Thank you for visiting Biola’s Center for Christian Thought. This site is not being updated on a regular basis while we are developing new projects for the future. In the meantime, please continue to enjoy the videos, podcasts and articles currently available on the site.

The Table Video

Tim O'Connor& Thomas M. Crisp

Does Brain Science Disprove Freedom? Part 2

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
September 11, 2012

Tim O’Connor (Baylor University) provides an interpretation of Libet’s neuroscientific research that is consistent with human freedom. He suggests that Libet’s experiments do not prove physical determinism.


So the idea is that free decisions or, apparently, free decisions then are actually being caused by brain processes that happen before we’re ever consciously aware of having decided anything.

Right, and my take on that is that I don’t think these experiments show what Libet suggested that they show. I think, we need to pay attention to certain things about the experiments themselves, to begin with.

First, is that the behavior that your going to perform is something that you have already decided before the experiment is run. You’ve been told, we want to you to decide to wiggle your finger, and that’s not typical, usually when we think of moral choices we make we haven’t pre-decided what it is we’re going to do, and it’s only up to us at the time we shall act. We, typically, have yet to decide what it is, exactly, we’re going to do.

So, that’s one way in which it’s atypical of ordinary decision making. Secondly, another way it’s atypical is that I’m being asked, if I’m the subject in the experiment, to monitor what’s going on in my mind, subjectively, I’m asked to discern an impulse, or urge, or wish to move, and, so, that invites me to take, almost, passive role, an observer role, upon myself. And that, of course, is not what we’re usually doing, usually our attention is directed outward at our behavior, at what our goals are out in the world.

And, that might be relevant, in that, what could well be happening in the Libet experiment is that we’re just passively waiting for some subjective experience, phenomenon, to occur, and it might well be that our prior decision to participate in the experiment slowly evolves, unconsciously, into a building desire, or anticipation, that I’m about to do this, but it might not be a prototype of the kinds of choices that we, ordinarily, make.

A third thing to observe about the experiment is that this so-called readiness potential is just a very generalized buildup of activity, there’s no evidence to think that it is specifically directed at the behavior that we’re about to perform, and, if left unchecked, that it would, enviably, usher in the resulting behavior.

I think there is evidence to suggest that there’s buildup of readiness potential in lots of circumstances where no behavior issues forth, so it’s not a sufficient condition on our making the choice. So, my way of reading the experiment, all it suggests is that there’s a lot of activity going on in our brain, even when we spontaneously decide something, executing actual behavior requires the marshaling of certain forces, the triggering of the of the motor cortex, and there’s preparatory activity when we anticipate we’re about to perform an action, but, that’s not surprising, it’s not, somehow, suggesting we lack autonomy when it comes to the choices that we eventually make.

And, might it be that the preparatory activity is, perhaps, a desire, something like that, I think I’m wanting to move my hand pretty quickly here, or an urge, I’m having the urge to move my hand, which is then followed by a decision, or an intention, and, so, what we’re seeing is this urge or desire.

Yes, actually, it might well be, and, in fact, that’s a very nature interpretation. And, this might be be true often in when we’re deliberating, and we know we need to make an impending decision, there might be slow, first unconsciously, and then we become aware, I think I’m going to decide I’ll go for the chocolate ice cream rather than the vanilla ice cream, I’ve got to make a decision here.

So, yes, it might well be that, but, that doesn’t suggest that the choice itself was already in the cards, it just means that we’re having a building inclination towards making a choice. So that, perhaps, our choices are not utterly spontaneous, in the sense of, just being in neutral and then [fingers snapping] decision, and reflectively, just from a common sense point of view reflecting on our own choices in different types of scenarios in which we make choices, that’s not terrible surprising that that should be so.

Right. Yeah, so one way you can imagine it going is it could happen, I’m having an urge to raise my hand, I’m desiring too, but then I decide not to.


So, might it be that you get the readiness potential, the urge to do something, but you don’t do it. You–

Yes, and, in fact, Libet himself, who was quite disturbed by the result of his experiment, he went on to do subsequent experiments where he told people, just as before, to look for that urge to decide to move your finger, and then suppress it, and then don’t actually, that’s a, kind of, complicated, if you think about it, behavior to execute, and some people reported not being able to do it, but, because you’re supposed to decide to do it, and then cut off your decision before you actually do it, that’s a, kind of, Jujutsu on yourself, sort of, thing.

But, some people reported being able to do this, and, in fact, that’s exactly the result they got, they got this buildup of a readiness potential, and then it tapered back down.

Now, it’s my understanding that, since the original Libet experiments in the 80’s, there’ve been some follow up experiments that have been done in more sophisticated ways. Can you talk at all about the follow up experiments, and do they show us anything different?

Yes, so there’s Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist in London, Hakwan Lau a psychologist/neuroscientist at Columbia University, have both a number of successor studies, as have a variety of other scientists. These are refinements on the original methodology, and, I think, in some cases, they have asked people to make a choice whether to move, not just your right finger, but, also to spontaneously decide whether to move the left or the right finger.

So, now the specific action is not entirely preplanned, and they did find a buildup of readiness potential in this kind of scenario as well, but, I think, some of the same responses we’re already discussed apply to these, so I don’t think the fundamental criticism of the interpretation, the no free will interpretation of the experiments apply in these scenarios as well. And, I should note there have been some recent studies that have gotten somewhat different results from Libet himself, so I gather it’s still a little bit controversial,


just how well-established some his just, purely uninterpreted empirical findings are.