Do We Have Free Will? Neuroscientists Aren’t Sure

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Veljko Dubljević, Ph.D., D.Phil. Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, and  Science Technology and Society Program, North Carolina State University Raleigh, NC 27607 

Dr. Veljko Dubljević

Veljko Dubljević, Ph.D., D.Phil.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy,
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, and
Science Technology and Society Program,
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27607 

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?

Response: There is considerable controversy about the interpretation of data of the neuroscientific studies done by Benjamin Libet. On the one hand, Libet claimed that his work disproves certain metaphysical conceptions of free will (Libertarianism), whereas it does not disprove others (e.g., Compatibilism). In a nutshell, the reason for these claims is that Libet found preparatory brain activity (Readiness Potentials or RPs) some 500ms before the conscious decision to act was felt by study participants. That seemed to exclude the possibility that mental causation was taking place. At the same time, the onset of movement left a time-window for a ‘veto-decision’. This led Libet to conclude that there is no ‘free will’, but that there is a ‘free won’t’.

On the other hand, there were many criticisms of the study – methodological or substantive. Most notably, Patrick Haggard argued that it is not RPs that are correlates of a decision to act, but Lateralized Readiness Potentials (LRPs). Haggard agreed with many critics of Libet in that RPs could be connected to a range of other phenomena, and that preparatory brain activity that is most important for a decision to act already has to be ‘lateralized’. Namely, the decision to move the left or right arm is critical in this regard, and will lead to RP being focused in one or the other hemisphere, thus making LRPs the point of interest for any conscious decision to act. All in all, Haggard claimed to have replicated Libet’s major findings, with the caveat that timing of LRPs excludes the time-frame for a ‘veto-decision’. This Haggard claimed makes the evidence more in line with the metaphysical doctrine of ‘hard determinism’, which excludes agency and responsibility.

Many other neuroscientists followed Libet’s (and Haggard’s) lead and these experiment became part of ‘lore’ in neuroscience education – many other labs performed similar experiments and claimed to basically replicate the findings.

Our study was the first to review all available evidence.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings? 

Response: Opposed to claims of replication, we found substantial variation between studies in terms of experimental set up and results. In cases where experiments were explicitly conducted to replicate other experiments (Libet’s and others), most were unable to produce similar results.

Most notably, published original research articles that actually did compare RP or LRP to W often found conflicting results. 

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The Libet paradigm may be useful for examining the time needed to respond following an external stimulus or how external stimuli affects temporal judgments. However, it may be inappropriate at this time to extrapolate results gained from this methodology to discussions about freedom of action or moral responsibility.  

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work? 

Response: It is important to note (as others have before) that, traditionally, actions designated as voluntary are complex, and not simple finger flexions. Additionally, research suggests that the layperson’s understanding of freedom of action is neither dualistic nor indeterministic, and that the attribution of responsibility does not change even if “my brain made me do it”. Therefore, statements that any individual study could have “important implications for the notion of conscious intention in moral and legal situations” (e.g., Haggard et al. 2004) may be premature. All in all, more caution should be exercised before claims of proving or disproving metaphysical positions are made, and more research with complex actions (potentially even outside of lab settings) is necessary to ascertain the extent of involvement of conscious decisions in ‘free choice’.  

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Response: There are social consequences of prematurely claiming that metaphysical doctrines are proven or disproven. Namely a study in 2008 found that exposure to the message of ‘hard determinism’ increased cheating on subsequent tasks. These effects were replicated in subsequent studies.  

Any disclosures?

The work was supported with funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Racine), the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé for career awards (Racine), the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships Programme (Dubljevic) and a seed grant from NC State University (Dubljevic). The views reported in the study in no way represent or are influenced by the funding bodies. 

Citations:

Victoria Saigle, Veljko Dubljević & Eric Racine (2018) The Impact of a Landmark Neuroscience Study on Free Will: A Qualitative Analysis of Articles Using Libet and Colleagues’ Methods, AJOB Neuroscience, 9:1, 29-41, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2018.1425756 

 

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