Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Yay for free will

It indeed seems that those who interpreted the original Libet experiments as having effectively rendered all humans (and animals) into deterministically driven, quasi automatons were doing some unwarranted extrapolation.   (The Wiki article on Libet says that he himself did not discount the "veto" role of consciousness.)  But here's the latest experiment:
Using state-of-the-art measurement techniques, the researchers tested whether people are able to stop planned movements once the readiness potential for a movement has been triggered.

"The aim of our research was to find out whether the presence of early brain waves means that further decision-making is automatic and not under conscious control, or whether the person can still cancel the decision, i.e. use a 'veto'," explains Prof. Haynes. As part of this study, researchers asked to enter into a 'duel' with a computer, and then monitored their brain waves throughout the duration of the game using electroencephalography (EEG). A specially-trained computer was then tasked with using these EEG data to predict when a subject would move, the aim being to out-maneuver the player. This was achieved by manipulating the game in favor of the computer as soon as brain wave measurements indicated that the player was about to move.

If subjects are able to evade being predicted based on their own brain processes this would be evidence that control over their actions can be retained for much longer than previously thought, which is exactly what the researchers were able to demonstrate. "A person's decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early . They are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement," says Prof. Haynes. "Previously people have used the preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. Our study now shows that the freedom is much less limited than previously thought. However, there is a 'point of no return' in the decision-making process, after which cancellation of movement is no longer possible." Further studies are planned in which the will investigate more complex decision-making

1 comment:

John said...

The trouble with all these debates is no-one clearly defines what we mean by "free will". Are we completely free? Are than any determinants that influence our decisions? Nothing in this universe is a free agent so if we embrace free will as most people use that term we must be dualists. I don't have an intrinsic problem with dualism because I'm agnostic, there may well be some aspect of our thinking that is completely free but I don't see that any experiment can prove that.

So I'm not particularly interested in the question of free will because no-one proves a precise definition. What I am interested in is how we make decisions. That is an empirical agenda not a philosophical one.