Monday, April 21, 2008

To Press or Not to Press, Is This the Question?

Do you have free will? Now before you answer, think about this:

If you don’t have free will and you answer, “Yes, I do have free will,” why are you programmed to lie to yourself regarding free will?

On the other hand if you do have free will and you answer, “No, I don’t have free will,” why are you so mistaken about something that is so essential to your every action?

A new study on the brain has proven (yet again) that a person’s decision whether or not to press a button can be detected up to seven seconds before the person herself realizes she has made a decision. Get that? By the time you say to yourself, “OK, I am going to press that button” your brain has already decided the matter. Your self-talk about decision making is a delusion. You, and by “you” I mean the “you” that says, “OK, I am going to press that button” is simply a puppet responding to a decision made without you in your brain!

When I first read this I was troubled. I want to believe I have free will, but I am a science oriented person so if a scientist tells me otherwise who am I to disagree? Then I looked into this experiment a bit more deeply and realized that the only thing this test proves is that I have no free will when it comes to pressing buttons.

I spent the next day at home counting how many buttons I press (as opposed to switches I flip, levers I pull, dials I turn, etc.). Not counting the keys on my Powerbook G4 the number came to two: the button that starts my blender that makes my fruit drink in the morning, and the button that starts my toothbrush that cleans my teeth after I have had my fruit drink in the morning. I press the toothbrush button twice a day, the blender button once. Had I not spent the whole day indoors counting buttons, I might have taken my car somewhere and then I would have pressed a lot more buttons on my radio, cd player and air-conditioner, but I decided not to go out and to stay in counting buttons.

Or did I?

Maybe the test has implications beyond buttons. Maybe I decided to type that last sentence seven seconds before I actually typed it. Maybe I, the “I” that takes credit for whatever the brain has decided seven seconds before the “I” that takes credit for it even knows a decision has been made, is just commenting on decisions made by someone else, the real me, the real me that I have never met or known, because the only me I know is the seven-second-delay me who is really nothing much at all. I am simply an afterthought.

This idea is somewhat exciting. As an afterthought I am always surprised: What will that crazy ol’ brain of mine decide to do next? It could be anything. I have no idea. How about this: Let’s wait seven seconds to see what


Daniel Sroka said...

I think that all this study shows is that our brain's linguistic processing (the part that parses thought into words or tangible ideas) is quite slow. We may have already made a decision, but we just haven't verbalized it -- or realized it -- yet.

What I find fascinating about this is how much of our self knowledge is based in our ability to describe our thoughts. How we don't consider a decision as having been made (even though it was 7 seconds earlier) until we can put that decision into words. (I love this stuff!)

Rabbi Rami said...

Yes, the role of language in thought is what I find so fascinating as well. If you lose your capacity to use language, do you lose your capacity to think? And if you do, who are you?