30 subjects and the results were not dealt with individually but as averaged results. That can hide a lot of outliers and data spreads much larger than the average effect. This is just not the sort of statistical analysis that gives me a lot of confidence. By that time I was setting aside the paper as something that needed corroboration by other experiments.

Finally I saw a posting in the Why Evolution is True blog (here) discussing some unpublished work by Rolf Zwaan (here) which failed to replicate the Vohs results and pointed out some flaws that were not obvious to me, such as the subjects being predominately Mormon.

The Vohs/Schooler paper seems to have been accepted without much criticism by many – so have papers by Baumeister, Stillman, Wegner. But there is some criticism. One paper by Miles (citation below) is particularly useful for its broad and deep treatment of the issues.

Here is the abstract and part of the conclusions:

Over the last few years, a number of works have been published asserting both the putative prosocial benefits of belief in free will and the possible dangers of disclosing doubts about the existence of free will. Although concerns have been raised over the disservice of keeping such doubts from the public, this does not highlight the full danger that is presented by social psychology’s newly found interest in the ‘hard problem’ of human free will. Almost all of the work on free will published to date by social psychologists appears methodologically flawed, misrepresents the state of academic knowledge, and risks linking social psychology with the irrational.

Of course, even if we were to begin to acknowledge the moral and intellectual downsides to the free will myth, this would not suggest that Vohs and Baumeister were right to claim that belief in free will may also have prosocial upsides. We have seen that Vohs and Baumeister appear as yet to have shown no such thing, because all they have been studying appears to have been the effect of an acceptance of fatalism, not disbelief in free will. Contrary to the claims made in social psychology journals, we appear to have seen no evidence to date that disabusing people of the myth of free choice encourages anti-social behaviour, yet significant evidence that the myth of free choice encourages immoral, unjust, prejudiced, and anti-intellectual behaviour. If nothing else, this paper should stand as an important corrective within the psychological literature on free will.

This seems to put the nature of this work in a nut shell. I am not surprised that Vohs has won a Templeton prize.


Vohs KD, & Schooler JW (2008). The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological science, 19 (1), 49-54 PMID: 18181791

Miles J.B. (2013). ‘Irresponsible and a Disservice’:The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma British Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 205-218 : 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02077.x

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