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Philosopher: Why Brain Science Does Not Eliminate Free Will

Tim Bayne looks at what we can logically deduce from the famous Libet experiments

Earlier this year, Closer to Truth host Robert Lawrence Kuhn interviewed Monash University philosopher of mind Tim Bayne, asking “Does Brain Science Eliminate Free Will?” (April 14, 2024, 9:05 min).

A great deal of the materialist case against free will is based on the neuroscience experiments by physiologist Benjamin Libet (1916–2007) in the early 1980s. Libet showed that brain activity associated with making a choice (readiness potential) to perform a simple action preceded awareness of the choice, which was taken — at the time — as a refutation of free will.

Bayne offers a different approach:

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: [0:00] Tim, the greatest challenge to free will today is claimed to be from brain science, particularly the Libet experiment. As a philosopher, what is the sequence of logic that is behind the claim that brain science can eliminate free will?

Tim Bayne: [2:19] So here’s how I reconstruct the argument: The first premise will be something like this: “Libet actions” — let’s call the actions that — that one performs here [2:27], the raising of one’s arm … are initiated, not by a conscious decision but by the readiness potential.

The second premise might be [2:39], if an action is not initiated by conscious decision, it’s not free okay. So that’s a conceptual claim about what free will involves: initiation by a conscious decision.

How would Bayne argue differently?

Bayne [4:33] If you want to resist the skeptical slide here, there’s two or three places to get off the bus, okay? One place to get off the bus is to say Libet has shown that these actions are not freely willed. You could grant him that but say there are important dissimilarities between raising your hand, which is a very automatic, very familiar kind of action — the sort of thing we often do without thinking about it — you’re lost in thought and you find yourself twitching or bouncing your foot up and down, you might say yeah, those are not freely willed but they were never our paradigms of free will.

I mean, our paradigm case of free will might be the kind of Sophie’s Choice case [5:18] where you’re deciding what to do in these morally laden decisions and you’ve got time to reflect and to deliberate. So you might say there’s a very important difference between certain kinds of actions which we think are freely willed and the and Libet actions. That’s one place to get off the bus. So that’s the generalization from experiment …

An earlier place to get off the bus [5:44] would be to simply say, it’s not built into our notion of free will that freely willed actions must be initiated by a conscious decision. At least, on a certain understanding of what a conscious decision is, if you have the readiness potential that occurs here … that’s the moment that you’re aware of the decision to act, it’s the moment that people report as “I initiated the action,” then he’s assuming that the readiness potential caused the action, either directly or indirectly via causing the event that you report. And they can’t be the same thing because they come it two different times, right?

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So one of the points of contention turns on the importance of self-conscious awareness to free decision-making.

Many of us can recall decisions we are sure we made freely but before we were truly conscious of the reasons for them. A proudly self-reliant woman, for example, might decide to move closer to work so that she can — as she tells herself and others — shorten the travel distance. But later she becomes aware that she felt considerable anxiety over a recent increase in violent crime in her old neighborhood, accompanied by a rent increase to offset big new security costs. Once she is living in the more secure environment closer to work, she begins to feel safe enough to acknowledge her actual decision-making process. The fact that she couldn’t acknowledge a key reason at first hardly means that it wasn’t a free decision! In fact, most human beings stay on an even keel by limiting our raw exposure to the worst realities we must address. These are decisions, even if they are not always conscious ones.

baited mousetrap

In any event, as Michael Egnor has noted here at Mind Matters News, Libet’s research has often been misrepresented to advance the argument against free will:

… 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.

Famously, one of Libet’s experiments imaged the power of free won’t — the free decision not to do something. And, not only did he endorse the idea of free will; he said that traditional religious understandings of temptation, sin, and free will provide an adequate explanation (Benjamin Libet. Mind time: The temporal factor in consciousness (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2005), 151.)

In any event, recent research has shown that the brain activity that precedes awareness of a choice, which Libet and other investigators recorded, may just be brain noise that precedes any decision. The most relevant brain activity coincides with a conscious decision. And important decisions were not accompanied by much brain noise.

Thus, both philosophical reasoning and research results make free will a reasonable assumption. The fact that it does not accord with materialist philosophy is a problem for materialists rather than for free will.

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 Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Philosopher: Why Brain Science Does Not Eliminate Free Will