The Libet experiment: is free will just an illusion?


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In The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther argued that free will is an illusion. For five centuries critics have been trying to refute him, because of course they have.


They have no choice.


I never liked that book - I think nowadays, Luther would have been an angry internet atheist.

Isn’t this just two different neural pathways at work to do this? You conscious mind does not make your body move, at least not in a way that you are actively aware of. To me it makes sense that the movement came first, which was then relayed to the conscious part of the brain as you wanting to/or initiating the movement. I’m not seeing how will has much to do with any of this.

Debates about free will get a lot more useful and less interesting if you make the participants precisely define their terms.

My mind, as it is physically embodied in my brain, has many parts, and the part I call “I” is only sometimes the part in control. My brain as a whole is causally efficacious at controlling my body’s actions. It does so using sensory information obtained from the environment and the body and memory, and I would not want that to not be true.

Also, my self, whatever that refers to, is a physically embodied thing. Whatever rules it obeys exist within physics, not outside them.

I know someone who took part in a TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) experiment. They had a strong magnetic field collapsed at the back of their head, which caused them to raise their hand in the air. However, their experience was that they wanted to raise their hand in the air just then, and did so, though they couldn’t remember afterwards just why.

I doubt if this experiment or any of the others disproves the existence of ‘free will’ whatever that may be. We know we hear things before we see them because the nerve connections to our ears are shorter than the ones to our eyes. The rapid audio response allows us to estimate the direction of sounds up to about 1 KHz by the delay to the far ear. It also allows us to react to a twig snapping behind us in a forest. And yet we see people talk with lip synch. The brain does all sorts of time shifting stuff like this because it has to make decisions on the fly as the data is still coming in.

Yep, I agree. There are probably at least two brain processes, and the brain does not have an absolute clock or timestamp to say which order they happen in. I think that is what Dr. Libet is thinking too.


I must admit I did push the BoingBoing button on this story with out thinking.


Problem 1:

If we accept the timing, then this implies that the conscious mind is involved later than the unconscious mind, but this doesn’t imply anything about free will.

Problem 2:

But should we accept the timing, anyway? What is the latency involved in recording the decision?


Kudos for the “Chinny reckon” cartoon of Jimmy Hill.

To me, Libet’s experiment suggests nothing more than “there’s a delay of several hundred milliseconds between making a conscious decision and reporting it to an experimenter.”

Which doesn’t surprise me even slightly. The decision to move is followed by the decision to report, which is followed by actually making the report.

But I don’t see how this has anything to do with “free will.”


There are plenty of other reasons to think that free will is an illusion. But I’m an engineer.

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I have no idea what this has to do with free will. My unconscious mind is every bit as much “me” as my conscious mind.


Why accept that Libert was correct in assuming he was measuring consciousness in the first place? He was measuring something. Except, whoops, consciousness was over there, where he hadn’t attached an electrode. The signal he thought represented consciousness–actually, that was some other, later, process.

Why was he experimenting on Terry Pratchett?!

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It’s pretty well understood that we tend to act immediately only when we’ve practiced something. An act of will always requires practice and planning. This finding, if it holds up, just means that we have a new way of investigating effective ways of directing our own behavior through planning, self-directed investigation, and practice.

So once again, obviously incorrect but flashy philosophical conclusions get swallowed up by the more productive process of science. I like this century.

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There is free will, but it is given to us once decided, and we just experience it as though it were our own decision, while the actual decision was made by the source of all will, which is one.

Completely agree. Does consciousness itself perhaps have latency?

We don’t understand consciousness like we do, say, combustion engines.

As a sometimes listener to the Harry Shearer show, I am quite fond of him, but conspiratorial insinuation in the absence of a full set of facts is very much his style.

What was the sample size?

I can imagine a time when our crude attempts to measure brain activity will be seen as laughable.

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