“Do people have Free Will, or is this universal belief an illusion? Is neuroeconomics the death of Free Will?”

The following text is my 500 word response to the above essay question for the course Introduction to Neuroeconomics: How the Brain Makes Decisions on Cousera.

‘Cogito, Ergo Sum’ wrote René Descartes — ‘I think, therefore I am’. His rationalist argument was that the only we could trust was our conscious thoughts — our “inner-voice”. He argued our senses could be deceiving us, positing that we cannot know a demon is not deceiving us with false inputs — as in the “The Matrix”. His refutation of empiricism is a central text in the historical belief of dualism — i.e. that the human mind is separate from the body; that we are the “Ghost in the Machine”. [1]

Subsequent research has advanced our understanding of ourselves beyond the ancient guesses about the nature of thought. The physicalist paradigm assumes that all that exist is built upon the physical world and its interactions. [2] This paradigm assumes that human consciousness is a manifestation of processes running in our physical bodies, on the nervous system and under the influence of our endocrine system. [5] The physicalists accept emergence as an ontological reality and that our consciousness emerges out of the interactions between our neurons. [6]

More recent conceptualisations of conscious thought are described as Embodied Cognition, these assume thought emerges from the interactions of the complete operating environment of the human body. [3][4] Evidence from cognitive studies suggests that humans store memories with context from our body, our actions, and our emotions. [4] For example, studies have shown humans are quicker to remember details when handling frequently used tools than rarely used tools. There is also evidence, that situational information such as sounds, smells, and tastes are stored with episodic memories and even semantic memories. Also, exposure to similar situations allow for vivid retrieval of otherwise faint memories, such as when the smell of cooking triggers memories of your grandmother, or when the smell of a cologne triggers strong memories of your father.

As Ashcraft & Radvansky (2010), discuss there is significant parallel processing and modularisation within our cognitive systems, with our higher decision-making functions taking input from various other subsystem, such as when it arbitrates between hunger and the desire to stay resting on the sofa. [4]

By accepting that conscious thought is embodied and inseparable from the context of our bodies, we can infer that our “inner-voice” is only part of our cognition. Although there may be experimental evidence that our actions are being considered long before our inner voice is aware of them, that does not preclude “free will”. Our cognition is not only the “inner-voice” and attentive awareness. Our will emerges out of the combination of all our thoughts, impulses, and hormonal drives. As such, we can not say that the experiments describe either proves or disprove free-will, only that additional research is required into the cognitive sciences and the nature of thought.

[1] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, René Descartes,  https://iep.utm.edu/descarte/
[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Physicalism, https://plato.stanford.library.edu/entries/physicalism/
[3] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Embodied Cognition https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/embodied-cognition/
[4] Ashcraft & Radvansky. (2010). Cognition (5th ed). Pearson Education. https://www.pearson.com/us/higher-education/product/Ashcraft-Cognition-5th-Edition/9780136050469.html
[5] Vasily Klucharev, The Scope of Neuroeconomics, Cousera, 6:30, https://www.coursera.org/learn/neuroeconomics/lecture/0LuRb?t=394
[6] Vasily Klucharev, Neuroeconomics as a Multidisciplinary Field, Cousera, 8:00, https://www.coursera.org/learn/neuroeconomics/lecture/LRRlW?t=483

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