Saturday, July 31, 2010

Do We Have Free Will?

A recent headline in the Psychiatric News (6/18/10) proclaimed, "Imaging Studies May Someday Help Predict Behavior."  Sounds a little scary, no?  They are talking about a form of mind reading using brain scan technology.  1984, albeit at least 26 years behind schedule.  Actually, when you read the article, it sounds like about the best that police and military interrogators might be able to obtain at some point in the future is a relatively fool-proof lie detector.

It seems a German neuroscientist (A German!) named John Dylan-Haynes has been seeking to "observe the point at which a subject has made a decision" about a simple sensory-motor exercize but "before he or she is aware of it."  The tasks about which decisions are made are of no emotional significance to the subjects.  Using brain scan technology, and with some people, he has been able to predict the decisions the subject makes up to a whole seven seconds before the subject acts.  He admits he may just be seeing the person's bias or tendency rather than a full blown decision.  Plus everyone's brain reacts slightly differently.  It seems highly unlikely to me that scientists will ever break the full minute barrier in the crystal ball department.

Besides, if the experimenter and the subject were both made aware of the brain scan finding at the same time, seven seconds should be more than enough time for the subject to change his or her mind and do the opposite of the original plan.  I think we can be safe from the fear that the government will be able to predict exactly what we are going to do before we do it any time soon.  That is something only seen in Tom Cruise movies like Minority Report, and we know what an expert in psychiatry he is.

Still, psychological determinists who don't seem to believe that we have any real free will or choice in how we behave have had a lot of traction in the field.  On the one hand are radical behaviorists like B.F. Skinner and radical family systems theorists who believe we are nothing more than billiard balls on the pool table of life.  This type of behaviorist thinks we are entirely pawns of environmental rewards and punishments, while family systems extremists believe we are at the mercy of collectivist mandates from large social groups.

Of course, if these folks were right, then their theories were not the result of any objective scientific observations or well-reasoned thinking they may have done. They would have come by their theory because they were rewarded for thinking this way, or because they were mindlessly adopting a family myth. In that case, their theories could easily be wrong, so we should not believe them anyways.

On the other hand, radical "biological" psychiatrists believe we are completely at the mercy of our genetic makeup and must do what our genes dictate we do.  Any real neurobiologist worth his salt knows, however, that the idea that a gene or group of genes can code for specific complex behavior patterns is utter nonsense.  If we did not have the inherent capacity to quickly adapt to environmental contingencies, our species would have been killed off long ago.

Since the radical gene freaks know they are on shaky ground, they are now usually willing to admit that environmental factors do play at least some role in determining future behavior.  They have now endorsed what I'd like to refer to as the radical middle ground.

In my post of March 2010, The Heritability Fraud, I explained how so-called biological psychiatrists misuse twin studies to try to determine how much of a psychiatric disorder is created by genetics, how much is created by the "shared" home environment (as if siblings are all treated exactly the same by their families), and how much is created by "unshared" environmental influences as seen in identical twins raised apart. In the studies, the prevalence rates of disorders are compared in identical and fraternal twins raised together and raised apart.  Another fraudulant way that the statistic is used is that the study reporters just assume that the disorders in question are 100% determined by these three factors. 

How this leaves free will out of the equation can be readily appreciated by looking at heritability studies done on specific behaviors like school truancy rather than on entire disorders.  Again, the three factors are just assumed to add up to 100%.  The percent of these behaviors that are caused in heritability studies by personal decisions, thinking, anticipating potential outcomes or rewards and planning accordingly?  ZERO percent.  By this reasoning, the designer of the studies must not have used any reasoning in figuring out how to do heritability studies.  Even the guy who did the very first one.  Well, come to think of it, maybe that is true in the case of people who do heritability studies.

I guess I like to think that I have free will. I just don't know about you.

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