Obama’s BRAIN and Free Will

By Eddy Nahmias, PhD

Eddy Nahmias is professor in the Philosophy Department and the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

On April 2, 2013 President Barack Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative, a 10-year, $3 billion research goal to map all of the neurons and connections in the human brain. The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative is modeled on the Human Genome Project, which successfully sequenced the entire DNA code of the human genome in 2003. Our brains, with 100 trillion neuronal connections, are immensely more complicated than our DNA, so the BRAIN Initiative has a much higher mountain to climb.

But let’s suppose that, finally, during the next Clinton presidency, the BRAIN Initiative is completed…. that is, the presidency of Charlotte Clinton, Bill and Hilary’s grandchild. In fact, suppose that eventually neuroimaging technology advances to the point that people’s brains can be mapped fully enough to allow real-time computations of all of their occurrent brain activity. Neuroscientists can then use this information to predict with 100% accuracy every single decision a person will make, even before the person is consciously aware of their decision. Suppose that a woman named Jill agrees to wear the lightweight BrainCapTM for a month. The neuroscientists are able to detect the activity that causes her thoughts and decisions and use it to predict all of Jill’s thoughts and decisions, even before she is aware of them. They predict, for instance, how she will vote in an election. They even predict her attempts to trick them by changing her mind at the last second.

From interbilgisayar.com

Question: Do you think it is possible for such technology to exist in the future (the “near” future of Charlotte Clinton’s presidency or perhaps a more distant future)? And if such technology did exist, what would it tell us about whether we have free will?

Some people have used such neuro-prediction scenarios to explain why they think free will is an illusion. For instance, in his book Free Will (2012) Sam Harris asks us to “imagine a perfect neuroimaging device that would allow us to detect and interpret the subtlest changes in brain function.” He concludes, “You would, of course, continue to feel free in every present moment, but the fact that someone else could report what you were about to think and do would expose this feeling for what it is: an illusion” (10-11; see also Greene and Cohen 2004, p. 1781).

Others have drawn on recent neuroscientific experiments in which information about brain activity from EEG or fMRI that proceeds awareness provides predictive information about simple decisions, and they extrapolate from these experiments to conclude that all of our decisions are caused by brain activity that bypasses conscious activity, challenging free will. For instance, neuroscientist John Dylan Haynes (2008) says, “Our decisions are predetermined unconsciously a long time before our consciousness kicks in… It seems that the brain is making the decision before the person themselves.”1

I call those who claim that science shows free will is an illusion, willusionists. Typically, they assume that free will would require that the conscious mental activity involved in our deliberation and decision-making is distinct from brain activity. And they assume that the ordinary definition of ‘free will’ requires this dualistic view of the mind. If they are right, then they should predict that most people would reject the possibility that the BRAIN Initiative could succeed in the way I describe above. After all, non-physical minds could never be fully understood or predicted based on a complete mapping of brain activity. And if we had a magical free will untethered to brain activity, then we could exercise it to make some decisions that could not be predicted by neuroscientists scanning our brain. Are the willusionists’ accurate in their predictions about how most people understand free will?

Fortuitously, while the BRAIN Initiative was being hatched, my collaborators and I were working on a much less complicated (or expensive!), project in ‘experimental philosophy’, an emerging field that uses empirical methods to consider people’s views about philosophical questions. Two former neurophilosophy MA students at Georgia State, Jason Shepard (a Neuroethics Scholars Program Alum and Psychology PhD student at Emory University) and Shane Reuter (now in the PNP Program at Washington University St. Louis), and I developed various detailed descriptions of the neuro-imaging technology above that allow perfect prediction of decisions based on prior brain activity. One scenario concluded with a statement of physicalism about the mind-body relationship: “These experiments confirm that all human mental activity just is brain activity such that everything that any human thinks or does could be predicted ahead of time based on their earlier brain activity.”

Dilbert, by Scott Adams

We asked our participants (students at GSU) whether such technology was possible. Contrary to the predictions of willusionists, we found that 80% said yes. Of the 20% who said no, most did not explain their response by referring to non-physical minds or souls or free will. Instead, most raised ethical concerns (society would not allow anyone to gain so much information about our minds) or financial limitations, or they mentioned problems pointing towards what I think is actually the right answer: No, the technology could never be that perfectly predictive because the brain is too complex for real-time calculations to occur faster than the brain actually carries out complex deliberations and decision-making. But these responses do not suggest a commitment to a non-physical mind.

Furthermore, the vast majority of participants did not respond as willusionists predict regarding free will: three-quarters or more said that Jill had free will even though her decisions were predicted by the neuroscientists and that, even if such technology existed, people would have free will and would be morally responsible for their actions. The only scenarios that led people to respond that the technology would undermine free will were ones in which we added that the neuroscientists could also alter people’s brain activity, and hence their decisions. (See our article in Cognition for more details.)

The question is why our participants do not seem to be ‘freaked out’ by the possibility of such neuro-prediction, while willusionists assume they would be, and should be.

