Monday, September 23, 2019

Debunking Libet's free will experiment

The anti-free-will folks often cite a famous experiment by Libet. It doesn't really disprove free will, but it seemed to show that decisions had an unconscious element.

Now I learn that the experiment has been debunked anyway. The Atlantic mag reports:
Twenty years later, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet used the Bereitschaftspotential to make the case not only that the brain shows signs of a decision before a person acts, but that, incredibly, the brain’s wheels start turning before the person even consciously intends to do something. Suddenly, people’s choices—even a basic finger tap—appeared to be determined by something outside of their own perceived volition. ...

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices. ...

When Schurger first proposed the neural-noise explanation, in 2012, the paper didn’t get much outside attention, but it did create a buzz in neuroscience. Schurger received awards for overturning a long-standing idea.
This does not resolve the issue of free will, but it does destroy one of the arguments against free will.

It also throws into doubt the idea that we subconsciously make decisions.

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