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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

If you're new to this series, or new to Psycasm generally, Click Here for an explanation.


Do we have free will?

I know I chose to pose that question and write those words, but I’m equally comfortable attributing that sensation of certainty to illusion.

Though I’m not widely read in philosophy that which I have exposed myself to lead me to the conclusion that free will is probably an illusion. I don’t remember who I read, what arguments they used or why it seemed a reasonable conclusion to me, but it is the assumption I have been operating under for a fair period of time.

However, in considering this topic in light of a few more years of experience, and in light of a few years of scientific training… I’m no longer sure what I think.

I know enough to say that I don’t know enough about physics to take that into consideration; not in any meaningful way, at any rate. I could drop a ‘quantum’ here, or list the flavours of subatomic particles (my favourite being ‘Strange’), but it wouldn’t help me understand the problem at hand.

I can, however, parse the problem in terms I am familiar with. If freewill exists – illusion or reality – then it must have emerged in us at some point. It must, necessarily, be a product of evolution. I say necessarily because the thought of it having been bestowed upon me (upon us) is unsupported, unfalsifiable, thoroughly unsatisfying, and largely discomforting*.  In making these claims I reveal my position on the whole mind-body problem: the mind is the brain; the mind is biologically emergent. Thus it necessarily follows that freewill – as a phenomenon of the mind and a characteristic of our being – is an emergent biological product.

The question then has traction: If freewill exists – illusion or reality – then it must have emerged in us at some point in our evolutionary history.

Freewill has a great many definitions, and my correspondents will almost certainly choose to argue them, but as I understand it…:

Freewill is the capacity for an independent agent to consciously choose to act in such a way that they may influence the future towards a desired end-state in an on-going process.

If it’s merely an illusion then it follows that Freewill is the illusion of the capacity for an…

Though I’m completely undecided as to whether we do or do not have freewill, it certainly seems as though it ties into the psychological concept of Mental Time Travel (MTT). Here I feel I must preface this thought – I have never read anyone else who has made this connection; google reveals nothing when searching ‘mental time travel + freewill’; what follows is a real scientific theory with a some philosophically underqualified navel-gazing in tow… However, I digress…

Mental Time Travel was first proposed by Suddendorf and Corballis in 1997, who defined the term:

Mental time travel is the faculty that allows humans to mentally project themselves backwards in time to re-live, or forwards to pre-live, events

It’s that simple. And we all do it all the time. What did you have for breakfast? When did you figure out Santa didn’t exist? Where are your car keys right now?

But in terms of understanding when the capacity emerged one must make different considerations regarding the precedent and the examples. Car keys and Santa are modern phenomenon; and what you had for breakfast is inconsequential (unless it was the white-speckled-red-mushroom, in which case that’s game over).

What evolution acts on is current behaviour, not past behaviour; and mental time travel allows us to plan our behaviour in many hypothetical futures.  If you survived the white-speckled-red-mushroom omelette you had this morning then you’ve learned that it’s a poor choice for future behaviours.  It’s clear then that any organism that can modify its behaviour to avoid presently threatening stimuli will survive longer than those who go back for seconds. That’s straight-up classical conditioning.

However, Humans take this a step further. We know to avoid eating the mushroom ourselves, and through the cumulation of other adaptive abilities (that have nothing to do with freewill, so far as I can tell; such as Theory of Mind) we may learn that the mushroom is aversive or fatal, identify when such consequences may be desirable to ourselves or others, pick the mushroom, carry it between locations and through time, and use to kill prey or enemies.

We can imagine a future and future problems or goals, and through employing strategies learned socially or through experience, employ hypothetical solutions to the task at hand, select the most desirable, and engage in it.

It’s the exact same process you engage in when, after having misplaced your car keys for the nth time, you decide to put a bowl next to the door so you can put your keys it when you arrive home…. You identify a problem (either now or in the future), conceive of behaviours that may help solve it (now or in the future), select the most appropriate and execute. With regard to freewill it is clear you participated in identifying a problem now, anticipating it as being a problem in the future, and change the environment to better suit you and your desires. As far the definition I proposed goes this ticks all the boxes.

[Freewill is the capacity for an independent agent to consciously choose to act in such a way that they may influence the future towards a desired end-state in an on-going process.]

Suddendorf and Corballis (2007) argue that the capacity for Mental Time Travel is not an encapsulated ability like vision or memory may be, but involves a range of neurological mechanisms in concert.

They use a very simple  metaphor to explain both the process and limitations of the ability; it is known as the ‘Theatre metaphor’:

The Stage – a physical place for the future to take place in; a memory or knowledge of some existing place. Perhaps  the savannah or your bedroom.  Whatever.

The Playwright – An agent who generates content and alternatives; simply put, our uniquely advanced declarative memory.

The Actors – The ability to accurately represent the self and others in an hypothetical future with particular interest paid to their own desires and likely behaviours.

The Set – An understanding of real-world-physics / cause-and-effect. Will the mushroom poison the elk, or cause it to fly skywards? Can I throw a spear that far? Can I flip a coin 20-times and get a string of 20 heads…?

The Director – some element that ‘decides’ on which course of action to choose. As Suddendorf and Corballis (1997) put it Mental Time Travel should not be mistaken for clairvoyance. The Director requests rehearsals and makes evaluations. This encompasses our meta-cognitions; our abilities to think about thoughts.

The Executive Producer – The element that executes behaviour. This is our executive ability – the ability to weigh current desires against competing interests. Want beer now but know you need to buy milk tomorrow? Well, it’s your executive ability that inhibits the beer-seeking behaviour in favour of the future milk-seeking behaviour.

