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

Why UC-Davis’ New Study of Free Will Is Horse Patootie June 23, 2014

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.”

 *     *     *     *     *

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.

*     *     *     *     *

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.

*     *     *     *     *

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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  • Francis Choudhury

    “… our brain is shaped by our actions, and not the reverse.”
    A proposition that has, in fact, been clinically proven by recent discoveries about the neuroplasticity of the brain!

  • I saw this too and it made me shake my head. What a bunch of nonsense. The study revolves around a yes or no answer to a simple question. As if that simulates the daily decisions we make. The study is garbage.

  • Want to see another “Horse Patootie” theory:

    American Medical Association Says Gender is Imaginary

  • JTLiuzza

    Science is a useful tool but to idolize it (or anything else for that matter), is a mistake. As all human endeavors, it can be wrong and it is corruptible.

    Most liberals who staff universities these days believe the the entire universe, and all the complex laws that govern it’s behavior, simply popped into being from nothingness. If you can believe something that absurd, you can believe anything.

    What bothers me the most is that somebody is actually making a living, probably off of taxpayers, to sit around and crank out this garbage “science.”

    • fredx2

      It’s like carpenters idolizing a hammer.

  • AugustineThomas

    They’re materialists and they make an idol of the physical world. They constantly think they’ve done something innovative by looking ever more obsessively at the means by which things happen as if that explains where creation itself comes from. They worship the idea that they can know everything by studying how everything happens.
    It does seem so ridiculous that they think explaining how something happens in the material world explains why it exists or where it comes from.
    The ancient Greeks were so much wiser about these things than the leftists who control academia.

    • Proteios

      As a scientist, what I have gleaned from academia is that all we have done is use science to recreate existence in our own image. Science is a tool. It has a track record of amazing accomplishemnts – some for social good, some for the destruction of us all and most in support of some modern convenience. But it is ajust a tool. It offers no explanation of the eschatological questions, nor was it ever intended to. So when Steven Hawkings claims being a good mathemetician and propose ideas that in no way have been experimentally valdated, and that this means he can explain Gods nonexistence. He is wrong.

  • Ian DiFabio

    Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard has written about the mind-body problem in “The Spiritual Brain” and “Brain Wars.” He did studies in the laboratory on a group of Carmelite nuns who had mystical experiences.
    He attacks the materialist notion that the brain creates the illusion of mind and free will; that there is no actual “you” inside the gray matter in your head. He writes: “The brain is not the mind; it is an organ suitable for connecting a mind to the rest of the universe.”
    He shows clearly how an atheistic reductionist can be as unscientific as any fundamentalist.
    Fascinating subject. An important point where philosophy, science, and religion meet.
    Walker Percy has also written fascinating essays on consciousness and epistemology from both a scientific and a humanistic standpoint.

    • Howard

      Yeah, the problems with this kind of approach are just too obvious. As far back as I can remember — going back into elementary school, which must have been when I first heard of the question — it has always seemed to me to be infinitely more likely that we are spirits deceived into thinking we have bodies than that we are bodies deceived into thinking we have spirits. Neither is true, but at least a spirit is something that THINKS and therefore can think incorrectly. A body does not think. Sure, the brain can process data, but it does not understand the data, any more than a book understands the words written in it.

  • fredx2

    As a student in college taking sociology, it seemed that they were unusually intent on eliminating common sense. There seemed to be an attempt to tell people that everything normal people understood was baloney, and only the weird explanations were the right ones. In short, it was a refutation of reality. So I have been skeptical ever since. .

  • Proteios

    A thought:
    If cues or other material can be used to manipulate, control or predict behavior, it is right to assume this science will evolve to a sophistication that increases the probability of a desired outcome. Political parties, companies, etc. would of course spend gobs of money to do, say or presnt imgaes that would increase the likelihood of an outcome they seek.
    I think this stresses the importance of a solid foundation in the Church, the parish community, proper catechesis. Even without this research clearly marketing and advertisers know how to push buttons. All these things suggest (common sense) that we entrench ourselves in solid Christian values, music, talk shows, reading groups, etc. And any consumption of questionable secular products is a slippery slope.

  • Biff Spiff

    Reminds me a bit of Scrooge trying to explain away the Ghost of Marley:

    “What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”
    “I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
    “Why do you doubt your senses?”
    “Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” – Dickens “A Christmas Carol”

  • John

    I agree that there must be something wrong with the UC-Davis study, but it is not easy to identify the problem. The article and the comments thus far have not told us what exactly the flaw in the reasoning is. We must do more here than simply reassert what the Catechism teaches. Behaviorism has conceptual problems, but the conclusion of the study does not seem analogous to the a priori reasoning of behaviorism. The study apparently found that (on the basis of actual observable brain states) some human decisions could be predicted accurately before they were actually made. If that is true, then it seems to call into question personal agency and the common human belief that we are consciously determining such decisions. If in fact my decision was predictable from my brain states, then why should I suppose that it was really up to me or that my reasons for the decision mattered? I had no conscious control over the brain states that were present before I actually decided, but those brain states were a significant factor in the decision. How can my decision be affecting my brain states before I have decided? It seems impossible.

    • Tracy

      What the UC-Davis study (like other similar studies) calls into question and perhaps falsifies is not personal agency or human freedom as such but only certain misguided modern theories of human freedom. Catholic Christians have nothing to fear from such empirical research and should welcome the collapse of unsound ways of thinking about free will. The reason why the researchers think that their research undermines free will is that they are working with a popular but incoherent theory of human action. The research thus indirectly supports an alternative theory of human action, one defended by a 20th-century Catholic philosopher named G.E.M. Anscombe. See her book, Intention (1957).

  • Your article seems to break off at the basketball shooter. I was just getting interested.

  • LHJ

    “–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.”
    Did she shoot basskets while she was in a coma? That’s amazing!

    • kathyschiffer

      I linked to the original article–there you can see a photo of her playing while comatose.

  • ArnoldPalmer9999999999999

    A commenter on a different article so effectively put it this way:

    “So, a group of people were told to randomly look right or left when prompted. They found that random decision making was based on the randomness of the brain’s electrical activity. Random behavior based on what is effectively a random number generator.

    And they conclude lack of free will based on that?”