Popular Science

Does free will exist?

- BY SARA KILEY WATSON

HERE’S A MIND-BENDING question: Are you reading this because you definitive­ly chose to or because you were destined to?

Philosophe­rs have pondered free will’s existence for millennia, and neuroscien­tists began to consider whether humans go about their lives of their own accord in the 1960s. But it wasn’t until a pivotal 1983 study that anyone had any hard evidence in either direction; researcher­s asked participan­ts to consciousl­y decide to move a finger prior to raising it and recorded their brain activity with an EEG. Surprising­ly, before subjects chose to move, their grey matter lit up, suggesting noggins make determinat­ions before we’re aware of them. Over the years, the finding has been met with scrutiny, as the actual reason for those EEG spikes is still unclear.

Modern investigat­ors like Uri Maoz, a computatio­nal neuroscien­tist at Chapman University, are instead tackling the quandary with data. If a supercompu­ter knows everything about us (from life goals to favorite ice cream) and every decision we make (including instinctua­l ones happening since birth) influences the next, then a machine could spit out the most likely choice we’d make in any situation. Maoz and others currently study whether there is any chance you’d pick something totally different from what a supercompu­ter might predict. But in the case of this article, since you’ve nearly finished, it’s more or less a moot point.

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