Is freewill an illusion?
Behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner have once shocked psychologists around the world with the argument that freewill is an illusion, or the idea that we are not masters of our mind. Skinner published his argument in a book titled "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," where his ideas are supported by landmark experiments on animal behavior and which were generalized to support claims on human behavior. Skinner argues that human behavior is governed by conditioning and the effects of reinforcement. This also conform the basis for the once leading field in psychology, behaviorism. However, recent advances in imaging technologies and the studies revealed by neuroscience gave rise to a renewal on theories about consciousness, which are totally contradictory to those of behaviorism.
The claim that human behavior is all the consequences of precedent events is really a painful point for most people as it throws away the meaning of decision and control. Actually, this view must be wrong because there are things that cannot be defined correctly and satisfyingly as associations to past events.
Think for a moment why would a person think. A person doesn't just think because it is rewarding to think, maybe it is, but this process is an innate characteristic that is beyond something as simple as being "rewarding." People think because that is their nature. freewill is at the heart of what is consciousness. People can subjectively think and decide upon their actions if they become conscious. However, this is not "science" according to Behaviorism. Something that is scientific must be objective and observable. But how can consciousness, which is clearly a subjective metaphysical quality, be observable. Behaviorism uses behavior as suggestive leads for their studies of subjective feelings and abstract working processes, but behavior is not equal to the real mental state.
Although I admire behaviorism enormous contributions to psychology and its approach on objective and scientific means, I do not agree for the moment that free will is non-existent. However, I felt and still feel that I have not learned enough to actually develop a standpoint on something as profound as the whole debate on free will and consciousness. Because of this, I researched the internet to gain some more insight on the topic at hand and found an article that tries to summarize Skinner's ideas:
Skinner's position might be summarized in this way (although I am not sure Dr. Skinner ever himself did so in this way): "With every lawful relationship I can prove in animal or human behavior, I am showing that the behavior of living organisms obeys laws just as other disciplines in science describes their subjects in a lawful way." Thus, the affirmation of determinism being before an assumed premise is a progressively proved fact.
This quote basically points to Skinner's claim that organisms follows a set of laws that govern behavior. No matter what a person thinks he/she would behave in a predictable manner base on precedent events that "determine" the outcome. Skinner's research shows that there are evidence to support such a claim though in a very limited manner. Any behaviorist would take any topic on the basis that a people's actions are made because a past experience that was rewarding, (reinforcement), or they would not do something because in the past such actions were aversive, (punishment). Thus Skinner followed and expanded the Law of Effect proposed by Thonderlike. The Law of Effect basically says that if an action leads to satisfying conditions then that action would be strengthened. However, these views take the premise that everything is learned. This for fact is untrue, and it is still a very controversial topic in the psychological community.
Some of the advances in instrumentation such as the electroencephalograph (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain and thus is a physiological index of consciousness, and the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a brain imaging apparatus, have enable psychologist to determine that there are different levels of consciousness and provide insight into the functioning of the brain. We also know that not all actions are learned, and that experience is not the only factor that determines behavior. For example, there are biological constraints to learning. Studies made with rats show that a rat conditioning sometimes doesn't work because it conflicts with biological instincts such as trying to make a rat develop an aversion to food in association of an electrical shock.
Another article tried to measure freewill in an objective basis. In this journal article, freewill and control are being the objects of an experiment. I found this very interesting because it proposes another perspective for looking at voluntary control. It also provides an objective hypothesis attempting to explain freewill physiologically and the underlying mechanics of such a conscious experience.
The conscious experience of free will is a central feature of human self-perception. We usually feel that our conscious intentions cause our actions, which in turn produce desired effects in the world. Although the subjective feeling of control is an essential aspect of our self-conceptualisation as intentional agents, the mechanisms underlying this experience are not well understood. Here, we argue that the conscious feeling of voluntary control is closely tied to our ability to represent future effects of our actions. www.sciencedirect.com/science
This segment is the introduction of a long experiment. I found fascinating that what we call control can be just a representation of cognitive anticipation of future events. Though this article is not complete, the idea and the results are summarized in the abstract and thus a more thorough analysis is not possible. I would have love to read the details of the experiment and gain more knowledge about the biological bases of free will.For now it is prudent to interpret that both unconscious forces, which predominates deterministic theory, and conscious control interact together to provide a decision. Nevertheless, none of this views can make a determinant point on the issue of freewill and consciousness. So I will be still searching for an answer to whether freewill is an allusion.