Do We Have Free Will? Benjamin Libet Essay
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There are several definitions to the question of free will that could be considered. However from a scientific point of view, the argument leans towards whether free will should be a neurological element, or the conception of conscious thinking and decision making; a process that although has a biological aspect, the actual cause of the act is done by choice, and the free will is the decision maker; within the limits and boundaries set by society.
In essence, it is the assuring option that free will is something that means one can be the agent that causes one’s own fate and destiny.
This allows a sense of control and power to the individual. O’Connor (2013) posed the question, freedom of action or freedom of will? Free Will can only truly be analysed or argued, if the definition of free will were to be accurately defined. Roskies (2006) suggested that Free Will could be defined through various disciplines.
The philosophical perspective applies the Agent Causation in which ‘will’ is caused by the agent’s choice while Compatibilism and Determinism state that Free Will is a state of the universe and caused by physical/natural laws of the universe); Epiphenomenalism proposes that mental states are physically caused, but not considered as having physical effects; Hard Determinism suggests that the universe is deterministic and freedom is simply an invisible notion.
The theological stance cannot be denied either; fate and destiny is the product of will, and the will could cause the fate.
These definitions are to name a few. Zhu, (2003) defined Free Will in the ‘common sense’ terms of ‘human agency’ that individuals are the authors of their actions, posing the ‘moral responsibility’ point of view as the influence. “The will is the power or faculty of choice, to choose is to will; voluntary action involves free will, free will produces voluntary action” (Barnes, 1999). If free will were a choice allowed to be exercised without consequences, would will power be something that is chaotic and detrimental
to human kind? Would Man ‘will’ himself into undertakings that could essentially destroy human existence just because he had no control over his will? This seems to be unviable as man would not have evolved into civilisation and certainly would not have achieved the world that has advanced impressively since early man, regardless of the setbacks; world wars, galactic or environmental factors that may have obstructed will and choice. Libet (1999) simulated an experiment that was first carried out by Kornhuber and Deecke (1965).
Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), they monitored electrical signals at the vertex of the skull, which showed a RP (readiness potential) of 800ms before movement. They reported, “voluntary motor acts were preceded by a characteristic type of negative electrical signal”. Libet replicated this experiment and the results were interpreted to be that the brain is ultimately in control of each action that one takes and that the voluntary process is initiated unconsciously suggesting that there are neurological variables that have precedence over each action one takes and that these aspects could change how free will is viewed.
Libet (1999) proposes that his experiment is based on two “common operational definitions” of Free Will; “no external common cues, or cues to affect the voluntary act, and that the subject should feel that they ‘wanted’ to do the action. Zhu,(2003) criticised that being a participant in such a study may be at their own free will, however the participant is to follow specific instruction. It is fair to say that this criticism is quite valid, and from this point of view, the foundations of the actual experiment are already starting to crumble.
Libet states that the voluntary act is preceded by a specific electrical change in the brain, which he calls the readiness potential. It is unclear how Libet assumes that the electrical changes are the readiness to act, as these changes could be interpreted in many ways; Roskies (2006) submits that neuroscientific results could be misinterpreted as relevant to the concept of freedom, however, this cannot affect individual’s “judgements or moral responsibility” of choice and free will. Clearly, the concern is valid, and from this point of view, the experiment fails to convince other
psychologists that free will is questionable. Libet (1999) states that “Human subjects became aware of intention to act 350–400 ms after RP starts, but 200 ms before the motor act. ” Libet goes on to say that, “But the conscious function could still control the outcome; it can veto the act. ” Libet’s experiment demonstrates that the brain is ready to act, well before the person is aware, providing the notion that free will could be affected by neurological activity, and that there are some moments post awareness, when one could change their course of action.
At this point, this could provide some explanation to certain cases brought to the law, when one claims that an act was done involuntarily, providing there are no other factors involved, such as drug consumption or medical conditions such as MS or Tourette’s syndrome. The negative aspect of the results of this experiment is that diminishes the responsibility. If every action taken was to be considered involuntary, then free agency is also non-existent, and so is fate and destiny; this goes against nature’s physical laws and philosophical views of moral responsibility that have carried mankind since evolution.
Roskies (2006) argues that “common sense concept of freedom is independent of neuroscience, and that neuroscience is not in a position to challenge human instincts” Libet (1999) states that the result of his experiment places constraints on how free will may operate, however, this is contradictory in two ways. Firstly, he postulates ‘readiness potential’ which begins 550ms before the act is done; and that humans became aware of the intention 35-400ms after the readiness potential and 200ms before the action.
Therefore, the action is voluntary and initiated consciously and secondly, Libet also presents, that a person has time to ‘veto’; or change the action if they wished. Libet does not ascertain what stimulates the brain’s activity to begin a movement; it appears something is missing as it seems that some kind of volition must have caused the brains activity, which the consciousness state can either act or not act upon. Mele (2009) and O’Connor (2009), revised Libet’s experiment and argue that the data presented by Libet, “fail to support their revisionary conclusions”.
There seems to be a weakness either in the design or in the interpretations of the study, as the results provide no threat to volition; it is fair to uphold that a person does what a person is willing to do, and that voluntary action is free willingness to act. Human nature is sometimes questionable and a cause for debate over what was the motive of and cause of the action; was there intention, or did one act without due thought. If one always counted the pros and cons; and if one always thought of all the possibilities and consequences of the Will, if it were to take over and cause action to become the course taken before moral judgment.
