Free Will

Tom Shipka

As I collapse into my recliner to watch a network newscast, I recall the ones available, and then, without coercion, I consciously select the one I want. In other words, my choice is free. Or is it? Let's see if an experiment will tell us. Suppose that Sue, a scientist, instructs me to look at pictures on a screen and to press a button with my right or left hand within five seconds after a sailboat appears. Suppose, further, that while I'm doing this, Sue uses a neuroimaging device to track the activity in the prefrontal cortex of my brain. After the sailboat appears a dozen times, Sue shows me that brain waves in the two hemispheres revealed which button I would press before I consciously chose to do so.

In fact, variations of this experiment have been performed hundreds of times by dozens of researchers with similar results. (1) And what does this research tell us?

According to many scientists, it tells us that free will is an illusion. Among them is Sam Harris, a neuroscientist. Harris writes:

Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this 'decision' and believe that you are in the process of making it. (2)

Thus, for Harris, my choice to watch Diane Sawyer on ABC last night was triggered by unconscious events in my brain beyond my control. Indeed, all our choices, he insists, are the product of "background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control." (3)

What are we to make of this? Here are three points that we should consider.

  • Firstly, the research done so far deals with simple choices covering a few seconds. Many of our choices, however, are complex and drawn-out. They often involve careful reflection on options, evaluation of likely results, and sometimes confusion, stress, and reassessment. The research on simple choices may not apply to complex ones.
  • Secondly, as philosopher Alfred Mele argues, even if an action begins before we are conscious of it, our conscious self may still retain the power to "approve, modify, or ... cancel ... the action." (4) In this connection, all of us can probably recall instances when we suppressed urges toward anger or violence.
  • Thirdly, whether choices are free or not, people need to be held accountable. If behavior reflects nature and nurture, as science tells us, then we must structure an environment which promotes civility. This means three things: punishment of wrongdoers to deter them and others from crime; rehabilitation of those wrongdoers for whom there is hope; and long-term imprisonment, or perhaps death, for those hardened criminals for whom there is no hope. A serial murderer must be stopped whether he acts freely or compulsively. (5)

Finally, if the sharp exchanges about these issues in the scientific and philosophical literature today are a clue, there is no end in sight to the centuries-old debate over free will versus determinism.


  1. Benjamin Libet pioneered this research in the 1980s. For information about Libet and subsequent research, see Sam Harris, Free Will, Free Press, 2012, pp. 8-9, and pp. 69-76, and the "Neuroscience of Free Will," Wikipedia, pp. 1-15.
  2. Harris, p. 9.
  3. Harris, p. 5.
  4. Wikipedia, p. 8. The power of the conscious self to veto an unconscious impulse or urge is sometimes called "free won't." Libet, arguably the first to link conscious choices with unconscious causes experimentally, claimed that the conscious self retains this power. Sam Harris, however, challenges it.
  5. Harris, a determinist, concedes the need for deterrence, rehabilitation, and, to some extent, retribution. See pp. 56 et ff.

© 2012 Tom Shipka