Neuroscience and Conscious Causation: Has Neuroscience Shown that We Cannot Control Our Own Actions?



Grant S. Shields

Review of Philosophy and Psychology

August 2014




Neuroscience has begun to elucidate the mechanisms of volition, decision-making, and action. Some have taken the progress neuroscience has made in these areas to indicate that we are not free to choose our actions (e.g., Harris 2012). The notion that we can consciously initiate our behavior is a crucial tenet in the concept of free will, and closely linked to how most individuals view themselves as persons. There is thus reason to inquire if the aforementioned inference drawn by some might be too hasty. While there is much evidence appearing to indicate that consciousness does not influence behavior—including evidence indicating that neural activity precedes a decision by several seconds, neural activity predicts what action an individual will perform, and that individuals infer when they decided to act after an action was performed—this evidence seems to suffer methodological issues. Additionally, there are empirically supported interpretations of the aforementioned data consistent with the idea that individuals can consciously control their actions. This paper therefore concludes that neuroscience does not currently substantiate the idea that we cannot consciously initiate or control our actions.









Human Services and Justice Coordinating Committee