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Time, Identity & Free Will

Free Will & The Brain

Kevin Loughran wonders what scientific experiments really tell us about free will.

The idea of free will touches human decision-making and action, and so the workings of the brain. So the science of the brain can inform the argument about free will. Technology, especially in the form of brain scanning, has provided new insights into what is happening in our brains prior to us taking action. And some brain studies – especially the ones led by Benjamin Libet at the University of California in San Francisco in the 1980s – have indicated the possibility of unconscious brain activity setting up our body to act on our decisions before we are conscious of having decided to act. For some people, such studies have confirmed the judgement that we lack free will. But do these studies provide sufficient data to justify such a generalisation about free will?

First, these studies do touch on the issue of how we make choices and reach decisions; but they do so in respect of some simple, and directed, tasks. For example, in one of Libet’s studies, he asked volunteers to move a hand in one direction or another and to note the time when they consciously decided to do so (50 Ideas You Really Need to Know about the Human Brain, Moher Costandi, p.60, 2013). The data these and similar brain studies provide might justly be taken to prove that when research volunteers are asked by a researcher to do one simple thing or another, and they do it, then unconscious brain processes may have moved them towards a choice a fraction of a second before they were conscious of making that choice. The question is, can they be taken to prove more than that?

To explore this question let’s first look at some of the range of choices we make in our lives day by day and week by week, then ask what they might tell us about how we come to make decisions and how this might relate to experimental results such as Libet’s. At the very least, examining the range of our choices might provide a better, wider range of research projects in the future.

Moral Dilemmas

I may be asked or required to do something that conflicts with my existing beliefs and values. Or at some stage I may choose to take a position and do something in relation to a moral issue. Taking up a position in reaction to an issue or circumstances is a choice; changing that position is another; standing by my original position despite criticism and pressure is yet another choice.

Life Changes, Personal Interests And Careers

A moment arrives, or an event occurs, or someone says something to me which prompts me to think of life change. For instance, I may want to develop a new personal interest, taking up a sport, or playing a musical instrument. Or I may think I need to choose a new career. Eventually I may decide to change, or to stay as I am; or I may make a kind of decision to avoid a decision. And this may keep recurring.

Going Places

I may decide to travel abroad for various reasons. I may give such decisions a lot of thought or do it on a whim. I may decide on the day before, or hours before, or on an immediate impulse. In making a decision to go somewhere, I may be expressing an ongoing perception of need or interest.

Hundreds By The Hour

Some social or professional roles involve a very large number of decisions rapidly in a concentrated period of time. For example, at a Premier League football match the referee makes between two hundred and three hundred decisions per game. He decides on, for example, awarding a free kick, or ruling a player as offside. His role requires him to take a decision; but each decision he takes is a matter of choice, reflecting his judgement at that point of time as to what the facts are.


Some choices involve improvisation within an established framework; for example, in music making, especially in jazz. A musician may be drawn to a particular musical effect or phrase. It would be easy to say that the attraction indicates an unconscious process. But does this indicate an unconscious decision rather than an unconscious attraction prompting a conscious decision? (And the following night it will be different.) Similarly, many sports involve a continual process of decision-making within extended periods of time; for example, when and where to move, and when to strike. And the next time, in a similar situation, the player may make a different decision.


Some decisions follow from formal negotiations, whether to resolve a labour dispute, or to agree terms for the sale of goods and services, or to arrange for the sharing of political power, or for an end to armed conflict. Perhaps prior to the negotiations the individuals who came to comprise the groups which negotiate took personal decisions to involve themselves in the process. Groups then enter negotiations after deciding on common objectives. The negotiations will open with proposals from both sides and the exchange of comments: some ideas are rejected, some are accepted; new proposals may be put forward. Decision-making is involved in at all these stages. And the final decision-making is collective. When I am a member of a group involved in negotiations, my participation in the group can be seen as following from a personal choice. While involved in negotiations, I may choose to agree to a particular proposal which, if agreed to by a majority, then becomes the group’s choice.

Impulse Decisions

Impulse decisions are an immediate response to a sensory stimulus. Such decisions can be triggered by commercially calculated stimuli. For example, the smell of freshly-baked bread attracts a customer who has just entered a supermarket and who decides in consequence to buy some bread. Is such a decision the outcome of considered choosing between alternatives, or is it merely the outcome of unconscious brain processes determining the apparently conscious choice? Or rather, could it be that what is unconscious is the attraction, and that the actual decision to act – to buy – is itself a conscious choice?

