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The Myth of Free Will

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What Is Free Will?
The free will myth says that humans are imbued with a “spirit” or “soul” or “some magical quality” that directs the brain’s decision-making circuitry. This ghostly, free-floating, supernatural agent can override our genes and conditioning. But how does a nonphysical spirit communicate with a physical body part?

The free will myth also says, “You choose, therefore you have free will.” Yes, you choose things, but choosing is not proof. Instead, your brain’s decision-making circuitry in the prefrontal cortex controls your choices, without the help of a supernatural agent.

How Your Brain Chooses
When you choose between a papaya and a banana, patterns of neural activity representing these two possibilities appear in the cortex. Copies of each pattern grow and spread at different rates, depending on your experiences and sensory impressions. Eventually, the number of copies of one pattern passes a threshold, and you pick the papaya or the banana.

“Decision making is a competition, a dynamic process in which there are winners and losers. The losers are never eliminated, but stick around to try and win again,” says Alain Berthoz in Emotion & Reason.

Who Says It's a Myth?
The Myth of Free Will
features essays by Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, V. S. Ramachandran, Lee M. Silver, Susan Blackmore, Michael Shermer, Daniel M. Wegner, William B. Provine, Ramesh Balsekar, Laurence Tancredi, Clay Shirky, Thomas Clark, Arnell Dowret, and Tamler Sommers.

The Bottom Line
“The mind is what the brain does, and so every mental event, from falling in love to worrying about our taxes, is going to show up as a brain event. In fact, if one were to find an aspect of thought that did not correspond to a brain event, it would be the discovery of the century.” —Paul Bloom, Descartes’ Baby


 

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