Why UC-Davis’ New Study of Free Will Is Horse Patootie

Free will, scientists at UC-Davis claim, may be nothing more than the result of background noise in the brain.  

A study published in April in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience purports to show that humans’ decisions can be predicted based on patterns of brain activity in the minutes before the choice is placed before them.

According to The Independent,

The brain has a normal level of so-called background noise; the researchers found that the pattern of activity in the brain in the seconds before the cue symbol appeared – before the volunteers knew they were going to make a choice – could predict the likely outcome of the decision.

“The state of the brain right before presentation of the cue determines whether you will attend to the left or to the right,” Bengson said.

And in an email to Live Science, Bengson said: “[Though] purposeful intentions, desires and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way, our finding shows that our decisions are also influenced by neural noise within any given moment.

“This random firing, or noise, may even be the carrier upon which our consciousness rides, in the same way that radio static is used to carry a radio station.”

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First, the study makes me laugh.  Then it makes me angry.

I am insulted by the suggestion that the purposeful actions which define my character–my generosity toward a friend in need, my daily courtesies, my exercise of restraint when I am irritated–are all random events generated by “background noise,” the random firing of neurons in grey matter.

If you follow my writing, you may know that I studied sociology as an undergrad at the University of Michigan.  At the time, Behaviorism was all the rage–and my professor was enraptured by the work of B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov.  Sociology was the study of people in groups; and I learned–or rather, was taught–a kind of “If A, Then B” logic for why people behaved the way they did.

Some years later, I was asked during a job interview why I had not continued my studies in Sociology–earning a Master’s and then, perhaps, teaching at college level.  It was the kind of question that helped to crystallize my thinking; although I hadn’t before stated it in so many words, I knew right away why I had not continued on that career path.  “Because,” I explained, “I didn’t believe what they told me.”

In the ensuing years, Behaviorism has had its critics:  Some argue that the theory is a one-dimensional approach to understanding human behavior, and that behavioral theories do not account for free will and internal influences such as moods, thoughts and feelings.  Some note that behaviorism fails to account for other types of learning, especially learning that occurs without the use of reinforcement (i.e., food pellets for Pavlov’s dogs) and punishment (i.e., electric shocks).   And scientists admit that both people and animals are able to adapt their behavior when new information is introduced, even if a previous behavior pattern has been established through reinforcement.

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that:

God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions.  Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude (CCC par. 1730, 1731).

It’s this idea–the idea that man can think and hence control his own actions–that underlies the Catholic and Christian understanding of virtue.  That man is born with free will and can choose to either obey or ignore the will of God creates the need for heaven and hell.  The Catechism (par. 1734) continues:

Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.

Human will may be obfuscated or negated by Behaviorism or by the rationalist explanation of UC-Davis researchers, but you and I know, in our heart of hearts, that this is nonsense:  What we say and do has more meaning than that.

J. Budziszewski, philosophy professor at University of Texas at Austin and one of my favorite authors, writes of that in his great book What We Can’t Not Know.  In it, he rehabilitates the natural law tradition and restores confidence in a moral code based upon human nature.

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As a matter of fact, I wrote a while back about a case which demonstrates, conversely, that it’s not random brain waves that affect our actions.  Rather, just the opposite is true:  it’s our actions that shape our brain.  In “You Are What You Do/Say/Think”, I showed how all the things we’ve done, the good and the bad, are stored inexorably on the myelin pathways of the brain, waiting to be summoned at the Last Judgment.  As evidence that we become our memories–that our brain is shaped by our actions, and not the reverse–I told the story of a young girl who, despite being in a coma brought on by a rare form of meningoencephalitis, could still shoot basketball hoops because she had practiced the sport so often.  Read that story here.



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