Forget free will and exercise free won't
Many scientists believe free will is an illusion. If so, do we have no control over our actions?
MOST PEOPLE assume that free will is a defining characteristic of being human. All our concepts of praise, blame, reward, punishment and so on depend on belief in the personal responsibility that arises from free will. It is disconcerting, therefore, to learn that many scientists believe that free will is an illusion. Sam Harris argues this point in Free Will (Free Press, 2012).
However, the matter is far from settled. Most experts – neuroscientists and philosophers – who ponder this subject would probably not agree with Harris, but the situation is far more nuanced than the uninitiated might expect. There is significant evidence that what we have is “free won’t”, rather than free will.
The experiments of the pioneering physiologist Benjamin Libet (1916-2007) are central to an understanding of free will. His most famous experiments in the late 1970s and early 1980s were interpreted as a challenge to belief in free will, because they seemed to demonstrate that unconscious brain activity precedes and causes volitional acts that are retrospectively felt by the subject to be consciously motivated.
Libet’s experiments were simple in principle. Subjects were asked to perform a simple action of pressing a button or flexing a wrist whenever they wished to do so. The subjects noted the time on a clock when they consciously decided to take the action. The subject’s scalp was also connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine in order to detect electrical activity in the motor cortex of the brain, indicating the brain’s initiation of action. Electrical activity was also monitored in finger and wrist muscles, indicating the time the voluntary flex or movement was being enacted.
We would expect the experiment to show the following sequence of events: first there is conscious awareness of intention to act; then the brain activates the motor area that sends a signal to the muscles.
But this is not what Libet found.
The experiment showed that although activity (cortical readiness potential) in the motor area of the brain preceded electrical activity in the muscles by 550 milliseconds (ms), participants’ conscious awareness of the decision to move preceded electrical activity in the muscle by only 200ms. In other words, brain activity preceded conscious awareness by one third of a second. It seems that the brain unconsciously begins the process of “voluntary” action and we become aware of this later. Some researchers, therefore, concluded that free will is illusory.