Freedom of choice and neuroscience

Do you think people have freedom of choice? Free will is a complex concept, so I decided to narrow it down a bit. Our behavior is limited, our actions have reasons, we probably cannot call our actions completely free. But can we even choose something? for example, to kill or not to kill, to steal or not to steal, to help the poor or not to help, whom to marry? is there freedom here? what does neuroscience say about this? Thank you

I have read about early experimentation in this field but I find that any conclusions showing we don’t have free will are highly suspect. Of course I believe in free will. Our legal system assumes we have free will and so does most of the Bible.

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I guess we must define the term first. To some degree my choices result from a number of factors I’m not aware of completely. In fact, according to some research, many choices I think I am making consciously are made moments before on a subconscious level.

thanks for the answer! doesn’t that make us unconscious robots?

I see that you have listened to the Bill Newsome episode, so I’m just going to link it for others: Bill Newsome | Neuroscience, Faith & Free Will

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Fascinating topic.
I imagine my subconscious mind picks and chooses how to respond to specific situations through filters that have formed over time that represent to some degree freedom to choose.
If someone introduces me to ideas that don’t clear those filters, I can reject them, but even then the rejection results from unconscious processes.
My brain is screening unconsciously enormous amounts of information in microseconds, allowing me to concentrate on those things which it already knows, generally speaking, are the most important or relevant to me at that moment. If these filters don’t work properly, I may have attentional struggles. The ability to zoom in and zoom out of focus successfully is a key component in cognition. If my brain cannot rule in or rule out data with discretion and precision, how can I zero in on the best data? Concentration involves more than paying attention to something sufficiently.

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As Ralphie wrote, we should define the term (free will) first. I prefer to use the term in a limited sense.

Free will is like walking a path and coming to a point where we can choose between two or more directions. Our options are limited by our history (our path) and conditions. Emotion and subconscious processes may affect our choices more than rational thinking. At any single point, it is possible to question whether we have free will. Yet, through a cumulative series of minor choices our path is going toward the direction we choose.


that is, we are responsible for our actions before the law and society?

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We also mull over our choices, discuss them with others, come to group decisions, regret some of our choices, and so forth. It’s not so simple.

But, just think. All those conversations and all the information we collect go through processing filters which developed through processing filters, etc. and are guided by unconscious choices, even our decisions not to go ahead or to wait, etc.

I would be remiss if I didn’t stress how challenging life can for the person whose ability to pay attention is broken.

To some degree, yes. But are you here by choice?

So, do you remember during a v.p. debate, Perot’s selection, Admiral Stockdale, says out of the blue, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Well, he was impersonating yours truly.

No, we’re not unconscious robots even if cognitive activity goes on even when we’re not consciously participating in it. After all digestion goes on without our participation. Most of us chew gum and walk pretty well. The linkage between cognition and behavior is pretty ubiquitous.

Doesn’t it seem likely that our species had managed to make some sense of its surroundings even before we took up symbolic language and started considering the strategic potential of what we could name? Surely before that, our species nonetheless got along in the world at least as well as other highly social mammals our size? We carried out actions together probably at least as well coordinated as wolves. What we think of as “thinking” is an elaboration of an earlier form of making cognitive sense of the environment. Before we had language we surely had choices to make even if we could not articulate them. We exercised our will just as freely as every other creature. If they’re not all robots, neither are we. The real issue isn’t how does mental stuff influence physical stuff. The question should be: how does all this language-use influence the ordinary exercise of will that is a characteristic of nearly every other creature.


We all have different abilities or handicaps, and limited informaton. That affects the responsibility. The servant who knew his masters will and acted against it will get a more severe punishment than the servant who did not know that he acted against his masters will. The same in the court: a person may be judged as not criminally responsible if she/he has severe mental handicaps.


And yet it is enough for many to conclude there is no such thing as free will, and they are absolutely certain of this.

I have heard someone saying that even if you decide something subconsciously, it is still YOU, therefore that’s not an argument against free will. Is that what you were trying to say?

Literally few months ago I would have been shocked at an atheist defending free will, as I mostly came across this line of reasoning from militant anti theists. And this analogy sounds cool but I’m not sure I’m getting it lol

@Terry_Sampson we have talked about it recently and I’m surprised to not have seen you on this thread, perhaps you had enough of this talk about free will by now?:wink:

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I saw this thread when the OP first appeared, but didn’t weigh in at the time because I briefly got bogged down in trying to figure out how “free will” and “freedom of choice” differ, and I couldn’t. Are they synonymous or not? If not, what does “free will” mean if there are no choices to choose from? And what does “freedom of choice” mean if the chooser has no will to make a choice? In other words, I tentatively decided that “free will” and “freedom of choice” are synonymous unless and until someone can explain to me how they differ.

Unfortunately, consulting neuroscientists has yet to provide a clear path to answers, IMO, because (a) I haven’t seen a consensus of opinion, much less a consensus of interpretation of facts (which really, IMO, is no different than a consensus of opinion); and (b) “a consensus” is not much more than the result of taking a vote and arguing over whose vote counts and whose doesn’t: which translates into a Grand Prix “bumper-car derby”.

That’s when I went off to work on another project that I’m working on and making progress on.
I will say here that my answer to the question “are we unconscious robots?” is a firm “No”, in spite of the fact that I am a Determinist and don’t believe in “free will” and appear, even now, to be the only Monergist who’s willing to come out of the closet in Biologos. [The few Calvinists around are either still confused or slackers. :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:] Why “No”? Because the opera’s not over till it’s over, and I believe it won’t be over till the the Transformation is completed and all who are predestined to transformation have been transformed.


People can be certain that the earth is flat also. I wonder what the no-free-will people say and do when the are victims of a crime.


Oh there are always choices. Some of us are on a quest for freedom from choice.


Well, I may be completely wrong, but my initial interpretation is that choice is an external thing, like a menu in a restaurant for example, and will is internal, as in what goes on in our heads.
No one has unlimited choice of anything in this life, and experience tells us that this choice gets smaller and smaller the worst your socio-economic situation is, in fact it gets down to nothing in many situations. So you could say there is no freedom of choice.
How can there be free will if there is no choice? Well, if we accept it as something that goes on in our minds then choice does not necessarily matter. After all we always hear about people doing things against their WILL, and surely everyone of us experienced that themselves.

I’m intrigued by what do you mean by that.


“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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