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Reply To: Free Will: Yea or Nay?


Happy Day, Robert,

You write

Free will for me is our inalienable right to freedom of conscious choice.
I believe wholeheartedly in free will. We have the ability to choose freely for better or worse our decisions in life. We have the freedom to make mistakes change our minds , live and learn.

I concur with the idea of acting “as if” we have free will, but do we really? There is a case to be made that free will, in terms of conscious intention, is an illusion.

Experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet (research scientist in the physiologist department at UC Berkeley) and a team of consciousness researchers in 1983 (replicated by neurophysiologists I Keller and H. Heckhausen in Munich  in 1990) suggest that we form a consciousness intention roughly half a second after brain activity stimulating muscle movement begins, but then project that “conscious” intention back in time so that, from our perspective, it’s our conscious thought that initiates the action.

In other words (this is a simplistic example on my part, but conveys the idea), I am thirsty and decide to drink some water. I experience that as a conscious intention – but the brain activity that stimulates my  muscles to reach for the glass of water actually begins half a second before “I” make the decision to reach for that glass! The source of the action is then unconscious, rather than a conscious choice (though I experience it as such), with consciousness catching up to reality after the fact – no more a product of conscious intention than the bodily processes of digesting food or converting oxygen into hemoglobin.

That is quite different than the common conception of free will.

In subsequent experiments Libet and his team accrued evidence that, though the initiation of the action is unconscious, one can consciously interrupt the process (I am thirsty, my brain initiates activity to quench that thirst, but my conscious will intervenes and decides not to reach for the water); this led Libet and his colleagues to conclude that free will exists in the power of the veto: we can’t consciously decide to take an action (even though that’s the story we tell ourselves), but we can consciously decide not to perform an action: e.g. at the level of brain activity I am preparing to reach for the water, but then the conscious me is able to derail that process.

Libet’s results were widely accepted at the time – so no surprise this roiled the debate over determinism vs. free will. I am definitely intrigued (especially with the idea that free will has its source in the “no”), but in recent years this has generated more controversy as some scientists are now raising questions and suggesting alternate interpretations of Libet’s results. The jury remains out as more experiments are being designed to test the hypothesis. I look forward to following the debate.

Setting all that aside, I am curious how you handle the question of fate – is there such a thing from your perspective?

Personally, I don’t believe it’s an either/or, clear-cut case of black-and-white so much as”both-and”: life is a spectrum, a blend of volition and determinism. Some things we assume to be a conscious choice might not be that at all. At the same time, I am a devoted aficionado of Campbell’s concept of “as if”; acting as if I had free will works for me.

Personally, I like how Jawaharlal Nehru (first prime minister of India and father of Indira Gandhi), expressed it:

Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”