Think you chose to read this? Think again

What do you do when a few decades of science puts an end to thousands of years of philosophical debate? Answer: call a billionaire.

This month marks the start of a new round of investigations into the question of free will. The issue is this: you think you decide what to do, where to go, what to eat and whether to follow through on a decision, but neuroscientists now beg to differ.

The emerging technology of brain scanning has shown definitively that some of your most trivial actions are not under your conscious control. Your brain is making things happen and then cleverly fooling you into thinking that it was your idea.

The first evidence of this came in 1983, when the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet ran a series of experiments showing that simple decisions to lift a finger were being made in the brain well before the participant was aware of any intention to move. In Libet's experiments, the delay between the beginning of the act and conscious awareness of an intention to act was roughly 350 milliseconds.

Things got worse. In 2008, John-Dylan Haynes of the Humboldt University of Berlin found that he could read brain scans and predict which button participants in his experiments would push up to seven seconds before they had "made a decision". Free will, he said, is an illusion.

None of this surprises scientists who think in straightforward, mechanistic terms about what a human being is. The brain is a complex arrangement of molecules that has evolved to become good at making an organism survive. Physically speaking, there is nothing separate inside the human brain that tells it what signals to send out. There can be no ghost in the machine. The human brain shows the power of evolution in creating impressively complex systems.

In our case (and in the case of more than a few other animals), the complexity seems to have given rise to another feature: self-awareness. That has allowed us to create philosophy, science and religion, among other things - and to raise the question of whether we have free will.

It wasn't me!

The scientists' answer rankles with those who would like to think there is something special about human beings. That is why the John Templeton Foundation, a research organisation that started life as a billionaire's means of exploring whether science might validate religious ideas, is happy to keep the debate alive.

The foundation is putting more than $4m into a new round of explorations that will help philosophers and theologians work together with scientists to investigate free will.

The project, which starts this month, is essentially an attempt to lever open a closed door. Not that the scientists should be too unhappy about this. Disproving the existence of free will might be clever, but it has implications that no one knows how to deal with.

Human societies evolved with the notion that individuals should be held responsible for their actions; that is what the criminal justice system does. The courts are not able to respond to pleas such as "Science says it's not my fault" or "My brain made me do it".

Just occasionally, it might be worth ignoring the fruits of science's labour.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister