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How Libet’s Free Will Research Is Misrepresented

Sometimes, says Michael Egnor, misrepresentation may be deliberate because Libet’s work doesn’t support a materialist perspective

In a recent podcast, “Free Will or Free Won’t?”, Robert J. Marks (left) and Dr. Michael Egnor discussed free will, free won’t, predestination, and the brain, as seen from the perspective of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet’s findings about brain activity when people make decisions (partial transcript here).

In the transcribed portion below (the second half), they looked at how Libet’s findings have been misrepresented to suit doctrines of naturalism/materialism:

10:00 | The misrepresentation of Benjamin Libet’s experiments

Robert J. Marks: You mentioned that Libet’s experiment of free won’t is actually misrepresented by materialists. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Michael Egnor (right): Yes, the misinterpretation is very common and it’s almost routine to read or to hear Libet’s work being described as scientific evidence for the absence of free will. Which is bizarre because Libet himself explicitly endorsed the reality of free will, emphatically he endorsed the reality of free will. And Libet point out that his research unequivocally supports the reality of libertarian free will. But his experiments are described very often both in the scientific literature and in the popular press as supportive of materialism—which is something that they don’t support and something that Libet made very clear was not his conclusion.

Some titles of articles in recent years give a sense of what Michael Egnor means here:

“Benjamin Libet and the Denial of Free Will: How did a flawed experiment become so influential?” (Psychology Today, September 2017) (Whether the experiment was flawed or not, academics and professionals have interpreted it as telling them what they wanted to hear, not what Libet said.)

“Does Free Will Exist? Neuroscience Can’t Disprove It Yet … A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked” (The Atlantic, September 2019) (Here, the assumption seems to be both that Libet thought he’d disproved free will and that, even if he didn’t, it is only a matter of time.)

“How a Flawed Experiment “Proved” That Free Will Doesn’t Exist. It did no such thing—but the result has become conventional wisdom nevertheless” (Scientific American, December 6, 2019) (It became conventional wisdom with a great deal of help.)

Robert J. Marks: It seems that in order to do that, they would have to exclude the part of the “free won’t” in the experiment.

Michael Egnor: Yes, and undoubtedly, in some situations, it would be the result of ignorance on the part of the person making the claim. The person may just not know much about Libet’s work. Or may have no insight into the original research and may have just heard about it or heard wrongly.

Note: The video below summarizes Libet’s work but fails to make clear that he himself believed that free will is a real factor in decisions:

Michael Egnor: And other times, I have to say that maybe the misrepresentation is deliberate because it doesn’t support a materialist perspective.

Robert J. Marks: So you think the ideology is actually trumping objectivity there.

Michael Egnor: Oh yeah. That goes on lot.

11:44 | Reproducing Benjamin Libet’s experiments

Robert J. Marks: Has Libet’s experiment been reproduced and confirmed by different researchers?

Michael Egnor: Yes, certainly the existence of the brain wave that occurs before a decision is made has been shown many times. And in fact Libet wasn’t the first one to show that. It was called the “readiness potential” [Bereitschaftspotential] and it was shown a couple of decades earlier by some German researchers. Libet was the first person to look at it in the kind of detail he did but it was known that there was a potential in the brain that happened before decisions were made by about half a second

Recently, functional MRI imaging has been used, which has shown perhaps even a longer interval between the brain activity and the decision. Even a matter of several seconds before the decision is made, one can see activity in the brain. I don’t believe that anyone, though, has looked at the veto part of it, that is, Libet’s “free won’t” aspect has been looked at again. Because, by and large, it has been denied or ignored.

Determinism has on the whole, worked well for the physical observable world. That has led many scientists and philosophers to regard any deviation from determinism as absurd and witless, and unworthy of consideration. But there has been no evidence, or even a proposed experimental test design, that definitively or convincingly demonstrates the validity of natural law determinism as the mediator or instrument of free will.

Benjamin Libet Do We Have Free Will?Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 8–9, 1999, pp. 47–57

Show Notes

00:40 | Introducing Dr. Michael Egnor, Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook
01:04 | Free will vs. predestination
01:49 | The research of Benjamin Libet
07:07 | Overcoming addictions
08:01 | Rewiring your brain
09:13 | Hebb’s Law
10:00 | The misrepresentation of Benjamin Libet’s experiments
11:44 | Reproducing Benjamin Libet’s experiments

Previous: How a neuroscientist imaged free will (and “free won’t”) At first, Libet thought that free will might not be real. Then he looked again… Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet (1916–2007), who studied and measured brain activity as people make decisions, came across the power of “free won’t”: an apparently free decision NOT to do something we had decided on earlier.

Further reading on free will and free won’t:

Can free will really be a scientific idea? (Eric Holloway) Yes, if we look at it from the perspective of information theory

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)

Was famous old evidence against free will just debunked? The pattern that was thought to prove free will an illusion may have been noise

and

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

Also by Dr. Michael Egnor on free will:

Can physics prove there is no free will?

Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will?

How can mere products of nature have free will?

Does brain stimulation research challenge free will?

Is free will a dangerous myth?

and

But is determinism true?


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How Libet’s Free Will Research Is Misrepresented