Does Free Will Exist or Not? -by Anil Ananthaswamy

I really want your opinions about this very controversial issue please :

In 1983, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet asked volunteers wearing scalp electrodes to flex a finger or wrist. When they did, the movements were preceded by a dip in the signals being recorded, called the “readiness potential”. Libet interpreted this RP as the brain preparing for movement.

Crucially, the RP came a few tenths of a second before the volunteers said they had decided to move. Libet concluded that unconscious neural processes determine our actions before we are ever aware of making a decision.

Since then, others have quoted the experiment as evidence that free will is an illusion – a conclusion that was always controversial, particularly as there is no proof the RP represents a decision to move.

Sound decisions

Long sceptical of Libet’s interpretation, Jeff Miller and Judy Trevena of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, attempted to tease apart what prompts the RP using a similar experiment, with a key twist.

They also used scalp electrodes, but instead of letting their volunteers decide when to move, Miller and Trevena asked them to wait for an audio tone before deciding whether to tap a key. If Libet’s interpretation were correct, Miller reasoned, the RP should be greater after the tone when a person chose to tap the key.

While there was an RP before volunteers made their decision to move, the signal was the same whether or not they elected to tap. Miller concludes that the RP may merely be a sign that the brain is paying attention and does not indicate that a decision has been made.

Miller and Trevena also failed to find evidence of subconscious decision-making in a second experiment. This time they asked volunteers to press a key after the tone, but to decide on the spot whether to use their left or right hand. As movement in the right limbs is related to the brain signals in the left hemisphere and vice versa, they reasoned that if an unconscious process is driving this decision, where it occurs in the brain should depend on which hand is chosen. But they found no such correlation.

Paradigm shift

Marcel Brass of Ghent University in Belgium says it is wrong to use Miller and Trevena’s results to reinterpret Libet’s experiment, in which volunteers were not prompted to make a decision. The audio tone “changes the paradigm”, so the two can’t be compared, he says. What’s more, in 2008, he and his colleagues detected patterns in brain activity that predicted better than chance whether or not a subject would press a key, before they were aware of making a decision.

But Frank Durgin, a psychologist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, says that Brass’s results do “seem to undermine Libet’s preferred interpretation”, though they don’t contradict it outright.

Anil Ananthaswamy / Source: New Scientist

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Poch is a Bookrix author and a freelance writer. He is a frequent contributor to TED Conversations.
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10 Responses to Does Free Will Exist or Not? -by Anil Ananthaswamy

  1. pelagian7 says:

    I have recently begun this blogging thing and know little so, my address is –I think. I looked at yours and found some interesting stuff.

  2. pochp says:

    By the way sir P, do you have a weblog I can visit?
    I invite you to submit an essay here.
    And if you like controversial issues,
    you might want to visit my primary weblog Plato on-line

  3. pochp says:

    I think you have convinced me that Judas was not ‘predestined’ sir.
    And I’m very grateful for your sublime comments.
    I will try to reply later Mr. Pelagian. It’s a pleasure.


  4. pelagian7 says:

    The secret knowledge was only called secret because it had to be learned through experience. Like describing a burn to someone who has never experienced heat. I agree evil is evil only when willful, yet sin is accepting ignorance and closing ones mind.

    A historic look at Judas is revealing. The Greek orthodox sector of Christianity has a Gospel written by Jude or Judah. In it he instructs new converts on what is expected. He warns them about a Pharisee who is writing and instructing for his own glory.

    Jude is in fact Judas and he was a prominent figure in Jerusalem. He took on those trying to get Roman rule accepted. Judas named the traitor and that man was Saul or Paul. Judas’ sons were also prominent figures in Jerusalem. (Letters of clement, Josephus, and others prove this) So who becomes the bad guy in the passion, Judas, brother of Jesus and James.

    There was no predestination in regards to Judas, he became a pawn of politics. The history is intriguing and political as always, yet, the thread you know of is the key to truth.

  5. pochp says:

    ‘A bit off free will, but it seems to be a religious connundrum.’

    Ignorance is only evil if it is willful.
    I avoid biblical debates but how about those who died before Christ?
    Even extremist, hypocritical preachers admit that ‘those who died before Christ will be judged according to their conscience’.
    As to secret knowledge, only the true spirituals will know that so I agree it exists.
    I’ve been thru so many debates about free will and it always go back to the Predestination doctrine and my question:
    Why was Judas predestined to go to hell if there is free will?
    Your conclusion seems to agree with this.

  6. pelagian7 says:

    I understand your point about selfishness. I take a gnostic approach to that problem. They didn’t believe in sin, per se, but rather ignorance as the root of ills.

    If we are connected and this energy exists, then we harm ourselves when we harm others. I liken it to a battery. Do good and replenish the charge, bad drains the battery of spirit. Low batteries mean that the ego strives and crass acts satisfy. Ignorance of our complete nature and oneness then becomes the root of evil.

    I believe this is the message Jesus taught his disciples in private. Several clues in the Gospels suggest this; and several traditions suggest secret knowledge that can bring the kingdom of God to earth.

    I think ambitous church leaders, looking down their elevated noses at the commoners, whitewashed the salvation message so they might bring it to the people alone. Did they think they were doing wrong? I doubt it, at that time the privledged had a low regard for the mental capacity of the not so privledged. Besides if the secret tradition is true and we as individuals can access the kingdom, then there would be no need for a church hierarchy.
    A bit off free will, but it seems to be a religious connundrum.

  7. izaakmak says:

    It seems to me that this debate ignores the fact that the conscious part of our mind is not all we are. And the fact that our consciousness extends beyond the superficial in no way justifies an argument that the part we are not aware of is somehow not of us.

  8. pelagian7 says:

    “Crucially, the RP came a few tenths of a second before the volunteers said they had decided to move.”

    How could this be determined and to an accuracy of a few tenths of a second?

    The volunteers said, about as reliable as a guess. We have free will but are easily swayed by the pressure of conformity. Religion uses this tactic effectively.

    If we had no freedom of will, we would have to let the jailed go because they were not responsible for their actions, but the puppet master was.

    Now are there forces that influence us, maybe the universe? I think this is likely. Often inventions occur simultaneously in different parts of the world by people who don’t know each other. Books and stories seem to be rewritten by people unaware of the earlier versions. Wallace and Darwin conceived and developed the evolution idea independently and at a similar, or same time.

    These oddities have been explained as reincarnation, channeling, coincidence, religious revelation, even possession, and they all seem to be of a similar ilk. Jung explained it as a collective consciousness, others, holy ghost inspired (God). I conclude some invisible thread connects us all and we are inspired in this way. However, any influence is tempered by our own conscience and will.

    • pochp says:

      I also believe that a universal thread connects us all sir.
      The problem is, is our own will always right? I believe that most of human will is selfish
      — the root cause of all ills.
      Thank you very much for your intelligent comment Pelagian. I value it very much sir.

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