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Modern Neuroscience Does NOT Disprove Free Will

In a chapter of Minding the Brain (2023), Cristi L. S. Cooper looks at the current state of neuroscience research on free will

If you’ve heard the latest from pop science, you probably “know” that science disproves free will. Actually, after decades of research on the topic, it doesn’t.

Chapter 14 of Minding the Brain (Discovery Institute Press, 2023) is neuroscientist and educator Cristi L. S. Cooper’s look at the real state of the neuroscience around free will. In “Free Will, Free Won’t, and What the Libet Experiments Don’t Tell Us,” Cooper recounts in some detail the research around readiness potentials in the brain.

The controversy started with 1983 findings by American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet (1916–2007). Briefly, Libet et al. found that the brain initiates spontaneous movements (“readiness potential”) before subjects recall making as choice to act. And, Cooper notes, “This finding kicked off the next forty years, up to the present day, of scientists referring to the Libet experiment as being the seminal experiment in the field that showed that there is no free will.” (P. 267) Thus, “Libet’s experiments are so foundational to the ‘neuroscience of free will’ that nearly every review of the subject begins with a description of his work.

A 2021 review by Aaron Schurger et al. drove this point home: ‘It is difficult to overstate the degree to which the conclusions of Libet’s papers on the RP have permeated the intellectual zeitgeist.’” (p. 266)

It’s not hard to see why that conclusion came to dominate the field. Neuroscientists were an easy crowd. They mostly didn’t (and don’t) believe in free will, not because they are scientists but because they are mostly materialists.

Oddly, Libet himself did not really buy into all that. For one thing, it’s not clear just what the readiness potential actually signifies. The brain is very complex and many findings, then and now, could easily be misinterpreted. At any rate, as Cooper recounts, one certain result was a number of further studies.

Of course, one outcome of doing a great deal more research is that Libet’s caution turned out to be justified. It became much less clear what the readiness potential does signify. By 2021, Shurger’s team was reporting in Trends in Cognitive Sciences,

If recent models of the RP are on the right track, we cannot infer from the existence of the phenomenon that it reflects an actual signal in the brain that, in individual trials, has the characteristics of the RP, or that has causal efficacy. Because of this, one cannot infer that we lack conscious free will based on the temporal profile of the RP. If these models are correct, they may have implications for our understanding of free will, but none that avoid significant and substantive philosophical commitments. But given all the other reasons that have been raised for rejecting the classical interpretation (e.g. [3,14,16,17]), even if SDMs are mistaken and the RP does reflect a real neural signal, albeit one difficult to detect on individual trials, the RP would still fail to support the classic inference for the inefficacy of conscious will. (The paper is open access.)

In short, RP is not the rabbit; it’s a rabbit-potential hole. As Cooper puts the matter, “After scientific interrogation of the Libet experimental paradigm over the last forty years, scientists know much more about the readiness potential and the moment of conscious will but don’t seem any closer to agreeing as to the significance of many aspects of the original findings.” (p. 271)

She adds — and this is something we should especially take note of: “… at the popular level, non-neuroscientists use Libet’s studies to support a deterministic view of the mind.” It’s a longstanding problem in higher education today that findings supportive of materialism are often given far more standing in the lecture room than they have in the journals or reliable sources of history.

Let’s take just one example — Phineas Gage, the American railroad worker who had a tamping rod driven through his head in 1848 but, remarkably, survived. According to hundreds of lectures, his personality changed radically and abruptly in the direction of uncontrollable rage; one could call it “the evolution of a Lecture Room Psychopath,” . The historical record presents a much more mundane picture of survival with a disability:

What we can learn from contemporary accounts of Gage’s post-trauma life is this: For a while after the accident, he drifted, and even ended up briefly in P. T. Barnum’s freak show, exhibiting himself and the tamping rod. But he then settled down and worked a year and a half in a stable. Later, he went with a friend to Valparaiso in Chile where he cared for horses and drove a coach and six for eight years … Of course, Gage had been catastrophically injured, and about twelve years later, the effects caught up with him. By February 1860, back from Chile, he continued to try to work on farms while living with or near his mother, who had moved to San Francisco. But he began to have frequent epileptic convulsions. They worsened, and he died on May 21, 1860.

So Gage, who had no access to modern rehab, probably suffered and acted out a lot during the initial recovery phase and that was the origin of the legend. But the legend is quite misleading as an account of his post-injury life. However, it provides much more useful materialist talking points. Thus decade after decade, it reappeared.

Social psychology features other such myths, depending on who’s teaching. Here are six more, including:

The claim of a widely circulated 2008 study that perceptions of cleanliness affect moral judgements has not been replicated. Efforts by David Johnson, Felix Cheung and Brent Donnellan (two graduate students and their adviser) of Michigan State University to replicate it found no such difference, despite testing about four times more subjects than the original studies, Slate reports. One obvious problem with the study is that people may have radically different ideas about what the standards of cleanliness even require. (Students often discover this when they share quarters with roommates.) – MercatorNet

Some pop science myths are more harmful than others, of course. As neurosurgeon Michael Egnor points out, denial of free will is a quick route to totalitarianism. If you can’t be guilty because you can’t choose, you can’t be innocent either. In fact, you must be controlled by the powers that be for your own good. So you can’t really have the rights or dignity that a free society accords to human beings.

At any rate, in her chapter, Cooper provides a helpful scholarly riposte to pop science claims that free will has been disproved.

You may also wish to read: Free will: What are the real reasons to believe in it? Some say that free will might be a useful delusion but neuroscience provides sound reasons to believe that it is real. We can accept free will based on the evidence. There is no particular need to think that it might be a possibly pleasant delusion.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Modern Neuroscience Does NOT Disprove Free Will