Study tackles neuroscience claims to have disproved 'free will'

March 12, 2018 by Matt Shipman, North Carolina State University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

For several decades, some researchers have argued that neuroscience studies prove human actions are driven by external stimuli—that the brain is reactive and free will is an illusion. But a new analysis of these studies shows that many contained methodological inconsistencies and conflicting results.

"Score one for skepticism of claims that neuroscience has proven—or disproven—any metaphysical position," says Veljko Dubljevic, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of philosophy at NC State who specializes in research on the neuroscience of ethics and the ethics of neuroscience and technology.

"The problem is that neuroscientists in training are being taught these studies provide definitive proof of the absence of free will, and instructors aren't being careful about looking at the evidence that supports the claims that are made," Dubljevic says. "Teaching uncritical thinking like this in science courses is both unscientific and socially dangerous."

At issue are studies like those pioneered by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, which assessed brain activity in study participants who were asked to perform a specific task. Libet found preceded a person's actions before the person decided to act. Later studies, using various techniques, claimed to have replicated this basic finding.

But in the first-ever qualitative review of these studies, researchers are finding that the results are far from conclusive. The review analyzed 48 studies, ranging from Libet's landmark 1983 paper through 2014.

"We found that interpretation of study results appears to have been driven by the metaphysical position the given author or authors subscribed to—not by a careful analysis of the results themselves," Dubljevic says. "Basically, those who opposed free will interpreted the results to support their position, and vice versa."

The researchers also found significant variability across studies. For example, a subset of studies that actually looked at where activity was taking place in the brain, and whether it was related to will (or intent to complete a task), often found conflicting results.

"Meanwhile, the journal articles that drew the most forceful conclusions often didn't even assess the neural activity in question - which means their conclusions were based on speculation," Dubljevic says. "It is crucial to critically examine whether the methods used actually support the claims being made."

This is important because what people are told about free will can affect their behavior.

"Numerous studies suggest that fostering a belief in determinism influences behaviors like cheating," Dubljevic says. "Promoting an unsubstantiated belief on the metaphysical position of non-existence of free will may increase the likelihood that people won't feel responsible for their actions if they think their actions were predetermined."

And this isn't a problem solely within the neuroscience community. Earlier work by Dubljevic and his collaborators found challenges in how this area of research has been covered by the press and consumed by the public.

"To be clear, we're not taking a position on free will," Dubljevic says. "We're just saying neuroscience hasn't definitively proven anything one way or the other."

The paper, "The impact of a landmark study on free will: A qualitative analysis of articles using Libet et al.'s methods," is published in the American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience.

Explore further: 'Moral enhancement' technologies are neither feasible nor wise, study says

More information: Victoria Saigle et al, The Impact of a Landmark Neuroscience Study on Free Will: A Qualitative Analysis of Articles Using Libet and Colleagues' Methods, AJOB Neuroscience (2018). DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2018.1425756

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5 comments

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Mike42440
not rated yet Mar 12, 2018
People who do not believe in free will are sheep waiting for the slaughter. Just my opinion, mind you.
MrVibrating
not rated yet Mar 12, 2018
Free will invokes a causality violation. Will is the product of factors beyond its own realm of influence, and cannot be regarded as a 'first cause'. Acausal determinants are a contradiction in terms.

We should teach the truth, but emphasise that in all practical concerns, it makes no difference - unsocial behaviours still need disincentivising, and society needs protection from them where such deterrents fail. In short, we still have to take, and be held to, personal responsibility, regardless of the vagaries of its chain of causation.
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Mar 12, 2018
[1] The flaw in the argument generally is the failure to even mention what is to be evaluated as 'free'. As consciousness is yet to be defined in any consistent or generally agreed upon manner, we can not simply evoke 'consciousness' and ask about that. The assumption that free will is opposed by determinism, a category error to start with, has never been established in any consistent way.

The opposite of 'freedom' is 'constraint', not 'determinism'. A designer of a completely deterministic computer can program in freedom: that is not a problem in principle or fact. The opposite of freedom is constraint. So what constrains the 'will'? We now have to specify whether we are referring to the entire person in which physical abilities, morals and laws can be included in 'constraints' and therefore limit the Freedom of the Will, to the brain, the mind, or to some definition of consciousness.
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Mar 12, 2018
[2] We also must consider the temporal element. Although a person may be unaware of a decision made rapidly in real time (eg by Libert), all the responses to the stimuli may well have been decided on consciously at various times in the past making the decision making entirely a result of consciously mediated processes, though not in the immediate moment.

Thus the 'free will' arguments are ill conceived, short sighted, poorly framed and skewed by anthropomorphic assumptions that appear to blind the discussants from what should be blindingly obvious in favour of pseudo religious arguments in all but the usage of the word 'soul'.
VOR_
not rated yet Mar 15, 2018
The most important thing I can emphasize is, the lack of emphasis on critical thinking in general, in 'all' disciplines. But especially in psychology and sociology, since they are the closest we have to 'sciences of wisdom and morality'. "Teaching uncritical thinking like this in science courses is both unscientific and socially dangerous.", is just one example. And frankly, the discussion/debate about 'freewill' etc seems mostly insubstantial, tiresome, contrived...a product of a lack of critical thought itself. An irrelevant item, like so many. A sort of 'pop metaphysics'. But then, I've yet to see anything fitting the label 'metaphysics' that was not utter BS. Morality, and psychological health/healthiness living/societal structure can and should be more clearly objectified. This is one of the key ways our level of civilization is limited. And that can only happen through greater emphasis on critical thought across all subjects.

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