Benjamin Libet and the Denial of Free Will
How did a flawed experiment become so influential?
Posted September 5, 2017 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
You might feel that you have the ability to make choices, decisions and plans — and the freedom to change your mind at any point if you so desire — but many psychologists and scientists would tell you that this is an illusion.
The denial of free will is one of the major principles of the materialist worldview that dominates secular western culture. Materialism is the view that only the physical stuff of the world — atoms and molecules and the objects and beings that they constitute — are real. Consciousness and mental phenomena can be explained in terms of neurological processes.
Materialism developed as a philosophy in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the influence of religion waned. And right from the start, materialists realised the denial of free will was inherent in their philosophy. As one of the most fervent early materialists, T.H. Huxley, stated in 1874, “Volitions do not enter into the chain of causation…The feeling that we call volition is not the cause of a voluntary act, but the symbol of that state of the brain which is the immediate cause."
Huxley anticipated the ideas of some modern materialists, such as psychologist Daniel Wegner, who claim that free will is literally a “trick of the mind.” According to Wegner, “The experience of willing an act arises from interpreting one’s thought as the cause of the act.” In other words, our sense of making choices or decisions is just an awareness of what the brain has already decided for us. When we become aware of the brain’s actions, we think about them and falsely conclude that our intentions have caused them. You could compare it to an imbecilic king who believes he is making all his own decisions but is constantly being manipulated by his advisors and officials, who whisper in his ear and plant ideas in his head.
Many materialists believe that evidence for a lack of free will was found when, in the 1980s, the scientist Benjamin Libet conducted experiments that seemed to show that the brain “registers” the decision to make movements before a person consciously decides to move. In Libet’s experiments, a participant would be asked to perform a simple task such as pressing a button or flexing their wrist. Sitting in front of a timer, they were asked to note the moment at which they were consciously aware of the decision to move, while EEG electrodes attached to their head monitored their brain activity.
Libet showed consistently that there was unconscious brain activity associated with the action – a change in EEG signals that Libet called “readiness potential” — for an average of half a second before the participants were aware of the decision to move. This experiment appears to offer evidence of Daniel Wegner’s view that decisions are first made by the brain, and there is a delay before we become conscious of them — at which point we attribute our own conscious intention to the act.
However, if we look more closely, Libet’s experiment is full of problematic issues. For example, it relies on the participants’ own recording of when they feel the intention to move. One issue here is that there may be a delay between the impulse to act and their recording of it — after all, this means shifting their attention from their own intention to the clock. In addition, it is debatable whether people are able to accurately record the moment of their decision to move. Our subjective awareness of decisions is very unreliable. If you try the experiment yourself, you’ll become aware that it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment at which you make the decision. You can do it right now, by holding out your own arm and deciding at some point to flex your wrist.
A further, more subtle (and more arguable) issue is that Libet's experiment seems to assume that the act of willing consists of clearcut decisions, made by a conscious, rational mind. But decisions are often made in a more fuzzy, ambiguous way. They can be made on a partly intuitive, impulsive level, without clearcut conscious awareness. But this doesn't necessarily mean that you haven't made the decision.
As the psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and His Emissary, points out while making this argument that Libet's apparent findings are only problematic "if one imagines that, for me to decide something, I have to have willed it with the conscious part of my mind. Perhaps my unconscious is every bit as much 'me.'" Why shouldn't your will be associated with deeper, less conscious areas of your mind (which are still you)? You might sense this if, while trying Libet’s experiment, you find your wrist seeming to move of its own accord. You feel that you have somehow made the decision, even if not wholly consciously.
An even more serious issue with Libet’s experiment is that it is by no means clear that the electrical activity of the “readiness potential” is related to the decision to move, and the actual movement. Some researchers have suggested that the readiness potential could just relate to the act of paying attention to the wrist or a button, rather than the decision to move. Others have suggested that it only reflects the expectation of some kind of movement, rather than being related to a specific moment. In a modified version of Libet’s experiment (in which participants were asked to press one of two buttons in response to images on a computer screen), participants showed readiness potential even before the images came up on the screen, suggesting that it was not related to deciding which button to press.
Others have suggested that the area of the brain where the readiness potential occurs — the supplementary motor area — is usually associated with imagining movements rather than actually performing them. The experience of willing is usually associated with other areas of the brain (the parietal areas). And finally, in another modified version of Libet’s experiment, participants showed readiness potential even when they made a decision not to move, which again casts doubt on the assumption that the readiness potential is actually registering the brain’s “decision” to move.
Because of issues such as these — and others that I don’t have space to mention — it’s mystifying that such a flawed experiment has become so influential, and has been used frequently as evidence against the idea of free will. The reason why the experiment has been so enthusiastically embraced is surely because the apparent findings fit so well with the principles of materialism. It seems to prove what materialism implies: that human beings are automatons.
But how can a self choose, of its own free will, to argue that it has no free will? Do the theorists who argue against free will seriously believe that they have somehow been pre-ordained to formulate their arguments and write their articles by their own brain processes or genetic disposition? In developing their theories, they have constantly exercised their free will — for example in deciding which articles to read, which ideas to reject or accept, to the point of deciding that the theory is worth writing up and sitting down to begin writing it. They might argue that they accept that free will is an illusion, and are simply allowing the illusion to express itself through them — but if this was the case, why would they trust this illusory power, and follow its dictates so assiduously, allowing it to determine their lives? Would you allow a genie in a bottle to tell you what to do with your life?
It’s interesting to ponder why so many intellectuals are so intent (with their own free will) on proving that they have no free will. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pointed out ironically, “scientists animated by the purpose of proving themselves purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.”
In my view, this is connected to the general nihilism of our culture, the collapse of values that has followed from materialistic science. Such absurd views could only arise — and make any kind of sense — amidst the climate of meaninglessness and confusion that scientific materialism has given rise to.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University. He is the author of Spiritual Science: Why Science needs spirituality to make sense of the world.