In this article, I'm exploring the question “does free will exist?” in the context of choosing to command one's own working life. In other words, if free will exists, if we are truly conscious agents making informed decisions and acting based on our own volition, then changing one's life and work is not only possible but foundational in the growth and development of the human organism. Our hegemonic common sense about it seems to suggest that the idea we do not have free will is absurd. However, the alternative hypothesis suggests that we do not have free will and that our awareness of making choices to do this, that, or the other, is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain–a delayed reaction to a non-conscious decision made for us in some darkened recess inside the dome of our skull.
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Members of the Peak Performer Community can download the papers cited in this article, engage and discuss the topic with other readers, and discover the tools to direct their own life and work. Life might be determined, but it is determined by the actions we are prompted to take from moment to moment.
Papers that informed this article
– The Timing Experiments of Libet and Grey by John M Ostrowick
– Where Am I? by Daniel Dennet
– The Value In Believing In Free Will by Vohs & Schooler
– Free Will, Determinism, and the Possibility of Doing Otherwise by Christian List
– Self & The Paradox of Free Will by Christophe le Mouel
– An Imitation of Life by W. Grey Walter
Introduction To Libet's Absence of Free Will
Exploring the topic of free will and whether or not human beings have the ability to consciously choose their actions is like falling down a rabbit hole. The debate for and against free will has arguably raged for several thousand years and it's highly unlikely to be resolved here. However, I can admit that I am somewhat decided on the matter and I will reveal my position in my concluding remarks. In the interim, I will present what is understood about free will from the perspective of Benjamin Libet and W. Grey Walter who conducted seminal research in this area. For this, I'm drawing on a 2007 paper titled “The Timing Experiments of Libet and Grey Walter” by Dr John M Ostrowick at the School of Computer Science, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa 1 and offer a summary of his remarks.
The Illusion of Free Will
When asked about our conscious choices and free will, John M Ostrowick suggests that most of us are inclined to describe the subjective experience of a felt conscious state rather than underlying brain processes. At the same time, we accept the scientific view that our mental processes – such as making choices – are influenced if not caused by underlying brain phenomena. Brain chemistry often influences, if not dictates our mood. When we talk about directing our own lives and making those big life decisions like choosing a partner, giving up alcohol and bad food and losing weight, getting divorced, starting a business, or changing career, we feel like it is we who make those decisions. Whatever the influence of other people advising us in our decisions, there seems little doubt that we are the prime mover, the decision-maker…or maybe not.
Benjamin Libet 2 and W. Grey Walter in separate studies sought to understand these processes and performed experiments to establish the timing of conscious choice and its apparent resulting action. Both studies found that certain non-conscious brain events always happened before their subjects became aware of them. What this means is that our actions seem to be brought about by events and conditions we're not consciously aware of rather than by the choices and decisions we make.
However, we have a persistent belief that free choice is made consciously. If our conscious choices were not the cause of our actions, we would not be free. But what makes Libet's and Grey Walter's findings interesting, is that the evidence they uncovered seems to indicate that electro-chemical processes in the brain substantially precede and cause conscious mental activity. In other words, we seem to become aware of the choice and assign it as our own only after the choice has been made in the brain.
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The Benjamin Libet Experiments
Libet's research provided evidence that changes in brain voltage which he called “readiness potential” (RP), occur before intentions or actions by about 0.8 seconds. This is considered a long time and Libet was interested in understanding where conscious intention occurred in the process. Libet’s asked his subjects to decide, under their own intent, to flex their wrists while watching a moving spot on a screen. They were to report the position of the dot after flexing their wrists (where the dot was positioned at the time they experienced the intention to act). Results showed that participants consistently reported their intention to act occurred 0.2 seconds before they acted (flexed their wrist).
This seems consistent with our own experience; our decisions to act do seem to occur very shortly before our physical actions. But Libet discovered that the readiness potential (RP) was approximately 0.55 seconds before the act of wrist-flexing. In plain language, the participants' brains were preparing to act 0.35 seconds before the participant had “decided” to move their wrist! Libet concluded that this opposed the idea of free will. If free will existed, we would expect readiness potential to commence at the same time as our intention to act.
If a non-conscious brain event was the true cause of action, and the decision to act comes later in the sequence, then it is not our “decisions” that make us do what we do. Non-conscious brain events also play a necessary role.
The Grey Walter Experiments
Independent from Libet, in 1963, W. Grey Walter examined the same phenomena 3. Walter's participants were required to press a button to change a slide on a projector at any moment that they desired. What participants didn't know was that the button was a dummy and the slide was triggered by the amplification of a readiness potential signal from their brains. Participants reported that it seemed as if the slide projector knew their intentions because the slide changed before their own conscious decision to take action.