The Implications For Free Will

Free Will and the Brain
Illustrations © Jaime Raposo 2020. To see more of his art, please visit jaimeraposo.com.

In each case of choice the brain activity that precedes a decision has to have a starting point, a stimulus – a problem or opportunity or challenge which the brain begins to react to. Sometimes it is unclear when the process begins, what the original stimulus is. However, with Libet’s and similar brain studies, the stimulus is readily identifiable, and simple. The research volunteers are asked to choose a simple either/or action which is specified by the researcher; or they are asked to do one simple thing specified by the researcher, the only thing which the subjects get to choose being the time of their action. However, in real life, sometimes I may face a choice and grow towards a decision without a stimulus being readily identifiable. Perhaps at first I am not even conscious of the issue. It may be at the back of my mind. But the ball has started to roll. I am already on the road to making a choice. I may wrestle with the issue and then decide ‘I’ll leave it for now and come back to it later’ – but it is still somewhere ‘on my mind’. Or I may come to a decision about what to do gradually, over a period of time. I may, for example, agonise over a perceived moral dilemma or a possible life change, such as a move or the start of a new career. I may push the issue to the back of my mind because I am uncertain as to what to do. But for example, when do I start to think about a new career? What prompts me or my interest? Perhaps it is born out of a growing dissatisfaction – which is especially difficult to pin down to a clear starting point or to relate to a clear stimulus. Perhaps I will reach more than one conclusion about a matter or make more than one decision to resolve an issue. Or I may make a decision to do something and then change that decision because of the difficulties I perceive in the choice I have made.

Such is the number of decisions I am taking day by day or week by week, such is the variety of timescales within which I may be making decisions, such is the variety of needs and interests I may be reacting to, then, that it would seem unlikely that conscious as well as unconscious processes would not be threaded through the decision-making of my everyday existence. But the ways in which my brain turns an issue over; the variations in the time which it takes to make a choice; the ways in which I may pause, or hesitate, or hold back or draw away from a choice; the ways in which I may put something to the back of my mind, all indicate that my choosing does not very often follow a straight line from unconscious to conscious, as it was set up to be in Libet’s experiments, or that the process of choice is always the same. Therefore, to claim that we lack free will on the basis of evidence that in certain situations unconscious brain processes are contributing to our decision-making, is to reach an absolute conclusion on the basis of very limited data.

The data provided by Libet’s and similar brain studies could best be taken to support a claim that when research volunteers are asked by a researcher to do one simple thing or another (for example, move a hand in one direction or another), and they do it, then their unconscious brain processes may have moved them towards a choice seconds before they were conscious of having decided on an action. This has little to no application to the issue of free will for all the other types of choice I cited above. But many people do go further in interpreting the data. For example, in 2017 the New Scientist guide Your Conscious Mind concluded that Libet’s results suggested that for your decisions there’s a time when the brain is preparing for you to do something you yourself hadn’t decided to do: ‘’The surprising part of Libet’s results is that there seems to be a period of time when the brain is preferring to do something, but you, your self, didn’t yet know that you’re going to do it’’ (p.60). That’s a false generalisation to draw from this study, particularly as in one of the core experiments Libet’s subjects knew what they were going to do; they just didn’t know when they would do it.

With studies such as Libet’s, the stimulus is simple and external: the researcher asks the volunteer to do one simple thing or another (or sometimes only one simple thing). But choices and decisions in real life are more complex and more varied. Often the process is much more drawn; and different processes of choice and decision-making, from different starting points, may be proceeding at the same time. And even though much human activity could be described as habitual, that does not mean to say that even a decision to do something again, or again and again, is predetermined. I may decide to do something ‘without thinking’, or without much thinking, because the decision to do that is convenient for me, and it may not be a pressing issue for me. I may choose to do something time after time because my taste, my upbringing, or my character push me towards it. Why should I choose to act differently when I have already established what I like and what I want to do? But this still doesn’t mean that I don’t make conscious choices, even in those situations.

© Kevin Loughran 2020

Kevin Loughran, a retired social services officer, has published a number of articles and a book on social policy and the natural sciences.

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