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You Have Free Will, But You Might Not Be Aware

We have reason to believe that some aspects of free will you are not consciously aware of.  I don’t think that necessarily means that you’re not free, but you’re not consciously aware of it. And the background from that comes from a famous experiment that Benjamin Libet did, and I forget when it was, 1971, thereabouts.  In which he did a fascinating experiment.  He asked subjects to make a decision to move their hand and to indicate by pressing a button when they’re making that decision.  And he had electrodes on their head and it turned out that before I made a decision to move my hand, an electrical potential appeared in my brain that preceded my conscious decision to move the hand.  So you can be aware of my wanting to move the hand consciously without my being aware of it.  

That means the decision was made unconsciously.  Now, when Ben Libet came out with that, it shook up the scientific community.  Do you think Freud would have been surprised about that? He said from the very beginning, much of our mental life is unconscious.  We now know we make a lot of decisions, we choose our partner in part by unconscious evaluations.  There are lots of decisions that are made unconsciously than consciously.  Conscious decision-making is very good when there are two alternatives because you can focus consciously very effectively on one thing at a time.  If you’ve got a lot of options, now this was not my case, but you have lots of women who are interested in you probably can choose from many of them.  That decision that you have to make is likely to be more effective if you make it unconsciously.  

So there is now a whole psychology on unconscious decision-making that is emerging, in part stimulated by Libet’s interest, but also a continuation from Freud’s interest.

60 Second Reads is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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