Once again the lack of metaphysical training has led some scientists to say an incredibly silly thing. That free will “could be the result of ‘background noise’ in the brain.”
According to the UC Davis press release (which, incidentally, the Independent (linked above) so badly copy-and-pasted that they left out the author’s first name and her rank):
Our ability to make choices — and sometimes mistakes — might arise from random fluctuations in the brain’s background electrical noise, according to a recent study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis.
“How do we behave independently of cause and effect?” said Jesse Bengson, a postdoctoral researcher at the center and first author on the paper. “This shows how arbitrary states in the brain can influence apparently voluntary decisions.”
The brain has a normal level of “background noise,” Bengson said, as electrical activity patterns fluctuate across the brain. In the new study, decisions could be predicted based on the pattern of brain activity immediately before a decision was made.
So. “Background” noise causes the brain to do what it does. How can “noise” organize to make our actions coherent to us? Answer: it cannot. Drop a handful of pinto beans onto the floor and they may organize into a pattern resembling, say, George Washington’s profile. But the beans don’t know that. We do. There has to be an aware us to interpret the result of the “noise.”
There is no such thing as “noise”, except in the sense that it is a pattern which, to us, makes no sense. Something caused the “noise”, and that efficient cause had a final cause, a purpose or goal, even if we don’t know it. It is thus impossible “noise” can be an explanation for the lack of free will.
Before I started writing this article I walked, nay jogged, back up the hill from College Town to the Statler. (I didn’t want to miss the start of USA v. Portugal). I did not think, not for a moment, where to place my feet, how to shift my weight from step to step, what to look at. Indeed, since I was thinking intently of a book I had read and of the upcoming match, I can barely remember the trip. I know I started at A and ended at B. But how I did it, I don’t know.
I don’t especially care, either. I don’t even care how I breathed, but I know my brain had something to do with it. Can it really be news that our minds can be occupied with other matters while the rest of the body handles itself? Well, the answer must be yes: it is news.
Bengson sat people in front of a computer and asked them to look left or right after a “cue” popped up on a screen. Dull task, much like walking. If you were to hook a scanner to my head and asked me when I decided to put my foot on that spot over there, as I was strolling along, I might say to you, “Well, right now, I guess” as I was doing it.
How goofy would it sound if a scientist then said, “Aha! I was monitoring your brain and the area responsible for walking was activated before you said you made the decision. You thus have no free will!” The only possible response is: “Dude. Too much coffee.” I activated that area of my brain when I decided to walk. That area, being well trained, did it’s thing so I could concentrate on more interesting things.
Bengson said she monitored the “noise” in the brain a “second or so”—or so?—before the cue appeared, and that this “noise” formed itself into patterns which allowed her to predict, with fair accuracy, which way the person would, a second or so later, say “left” or “right”.
You’re given a cue a minute ago and looked left. You might think, “Now what? I answered left twice in a row. I’m getting bored of looking left. Next time I’m looking right.” The cue comes sometime later and you look right, just as you decided. But since the cue came well after you decided, it appears, just like walking, your brain handled the decision.
If the participants didn’t know when the cue was coming (Bengson emphasized this), how could “noise” in the brain activate itself before the cue was shown? Is Bengson claiming precognition? No. She says, “”we know people aren’t making the decision in advance.” She doesn’t know this. She’s assuming it, as my example shows.
She’s claiming the noise is causing the choice. But “noise”, like “chance”, cannot be a cause (the states of the brain can be, of course). A coauthor said the noise “inserts a random effect that allows us to be freed from simple cause and effect.” There is no freedom from cause and effect.
Update I’ve been in contact with Bengson and now have the final paper. Stay tuned for a new review.