Free will – a necessary illusion?

Sir, – While not claiming to resolve the free will versus determinism opposition, which has, in one form or another, vexed philosophers and scientists for centuries, I have to take issue with Sean Byrne's assertion that free will is an illusion, albeit one that is necessary for society's functioning ("Free will is a necessary illusion", Rite & Reason, May 14th).

He is convinced by the arguments made by Sapolsky in his 2017 book Behave. Sapolsky, in turn, is convinced by the experiments carried out by Libet in the 1980s that purported to show that our brains “decide” on any action several seconds before we become conscious of deciding to act. Impressed by these findings, Sapolosky (and Byrne) conclude that “our actions are not consciously ‘willed’ and therefore we cannot truly be responsible for them”.

Libet’s work has been disputed by researchers such as Batthyany, (2009), Seifert, (2011), Radder and Meynen, (2012) and Tallis (2016). A review by Taylor in the Scientific American in 2019 summarises their position as follows: “It seems strange that such a flawed experiment has become so influential and has been (mis)used so frequently against the idea of free will”.

Aside from the problems with Libet’s experiments, many scientists today accept that our freedom is significantly constrained by our past and current circumstances but consider that these constraints do not mean that everything we think and do is pre-determined. It is certainly the case that many of our impulses and behaviours are automatic or habitual. But humans have extraordinarily complex brains that permit the capacity for self-reflection. We can form goals, anticipate outcomes and make choices.

These capabilities, when brought into place, can override automatic impulses and permit a degree of self-determination, which is real and not illusory. Responsibility for our deliberate actions follows. – Yours, etc,


School of Psychology,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2