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Was famous old evidence against free will just debunked?

The pattern that was thought to prove free will an illusion may have been noise
Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

In recent decades, debates about free will have always included discussion of Benjamin Libet’s “no free will but maybe free won’t” position, an (at best) minimized version of free will. But recent research suggests that the original experiment had a fatal error.

As recounted at The Atlantic by Bahar Gholipour, the story begins in 1964, when two German scientists at the University of Freiburg monitored electrical activity in the brains of twelve study subjects every day for several months, via wires fixed to their scalps:

The participants sat in a chair, tucked neatly in a metal tollbooth, with only one task: to flex a finger on their right hand at whatever irregular intervals pleased them, over and over, up to 500 times a visit. The purpose of this experiment was to search for signals in the participants’ brains that preceded each finger tap. At the time, researchers knew how to measure brain activity that occurred in response to events out in the world — when a person hears a song, for instance, or looks at a photograph — but no one had figured out how to isolate the signs of someone’s brain actually initiating an action.

Bahar Gholipour, “A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked” at The Atlantic

They found that the brain waves “showed an almost undetectably faint uptick: a wave that rose for about a second, like a drumroll of firing neurons, then ended in an abrupt crash.” This Bereitschaftspotential, or “readiness potential,” was recorded before the participants flexed their fingers.

Two decades later, Libet (1916–2007) took that timing to mean that the decision to flex a finger had been made before participants were conscious of it. In other words, the participants did not really make the decision; their conscious experience of making a decision was an illusion.

Even in a world very sympathetic to the idea that free will is an illusion, that did not settle the matter in Libet’s view. As neurosurgeon Michael Egnor notes,

But Libet looked deeper. He asked his subjects to veto their decision immediately after they made it—to not push the button. Again, the readiness potential appeared a half-second before conscious awareness of the decision to push the button, but Libet found that the veto—he called it “free won’t”—had no brain wave corresponding to it.

The brain, then, has activity that corresponds to a pre-conscious urge to do something. But we are free to veto or accept this urge. The motives are material. The veto, and implicitly the acceptance, is an immaterial act of the will.

Michael Egnor, “More than material minds” at Christianity Today

Still, the experiment enabled decades of textbook claims that free will is doubtful, with the frequent implication that, in time, it will be debunked.

The problem is, Gholipour recounts, readiness potentials are not quite what Libet thought:

In 2010, Aaron Schurger had an epiphany. As a researcher at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris, Schurger studied fluctuations in neuronal activity, the churning hum in the brain that emerges from the spontaneous flickering of hundreds of thousands of interconnected neurons. This ongoing electrophysiological noise rises and falls in slow tides, like the surface of the ocean—or, for that matter, like anything that results from many moving parts. “Just about every natural phenomenon that I can think of behaves this way. For example, the stock market’s financial time series or the weather,” Schurger says.

Bahar Gholipour, “A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked” at The Atlantic

The Bereitschaftspotential does not necessarily signal the brain’s “brewing intention” but a noise wave pattern in a busy system:

To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.

Bahar Gholipour, “A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked” at The Atlantic

In short, the classical pattern can be accounted for by assuming that the participants in the experiment did not sense that their decision mattered, so they went with the flow. But, according to more recent research, the subjective experience of making a decision is not an illusion at all. It is our experience of the actual moment when we finally decide to jump off the high diving board or ask for a raise.

The new finding is hardly likely to settle the matter. Because denial of free will is a critical component of naturalism (nature is all there is, often called “materialism”), it may not matter whether a given argument against it turns out to lack substance. No evidence is required for such claims because, generally speaking, they are accepted culture. For example, consider this recent discussion in which a neuropsychologist suggests that even our sense of agency (purposeful action) itself is an illusion:

In the 1970s, facilitated communication, or supported typing, was promoted as a teaching strategy for helping people with autism communicate with the wider world. The child’s fingers rested on the keys and the facilitator helped the child to type by detecting their intended movements. The technique was eventually discredited after many demonstrations showed that any ‘communication’ came from the facilitator, and not from the child. But the striking thing was that most of the facilitators sincerely believed that they were not the agents of these actions. Free will is not something we have, so much as something we feel.

These observations point to a fundamental paradox about consciousness. We have the strong impression that we choose when we do and don’t act and, as a consequence, we hold people responsible for their actions. Yet many of the ways we encounter the world don’t require any real conscious processing, and our feeling of agency can be deeply misleading.

If our experience of action doesn’t really affect what we do in the moment, then what is it for? Why have it? Contrary to what many people believe, I think agency is only relevant to what happens after we act – when we try to justify and explain ourselves to each other.

Chris Frith, “Our illusory sense of agency has a deeply important social purpose” at Aeon

Researchers in cognition do sometimes mislead themselves about the extent to which they substitute for their subjects (for example, with apes and dolphins). But why should that demonstrate a lack of agency on the part of the researcher, as opposed to wishful thinking? Only someone who was looking to discredit agency generally would clutch at such a straw. And that probably won’t change in an environment in which naturalism is, come what may, the underlying philosophy of science, and thought to be essential to its survival.


Further reading on free will:

Why do atheists still claim that free will can’t exist? Sam Harris reduces everything to physics but then ignores quantum non-determinism (Eric Holloway)

Younger thinkers now argue that free will is real. The laws of physics do not rule it out, they say.

Quantum randomness gives nature free will. Whether or not quantum randomness explains how our brains work, it may help us create unbreakable encryption codes. (Robert J. Marks)

and

Do quasars provide evidence for free will? Possibly. They certainly rule out experimenter interference.

Mind Matters News offers a selection of articles on free will by neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor on free will, including

Is free will a dangerous myth? The denial of free will is a much more dangerous myth.

Can physics prove there is no free will? No, but it can make physicists incoherent when they write about free will. It’s hilarious. Sabine Hossenfelder misses the irony that she insists that people “change their minds” by accepting her assertion that they… can’t change their minds.

Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will? One woman’s left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Did it? Alien hand syndrome doesn’t mean that free will is not real. In fact, it clarifies exactly what free will is and what it isn’t. (Michael Egnor)

How can mere products of nature have free will? Materialists don’t like the outcome of their philosophy but twisting logic won’t change it.

and

Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free?


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Was famous old evidence against free will just debunked?