Are we all just automatons?

– with no moral responsibility?

One of the oldest and most difficult philosophical questions is: do we have free will, or at least some degree of free will, or are all our actions predetermined? Science has begun, in the last few years, to throw some light on this apparently intractable problem. Much of the recent scientific evidence seems to favour determinism. First there was the startling discovery by the neurophysiologist, Benjamin Libet, of the University of California, San Francisco, that conscious decisions to perform volitional actions were preceded by unconscious neuronal processes, called a readiness potential or "Bereitschaftspotential". This result was thought to suggest that the decision itself was taken unconsciously and that our awareness of that decision was a mere after-effect. A study by the psychologist, Antoine Bechara, and his ream at the University of Iowa showed that volunteers who tried to guess the sequence of cards turned over, one by one, from four packs, started to develop reliable strategies before they became aware they were doing so. Two of the packs gave higher rewards but also higher penalties and were to be avoided. Many of the volunteers had a high skin conduction response associated with anxiety before cards they should avoid, suggesting that their hunches were guided by their preceding anxiety levels. In addition to these two studies, most of the available evidence suggests that we operate on automatic pilot (system 1) much of the time and conscious brain processing (system 2) is not the lead role, but appears to have more of a bit part in the drama of our lives.

If we find these results convincing, then we would surely have to relinquish the comforting belief that all or most of our actions are voluntary. If we did so, this would radically change our way of life and our ethical values: by and large it would no longer be possible to hold people moral responsible for their actions. Most people who commit serious offences would have to be sent to hospital for treatment, not to prison. We would also have to repress our normal feelings of resentment or anger when someone offends us, and our own feeling of guilt if we think we have done something wrong, and tell ourselves that these feelings are simply irrational.

Hard-headed neuroscientists might respond by saying that we should surely not be surprised by this conclusion; after all, they might argue, we humans are ultimately just a collection of various molecules and atoms, and as such subject to the causal laws of physics. We may know that belief in this mechanistic view is particularly morally demotivating for most people who hold it, but that is just hard luck because the mechanistic view happens to be true.

However, this response illustrates the point that scientific explanations tend to be reductive, that is to say they seek to explain complex processes in terms of simpler ones. But we need to remind ourselves that the natural sciences are not the only sciences, and there is no obvious reason why other disciplines should apply the same style of explanation. Psychology, for instance, which has important things to tell us about the human mind, tends to do the opposite, and offers greater rather than less complexity. One example is memory, which is no longer regarded as a single cognitive capacity, but as a number of different faculties with differing functions. Another example is will power, which Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, has shown in a number or pioneering studies to be a separate cognitive capacity. He has coined the phrase "ego depletion": will power comes in limited amounts and gets used up. For instance, people who were offered radishes and chocolates, but told to try and eat only the radishes, were more likely to give up quickly on the subsequent task, which was attempting to solve difficult puzzles. Dieters who were asked to suppress their normal emotional reactions ended up eating more. But will power, and hence the ability to resist temptation, can be increased by repeatedly exercising it. This evidence is consistent with our subjective experience of choosing, and of sticking to our resolutions when we are tempted not to, and suggests that we may have at least some free will, and some moral responsibility, after all.

Paul Crichton
31 August 2012


Baumeister, R. and Tierney, J. (2011) Will Power: Rediscoverin the Greatest Human Strength, London: Penguin Books.
Bechara, A., Damasio, H. and Damasio, A.R. (2000) Emotion, decision-making and the orbitofrontal cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 10:295–307.
Libet, B. (1985) Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8:529–566.
Libet, B., Gleason, C.A., Wright, E.W., Pearl, D.K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in realtion to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain. 106 (3):623–642. PMID 6640273.