I just want to springboard from the following August, 2011 Nature article to a discussion of the more introspective (intuitive) questions at the end of this post. (I posted this here, rather than in the science thread because I am more interested in the philosophical considerations.)
Selected excerpts (all emphasis mine):
The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.
You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it. For Haynes, this is unsettling. "I'll be very honest, I find it very difficult to deal with this," he says. "How can I call a will 'mine' if I don't even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?"
This month, a raft of projects will get under way as part of Big Questions in Free Will, a four-year, US$4.4-million programme funded by the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, which supports research bridging theology, philosophy and natural science. Some say that, with refined experiments, neuroscience could help researchers to identify the physical processes underlying conscious intention and to better understand the brain activity that precedes it. And if unconscious brain activity could be found to predict decisions perfectly, the work really could rattle the notion of free will. "It's possible that what are now correlations could at some point become causal connections between brain mechanisms and behaviours," says Glannon. "If that were the case, then it would threaten free will, on any definition by any philosopher."
But critics still picked holes, pointing out that Haynes and his team could predict a left or right button press with only 60% accuracy at best. Although better than chance, this isn't enough to claim that you can see the brain making its mind up before conscious awareness, argues Adina Roskies, a neuroscientist and philosopher who works on free will at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Besides, "all it suggests is that there are some physical factors that influence decision-making", which shouldn't be surprising. Philosophers who know about the science, she adds, don't think this sort of study is good evidence for the absence of free will, because the experiments are caricatures of decision-making. Even the seemingly simple decision of whether to have tea or coffee is more complex than deciding whether to push a button with one hand or the other.
—Comment: But this just means that the whole complex is formed in the unconscious before the decision is manifest?
Haynes stands by his interpretation, and has replicated and refined his results in two studies.
—The first of those studies is here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0021612
From the commentary discussion:
Spinoza declared long ago that man had no free will. He wrote "Men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined"
Setting aside the physicalist-versus-nonphysicalist (brain/mind) arguments, and before leaping to any free will/determinism considerations, I would like to pose the following introspective (non-scientific) questions:
Do you know what your next thought will be before you’ve thought it? That is, do you consciously decide what you will think, or believe, at all?
When we say, “I think ______________.” Don’t we normally think of that “I” as the conscious “I”?
One might say, “Well, as the thoughts arise from my unconscious, I still consciously decide whether to affirm them, speak them, act on them, etc.”—but each of those would also be first decided unconsciously, with, say, a seven-second delay. That is, the whole process is recursively dynamic.
This whole affair has something “Zen” about it, and the above questions could almost be thought of as quasi-koans; or—
Who is the I
who thinks “I”
before I know it?