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Mousetrap with a piece of cheese on a dark vintage background. The concept -
Mousetrap with a piece of cheese on a dark vintage background. The concept -"There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Finding From Recent Brain Research Supports Free Will

Researchers, altering Libet’s classical experiment, found that human brains show no “readiness potential” when a decision is important

Philosopher Alessandra Buccella and experimental psychologist Tomáš Dominik, both at Chapman University, offer some interesting support for free will. Many commentators interpreted Benjamin Libet’s experiments that showed that the brain’s readiness to make a decision (readiness potential) often preceded the subject’s conscious awareness of the choice that had been made.

There! they said, that proves that there is no free will:

To many observers, these findings debunked the intuitive concept of free will. After all, if neuroscientists can infer the timing or choice of your movements long before you are consciously aware of your decision, perhaps people are merely puppets, pushed around by neural processes unfolding below the threshold of consciousness.

Alessandra Buccella, Tomáš Dominik, “Free Will Is Only an Illusion if You Are, Too” at Scientific American (January 16, 2023)

The trouble is, the movements that researchers have studied in these classic experiments did not matter personally to the experimental subjects:

Most empirical studies of free will — including Libet’s — have focused on these kinds of arbitrary actions. In such actions, researchers can indeed “read out” our brain activity and trace information about our movements and choices before we even realize we are about to make them. But if these actions don’t matter to us, is it all that notable that they are initiated unconsciously? More significant decisions — such as whether to take a job, get married or move to a different country — are infinitely more interesting and complex and are quite consciously made.

Alessandra Buccella, Tomáš Dominik, “Free Will Is Only an Illusion if You Are, Too” at Scientific American (January 16, 2023)

Decisions that matter are a small but important subset of the ones we make every day. But they are also precisely the ones where we consider free will to be important. In 2019, a research team studying brain patterns found a way to test a distinction between important and unimportant outcomes:

They presented participants with a choice of two nonprofit organizations to which they could donate $1,000. People could indicate their preferred organization by pressing the left or right button. In some cases, participants knew that their choice mattered because the button would determine which organization would receive the full $1,000. In other cases, people knowingly made meaningless choices because they were told that both organizations would receive $500 regardless of their selection.

Alessandra Buccella, Tomáš Dominik, “Free Will Is Only an Illusion if You Are, Too” at Scientific American. (January 16, 2023) The paper is open access.

And then the researchers discovered a surprising thing: “Meaningless choices were preceded by a readiness potential, just as in previous experiments. Meaningful choices were not, however. When we care about a decision and its outcome, our brain appears to behave differently than when a decision is arbitrary.”

Buccella and Dominik downplay the significance of that finding by immediately changing the subject: A 2022 open-access study involving 600 participants showed that most participants did not think that our brains handle important decisions like a career change differently from unimportant ones like which socks to wear. That’s useful to know but not nearly as thought-provoking as the 2019 finding.

To go back to that 2019 study for a moment, if our brains do handle important decisions differently, who or what is making the decision that the findings are important to us? If there is no readiness potential for our important decisions, why don’t they need it? How are they being made? Is another, undetected system cutting in when the decisions are important?

Perhaps sensing that they are sailing into dangerous waters, Buccella and Dominik immediately reassure readers of Scientific American that they are not proposing any non-materialist interpretation:

“We” are our brain. The combined research makes clear that human beings do have the power to make conscious choices. But that agency and accompanying sense of personal responsibility are not supernatural. They happen in the brain, regardless of whether scientists observe them as clearly as they do a readiness potential.

So there is no “ghost” inside the cerebral machine. But as researchers, we argue that this machinery is so complex, inscrutable and mysterious that popular concepts of “free will” or the “self” remain incredibly useful.

Alessandra Buccella, Tomáš Dominik, “Free Will Is Only an Illusion if You Are, Too” at Scientific American(January 16, 2023)

Actually, the 2019 research they cited points in the direction of a non-material factor in decision-making. That factor may be the reason we can make free conscious choices. But it can only be dealt with at present in obfuscated ways.

Abstract: The readiness potential (RP)—a key ERP correlate of upcoming action—is known to precede subjects’ reports of their decision to move. Some view this as evidence against a causal role for consciousness in human decision-making and thus against free-will. But previous work focused on arbitrary decisions—purposeless, unreasoned, and without consequences. It remains unknown to what degree the RP generalizes to deliberate, more ecological decisions. We directly compared deliberate and arbitrary decision-making during a $1000-donation task to non-profit organizations. While we found the expected RPs for arbitrary decisions, they were strikingly absent for deliberate ones. Our results and drift-diffusion model are congruent with the RP representing accumulation of noisy, random fluctuations that drive arbitrary—but not deliberate—decisions. They further point to different neural mechanisms underlying deliberate and arbitrary decisions, challenging the generalizability of studies that argue for no causal role for consciousness in decision-making to real-life decisions.

Uri Maoz, Gideon Yaffe, Christof Koch, Liad Mudrik (2019) Neural precursors of decisions that matter—an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice eLife 8:e39787.

You may also wish to read: Does science disprove free will? A physicist says no. Marcelo Gleiser notes that the mind is not a solar system with strict deterministic laws. Apart from simple laws governing neurons, we have no clue what laws the mind follows, though it does show complex nonlinear dynamics. (Michael Egnor)


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, 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.

Finding From Recent Brain Research Supports Free Will