Free Will, the Libet Experiments and the War on Terror

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Free Will, the Libet Experiments and the War on Terror Empty Free Will, the Libet Experiments and the War on Terror

Post by Thorin on Tue Oct 08, 2019 7:33 pm

On 10 September 2019, a headline in the Atlantic announced, “A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked.” The argument in question was based on the findings of what are usually called the Libet experiments.

Here’s how Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn describe the original experiments in their book Doing Philosophy:

By means of an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain, it’s possible to detect the nerve impulses that result in bodily movement (known as the readiness potential). By means of the electromyograph (EMG), which measures voltage changes in muscles, it’s possible to detect bodily movement. So Libet seated his subjects at a table, attached an EEG to their scalps, and attached an EMG to one of their forearms. In front of them was a rapidly moving clock and a button. They were given the following instructions: “Flex your finger to push the button when you feel like it, and tell us where the hand on the clock is when you decide to do that.”

These experiments, some of which were conducted by the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, were widely taken to show that the way we experience decision-making is misleading. As Bahar Gholipour puts it in the Atlantic, Libet used his findings 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.”

The story Gholipour tells of how later neuroscientists overthrew Libet’s results is a fascinating one. What interests me, though, is the way this episode intersects with the larger philosophical debate about free will and moral responsibility.

What, if anything, did either the Libet experiments or their subsequent debunking tell us about whether we are in control of our decisions in the right way for anything we do to truly be our fault? And why would it matter if this kind of autonomous decision-making were an illusion? Is this purely about satisfying our intellectual curiosity or does the debate have real-world consequences?


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