Most of us would like to think that we are independent agents that are in control of our destiny. After all, free-will is one of the unique phenomena that humanity can claim as its own – a fundamental part of our cognitive toolkit. Experimental evidence, in the form of neurological imaging has been interpreted as an attack on mental freedom. Studies that highlight the possibility of unconscious activity preceding the conscious ‘will to act’ seem to almost sink the arguments from non-determinists (libertarians). In this article I plan to outline this controversial research and offer an alternative interpretation; one which does not infringe on our abilities to act independent and of our own accord. I would then like to explore some of the situations where free-will could be ‘missing in action’ and suggest that the frequency at which this occurs is larger than expected.

A seminal investigation conducted by Libet et al (1983) first challenged (empirically) our preconceived notions of free-will. The setup consisted of an electroencephalograph (EEG, measuring overall electrical potentials through the scalp) connected to the subject and a large clock with markings denoting various time periods. Subjects were required to simply flick their wrist whenever a feeling urged them to do so. The researchers were particularly interested in the “Bereitschaftspotential” or readiness potential; a signature EEG pattern of activity that signals the beginning of volitional initiation of movement. Put simply, the RP is an measurable spike in electrical activity from the pre-motor region of the cerebral cortex – a mental preparatory action that put the wheels of movement into action.

Results of this experiment indicated that the RP significantly preceded the subjects’ reported sensations of conscious awareness. That is, the act of wrist flicking seemed to precede conscious awareness of said act. While the actual delay between RP detection and conscious registration of intent to move was small (by our standards), the half a second gap was more than enough to assert that a measurable difference had occurred. Libet interpreted these findings as having vast implications for free-will. It was argued that since electrical activity preceded conscious awareness of the intent to move, free-will to initiate movement (Libet allowed free-will to control movements already in progress, that is, modify their path or act as a final ‘veto’ in allowing or disallowing it to occur) was non-existent.

Many have taken the time to respond to Libet’s initial experiment. Daniel Dennet (in his book Freedom Evolves) provides an apt summary of the main criticisms. The most salient rebuttal comes in the form of signal delay. Consciousness is notoriously slow in comparison to the automated mental processes that act behind the scenes. Take the sensation of pain, for example. Initial stimulation of the nerve cells must firstly reach sufficient levels for an action potential to fire, causing dendrites to flood ions into the synaptic gap. The second-order neuron then receives these chemical messengers, modifying its electrical charge and causing another action potential to fire along its myelinated axon. Now, taking into account the length that this signal must travel (at anywhere from 1-10m/s), it will then arrive at the thalamus, the brain’s sensory ‘hub’ where it is then routed to consciousness. Consequently, there is a measurable gap between the external event and conscious awareness; perhaps made even larger if the signal is small (low pain) or the mind is distracted. In this instance, electrical activity is also taking place and preceding consciousness. Arguably the same phenomenon could be occurring in the Libet experiment.

Delays are inevitably introduced when consciousness is involved in the equation. The brain is composed of a conglomerate of specialised compartments, each communicating with its neighbours and performing its own part of the process in turn. Evolution has drafted brains that act automatic first, and conscious second. Consequently, the automatic gains priority over the directed. Reflexes and instincts act to save our skins long before we are even aware of the problem. Naturally, electrical activity in the brain could thus precede conscious awareness.

In the Libet experiment, the experimental design itself could be misleading. Libet seems to equate his manipulation of consciousness timing with free-will, when in actual fact, the agent has already decided freely that they will follow instructions. What I am trying to say here is that free-will does not have to act as an initiator to every movement; rather it acts to ‘set the stage’ for events and authorises the operation to go ahead. When told to move voluntarily, the agent’s will makes the decision to either comply or rebel. Compliance causes the agent to authorise movement, but the specifics are left up to chance. Perhaps a random input generator (quantum indeterminacy?) provides the catalyst with which this initial order combines to create the RP and eventual movement. Conscious registration of this fact only occurs once the RP is already starting to form.

Looking at things from this perspective, consciousness seems to play a constant game of ‘catch-up’ with the automated processes in our brains. Our will is content to act as a global authority, leaving the more menial and mundane tasks up to our brain’s automated sub-compartments. Therefore, free-will is very much alive and kicking, albeit sometimes taking a back-seat to the unconscious.

We have begun by exploring the nature of free-will and how it links in with consciousness. But what of these unconscious instincts that seek to override our sense of direction and seek to regress humanity back to its more animalistic and primitive ancestry? Such instincts act covertly; sneakily acting whilst our will is otherwise indisposed. Left unabated, the agent that gives themselves completely to urges and evolutionary drives could be said to be devoid of free-will, or at the very least, somewhat lacking compared to more ‘aware’ individuals. Take sexual arousal, for instance. Like it or not, our bodies act on impulse, removing free-will from the equation with simplistic stimulus:response conditioning processes. Try as we might, sexual arousal (if allowed to follow its course) acts immediately upon visual or physical stimulation. It is only when the consciousness kicks into gear and yanks on the leash attached to our unconscious that control is regained. Eventually, with enough training, it may be possible to override these primitive responses, but the conscious effort required to sustain such a project would be psychically draining.

Society also seeks to rob us of our free-will. People are pushed and pulled by group norms, expectations of others and the messages that are constantly bombarding us on a daily basis. Rather than encouraging individualism, modern society is instead urging us to follow trends. Advertising is crafted in a way that the individual may even be fooled into thinking that they are arriving at decisions of their own volition (subliminal messaging), when in actual fact, it is simply tapping into some basic human need for survival (food, sex, shelter/security etc).

Ironically, science itself could also be said to be reducing the amount of free-will we can exert. Scientific progress seeks to make the world deterministic; that is, totally predictable through increasingly accurate theories. While the jury is still out as to whether ‘ultimate’ accuracy in prediction will ever occur (arguably, there is not enough bits of information in the universe with which to construct a computer powerful enough to complete such a task) science is coming closer to a deterministic framework whereby the paths of individual particles can be predicted. Quantum physics is but the next hurdle to be overcome in this quest for omniscience. If the inherent randomness that lies within quantum processes is ever fully explained, perhaps we will be at a place (at least scientifically) to model a individual’s future action based on a number of initial variables.

What could this mean for the nature of free-will? If past experiments are anything to go by (Libet et al), it will rock our sense of self to the core. Are we but behaviouristic automatons as the psychologist Skinner proposed? Delving deeper into the world of the quanta, will we ever be able to realistically model and predict the paths of individual particles and thus the future course of the entire system? Perhaps the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle will spare us from this bleak fate. The indivisible randomness of the quantum wave function could potentially be the final insurmountable obstacle that neurological researchers and philosophers alike will never be able to conquer.

While I am all for scientific progress and increasing the bulk of human knowledge, perhaps we are jumping the gun with this free-will stuff. Perhaps some things are better left mysterious and unexplained. A defeatist attitude if ever I saw one, but it could be justified. After all, how would you feel if you knew every action was decided before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye? Would life even be worth living? Sure, but it would take alot of reflection and a personality that could either deny or reconcile the feelings of unease that such a proposition brings.

They were right; ignorance really is bliss.

Compartmentalisation of consciousness