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Jamie Furgerson

Professor Cottrell
Honors Option Assignment The Libet Experiments and Free Will
Free will can be viewed in many different respects, however, Peter van Inwagen
describes it as having more than one future available to us. Benjamin Libet conducted
experiments that contradict the phenomenon of free will. Through these experiments, Libet
sought to illustrate the relationship between voluntary actions and timing of events in the brain.
According to Libet, we have a conscious will which is an urge to do something, such as the
urge or wish to clap your hands. However, Libet discovered that before this conscious will took
place, there is an electrical charge that occurs in the brain before performing a voluntary bodily
action, otherwise known as the readiness potential. Since the readiness potential occurs prior to
the conscious will to perform a bodily action, Libet concluded that the action cannot be freely
voluntary because the initiation to perform the action happens unconsciously before a person is
even aware of their want to act.
One philosophical problem that Libets experiments pose for free will is that our
conscious selves do not possess free will over our seemingly voluntary actions. The experiments
portray that our conscious decision to perform an action is not actually what initiates an action.
On the contrary, the decision to act outwardly is unconsciously made by our brains. Thus, every
single bodily action that we perform, whether it appears voluntary or not, is completely out of
our control, meaning that we do not have the free will to control our bodily actions. In other
words, our minds do not have free will because our brains are in control of our bodies. To further

this problem, these experiments raise the issue that our freely chosen actions have to be
consciously initiated and if they are unconsciously initiated, then they are in fact not free at all.
Additionally, the Libet experiments also show that free will is a mere illusion to human beings.
For instance, the readiness potential is an unconscious event that occurs in our brain well before
the action or even the conscious will to perform an action. The conscious will takes place after
the readiness potential, however, it does not actually initiate the bodily action. Nonetheless, the
conscious will to act prompts people to believe that they are in complete control of their actions;
it deceives people into believing that free will exists.
Peter van Inwagen described the problem of free will and determinism coexisting.
Inwagen defined free will as having more than one future open to us. On the other hand,
determinism is the matter that, given the complete state of the universe and the laws of nature,
there is only one physically possible future. The old problem of free will versus determinism is a
matter of their incompatibility in this universe: the problem of believing that we have free will in
a deterministic universe despite the contradiction it creates. Some of the problems addressed
above draw nearly direct parallels with the problem presented by Inwagen. For example, the
problem that our conscious selves do not possess free will over our believably voluntary actions
is related, in a sense, to the problem of free will versus determinism. Free will cannot exist in a
deterministic universe because of the complete state of the universe in a specified moment and
the laws of nature. The problems presented in the Libet experiment occur because of biological
laws, which henceforth, are the laws of nature. The laws of nature predetermine the physical
composition of our brains, therefore, environmental influences have predetermined reactions.
Hence, the readiness potential happens according to the natural laws of the universe. Libets
findings also illustrate how the idea of free will may be but a mere artifice to mankind. Likewise,

believing that there are multiple pathways available to you (free will), when ultimately, there is
only one (determinism), produces a deception. Conversely, the philosophical problems raised by
Libets findings do have significant variances from the old problem of free will versus
determinism. For instance, the problem of whether or not our actions have to be consciously
initiated by us in order to be freely willed. This philosophical problem does not concern the
matter of having multiple choices in an already chosen universe, on the contrary, it deals with the
question of what constitutes an individuals action as being freely willed and how free will
operates. Is conscious awareness significant to whether something is free willed? Is it possible
for free will function without conscious awareness?
Although Libets experiments provide plausible evidence that free will is negated by the
actions of our brains, there are solutions to these problems that preserve the existence of free
will. Even with his experimental findings, Libet argued that free will does not cease to exist
completely; we still embody a degree of it. Regardless of the readiness potential, Libet found that
there is still the option to not perform a bodily action. Libet referred to this as the conscious
veto, or in other words, the conscious wont which occurs in place of the conscious will.
Despite having the unconscious initiation to perform an action, we still obtain the power to
consciously disregard this act that has already been embedded in our brains. This shows that
while we do not have control when it comes to performing an action, but we do have control
when it comes to not performing an action. Although this does not uphold the matter that we
have free will over choosing to perform our bodily actions, the conscious veto preserves the
matter that we do have free will over not performing a bodily action; we can consciously and
freely will to not do something, regardless of our brains intention of doing so. While this does
not allow us complete control over our actions, it does grant that we have some degree of free

