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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Free Will & The Brain

Kevin Loughran
Philosophy Now (2020)

The idea of free will touches human decision-making and action, and so the workings of the brain. So the science of the brain can inform the argument about free will. Technology, especially in the form of brain scanning, has provided new insights into what is happening in our brains prior to us taking action. And some brain studies – especially the ones led by Benjamin Libet at the University of California in San Francisco in the 1980s – have indicated the possibility of unconscious brain activity setting up our body to act on our decisions before we are conscious of having decided to act. For some people, such studies have confirmed the judgement that we lack free will. But do these studies provide sufficient data to justify such a generalisation about free will?

First, these studies do touch on the issue of how we make choices and reach decisions; but they do so in respect of some simple, and directed, tasks. For example, in one of Libet’s studies, he asked volunteers to move a hand in one direction or another and to note the time when they consciously decided to do so (50 Ideas You Really Need to Know about the Human Brain, Moher Costandi, p.60, 2013). The data these and similar brain studies provide might justly be taken to prove that when research volunteers are asked by a researcher to do one simple thing or another, and they do it, then unconscious brain processes may have moved them towards a choice a fraction of a second before they were conscious of making that choice. The question is, can they be taken to prove more than that?

To explore this question let’s first look at some of the range of choices we make in our lives day by day and week by week, then ask what they might tell us about how we come to make decisions and how this might relate to experimental results such as Libet’s. At the very least, examining the range of our choices might provide a better, wider range of research projects in the future.