Responsibility

Neuroscience of free will refers to recent investigations that have been interpreted as shedding light on the question of free will, which is a philosophical and scientific question as to whether we exercise control over our actions, decisions, or choices. As it has become possible to study the living brain, researchers can now watch the brain’s decision-making process at work.

One significant finding of these studies is that a person’s brain seems to commit to certain decisions before the person becomes aware of having made them. Early studies found delays of about half a second, but in 2008, using contemporary brain scanning technology, scientists were able to predict whether subjects would execute an action up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made the choice.

It may be possible, then, that our intuitions about the role of our so-called conscious “intentions” have led us astray. It may be the case that we have confused correlation of conscious self awareness with causation and decision. Alternatively, self awareness may serve only to recognize an unconsciously motivated will that appears before an action.

This possibility is bolstered by various known illusions and studies showing that humans may not have direct access to various internal processes. The discovery that humans only possess a determined will would have implications for moral responsibility. However, these studies have only just begun to shed light on the role that consciousness plays in actions and it is too early to draw very strong conclusions.

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