The presumed freedom of human choices underpins our society's notions of justice, rights and responsibilities. This assumption is directly contradicted by a doctrine that dominates all neuroscientific studies of this topic:'hard determinism', the view that our choices physically-determined and that subjective freedom is simply a delusion. This latter view receives apparent support from findings that subjectively 'free' choices can be externally influenced and predicted. We have found similar evidence, yet a second, striking feature of our results persuades us to reject the consensus view. Our most recent work reveals, uniquely, and across a range of tasks, a factor intimately related to conscious perception that makes decisions freer from external control. Barely conscious stimuli, presented for only 1/20 of a second prior to a task, immediately isolate decisions from the unconscious external control we induced. Indeed, unconscious control influences that would otherwise be undiminished hours later reduce to undetectable levels even if the conscious perception arises hours before testing. The primary aim of the proposed work is to pin down the conscious processes responsible for this effect. A secondary aim is to map subjective freedom onto a limited, but experimentally-tractable objective scale of freedom. We hope that more rigorous analysis of subjective freedom in formal experiments will help to reveal its cognitive and neural basis. We expect the work to yield 4 publications with primary outcomes to include: (i) challenging the consensus that feelings of autonomy must, a priori, be delusional, (ii) re-establishing the key role of consciousness in human choices. The project will challenge core assumptions of hard determinism and providing a new focus, in science, for compatibilist or libertarian philosophical perspectives. Additionally, the work has potential clinical import in understanding limited freedom experienced in psychosis and compulsive behavior.
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