The ability to predict a decision does not disprove free will

By Confusion on Sunday 22 March 2009 17:56 - Comments (7)
Categories: Philosophy, Science, Views: 3.269

Every once in a while an experiment is published that seems to disprove the existence of free will. For a recent case, see this /. article. The experiments are usually sophistications of Benjamin Libet's famous experiment, in which he showed that you can predict that someone is going to respond to a certain event, before the subject himself is consciously aware of the fact that he is going to respond. This fact, that your brain has already fired the signals to perform a certain action, while you have not yet consciously registered that you are going to perform that action, seems to leave very little room for free will. After all, doesn't free will require you to consciously deliberate the action that will be taken?

The answer is simple: no. It is perfectly possible for free will to exist without it requiring conscious deliberation. To understand how this works, it is required to rethink what 'consciousness' is. Consciousness is often portrayed as the faculty that allows us to actively participate in our thought processes. We reflect on various ideas and possibilities and finally assemble a conclusion, that we can then use to undertake a certain action. However, and this is the essential point: this is not our usual mode of thinking. Most of the time, we respond to our environment in an immediate and involuntary way. When your are going to get a cup of coffee, you don't consciously deliberate "Hmmm, it seems I have decided to get a cup of coffee. Are there any objections to this? It seems not. Well then, let's start to contract the relevant muscles to stand up and start walking, etc. ...". In fact, you just do it. Only after you got up and started walking towards the kitchen, you may consciously register "wait, there is still a used mug here; why don't I bring it along to the kitchen?". The earlier decision, taken by unconscious (but not necessarily irrational) processes, registered itself in your consciousness a few moments after the decision was first reached and action was initiated. Conscious deliberation then still allows you to intervene.

As a result, the original experiments of Benjamin Libet, nor later sophistications, have anything to say about the existence of free will. At most, they have something to say about the time it takes the brain to reach a decision, compared to the time it takes the brain to become aware of its own decision.

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Comments


By Tweakers user Vold, Sunday 22 March 2009 18:39

I can't recall this all exactly, but I thought there were follow up studies that researched the different moments of decision:
1) the intention to move (shown in the brain)
2) the moment you realise you are indeed moving your arm
3) the moment you can still stop the made decision

The results from those studies was that you can see point 1 already 2,1 secondes in advance in your brain, but that 0,7 s before you actually move your arm your conscious brain can still "veto" the action. (in this case moving your arm) This research also basicly proved the existent of consciousness, because the "veto" would be your consciousness then ofcourse. Interesting subject though! Lot of interesting research is happening in this field lately. :)

By Tweakers user SPee, Sunday 22 March 2009 19:07

I think it all depends on the history on the person.
A person who was nevert thaugth to be polite and open a door for someone would not do it unconsciously. If you have been thaught to do so, it's more likely you will.

But when being thought that, you are implicitly making a 'free will choice' to do so for the rest of your future. That's also probably why routines are too hard to break; they are (already) 'hardcoded' in your brain. And someone like Dr. Phil must beat it out you ;)

And it's not a disprove of 'free will', because it is about behaviour. And you make you behave in a certain way, making it part of you.

By Tweakers user Dooievriend, Monday 23 March 2009 01:25

As long as we don't know how "consciousness" and "our brain" work, we won't know if we have got a free will or not. However, the moment we do know the way the wirings up there are connected, I've got the feeling there won't be a free will left. Untill then, free will is a necessary element of our society, whether it exists or not.

By Tweakers user mOrPhie, Monday 23 March 2009 15:00

I'm always amazed and amused by the paradox of denying the existence of free will. After all, it must be a really freaky coincidence if there weren't any free will, that someone was researching that fact. After all, the action of researching free will itself would be inferred from previous actions.

By Tweakers user bobwarley, Tuesday 24 March 2009 17:02

There's not much serious debatting to do, when you do not state what you exactly mean by "free will".

By Tweakers user Confusion, Tuesday 24 March 2009 21:23

Any reasonable notion of 'consciousness' and 'free will' will do.

By Anon, Tuesday 14 April 2009 13:34

I would largely agree with "they have something to say about the time it takes the brain to reach a decision, compared to the time it takes the brain to become aware of its own decision".

The real issue here is whether or not we have "conscious free will". See <a href="http://newempiricism.blogspot.com/2009/04/conscious-free-will-and-empiricism.html">Conscious free will</a> because if the "free will" is not conscious is it really "ours" or a reflex?

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