But do we REALLY have free will?

Libet’s neuroscientific research suggests that actually, we don’t:



One thought on “But do we REALLY have free will?

  1. There is a study by Benjamin Libet in “Journal of Consciousness Studies” entitled “Do We Have Free Will?”

    (see: http://www.centenary.edu/attachments/philosophy/aizawa/courses/intros2009/libetjcs1999.pdf )

    Libet’s study is about conscious and pre-conscious brain activity in a simple voluntary task. The subjects are asked to randomly decide to clench their fist 40 times. As they do this, (a) electrodes on their scalp pick up signals from the pre-conscious brain area, (b) the subject reports when they are aware they are about to squeeze, and (c) an EMG picks up the moment the muscles respond.

    His findings were interesting. There was pre-conscious activity prior to the subject’s awareness that they had decided to clench. The subject was also able to consciously cancel the action after the time of awareness and before signaling the muscle.

    Libet’s question, and ours, is “What implication does this have on the concept of free will?”

    The best way to answer that is to ask one more question. Were the subjects psychology students, required to participate as part the class, or were they volunteers, who chose to participate of their own free will?

    The answer is not important. The point is that everyone knows what “free will” means. It is a conscious choice between two or more options. There is an initial uncertainty, then we go over the options in our mind, imagining the outcome of each choice. Then we decide for ourselves which alternative we prefer. We have not only done this ourselves, but we have seen others do it many times, and sometimes a group will meet to make a decision.

    Since there was no period of deliberation in Libet’s study, why did he title it “Do We Have Free Will?” I would guess the title was more likely to draw attention and support for his several works on the nature of consciousness. These are certainly helpful to our understanding of the brain and our subjective experience.

    But the “determinism versus free will” paradox is a very old and very silly philosophical puzzle. It fools you into thinking that there is a conflict between the concept of fee will and the concept of cause and effect. And then it asks you to choose which one is true. The problem is that both are true.

    Determinism is derived from the principle of cause and effect. We see events as the effects of precedent causes. In Winter the temperature falls below freezing and the lake becomes a skating rink. The dog chases the cat who jumps up on the counter and knocks over a glass of milk that we had put there a moment earlier. We presume there was another event that caused the dog to threaten the cat. And we might trace back the reasons we felt we needed a glass of milk when we did and why we left it there on the counter.

    Determinism deduces from this that the current state of everything was caused by all of the events and forces that were active in the prior state of everything. And it further concludes that given the prior state, the current state was inevitable, and could never have been different that what it is. And this chain of causality from one state to the next reaches back to the very beginning and continues to the very end of time.

    Determinism is a logical conclusion from cause and effect. But, although it is an interesting bit of trivia, it is not very useful. For one thing, no one can know the whole current state of things well enough to predict the next.

    The best we can do is stick with very specific events and try to discover and understand the most significant factors that cause things to turn out “this way” instead of “that way”.

    As different species evolved over time the nervous systems became more complex, until conscious thought arose. Some species began learning and teaching, and primates developed language. Evolution gave us the mental ability to think through different options and choose the best way to take down the Mastodon for a tribal feast. Perhaps the chief gathered the hunters and asked for volunteers. Some volunteered of their own free will, but others may have been forced by threats to have them for dinner instead of the Mastodon.

    The fact that reality is deterministic cannot possibly remove anything from reality. According to determinism, reality must inevitably be, from moment to moment, precisely as it is. Conscious thought is part of that reality. And free will is a part of conscious thought. Anyone who suggests that our conscious thought and will plays no role in effecting our current reality, for better or worse, should consider the decimation of the rain forests and global warming, and also our hospitals and universities.

    So free will has been around since at least the Pleistocene epoch. And it may be viewed as one of the inevitable results of our evolution.

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