Free Will and Neuroscience

By David

The next installment in our series on free will, what it means, and whether it exists

Because I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how parts of the brain work, I have developed an increasingly strong interest in the ethical implications of brain research. A few years ago, I discovered that there was a whole academic field, with its own society,devoted to understanding what has come to be called “neuroethics”, or the study of the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research. My personal interests had more to do with technical and medical questions rather than explicitly ethical ones, but when I attended my first neuroethics meeting last year, I was very surprised to find that the most central question in the field, and everyone’s favorite conversation topic, was free will.

The wide expanse of research and thinking about the concept of will cannot possibly bewritten in a single blog post, and even if it could, I wouldn’t be the guy capable of writing it. From what I’ve come to understand, the general academic neuroethical sentiment is that neuroscience is drastically altering our societal concept of free will, if not completely ablating it. Some people say that outright, some people say that more tactfully, but the idea is prevalent. For someone who was raised in the Latter-day Saint religion, which teaches that the ability to choose is a central, eternal and critical part of our individual spiritual identities, the idea that there is no such thing as free will was difficult to process. While I’m sure that my thoughts on this are still immature, I have gradually become confident that there is room for the implications of science and the implications of faith to combine and cohabitate within the doctrinal framework of the LDS church,which I believe to be true.

Neuroscience and Free Will

The basic, academic definition of free will, as I understand it, is that the mind of a conscious individual is capable of choosing between any two options at any time; that,while external forces can force actions of the body, no external force can have an absolute control on one’s ability to make a decision mentally. One might imagine extreme scenarios where an individual is forced to choose between life and death, or between something horrible and something horrible, but there is still a choice, some calculation that must be made that is ultimately determined by the individual. This basic idea is central to our lives, and it is an idea that we take for granted. We choose our clothes, our cereal, our careers, our spouses and our social identities assuming that we make those decisions of our own volition. We accept secular and/or religious frameworks of right and wrong assuming that we can choose to follow or disobey those
laws, or at least choose the lesser of two evils. Americans have a country founded on the principle that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable human right, which assumes that individual choice is the principle driver of that pursuit.

Neuroscience, with its branches in psychology and medicine, has introduced a twist into this idea of free will: that the mind may be the seat of our ability to choose, but the brain is the seat of the mind, and the brain can influence our ability to choose in ways that we had not previously considered.

Consider the following cases, all generalizations of real cases:

  1. An individual is arrested for sexual abuse of a minor. In the course of the investigation, it is revealed that the individual has a massive brain tumor intruding on the frontal cortex. After the successful removal of the tumor, the individual has lost the motivation for the behaviors that led to his misconduct. Years later, those behaviors return, and an MRI reveals that the tumor has relapsed.
  2. An individual has a genetic condition that drives an otherwise intelligent and conscious person to impulsively begin chewing off his own limbs.
  3. An alcoholic who has been sober for twenty years is invited to a party at which someone has secretly spiked the punch. Soon, the man escapes to a bar and drinks himself into a blackout, because he “just couldn’t help himself.”
  4. A volunteer for a research study is placed under the influence of a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine, and, while the machine passively disrupts neural activity in a certain area of the frontal cortex, the volunteer is asked to choose between a set of options; the options he chooses with the machine on are very different than those with the machine off.
  5. An individual surfing the web is drawn to a set of different advertisements. He clicks on one that seems vaguely interesting. What he doesn’t realize is that the image in the advertisement is flashing at a frequency that was designed to preferentially draw his gaze.

To these, I could add cases that describe how temper, depression, ecstasy, prejudice, sexual orientation and predilections, fear, obsessions and focus can all have their roots in the neural processes of specific parts of the brain, and how these things can be shifted or altered by tweaking those parts of the brain. Many of these things are commonly known and publicly discussed.

These cases raise this important question: do we have really have free will if the biological operations (normal or abnormal) of our internal neural network have such a strong influence on what we decide?

I’m going to disappoint you here and leave that question unanswered so that you can think of this question on your own, though you probably won’t be able to do so without wondering if my outlining of these cases in any way altered your perception. But before I get to the real purpose of this post, I want to make sure to make these points:

  1. In the history of Homo Sapiens, no individual human has ever made a decision of any kind that did not include a corresponding neural event. The mind has never been independent of the brain.
  2. The wiring plan of our brain is generally dictated by genetics during our body’s development, but the individual wiring of each of our synapses is dictated and constantly altered by our life experience. The capacity for synaptic circuits to rewire is a process that is central to our ability to learn.
  3. There is a brain hierarchy that allows for “executive” control over lower level neural processes (easy examples: you can choose to hold your breath, not blink, or hold still while in pain, though it can be hard to do over time.)
  4. It is ridiculous to think that we ever make decisions completely independently. We are each the sum of our experiences, and we are constantly bombarded by influences of various kinds. It is probably impossible to be completely unbiased, even about things that we wouldn’t claim to care about.
  5. As a personal observation, it is much easier to claim that we have “will” than it is to claim that we have “free will.”

LDS Doctrine
The relationship of LDS doctrines to these ideas is complex. In the first place, LDS doctrine states that we all existed spiritually before we were born, and that our spiritual selves had consciousness, identity, and the capacity to make decisions, all independent of biological brains (Abraham 3, Job 38:7). The “physiological” make-up of our spirits and how they are integrated into our brains now, is unexplained. But the doctrine is that
there is something in our core spiritual identity that is capable of operating independent of the brains we have.

It is noteworthy that many of scriptural laws of God directly forbid acting in ways that our brains would naturally induce us to do. For example, there are strict scriptural laws governing sexual conduct, anger, greed, frivolity, passivity, addictive and pleasurable substances, and even fear. Obedience to these laws requires that we disregard, suppress, ignore and master natural, neural processes in our brains. In fact, we are commanded to “watch our thoughts” as well as our words and deeds (Mosiah 4:30) and to choose to serve the Lord with our “minds” in addition to our hearts and strength (D&C 4: 2).

The implication of God’s laws is that there are mechanisms in place that would allow us to overcome our brains, otherwise we could never be justly expected to fulfill God’s laws. Such mechanisms exist, and do not directly depend on neural sensory input systems to operate. Among these mechanisms is the power of the Holy Ghost, which has the function of communicating messages from God directly to minds and hearts (as a Book of Mormon example, the prophet Nephi said that “when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.” 2nd. Nephi 33:1). How this process influences the brain is also unexplained.

At the end of this life every person will ultimately be judged based on the amount of knowledge we have about God, how we used our agency, and the degree to which we can be held accountable for our actions. For example, children below the age of eight are not considered capable of sin (knowingly disobeying God’s law) and are not subject to the requirements of baptism. Should they die before age eight, they are considered free from the requirements of the law and are “saved”. The same is true of individuals with severe neurological ailments. Judgment will also take into account any mental infirmities that preclude the conscious use of agency. Incidentally, this final judgment will take place after the spirit and body are reunited in what is called the resurrection, in which the body and all its attributes is restored to its perfect form and functionality (including, it is presumed, the brain, though how it will be different is unexplained).

So, what does this all mean, taken together? Neuroethicists worry about free will because they can see how brain processes affect who we are and what we decide. LDS theology doesn’t deny the facts, but instead emphasizes that there is still are such things as will, growth, learning, and the ability to choose salvation and happiness through the Gospel of Jesus Christ when given the opportunity, despite the fluctuations in our personal neurotransmitter levels. Our brains are powerful and miraculous, but they are not sufficient explanations of who we are, or why we are. Our brains are not the mechanisms that dictate the ultimate state of our souls, but are the mechanisms through which we, by our will, determine the ultimate state of our souls for ourselves.

I believe that, like other apparent science/religion contradictions, the reason the contradiction exists is because we just don’t know enough. Science still has much to reveal (I hope; my career depends on it) and God has revealed very little information about the relevant science of spirituality. I assume that many of my personal questions about this topic will be easily answered as soon as I’m dead, so there isn’t much point in speculating too much now (sorry that I won’t be able to post any of my findings then). What we can do is continue to explore and obtain all the facts as we can, as reasonably as we can, about the brain, the mind, and about God, and hope that all of that accrued knowledge will eventually prompt us to make the best decisions about our lives that we can.

