Pre-Cognition = Removal of Free Will?

I have one of my frequent commenters to thank for passing this opinion article along from the New York Times. The first couple of paragraphs of the article provide the basis for the rest of the article:

In an influential article in the Annual Review of Neuroscience, Joshua Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington sum up experiments aimed at discovering the neural basis of decision-making. In one set of experiments, researchers attached sensors to the parts of monkeys’ brains responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were then taught to respond to a cue by choosing to look at one of two patterns. Computers reading the sensors were able to register the decision a fraction of a second before the monkeys’ eyes turned to the pattern. As the monkeys were not deliberating, but rather reacting to visual stimuli, researchers were able to plausibly claim that the computer could successfully predict the monkeys’ reaction. In other words, the computer was reading the monkeys’ minds and knew before they did what their decision would be.

The implications are immediate. If researchers can in theory predict what human beings will decide before they themselves know it, what is left of the notion of human freedom? How can we say that humans are free in any meaningful way if others can know what their decisions will be before they themselves make them?

I have already given these responses to the source of the article, but as free will is fair play in this article, I feel it necessary to point out some flaws with this argument:

1) An assumption about what it says regarding the free will of humans is premature until the experiment is actually performed on humans. There is no guarantee such an experiment will work.

2) It equates free will and moral choices with a fraction of a second. Any reasonable thinking person knows that it takes considerably longer to carry out such a decision, which allows for the ability of someone to change their mind and is why people change their minds all the time.

3) Even the ability to predict these decisions doesn’t limit free will; all it does is tell us what choice is being made. It doesn’t change the identity of the decision-maker, nor does it change the actual decision. This is what morality and free will are all about.

Interestingly, the movie Minority Report has already run with this concept of pre-cognition. While ultimately the movie exposes a flaw in the system created, the idea that the pre-cogs could tell what was going to happen didn’t change whether or not the event was going to take place. It only allowed the protagonist the opportunity to stop it. Free will was not changed (e.g., the man still chose to kill his wife); the execution, or carrying out, of that will was all that was thwarted.

So in short, such an experiment means absolutely nothing with respect to free will and morality. The writer of the article pretty much agrees, but this kind of stuff is dangerous if you don’t stop and reason through it properly. As Christians we need to constantly be on guard for such claims, so as to not be swayed or allow those around us to stumble into these traps.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jef on July 28, 2010 at 12:33 AM

    What is wishing here?
    Obviously something that is afraid to lose the concept of ‘soul’, cause that would destroy the majority of Christian religion.


    • Hi Jef,

      I think you’re missing the point. I’m not saying whether or not the concept of ‘soul’ exists in this post; I’m merely stating that this experiment, that purports to have the implications of limiting or changing free will, has absolutely nothing to do with free will or morality, and for those reading the article not to be fooled into thinking so.


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