One possibility is that our participants just didn’t get it. Perhaps they have a deep, implicit commitment to dualist free will such that they either reject the stipulations of the scenarios or ignore their implications when responding to the questions about free will (while nonetheless saying the technology is possible). I think this explanation is likely true for some of our participants, but unlikely for most of them, given the patterns of responses to the many questions we asked.

Instead, I think most of our participants simply do not have an implicit or explicit commitment to dualist free will. Most people, even some who may talk as if the mind is non-physical or have religious beliefs about souls, seem ‘theory-lite’ about the mind and free will. They know we are conscious and make choices, but they don’t know how (or in what) these mental processes are implemented. And for good reason, since we don’t yet have a neuroscientific theory to explain things like conscious deliberation, reasoning, and imagination of future options for action. But most people seem willing to accept that neuroscience might explain how these mental processes work… at least as long as it does not thereby explain them away.

For instance, most participants responded that the neuroimaging technology does not mean that “people’s reasons have no effect on what they do,” and that seems to be the right way to interpret it. When people’s decisions are predicted while wearing this futuristic technology, it’s based on information about the neural activity that implements their conscious reasons and reasoning. That activity is not bypassed by earlier brain activity; it is a crucial cause of some decisions we make. When we imagine future options, it opens up those options as possibilities for action, even if our brains carry out the imagining.

Why then do willusionists seem to neglect this possibility that free will could be understood in terms of the complex activity of the human brain? I think it is because they are not theory-lite. Instead, they theorize that a neuroscientific explanation of behavior either replaces an explanation in terms of conscious mental processes (a form of eliminativism) or cuts those processes out of the causal picture (a form of epiphenomenalism). Such views are understandable. Neuroscience is a relatively young science, and we lack a theory to explain how consciousness works in terms of neural activity. So, for scientists who are used to thinking in terms of physical mechanisms such as neurons causing physical events such as bodily movements, it may be hard to see how conscious mental events—yet to be explained in terms of neural mechanisms—get into the story.

Some willusionists argue that getting people to recognize that free will is an illusion will have beneficial consequences, especially for our legal system. For instance, if criminals lack free will, then they don’t deserve the harsh retributive punishment typically meted out to them. If we come to accept that no one deserves such punishment, we’ll focus on more useful solutions to crime, such as deterrence, rehabilitation, and restoration. We may also be more understanding, and less judgmental, of people in poverty or with mental illnesses or addictions. (See, e.g., Harris and Greene & Cohen).

I too think our legal system is overly retributive and that criminals, and the rest of us, would typically be better served if we focused more of our resources on alternatives to retributive punishment. I also think we should give up our ‘just world’ beliefs that lead us to think people are responsible for their unfortunate circumstances or deserve all their good fortune (or literal fortunes). But I think the willusionist view of free will may influence us to see people as objects or mechanisms, some of which need to be repaired, perhaps even opening up problematic forms of brain manipulation.

A naturalistic view instead says that we have degrees of free will to the extent that we possess the psychological capacities for imagining and assessing various future options and for self-control to actualize the better options. But this view also reminds us that we often have less free will than we tend to think, and that some people’s opportunities to develop and exercise the capacities for free will are far more constrained than others.

The BRAIN Initiative won’t lead to BrainCaps that allow perfect neuro-prediction. But even if it could, it would not illuminate some new challenge to the possibility of human free will. Instead, the BRAIN Initiative will continue the recent trend of helping people come to recognize and accept that everything we think and do is enabled by what our amazingly complex brains do. It may even provide information that leads to a satisfying theory of how our brains explain consciousness and decision-making. It will surely provide more information about when and why people’s decision-making and self-control are diminished, suggesting mitigated responsibility. And it will also raise difficult neuroethical questions about whether and how we should use all this information to alter people’s brains and hence their minds.

1 Haynes’ and his collaborators’ fMRI studies carry on the tradition of the infamous studies by Benjamin Libet. For explanations for why these studies, along with others thought to challenge free will (such as Daniel Wegner’s), do not have these implications, see, e.g., Mele (2009) and Nahmias (2014).


Greene, J. & Cohen J. (2004). For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, 359, 1775-1778.

Mele, A. (2009). Effective intentions: the power of conscious will. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nahmias, Shepard, Reuter. 2014. It’s OK if ‘My Brain Made Me Do It’: People’s Intuitions about Free Will and Neuroscientific Prediction. Cognition 133(2): 502-513.

Nahmias, E. 2014. Is Free Will an Illusion? Confronting Challenges from the Modern Mind Sciences. In Moral Psychology, vol. 4, Free Will and Moral Responsibility, ed. by W. Sinnott-Armstrong (MIT Press, 2014), 1-25.

Soon, C., Brass, M., Heinze, H., & Haynes, J. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 543-545.

Related Reading

Nahmias, E. 2011. Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? The New York Times

Nahmias, E. 2015. Why We Have Free Will. Scientific American 312(1).

Shepard, J. (2012). Who is redefining free will? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on February 9, 2015, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2012/09/who-is-redefining-free-will-response-to.html

Want to cite this post?

Nahmias, E. (2015). Obama’s BRAIN and Free Will. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2015/02/obamas-brain-and-free-will.html

Emory Neuroethics on Facebook

Emory Neuroethics on Twitter

AJOB Neuroscience on Facebook