Are you fated to read this?

July 11, 2016

Several weeks ago, I came across this article at The Atlantic.

There’s No Such Thing as Free Will
But we’re better off believing in it anyway.

"Another report about fMRI," I thought and, sure enough, that’s what it turned out to be. I assumed it would be another exercise in jumping to a conclusion. But see for yourself.

What really piqued my interest was this paragraph from that article:

In another study, for instance, Vohs and colleagues measured the extent to which a group of day laborers believed in free will, then examined their performance on the job by looking at their supervisor’s ratings. Those who believed more strongly that they were in control of their own actions showed up on time for work more frequently and were rated by supervisors as more capable. In fact, belief in free will turned out to be a better predictor of job performance than established measures such as self-professed work ethic.

I’m not sure why the author (or the researchers) think this demonstrates that free will is illusory. I’d say it shows the contrary. Want to be well-regarded at work? Get yer ass outta bed and get ‘er done, son. And who cares how belief in free will correlates to belief in "self-professed work ethic"? Those could be two facets of the same character trait, IMO.

I’ve always had some fundamental problems with reports that fMRI studies show that free will doesn’t exist based on the timing of events in the brain.

I’ve never studied neuroscience. But I have debugged any number of race conditions in software. My take-away from those is that it’s usually very difficult to tell what’s cause and what’s effect until you’ve solved the problem completely: that is, until you can describe all the states and their interactions in sufficient detail to prove your point. Just modeling those things can be a difficult first step.

I was pretty sure (and still am) that the fMRI guys couldn’t do that for human brains.

But back to the news… Last week, I came across this article at The Register (a U.K.-based geek site).

fMRI bugs could upend years of research
This is what your brain looks like on bad data

A whole pile of “this is how your brain looks like” fMRI-based science has been potentially invalidated because someone finally got around to checking the data.

The problem is simple: to get from a high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain to a scientific conclusion, the brain is divided into tiny “voxels”. Software, rather than humans, then scans the voxels looking for clusters.

When you see a claim that “scientists know when you’re about to move an arm: these images prove it”, they’re interpreting what they’re told by the statistical software.

Now, boffins from Sweden and the UK have cast doubt on the quality of the science, because of problems with the statistical software: it produces way too many false positives. […]

"Oh ho," I thought. "Let’s google this one more time…" And that search turned up this very interesting article.

Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce

Back in the 1980s, the American scientist Benjamin Libet made a surprising discovery that appeared to rock the foundations of what it means to be human. He recorded people’s brain waves as they made spontaneous finger movements while looking at a clock, with the participants telling researchers the time at which they decided to waggle their fingers. Libet’s revolutionary finding was that the timing of these conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity (known technically as “the readiness potential”).

The implication was that the decision to move was made nonconsciously, and that the subjective feeling of having made this decision is tagged on afterward. In other words, the results implied that free will as we know it is an illusion — after all, how can our conscious decisions be truly free if they come after the brain has already started preparing for them? […]

It’s all science. And science is rarely as "settled" as non-technical people think it should be.


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