Who’s Responsible for Free Will?

By Riley Zeller-Townson (Atlanta Science Tavern Contributor)


Dilbert comic on the Libet Experiment (click for the original).

Neuroethics is an interdisciplinary field that attempts to understand the ethical implications of neuroscience research.  And within Neuroethics, “Free will” is a battleground. About 30 years ago, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet led a study where the researchers were able to predict when human volunteers would press a button – a fraction of a second before the participants themselves realized they were going to do so. And despite recent suggestions that the scientific method is breaking down, there is an entire cottage industry of scientists replicating Libet’s result and finding more and more effective ways to predict what you are going to be “freely” thinking.

The implications are pretty tremendous – if my conscious mind is just observing a decisions that have already been made, and not participating in those decisions, how is that decision mine? How can I have free will if I am merely watching something else decide? And beyond being a purely academic conundrum, “free will” matters: it’s so fundamental to the way we think about our actions that several studies have shown the disturbing trend of people becoming more selfish and deceitful when they are shown evidence that free will is an illusion.

However, it’s hard to argue that free will is (or isn’t) an illusion, unless you know exactly what “free will” is in the first place. But with so many variants on free will floating around, how do you choose a “correct” definition? Does “free will” mean free from the laws of physics (metaphysical libertarianism)? Free from control by an omnipotent God? Free from mental disease, free from peer pressure, free from our own emotions? And what, exactly, is a “will?” Does it need to be “conscious?” With so many questions surrounding the phrase, it’s easy to see how such a fundamental concept as “free will” could be so hotly debated.

Bust of Aristotle

Did Aristotle have a notion of free will?

One tempting approach would be to just give the definition of the phrase to whoever coined it. However, the origin of “free will,” (or rather, the origin of the notion of “free will”) itself is also under debate. What is clear is that people have been talking about free will for over a millennium, but less than three millennia. Probably. In the early 20th century it was common to presume that folks have always had a notion of free will, an example being in 1923 when W.D. Ross confidently asserted that “Aristotle shared the plain man’s belief in free will.” This was despite Ross’s admission, two pages later, that Aristotle “did not examine the problem very thoroughly, and did not express himself with perfect consistency.” Later scholars took this lack of clear discussion to conclude that Aristotle lacked a notion of will, free or otherwise, altogether.

In1974 Albrecht Dihle argued that St. Augustine, in the 4th century AD, was the first person to put together our “Western notion” of free will. St. Augustine came to an (arguably libertarian) notion of free will as a way to solve the problem of evil: how could a benevolent and omnipotent God allow for a world with evil? Answer: humans are responsible for evil due to their free will (which got tainted when Adam and Eve consumed a particular fruit). Augustine describes this “free will” as a first cause, with no causes before it, meaning God gets none of the blame and gets to remain omnipotent. As St. Augustine generally held that “free decision of the will” required the ability to choose between two different courses of action, he would conceivably look at prediction studies like Libet’s as evidence against humans having “free will.” (After he got over the shock of learning about EEG. And Freud.)

However, if we fast forward to 1997, we find Michael Frede arguing that Dihle was being too restrictive in his definition of “free will,” and that St. Augustine got his idea about what “free will” was from the stoics. And last year Karen Neilsen published an article where she argues that Aristotle (HIM again!) actually developed a notion of will prior to Epictetus, making the point that Frede translates the Greek “prohairesis” as “will” for Epictetus and as “decision” for Aristotle (although Neilsen makes no comment on the ‘free’ aspect). So to understand where ‘will’ came from, we are looking at shifting definitions in ancient Greek. AAGH!

The lesson here is that this concept didn’t emerge suddenly out of the history of the west. “Free will,” whatever it is, was a gradual development over thousands of years, with input from several schools of classic Greek thought, as well as Jewish and Christian traditions. Perhaps then, instead of thinking of “free will” as a single well-defined idea, it should be thought of as an entire lineage of ideas. If this is the case, neuroscientists, science writers, and the public at large need to be very cautious when asserting that “free will is an illusion” is a scientifically valid hypothesis. If neuroscience wants to make points on “free will,” it needs to be both more specific as to what variant of “free will” it refers to, and more broad in the variants of “free will” it entertains.

Riley Zeller-Townson is a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Steve Potter’s Neurolab. His research interests include neural computation, applications of neuroscience to artificial intelligence, and electrophysiology tools. Riley is also a member of the art-science collaboration Neurotica, as well as a Neuroethics Scholar at Emory University and a contributor to their Neuroethics Blog.


  1. librarypat says

    I have often questioned the “free will” theory and how it works. Everything we do is influenced by many factors. I think whether we do something freely of our own choice or not, we must take responsibility for it. We can’t excuse behavior by blaming it on some past experience or influence. It may explain the choice or behavior, but other people had the same influences and didn’t make the same choice.

    • Riley Zeller-Townson says

      excellent point- a lot of the “free will” debate seemingly attempts to blame the entire universe for every action we take, and destroy all notions of personal responsibility. Which makes sense, especially if historically “free will” has been tied to “moral responsibility,” as in the case with St. Augustine. Note that there are good reasons for associating “free will” with “responsibility,” however- are you responsible for what you do when a Bad Guy holds a gun to your head and threatens to kill you (or worse) unless you give him your family’s entire savings? Probably not as responsible as if you just gave him the money as a “free” decision. Of course, having a traumatic childhood isn’t the same as having a gun to the head, but we might think of those two points as lying along a spectrum.

  2. says

    I like the point that free will isn’t a “a single well-defined idea” but an “entire lineage of ideas.” Following on that, scientists, philosophers, and theologians certainly all have different conceptions of (and debates around) free will, and out of them, scientists have the least clearly defined. Perhaps that has to do with a lack of understanding of consciousness? There’s an interview in The Atlantic with Christof Koch (who you’re probably aware, who worked with Francis Crick on the neurobiology of consciousness) in which he says: “Until recently, science has neglected to incorporate the fact of consciousness into its theories. If science wants a complete understanding of everything in the universe, it has to include consciousness.” I’d be interested to hear your thoughts – here’s the link: http://bit.ly/SSCoH5.

    • Riley Zeller-Townson says

      Thanks Patrick! I agree that the scientific understanding of consciousness is in it’s infancy, and I think that Koch’s work in that area is quite impressive. I think there are versions of “free will” that require the “will-er” to be conscious, specifically of what they are “willing.” These would be the types of “free will” that the Libet experiment suggests don’t exist (and the type that the Stoic Epictetus seemed to be talking about). However, broader definitions of “free will” could avoid this- for instance, if we include those deep dark (subconscious) Freudian drives as part of the “will.”

  3. Giorgio says

    The more I think of Libet’s experiment the more I am perplexed as to its significance. I hardly see how the fact that something in the brain ‘already’ happened when I decide to push the botton means that it was not my/ my conscious/my free decision. In fact, by this reasoning we forget the relevant fact that the guy, by accepting to sit down and partecipating in the experiment, already ‘consciously decided’ to push the botton. So, if the experiment is taken to show anything, it would have to say something about what happens in the brain before the guy says: ‘ok, let’s do it’. The path -I mean- is not: brain-signals —> decision to push now, BUT: decision to push in a while –>brain signals–>decision to push now.

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