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Free will and the brain

More than 20 years ago Benjamin Libet did research which showed that the electrical changes in the brain that accompany voluntary action occur at least half a second before people are aware of forming the intention. Many thought that this work invalidated free will, although Libet himself wished to reconcile his discovery with freedom of the will.

Recent work by John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues in Germany has shown that the brain changes occur even earlier than Libet found - up to 7 seconds before people are aware of making a decision! This makes free will look even more doubtful, although Haynes does point out that the possibility that we can prevent an action from occurring has not yet been ruled out. See http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-04/m-udi041408.php.

One mistake we should avoid is supposing that it is the brain changes themselves that are central to the free will question. Even if there were a 'soul' hovering over the body and influencing its choices, the free will problem would remain. Presumably the decisions taken would be determined by the previous experiences and psychological make-up of the soul so would not be really free. The only kind of freedom one could imagine would be if the choices were random, which is hardly better than determinism.

The new research fits in well with what Daniel M.Wegner writes in The Illusion of Conscious Will, which I strongly recommend to anyone who, like me, has puzzled over such matters for many years.

For a philosophical explanation of Libet's work which I, at least, find persuasive, see Chapter 8 of Daniel Dennet's Freedom Evolves. He finds that our understanding of the research is affected by our adherence to what he calls the Cartesian Theatre. That is, we often suppose that there is some central coordinating agency, some "place" in the brain where conscious decision-making takes place. Dennett takes this to be an illusion, and the same applies to the assumption that there is some "time t" at which a decision occurs. I should say that this section by itself makes the book well worth reading, whether or not you are fully persuaded by Dennett's account of free will.


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