Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Free Will or Free Won't? Neuroscience on the Choices We Can (and Can't) Make

Neuroscience suggests that we have limited free will, but there is a model of freedom that even neuroscientists support; "free won't".

Free Will or Free Won't? Neuroscience on the Choices We Can (and Can't) Make
Getty Images


Do you have free will? This question has been on the minds of philosophers for millennia. More recently, neuroscientists have attempted experiments to identify the relationship of free will to neuroscience. There is an increasingly large and fascinating body of work on this subject, as well as a slew of interpretations as to what the results mean.

One of the more famous, and contentious, experiments in this field was done by Benjamin Libet in the 1980’s. Subjects were asked to carry out a simple task, such as pushing a button, whenever they chose and make a note of the time when they were first aware of the wish or urge to act. While they did this, they were having electrical activity in their brains monitored by an EEG machine looking for readiness potential; a pattern associated with muscle movement.

It was found that brain activity occurred nearly three hundred milliseconds before the subjects reported the urge to act. Even when accounting for a margin of error to cover the time needed to make note of the position of the clock. 

This means that the progression of events to an outside observer would be: A buildup of activity in the brain, the decision to act, then the action. When we speak about making a choice freely, we might suppose that the decision comes before the buildup of activity in the brain.

What does this mean for our notions of free will?

 


Some, like biologist Jerry Coyne, see this as an outright rejection of free will. Noting that the results demonstrate that the required brain activity for movement takes place before the subject is aware that they are going to act. They consider this to be evidence that we don’t really “make” our decisions but that our subconscious does, and that when we suppose we make a decision we are only realizing what is already happening. For these people, the Libet experiment leaves us without free will.

Libet, however, didn’t see his results as a total refutation of free will. He instead pointed out that during the 500 milliseconds leading up to an action the conscious mind could choose to reject that action. While impulses would be dictated by the subconscious, the conscious mind would still have the capacity to suppress or veto them; something that most people would say they do everyday. This model has been referred to as “free won’t”.

But there are some philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett and Alfred Mele, who find the entire experiment to be in error.

Daniel Dennett points out that the EEG information is objective while the information about when a person “decided” to act is subjective, and reflects when the desire to act seems to arise. Rendering the information gathered in the experiment less valuable. He also questions if the neurological data could be applied to anything more complex than a muscle movement, such as when making a large decision with multiple options.

Alfred Mele, who has participated in the experiment himself, as suggested that awareness of the intention to move” is too ambiguous a sensation to measure with any accuracy; as it can have differing meanings to different subjects. He also points out that the exact nature of “readiness potential” with respect to our actions remains in question. He has gone on to say that we might have the ability to modify an action initiated by the subconscious, which would be akin to having choice.

The question of a neurological basis for free will is a large one. One that has tremendous implications for philosophy and psychology.  In his Big Think interview, Alfred Mele discussed what kind of free will we would and would not be able to say we have, even with the results of the Libet experiment accounted for. Is “Free Won’t” the answer to the problem? Perhaps not, but it is still an intriguing idea as to how we function and interact with the world.

--

Take your career to the next level by raising your EQ

Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.

Gear
  • Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
  • One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
  • EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore cellular function in 32 dead pig brains

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
Keep reading Show less

Face mask study reveals worst material for blocking COVID-19

A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.

Fischer et al.
Coronavirus
  • The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
  • The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
  • Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

You want to stop child abuse? Here's how you can actually help.

Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.

Photo: Atjanan Charoensiri / Shutterstock
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
  • Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
  • Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Keep reading Show less
Strange Maps

Here’s a map of Mars with as much water as Earth

A 71% wet Mars would have two major land masses and one giant 'Medimartian Sea.'

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast