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Free Will

Are You a Free Human Being?

Why we truly steer our own ship.

Key points

  • Whether we have free will is one of the most ancient and fundamental questions of human existence.
  • Despite experiments to the contrary, we’re not puppets whose actions are predetermined by forces over which we have no control.
  • We determine the path we take, outside forces do not. We’re the active agent that collapses quantum events.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

—Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Surasak Chuaymoo/Shutterstock
We are free human beings with independent wills.
Source: Surasak Chuaymoo/Shutterstock

Whether we have free will is one of the most ancient and fundamental questions of human existence. Most readers may well consider the question a waste of time, because . . . of course we each have free will! Didn’t you just decide to order tuna on rye instead of the mozzarella-and-tomato salad? But let’s take a deeper look.

Since the time of Descartes, scientists have largely considered the world to be controlled by physical laws and forces—things like inertia and gravity, and later, on the subatomic level, the rules of quantum theory. No matter what you believed about how the cosmos came into being, it was regarded as operating like a giant machine following laws of cause and effect. These laws operate within our bodies, too.

So, if you cannot personally control the electrical firings within the neurons of your own brain, in what sense did you “decide” to get the tuna? When you really think about it, whatever pros and cons you might have considered, didn’t the final decision at some level simply pop into your mind? At the very least, you’ve experienced yourself making other decisions that feel this way. And if you don’t truly know how you made a decision, or why it happened, how can you claim to have exercised free will?

Well, okay, but if we start believing that things mostly happen on their own, how can we hold criminals responsible for their actions? Or motivate anyone to accomplish great things? What happens to our ideas about morality—and humanity in general?

This is obviously a much deeper and more complex issue than it might first have seemed. Even Einstein lost sleep over it. “Everything is determined,” he said “the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”

Do We Truly Steer Our Own Ship?

Let's consider the famous Libet experiments, which are traditionally interpreted as a proof that we have no free will. This conclusion was based on the result of his cleverly designed laboratory setup, in which detection of the electric signal from brain activity repeatedly indicated that test subjects’ decisions were made before they were even aware of their choices! However, as we’ll see, biocentrism arrives at an interpretation of the experiment that is opposite to the traditional, generally accepted one.

Nearly forty years ago, Dr. Benjamin Libet set out to discover whether the brain’s autonomous electrical circuitry runs our lives “on its own” while meanwhile informing us of its decisions, which we usually then feel and assume to have been made by our sense of “me.” Or, instead, whether the “me” sense truly steers our ship, as most of us have always assumed. Libet knew his results could have profound implications and might even settle ancient debates over individual free will once and for all.

Libet’s first experiment, in 1983, consisted of three key components: a choice to be made, a measure of brain activity during that decision process, and a clock.

The choice, subjects were told, was to move either one’s left or right arm, either by flicking one’s wrist or raising a left or right finger. The precise time at which they moved it was recorded from the muscles of their arm.

The second component, the measure of brain activity, was obtained via electrodes on the scalp. Separately detecting the urge and the actual motion on the right or left was, fortunately, well within the experiment’s abilities, because when electrodes are placed along the middle of the head over the motor cortex, characteristic electrical signals appear as one plans and executes a movement on either side of the body.

The clock was specially designed to let participants pinpoint sub-second times, and subjects were told to use the clock to report exactly when they made the decision to move.

Experimenters Knew Which Arm Subjects Would Raise Before They Themselves Knew

The researchers found that the brain signals causing the motion occurred up to three-tenths of a second before the “feeling” of making a decision occurred. And the experimenters could always predict which arm, wrist, or hand would eventually be raised—before the subjects themselves knew!

These results seemed to show clearly that decisions are made in the brain’s neurocircuitry before you’re even conscious of them—thus, no free will. In short, the brain decides something, and soon afterward you become aware of a decision, which you then (mistakenly) attribute to your own will.

These experiments caused a big stir, provoking front-page articles in the New York Times concluding that there probably is no free will. It appeared that our presumed status as captains of the ship of our lives was an illusion: Our kidneys cleanse the blood, our liver performs its five hundred functions, and the brain effortlessly makes all decisions on its own, including such everyday judgments as what restaurant to patronize and what to order when we get there. There was suddenly no place for Nancy or George, our sense of ourselves as conscious controllers.

We’re Not Puppets Whose Actions Are Determined by Proteins and Atoms

But stop the presses and put away the antidepressants. There is good news for those unwilling to say farewell to conscious control: biocentrism supplies a powerful escape clause.

As explained in the The Grand Biocentric Design, we’re not puppets whose actions are determined by proteins and atoms, but rather the active agent. From this perspective, it is solely my conscious choice that “collapses the wave function” (the transition from the blurry, probabilistic quantum state to definite matter), and it does so at the moment I’m aware of the decision to move my right or left hand. In other words, the collapse of the wave function doesn’t happen at the time of the readiness potential detected by the electrodes.

The traditional interpretation of Libet’s experiment defended by many scientists, is one in which the universe is a great machine set in motion at the beginning of time, whose wheels and cogs turn according to laws independent of us. In this interpretation of Libet’s result, every human thought, feeling, and action is the automatic and mechanical resultant of preexistent forces; the brain is a deterministic machine, its by-product being consciousness.

You Determine the Path You Take, Not Outside Forces

Even if you assume an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, it still doesn’t allow for free will. If action is taken due to quantum randomness, this in itself would mean that traditional free will is absent, since such action can’t be controlled by conscious independent choice.

However, according to biocentrism, quantum superposition extends to the workings of the brain. You’re the agent that collapses events, not the other way around as we’ve been taught. You determine the path you take, not outside forces.

Jane Eyre was right. We are free human beings with independent wills

. . . and although we’re not birds, we must still watch out for those nets.

Adapted from The Grand Biocentric Design, by Robert Lanza and Matej Pavsic, with Bob Berman (BenBella Books).


Lanza, R., & Pavsic, M. (2020). The Grand Biocentric Design. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Lanza, R., & Berman, B. (2010). Biocentrism. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

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