“Let every man be persuaded in his own mind.” Romans 14:5

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8 thoughts on “Free Will and Neuroscience

  1. Ryan says:

    As a sociologist one my takes on this is that one of the points of life is to expand our agency (however it is defined) through learning to recognize the influences which play on our decisions. These can be as macro as cultural beliefs we are taught to as micro as recognizing physiological responses to certain stimuli. The more aware we are of these influences the more options we have in how to react to them. Interestingly this makes the pursuit of knowledge (and I would add self-knowledge in particular), one thing emphasized in LDS doctrine, inextricably tied with agency. It also implies that the two extremes -believing that one has no control over ones actions or believing that every decision we (or others) make is an unfiltered expression of our soul’s agency both lead to decreased agency for an individual. Mormons LOVE to claim “the world” believes the former, though honestly I have never met a single non-Mormon that believes this and that is saying something as I hang out with sociologists. I find that Mormon’s (and economists) tend to err on the side of the latter, especially when we get on our high horse to judge others actions.

    I am with all the comments here that take a more reasonable middle view. I like to think of this as the ‘contested’ agency view. Instead of assuming no influence or complete agency we recognize that every decision we make is done in the context of a wide range of influences. We are aware some of these and don’t recognize others. The trick is to expand our agency by correctly recognizing more and more of these influences so we can process them or contest them with our conscious, rational, moral “soul”. This fits nicely with our stated doctrine of later baptism/non-accountability of children as well as the folk doctrine that God only can know how accountable any person is for any given action because only he(they) knows what knowledge a person has at the time. It also fits nicely with the idea that we are to progress eternally and what is eternal progression if it is not the ability to better predict the causal effects of our actions and to choose our actions free of extraneous influence. If I wax cosmic, I would say what makes man, man is the that we have the seed, the potential, the intelligence, for full agency while other animals have inherent limits. We either to choose to expand our moral agency in this life or to become more and more trapped within the responses of the natural man.

    This leaves a lot to sort out, of course. For example, I tend to believe that our agency is *heavily* constrained by cultural, psychological, and physiological forces. It isn’t just “bounded rationality” but “bounded agency”. One side effect of this view I find is that it is easier for me to be merciful towards others and forgive them. It is also easier to forgive myself without necessarily “justifying” my mistakes. I consider the more pure expressions of agency in my life rare and precious. Often I feel they are gifts from God. The moments that he opens my “eyes that I might see and my ears that I might hear”.

    1. David says:


      I think that your observations about the role of knowledge in agency is very insightful. I agree that knowledge is power, which is why wisdom and maturity usually make for better, and more humble, decision making.

      The point I would add to that idea is that an understanding of all the influences around us does help us to understand how to make better, more independent choices, but it doesn’t necessarily increase our ability to act on what we know is right. I think that knowledge and will are related, but aren’t developed simultaneously. For example, we all gain ample experience with the dangers and pitfalls of procrastination by the time we’re out of high school. But does that mean we never procrastinate again? No, because the way we use our understanding can be context dependent. Learning about our choices requires that we work to augment our capacity to do what’s right. I think that a lot of the neuroethical arguments about free will really center on that distinction. Some would point out that an individual who is distracted or influenced by some emotion or sensation doesn’t necessarily act according to that individual’s knowledge (and that leads to thinking about how easy our brains are to manipulate). Life is also about learning to be so good at doing the right thing (and by that I mean, acting in accordance to divine commandments, duty, and love) that our personal situation or distractions from other sources doesn’t stop us. Perhaps that state is what should really be called free will. I think that a major part of what the power of the Holy Ghost can do is to help us reach that point.

  2. Zack says:

    Thanks for the post, it is a fascinating discussion. It also highlights the efforts of evil influences in the world to fight against God’s plan. If the science of neuroethics becomes more popular and a majority of people believe that they have no responsibility for their actions, they will feel justified giving into any number of influences–effectively giving up their agency.