will over what we do, or rather, dont do. The conscious veto allows a person multiple futures
open to them (or the ability to do otherwise), therefore, the conscious veto allows one to have
free will. This claim is plausible, especially in comparison to the readiness potential. If
experimental findings show evidence of the readiness potential and it serves as a reasonable
dispute to free will, then the experimental findings of the conscious veto provides equally
reasonable evidence that free will exists, even in a subtler form. Furthermore, if the conscious
veto does exist, and we do have the power to choose not to perform an action, then free will is
not an illusion.
Another solution that salvages free will in light of the Libet experiments is the fallacy in
the assumption that the readiness potential causes action. As Libets experiments have shown,
the readiness potential always seems to occur 350 to 400 milliseconds before the conscious
intention of performing a motor act and 500 milliseconds before the motor act itself. It is obvious
that Libet succeeds in showing the correlation between the brain activity (aka readiness
potential) and bodily actions, however, it is fallacious to conclude causation from correlation. If
any such action can occur that does show any evidence of activity occurring in the brain prior to
the point of decision-making, then it can be argued that the readiness potential, rather than free
will, is an illusion. Until it can be proven that the brain activity which occurs before the
conscious will definitively causes one to perform a bodily action, then it does not necessarily
need to be concluded that there is no freely willed action because of these findings. Furthermore,
there is the possibility that the readiness potential does not dictate the factor of free will in the
decision making process, but rather it simply initiates the ability to make a choice of action. If
this is the case, then the readiness potential merely gives us the ability to perform an action while

we can freely choose what the action will be. Likewise, the readiness potential does not discredit
our free will in these circumstances.
One of the previously mentioned philosophical problems involves whether or not
consciousness is actually necessary for free will. In this case, consciousness refers to transitive
consciousness, or awareness. Libets experimental findings show that before performing a
spontaneous action, there is an unconscious decision made by our brains prior to our own
conscious decision, or conscious will. Given these finding, it is concluded that we do not have
free will because we do not consciously initiate our spontaneous voluntary actions. On the
contrary, it often happens that the mind consciously sets a general plan from which we then tend
to act on automatically. For example, when someone gets into a car to drive, their mind sets out a
general plan of how to act and what to do while given certain driving circumstances. This general
plan is consciously decided well before the act needs to be carried out. However, when
something occurs and the need to act on it happens, the decision to act is unconsciously derived
from the previously conscious plan. For instance, when I get in my car to drive, I make the
choice to watch out for other drivers so I can make any contingent actions in case their driving
calls for it. One specific occurrence happened when I was driving home from school: as I was
driving on the freeway, a car unexpectedly pulled in front of me, nearly hitting my car. I acted by
swerving into the next lane so I could avoid causing an accident. While this decision was
unconsciously made at that moment, I had previously made the conscious choice to act in this
manner [if this situation were to occur] when I got into the car to drive. I wasnt required to think
about how I was going to act because that decision had already been implanted into my mind
from the plan I had consciously devised prior to getting in the car. This conscious plan is formed
minutes, possibly even years, prior to the action, not just milliseconds. It could be argued that

there is an equivalent to the readiness potential that unconsciously initiates this plan that we
consciously create, however, until there is a study to show this evidence, we can conclude that
this conscious general plan takes place before the readiness potential that Libet discovered. If
this is the case, then our automatic unconscious actions can be constituted as being freely
willed because they happen as a result of a conscious general plan.