An Experiment That Disproves Free Will?

Alfred Mele: These were originally done starting in the early ‘80’s. They are still being done today. The technology today is better, but it’s the same kind of experiment. What you have are subjects seated in a chair like the one I’m sitting in, and they have this task. To flex the wrist whenever they want. They’re watching a fast clock. There’s dot on the clock and it makes a complete revolution in less than 3 seconds, and they’re hooked up to two machines. One is measuring EEG, electrical conductivity on the scalp. And the other measures a muscle burst on the wrist, it’s an electromyogram. Okay? So, they’re supposed to flex whenever they want and watch this rapidly revolving spot on the clock and then after they flex, they’re supposed to indicate where the spot was on the clock when they first became aware of their urge, intention, decision, to flex. And they indicate it by moving a cursor to that spot on the clock. Okay, is that clear? 

All right. Now, when these subjects are regularly reminded to be spontaneous and not to plan in advance when to flex, what you see is that – well, it’s 500 milliseconds, it’s about half a second before the muscle burst, you get a marked change in electrical conductivity on the scalp. You get this ramping up effect. So, that’s about ½ second before the muscle burst. On average, subject say, they first became aware of this urge, or this decision, or intention, or whatever at about 200 milliseconds before the muscle burst. So, if you average out all those responses that they make by moving the cursor, it’s about 206 milliseconds before the muscle burst. 

So, Benjamin Libet was the first one to do these studies. And they’re very interesting studies. And what was innovative is he had a way to measure consciousness because he was timing this conscious experience, he thought, right. So, the claim is, then the brain is deciding over a third of a second before the mind becomes aware of the decision. So, conscious free will isn’t driving this behavior, isn’t generating the flexants. And then Libet generalized and he said, “Well, you know, this is the way it is for all behavior. So, the brain unconsciously makes decisions and the mind becomes aware of them only later.”

Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet conducted experiments in the 1980s which suggest that our behaviors are determined by our brain and only later interpreted by our mind.

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