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Who’s this ‘we’, Dr Soon? Unconscious Action and Moral Responsibility

A paper in Nature Neuroscience by Soon, Brass, Heinze and Haynes has demonstrated that it is possible (in
the case of a simple decision about pressing buttons) to predict what the
decision will be and when it will happen several seconds before the decision is consciously “made”
. Does this demonstrate that our free will is an
illusion? That depends on what we mean by "we".

The paper starts out by boldly claiming “The
impression that we are able to freely choose between different possible courses
of action is fundamental to our mental life”. But who is ‘we’ in that sentence?
Does it refer to our conscious selves, the entirety of our mind, or to the
total system of body, brain and mind however they are linked to each other? If there is one thing neuroimaging shows well, it is that our brains are composed of many semi-independent subsystems working together (but also occasionally at cross purposes).

Free will deals with the question whether
we have any choice in what we are doing. Note that the experiment can never
answer that: it can only observe a single realised course of action (just like
we do in everyday life). What it shows is that our decisions are made in a
series of steps involving different subsystems, and that conscious awareness does not appear to be involved
until at the very end.

This is a problem only if people think that
choosing between courses of actions must be conscious. But most of our actions
are if not unconscious at least not actively attended to – I automatically say “sorry”
when I bump into somebody, I pick up one book rather than another for no clear
reason, I look after a passing bird while thinking of something else. These
actions appear just as free as any of my own actions but occur without any
deliberation. Some of them, such as saying sorry, have moral importance. If I consciously
deliberated whether to say sorry or not the excuse would probably be less
honest; the only kind of deliberation that is compatible with an honest excuse
is how much empathy and contrition to express.

Hence it may not matter morally if our
decisions are made “anonymously” by unconscious brain processes seconds in
advance. We are still morally responsible for our actions, but the “we” is a
set of conscious and unconscious systems working together. The question still remains whether we could have chosen differently, but from a practical standpoint it is clear that most decisions can go either way –  we often intend or act differently even in situations indistinguishable to us. Even if we lack free will on a fundamental metaphysical level it empirically occurs on the social and personal level. 

Conscious deliberation might be useful for
hard choices or (as pointed out by Neil Levy) when we want to be sure that all
parts of our mind has had a chance to affect them. Automatic actions are less
flexible and we (as an entire system) may not entirely agree with them; this is
why the conscious and self-aware systems of our brains seem to have a veto
power when an action about to be taken is found to contradict our goals as a
whole. We are more morally responsible for deliberated actions rather than
automatic ones: they have the assent of most of our parts.

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