Free Will and Contemporary Neuroscience and Psychology

Consider the following title of a recent article from the April 30, 2016, U.K. newspaper, The Daily Mail: “Free will could be an ILLUSION created by our own brains, new study finds.” Articles like this with similarly provocative titles are common in the press, including popular science magazines. But are they really accurate?

The accuracy of such titles depends upon the exact findings of an experiment. Some findings threaten some conceptions of free will, while others are left unscathed. The mistake made is to assume that there is a single conception of free will that has been in use by both philosophers and ordinary people. There are, in fact, multiple sophisticated conceptions of free will that have been developed over the millennia. Some are clearly vulnerable to recent findings, while others are not threatened at all. Moreover, research shows that many ordinary people simultaneously work with multiple conceptions of what free will involves, deploying different concepts of free will in different types of circumstances.

We will examine some issues at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience related to human free agency. Time will be spent discussing some of the most prominent philosophical theories of free will and considering some research on how ordinary people think about the concept of free will. But our focus will be on considering whether recent experimental work on free will by psychologists and neuroscientists poses a genuine threat to our conception of ourselves as free agents and the significance of such research for our lives.