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Think about a decision you’ve made — a big one like where to go to college, or a tiny one like whether to pick up your phone. People take for granted that they act according to their decisions, and that our actions only begin once we’ve made a conscious choice. But is it really true? Several fascinating experiments have suggested otherwise. Beginning this year, a 17-member international team of leading neuroscientists and philosophers will undertake an ambitious four-year set of studies to expand our understanding of decision and action, funded by a $5.34 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation and a $1.7 million grant from the Fetzer Institute. The project, led by Chapman University computational neuroscientist Uri Maoz, will seek to tease apart, conjecture by conjecture, whether it can be shown that our behavior is guided by conscious intentions, reached by rational deliberation — in essence, whether this robust understanding of free will can be backed by scientific evidence.

A series of philosophically-guided experiments will use brain imaging techniques together with computational modeling to develop a sophisticated understanding of the causal relationship between intentions and their associated actions. This project will use Benjamin Libet’s seminal 1980s experiments as a jumping-off point. These studies purported to show that participants’ brains initiated simple actions like pushing a button before the participants had consciously decided to act, suggesting that many apparently conscious decisions might simply be post-hoc stories we tell ourselves about processes initiated unconsciously. The experiments carried out by Maoz and his collaborators will work to establish neural markers that distinguish between conscious and unconscious decisions, and between decisions undertaken with deliberation and those taken arbitrarily. If — as Libet’s experiments suggested — a person’s neurological transcript of the decision-making process tells a story that differs significantly from his self-reported timeline of the decision, it would be evidence that the action was not, in fact, a direct result of a conscious decision.

The team Maoz has assembled for the experiments was purposely chosen to include both scientists who are more skeptical about the efficacy of conscious intentions over our behavior (such as John-Dylan Haynes of Berlin’s Charité University and Mark Hallett of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke) and researchers who are more confident about the causal role of consciousness (including Maoz himself and Liad Mudrik of Tel Aviv University).

“Sir John Templeton believed in the existence and importance of human free will, but he was also deeply committed to pursuing scientific inquiry to whatever conclusions the evidence supports, even if it meant revising his beliefs,” says John Churchill, who directs the John Templeton Foundation’s philosophy and theology programs. “Among neuroscientists, there’s been a recent turn towards skepticism about the plausibility of free will. This project should help those both inside and outside assess whether such skepticism is truly founded — and to offer a toolkit for gaining new insights into the interplay between conscious and unconscious decision-making.”

STILL CURIOUS?

Learn more about project leader Uri Maoz.