Consciousness, decision making, and “free” will

Philosophy as a Way of Life
5 min readFeb 7, 2022
[image: part of the experimental design followed by Maoz et al. in the paper discussed in this essay]

“Free” will, understood as a will that is independent of causality, does not exist. And it does not exist, contra popular misperception, not because we live in a deterministic universe. Indeed, my understanding is that physicists still haven’t definitively settled whether we do or not. Free will doesn’t exist because it is an incoherent concept, at least in a universe governed by natural law and where there is no room for miracles.

Consider two possibilities: either we live in a deterministic cosmos where cause and effect are universal, or randomness (of the quantum type) is fundamental and the appearance of macroscopic causality results from some sort of (not at all well understood) emergent phenomena.

If we live in a deterministic universe then every action that we initiate is the result of a combination of external (i.e., environmental) and internal (i.e., neurobiological) causes. No “free” will available.

If we live in a fundamentally random universe then at some level our actions are indeterminate, but still not “free,” because that indetermination itself is still the result of the laws of physics. At most, such actions are random.

Either way, no free will.

That said, we obviously do make decisions, sometimes very sophisticated ones. Indeed, biologically speaking we are extremely complex and efficient decision making machines. Or, to put it as psychologists do, we have volition. It is, therefore, a philosophically and scientifically fascinating inquiry to try to understand how we make decisions.

Which brings me to one of the most famous neurobiological experiments in this field: Benjamin Libet’s alleged demonstration, back in the 1980’s, that there is no “free will.” From what I have just said, we should immediately rephrase what Libet was doing not as research on free will, but inquiry into the neurological mechanisms of volition.

Here is what Libet did. He asked his subjects to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he was measuring a then relatively recently discovered property of their brains known as the readiness potential (RP, for short). The RP is a buildup of electrical signal that was known to precede physical action.

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at