Free Will and Free Won’t

Science suggests that the decisions we make are actually prompted by brain activity before we are conscious of making the decision.

Do we have free will? Modern materialists say, no. This is what I learned watching an episode in a series on science that was hosted by Stephen Hawking on Public Broadcast Television.

Hawking explained the experiments that informed this view. In the experiment, the subjects were told to choose to push a button and to note the time on the clock at which the decision was made. At the same time, the subject’s brain waves were being monitored for activity. Over and over again, the brain waves were measured showing that the uptick in brain waves happened before the subject was conscious of the actual decision being made to take the action.

The experiment demonstrated the following sequence: (1) a brain signal occurs about 550 milliseconds prior to the finger’s moving; (2) the subject has an awareness of his decision to move his finger about 200 milliseconds prior to his finger’s moving; (3) the person’s finger moves.

This was interpreted as evidence by Hawking that we don’t have free will. The decisions we make are actually prompted by brain activity before we are conscious of making the decision. The conclusion is that we are responding to some prior stimuli and only think that we are making independent decisions. Hawking concluded, therefore, that we are determined, as everything is, by natural laws in an endless stream of cause and effect.

But wait, there is more. The scientist who conducted these experiments, Benjamin Libet, actually came to the opposite conclusions. And lest you think this is only an interesting experiment with no practical application, I find some interesting applications to our struggles with sin.

Benjamin Libet is described as “a pioneering scientist in the field of human consciousness” who “was the first recipient of the Virtual Nobel Prize in Psychology” for these experiments. (See Wikipedia) According to Wikipedia, “his most famous experiment was meant to demonstrate that the unconscious electrical processes in the brain … precede conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts, implying that unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject.”

Wikipedia seems to describe Libet in the same way that materialists would describe themselves (presumably) – a non-dualist. But, Libet found something else, something he coined the “free won’t”. According to Wikipedia, “Libet finds that conscious volition is exercised in the form of ‘the power of veto'”.

But Wikipedi doesn’t describe  how he came to that determination. The explanation is given in the video by Michael Egnor below. What Libet found is that brain wave activity was observed before a volitional act (the decision to do something), but no brain wave activity was observed before the decision not to act.

This phenomenon was demonstrated when Libet asked the subjects to choose to push the button and then to choose not to push the button. Again, the subjects were asked to note the exact moment of choosing to act and the exact moment of choosing not to act.

What the experiments showed was that the brain activity was evident just before a decision to do something, but there was no brain activity to be observed before a decision not to do something. Brain activity was evidenced before a decision to act, but no brain activity was seen when a decision was made to refrain from acting.

Wikipedia acknowledges that Libet drew a conclusion from this additional component of the experiment that, while free will may not be involved in the initiation of an action, it may well be involved in the decision not to act.

“While consciousness plays no part in the instigation of volitional acts, Libet suggested that it may still have a part to play in suppressing or withholding certain acts instigated by the unconscious.”

This qualifying conclusion is downplayed in the Wikipedia article, but its significance should not be missed. Neither should we discount Libet’s own conclusions, which don’t match the conclusions drawn by the materialists. In his own words, Libet describes the “Free won’t” or “conscious veto” this way: “

“The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or ‘veto’ the process, so that no motor act occurs.”

Thus, Libet effectively discounts the conclusions drawn by the materialists that we don’t have free will. While the experiments suggest that we may not be acting freely when we choose to do something, they just as legitimately suggest that we are acting freely when we choose not to do something (the conscious veto or free won’t). If lack of free will follows from the one, free will follows from the other.

The Libet experiment is not, then, conclusive evidence of determinism in human behavior. At best, it shows that our actions may be “suggested” to us, but we have the choice, ultimately, whether to act on those “suggestions”.

William Lane Craig also observes, “Libet himself considered his experimental results compatible with the existence of free will.” (See Reasonable Faith) But there is more: Craig observes that the decision to act and consciousness of the decision to act are two different things. Further, lag between the decision and consciousness of the decision being made doesn’t necessarily mean that our decisions are determined (not volitional). He concludes,

“[B]ecause of the finite velocity of neural signals it takes time for the person to become conscious of it. Just as we never see present events because of the finite velocity of light, but only events just slightly past, so we do not have consciousness of our decisions simultaneously with our making them but unnoticeably afterwards. “

The critique (by Angus Menuge) that informs Craig’s observation includes the additional point that we shouldn’t fail to note that the subjects were instructed to initiate the action; thus, there was a prior consciousness of the decision to be made; and then the decision was made. The lag between brain activity, may seems to have more to do with “the finite velocity of neural signals” than determinism.

For more on the subject, consider the observations of nuero-scientist, Michael Egnor:

What do these things have to do with the price of tea in China, as they say – or, more relevantly, faith?

Christians have their determinists too. We call them hyper-Calvinists, but I am reluctant to draw any ultimate conclusions and skeptical of the propriety of drawing hard and fast conclusions from these experiments. I wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions on the basis of these experiments about the relationship between God’s providence and man’s free will, for instance.

But I do find it interesting to consider the experiment as it relates to the subject of sin. The Bible affirms that we have a sin nature that is often called “the flesh” or “the old man”. The Bible also affirms that Satan tempts us, and that we are influenced by “the world”.  The Bible finally affirms that God talks to us through His Holy Spirit. Thus, we have outside influences from various sources – including the “outside” influences within us that include our natural inclinations and the temptation toward sin.

Perhaps, like animals, we have something akin to instinct that drives us if we don’t “take charge” and direct our own way. We also competing influences from God and Satan, and, perhaps, these serve the purpose of breaking into the natural inclinations and giving us pause … literally … so that have opportunity to exert the free will God gave us.

(Remember, God made us in His image. Our ability to exercise will may just be one of the most important qualities in God that have been built into us.)

The Libet experiments suggest we may not have any choice in the urging, prompting, temptation, natural inclination that we feel. But the experiment demonstrates that we have choice in how we react to those influences. We can either exercise the choice or “go with the flow”. Think: “if it feels good, do it”.

We can either be reaction machines, or self-directed agents. We have, at least some, ability to refrain from acting on every impulse. We have some ability to stop the action we are inclined to take and to take a different action, or choose inaction.

In fact, it could be that we exercise our agency most completely and most fully when we choose not to act on the impulses that press in on us.

I haven’t really thought through all the implications of that idea, but it seems to have some application to the way we might view sin and how we fight the sin that so easily entangles us (as Paul puts it). Influences come at us from the “inside” (both consciously and unconsciously), and influences com at us from the outside, but those influences are separate and distinct from us. Modern materialists might miss the distinction.

If we aren’t really paying attention, we might characterize the influences that act on us as our own determinations – the illusion that we have free will (according to determinists) – we think these influences are our own decisions, but they are really “outside” influences acting on us in ways that we fail to distinguish from our own determinations.

Thus, the sinner identifies with the sin and calls it “me”. The sin is me; it’s who I am. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s the outside influences that are prompting us to make certain decisions that we simply “accept” unquestioningly. Maybe, our true selves can only be achieved in arresting those impulses and “choosing” not to be carried along by them by exercising our true free will – the free won’t, the conscious veto.

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