Walter's study again illustrates the real cause of the act appears to be a non-conscious brain event and that it occurs in time before the subjective, first-person decision to act. Our “decisions”, as we think of them, according to these experiments, seem to be mental epiphenomena, caused by a non-conscious neurological event, which in itself is the actual determinant of the decision event.
Why The Illusion of Free Will Persists
In the presence of Libet's and Grey Walter's evidence for the apparent absence of free will, Dr John Ostrowick asks, why do we still believe that our conscious selves control our bodies? He offers two possible reasons for this.
- Should we attribute a decision to act to the readiness potential in the brain or something even before that? The readiness potential occurs where the individual has already pre-planned their actions to some degree. So the conscious choice may precede the readiness potential. This may be possible but even this prior planning must have its own non-conscious phase.
- The second reason has something to do with linear time. A neural transmission takes about 0.175 sec to reach the muscles (Dennett, 1993), and given Libet's assertion that awareness occurs approximately 0.2 sec before the action, we can easily see why we would think that conscious choice causes the action (conscious choice and motor instruction are almost simultaneous). That said, a conscious choice should precede motor instruction, but it doesn't and so offers the illusion of self-control.
Daniel Dennet on Free Will
Philosopher and free will heavy hitter, Daniel Dennett argues for the compatibility of free will and determinism suggesting that there's always an element of chance within cause and effect. This chance for a different outcome can be seen in statistical analysis where there is always an allowance for error in calculations. There is always that which has been left out of the equation – an unknown quantity. The argument for determinism over free will suggests that all brain activity, including what we perceive and conscious choice, are the products of physical causes and are beyond our conscious control.
For example, if you choose white chocolate over dark chocolate, this is the product of brain activity and was influenced by everything that occurred in your life up to the moment you made the choice. This is causal determinism 4. It suggests that human beings are like computers programmed to do what they are doing and can’t choose any differently. Dennett’s argument is essentially how human beings might have free will regardless. He says that free will exists in a deterministic universe but only for humans, and that this gives us morality, meaning, and moral culpability. Seems like he may have religious influences muddling his views of the world.
Something important to note in all of this, is that research has shown that even brief exposure to messages claiming that there is no such thing as free will can increase both passive and active cheating 5. This raises a concern that advocating for a deterministic world where free choice is impossible could undermine moral behavior. In a world where disregard for our fellow human being and the environment is rife, deterministic ideologies could be petrol on the fire.
Daniel Dennet [Audio]
Final Remarks on Free Will
Who or what is the ‘me' that is supposed to have conscious choice? I can't find it. The more I look for it, the more it slips away. Where am I? Do I reside inside the dome of my skull? Do I exist in my entire body? Where do I go when I fall asleep or when I die? This is the problem of consciousness, of the self, and it is consistent with the problem of free will. If you say I have the ability to choose this and that, the work I'd like to do, the life I want, what is the ‘me' that makes this choice? And what about the millions of people who say they want this or that but never achieve it?
So many questions and we haven't even gotten into the topic of desire yet. It is argued that we not only do not choose our desires but we also don’t know what they are or how to satisfy them. In fact, it can be argued that no matter what success we achieve, our desire remains an unsatisfied mystery.
I have come to understand there are certain psychological conditions that seem to bring about improved performance, results, and happier life conditions. However, they don't last. Life is full of surprises and we cannot control it all, or even most of it. Life ebbs and flows, there are dips and troughs and we have any say whatsoever, it must be in finding healthy ways to cope. In this sense, commanding one's own work is commanding oneself regardless of what happens or who is responsible.
If we think about our existence rationally, we will see that there is no past or future, only an ever-changing present moment in which we exist. The experience of Flow state is the felt reality of that moment and it is in that state that we reach our peak.
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- Ostrowick, J. M. (2007). The timing experiments of Libet and Grey Walter. South African Journal of Philosophy= Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif vir Wysbegeerte, 26(3), 271-288.
- Libet, B. (1993). Brain stimulation in the study of neuronal functions for conscious sensory experiences. In Neurophysiology of consciousness (pp. 221-228). Birkhäuser, Boston, MA.
- Dennett, D. C. (1993). Consciousness explained. Penguin UK.
- O’Connor, Timothy and Christopher Franklin, “Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2022/entries/freewill/>.
- Vohs, K. D., & Schooler, J. W. (2008). The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological science, 19(1), 49-54.
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