The Broadcaster – our ability to communicate our desire to engage in a set course of action. Usually language. You want to ask your parents for a loan to buy a car, or need your clansmen to bring down some big game… well, you need to recruit them, and language is the typical way we do this.

Should a failure occur in any one element of this ability (represented in the analogy) then we may fail to achieve our goal in the future…

Interestingly, our capacities to engage in hypothetical futures is mirrored in our more familiar ability to re-live the past. For instance, the greater the passage of time (either forwards or backwards) the less texture and richness our imaginings and memories embody. Similar brain-regions are engaged in prospection as they are in memory, and brain lesions that impair memory also impair our ability to foresee the future.

Cognitively speaking this is a fascinating topic, however I should make my thoughts on this, as they relate to Freewill, more clear.

If freewill is the ability act in a manner consistent with achieving some goal in the future, then it seems to me that Mental Time Travel is the way we do it.

Although it seems possible that the capacity for free choice may exist moment to moment; the shorter the duration between moments, the less evident freewill becomes.

Consider Clive Wearing. Clive Waring has an absolute case of Amnesia. Every instance, and I mean every given conscious instant he experiences is experienced as a sensation of waking up for the first time.

Here’s a video outlining his condition:

[Just FYI, this is one of the more pleasant videos to watch on Wearing. Many others depict the truley horrific consequences of his unfortunate condition]

Given that we know he has no capacity to recall the past, and that evidence suggests he has little ability to plan for the future (and no ability to recall his plans even though he may conceive them), how much freewill can he have?

Is this an instance of a human without freewill? Perhaps, with regard to the analogy, he may have freewill but simply lacks the capacity to act on it in any meaningful way. If the duration between moments of awareness decreases still (as it did towards his death) he must surely lose elements of future oriented cognition along the way; thinking takes time.

Waring’s entire life, his entire conscious experience, is an illusion. So too, I argue, is any belief he has regarding his ability to act towards a desired future. Although he may experience the components of freewill the cumulation of his behaviours and their results suggest he has next-to-none. Should Waring have lost language what evidence would we have that he could even conceive of a future outside of immediate biological needs? As distasteful as the analogy sounds, without language, his ability to communicate and act towards a desired future would be no more efficious than a family pet requesting food and attention. Any higher-order functions would be outwardly invisible.

But there are individuals of the Homo Sapien species who typically do not have language, nor declarative or executive functions, nor the ability to engage in or demonstrate pre- or prospective thought. Individuals who exist moment to moment, expressing through behaviour (often ambiguously) only the most immediate biological needs.  These individuals are infants. Our dependent offspring. Children only develop the ability to accurately answer questions about yesterday around the age of 4; and preliminary evidence suggests that hand-in-hand with this ability is the capacity to roughly predict tomorrow (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007).

Thus, Mental Time Travel is not only emergent in our evolutionary history, but in our individual developmental history, too. The implication being that we all have experienced periods without the sensation of freewill, and that some of us may again experience them towards death.  If freewill did not exist prior to mental time travel, then freewill must have also been absent prior to our individual development of it.

Was the change a material one, where we developed the capacity to act on such cognitions; or was it merely the ability to access that which was once inaccessible and rationalize the outcomes that have been predetermined within us? In a later post I intend to address these questions with further evidence, however, for now I'm content presenting these preliminary thoughts linking an established, unique and evolutionarily/developmentally significant phenomenon with - in my mind - the superficial features of freewill.

In summation

I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t come close to answering  the question Do humans have free will, nor have I made clear whether freewill is an illusion or a reality. It is possible the Mental Time Travel – as free and conscious as it feels – is again an illusion; a set of post-hoc rationalizations regarding subconscious cognitions beyond our access.  I really don’t know. I do hope, however, that the two other writers can contribute more meaningfully to the conversation and address gaps in my knowledge, as well as informing the way I think about the topic in the near future. As far as my contribution goes (and what I feel anyone reading this should get out of it) is my own psychological perspective of the topic, a method for potentially understanding freewill in a scientific/psychological context, and an understanding that freewill – whatever it is – can be understood via scientific reasoning and investigation.


*The null hypothesis for life, the universe, and everything is not ‘Skybeard did it’, but ‘currently unknown’.


Suddendorf, T., & Corballis, M. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30 (03) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X07001975

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An excellent starting point! I think the observation that free will (or the illusion of it) must have emerged at some point in our evolution, and certainly emerges again at some point in each individual's development is a very important one in coming to any sensible understanding of it. And I just adore the case of Clive Wearing...

I look forward to writing my reply!

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Great topic and I like how you tie in Wearing.  I guess I never had thought of freewill in this context, more like the religious context of predetermined fate.  Biological freewill "feels" like an entirely different concept.

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Very interesting. Never thought of free will quite this way. Can't wait to hear more.

Dub C Med School
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This is an awesme topic. I'm looking forward to the next post.

Guest Comment

I think if tachyons are real they could help explain the QM basis for this topic.  Tachyons move faster than light and can make your brain anticipate what is going on in your surroundings and make decisions.  As far as relating this to free will I have no clue.  Great article!!

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what's QM? And do you have any links relating to their interaction with the brain?

Guest Comment

I was referring to you mentioning physics and quantum mechanics as far as trying to explain free will. Black hole expert Roger Penrose writes about this I forget which novel and since this is a controversial and unproven theory I'm not sure of any sites but I'll look around. Unfortunately quantum mechanics has been picked up by crazy nonscientific theorists in neuroscience and it has been the basis of stuff like the secret but I think physics and consciousness can be linked.


Guest Comment

Interesting post…I'm more partial to the charm quark.


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