July 3, 2022

Maybe there is free will after all

The shuttlecock of free will has been batted back into the determinist court with a startling reinterpretation of a classic experiment.

The shuttlecock of free will has been batted back into the determinist court with a startling reinterpretation of a classic experiment. One of the most influential experiments for determinists was conducted by physiologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. This apparently showed that the brain makes decisions before consciousness becomes aware of them. This is often cited by determinists as proof that free will is an illusion.

Libet showed that there was typically a 200 millisecond delay, between an urge to move and the movement itself. But preceding this “readiness potential” by 300 milliseconds was another brain signal. This has been interpreted as the brain acting independently of conscious willing.

Now a study in PNAS by Aaron Schurger and colleagues has found that the readiness potential may simply be an accumulation of neural noise. “Libet argued that our brain has already decided to move well before we have a conscious intention to move,” says Schurger in New Scientist. “We argue that what looks like a pre-conscious decision process may not in fact reflect a decision at all. It only looks that way because of the nature of spontaneous brain activity.”

What about free will? “If we are correct, then the Libet experiment does not count as evidence against the possibility of conscious will,” he says.

Michael Cook
Creative commons
free will
neuroethics
neuroscience