The experiment is due, even if the exploration seems to be complex and somewhat questionable. The experiment raises more questions than providing restful answers, Zhu (2003) criticised that the experiment is void as the participants were instructed, making Free Will null, he also argued that ‘what the subjects were required to report, was not a conscious intention or decision to act but a perceived urge to move, which is induced by specific instruction”.
The question of consciousness is apparent, however while the state of consciousness is still somewhat a question, “the mind has been known to play tricks” Wegner (2003). It appears that there are factors that call for a thought before making a firm decision that is then undertaken physically. Clearly ‘diminished responsibility’ is a factor that is considered as a possible cause or failure of acting without due conscious thought. In a court of law, someone doing something without being in a ‘conscious’ state of mind is possibly released from responsibility for the action they inflicted.
However, what if willingness to carry out the unconscious act is actually resident in the conscious, and purposeful? Danquah, Farrell, & O’Boyle (2008) conducted two revisionary experiments with view of Libets findings of conscious intention and the onset of brain activity. The findings concluded that there are discrepancies with regards to timing regardless of the adjustments Libet stated he used to account for time differences in the hundreds of milliseconds. The conclusion of the experiment found biases in the method Libet utilised in his experiment.
The limits are apparent that some questions can never reveal a certain answer, as the notion of intention is a tricky concept that is difficult to measure, purely because experiments cannot genuinely ascertain intention, whether an explanation has been provided or not, the fact is that only the beholder will subjectively know their intentions and this could be hard to extract with accuracy. Therefore, the question will remain regarding what comes first, the thought or the action; in the same way, whether the brain knows what action will be taken, before or after conscious will.
Metaphysics, claiming that God is willing all men and women to do what they do and that fate and destiny are placed on a platform that actually has no solid form is slightly leaning towards saying that humans have no free will. However, if one were to believe such possibilities, then God has contradicted himself by placing the option of choice, clearly stated in all religious books, an example is in the Quoran, “Accordingto the Quran, man is (born) free to aim at definite ends, free to choose between alternatives, free to choose good from evil and free to act in accordance with his WILL”.
And the bible, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19) and in contrast, “ Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (Timothy, 2). Without choice, there is no free will to choose, even if the options are limited.
Tangible evidence is lacking. Radder & Meynen (2012) examined Libet’s theory; the “initiation” of freely willed processes by the brain from four approaches; they focused on “cause, necessary conditions, a correlation, and a regular succession”. They argue that none of these four elucidations can be upheld by the design and results of Libet’s experiments. The shows that the validity and reliability of the experiment is questionable.
Free will is something that cannot be measured, maybe qualitative research could provide human experience of free will, but from an experimental approach, free will seems to challenge ethics, theological, philosophical, deterministic and most other laws relating to morals and responsibility. Humans can, to a certain extent within the boundaries of what being human allows, and within the boundaries of being a member of society be agents of their causes. If one was to blame Gods will or nature’s laws for all their actions, then where is responsibility, and how can society deal with God if
what He wills causes a chaotic society? Scientifically, something more tangible is required than an experiment that times actions against conscious will and conscious action. Roskies (2006) presents several points of thought as to why free will cannot to be a debateable subject in the capacity of neuroscience; 1, neuroscience cannot determine free will. 2, free will encompasses moral responsibility; if choice and action were the results of neural activity, then humans cannot be responsible for their actions. From this stance, Roskies (2006) is justified in saying that that neuroscience cannot challenge human instincts.
Neuroscience could challenge the argument that the brain controls all human behaviour, however, the brain also calculates, adjusts, adapts and rethinks, otherwise one would keep reaching for the cookie jar instead of the salad bowl. Most definitions of free will lean towards the meaning that it is a certain sense of control over thought, choice and physical action. If one cannot rely on their own judgement to enforce an act according to their sense of right and wrong, or will or won’t, then agency is lost altogether.
If the sense that one has a choice to be self-reliant and has a certain ‘will power’ that allows one to choose fate, cause destiny, behaviour and harmony ceases to exist, then human kind is as good as Ape man, chaos would be inevitable. Philosophically, Free Will is thought to be a power of being rationalising agents, with competence of knowing the alternatives and making plausible decisions and bearing in mind that one is morally responsible for each wilful action one takes. In a civilised society, one is taught from early childhood that every action causes a reaction, and where there is a will, there is a way.
Libet’s experiment seems to have raised concern and controversy. Libet’s experiment shows that brain activity is the catalyst in causing behaviour, actions and the processes of decision making, this is possible. However, neuroscientific experimentation of ‘free will’ does not seem likely. The title of the paper seems politically incorrect, as the experiment does not concern free will, but the brains control over activity. Libet admits that “to be conscious of the decision to veto does mean that one is aware of the event”, It is fair to conclude from this review, that free will in Libet’s experiment is not threatened.
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Hirnpotentialanderungen bei Willkurbewegungen und passiven Bewegungen des Menschen: Bereitschaftspotential und reafferente Potentiale [Changes in the brain potential in voluntary movements and passive movements: Readiness potential and reafferent potentials]. Pflugers Archiv fur Gesamte Physiologie, 284, 1–17. Libet, B. (1999). Do we have free will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, 47-57. Mele, A (2009). Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press. O’Connor, T. “Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. ), URL =.