My guinea pig wants beer!
Rather involuntary train rides (especially long ones, going to boring places for a boring event) are good for updates on some thoughts lingering in the lower levels of the brain-at-ease.
My latest trip (from Berlin to Bonn) unearthed the never-ending squabble about the elusive 'free will'. Neuroscientists make headlines proving with alacrity the absence of free will by experimenting with brain-signals that precede the apparent willful act - by as much as seven seconds! Measuring brain-activity way before the human guinea pig actually presses a button with whatever hand or finger he desires, they predict with breathtaking reproducibility the choice to be made.
So what? Is that the end of free will?
I am afraid that those neuroscientists would accept only non-predictability as a definite sign of free will. But non-predictability results from two possible scenarios: a) a random event (without a cause) b) an event triggered by something outside of the system (but caused).
Free will arguably is never compatible with randomness but should be reconciled with cause. Why should a random event (like white noise, the result of a lottery, the number of bubbles on my beer…) be a sign of free will? This line of thought (along with David Hume) is called compatibilism - and I haven't heard a convincing argument against it - yet (the comment-function is *on* :) ).
But if a free decision has a cause - how could we distinguish it from an inevitable, compelled decision? (see http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/what-makes-free-will-free/)
It seems inevitable to pull consciousness into the game - as both appear to be intertwined. Accepting an event triggered by something outside of the system does not mean accepting a force outside the material world. An event triggered unconsciously would suffice.
It feels right to claim that a free choice is a choice that happened consciously.
A free decision must have an origin, a cause, that is consciously set (a trigger inside the system). Everything after this initial trigger must be non-random and predictable - as we ruled out noise. So, the interpretation of the experiments hinges very much on the *report of the individual* about when she became consciously aware of the trigger.
As long as the time when the trigger was conscious depends on 'reports' of the guinea pigs, the experiments don't help much.
The conscious act will have to be defined by some measurable quantities (which would allow to actually *prove* if a real guinea pig has a conscious self, experimentally!). Only after that, experiments on free will can be devised in a meaningful manner.
And as long as free will is not defined, the experiments proving or disproving its existence are meaningless in any case.