  3. David says:


    Interesting question. Taking the hypothesis that the physiological status of certain brain regions, within non-pathological parameters, directly affects the outcome of decisions without conscious awareness, it would have to be some experiment in which an individual was asked to choose between some set of things, and then some stimulus was applied that would not completely inhibit that part of the brain, but would rather alter activity slightly, and the outcome of the decision making process would change. The person would then be asked if his decisions changed, and he/she would not notice. The trick would be to then draw the attention of the person to the stimulus in some way, and ask the person to act against the stimulus, and see if the person is able to. This would have to be done repeatedly over several years.

    If you’re like me, you have a gut reaction to that experiment as described, especially that last part. It is hard to consider a normal environmental stimulus that would not disproportionally alter our brain chemistry that would have an irresistible effect on how we make decisions. If you think about drugs like cocaine, or other addicting drugs or stimuli, they do alter brain activity (and can sometimes destroy or permanently alter parts of the brain) and cause urges that alter behavior. The catch is that when you draw the attention of people to addictions, there still exists, in most cases, some capacity to choose to resist or give in to addictive impulses. That’s the moment where will is truly tried. That is also the moment where faith and trust are also tried.

    Lesser versions of this trial as we realize that we experience compulsions to be mean, angry, greedy, etc. Our wills are tried when our attention is drawn to the stimulus and are instructed to act against it. It can be very, very hard over the long term, but will and faith are tested over a lifetime of immediate decisions. That, I think, is the root of the LDS doctrinal mandate to “endure to the end,” and “endure it well”.

    1. Brigham says:

      Let me see if I understand your hypothetical experiment–I’m actually really interested in the specifics.

      Step 1: give the subject a set of options and ask him or her to pick one.
      Step 2: stimulate a particular brain region known to affect decision making, and ask the subject to pick from the same set of options.
      Step 3: If the decision changed, inform the subject about the stimulus, instruct him or her to attempt to resist the stimulus, and have him or her pick yet again from the same set of options.

      Is this right? What kind of options are we asking the subject to choose from? If it’s, say, twinkies, fruit, or water, wouldn’t we expect the choice to change, anyway, since you get sick of twinkies pretty fast? It seems like this or any other kind of path dependence would make it impossible to attribute any changes in decision making to the stimulus.

      But even if we got around path dependence by, say, randomizing the application of the stimulus over many subjects, asking each one to make a choice only once, why does evidence that stimuli affect decisions lead to the conclusion that there’s no free will? I’m going to choose water if my brain tells me I’m thirsty, even if it’s an artificial stimulus making me feel thirsty, rather than actual dehydration. But an artificial stimulus fooling me into thinking I’m thirsty isn’t remotely related to my having free will or not–I’m still choosing the water.

      Am I missing something? What evidence do your neuroethics friends usually cite to argue against free will?

      1. David says:


        I think that in the hypothetical experiment, it would have to be something much more simple, like choosing between three pictures of something on a computer screen (with perhaps varying degrees of brightness, of familiarity, or of emotional content (happy faces, sad faces)). That way there isn’t any physical/visceral/motor fatigue interference. To really be effective, the experiment would have to be done over many hours, and show a statistical predilection to select one thing over an other even against instructions. Positive or negative feedback from the test administrator would have to be very limited in order to prevent any learning bias.

        A good part of the argument against our having true free will is the observation that we perform more calculations unconsciously than we realize. We have immediate, millisecond-fast gut reactions to lots of things without really knowing it. We all agree that we can choose to ignore or mask or squelch our native impulses when we think about them, but how often do we think about them? Our executive control isn’t always working very hard. And if it isn’t on, what drives our decisions in the moment?

        I think that a true personal test of free will is to become so conscious of our impulses, on a thought by thought basis, that you actually learn to completely align your impulses with your highest values. How can you do that when a lot of your impulses are unconscious? Maybe that’s something to discuss.

  4. Christine Frandsen says:

    I once heard someone on TV say, “There are no bad people, only sick people.” I could see the point they wanted to make, but also saw some problems with that persepctive. I’ve thought a lot about it and I appreciated your post for exploring it in more detail.

  5. Brigham says:

    Maybe free will is a bit of a misnomer, but at least the way I use it, it certainly doesn’t mean “free from any external influence,” but rather the ability to make a choice that is not completely determined by outside influences.

    As a neuroscientist, what type of experiment would you hypothetically run to determine if there is free will or not?

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