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Does your brain make your decisions before you do?

Published: 20 January 2018 (GMT+10)
iStockphotopuppet-brain

In recent months, we have received several inquiries about neuroscience research that supposedly undermines the concept of free will. The experiments in question involved brain scans that could predict people’s conscious choices before they were aware of choosing. Based on these studies, some have claimed that the brain does the choosing for us, and what we perceive as our free decisions are really just part of some deterministic chain of events initiated by merely physical causes. Today’s feedback addresses this issue.

Caleb L., from the U.S., wrote:

What are CMI’s stances on the research that Benjamin Libet and John Haynes have conducted? Such as this: [Link deleted per feedback rules.] Obviously we must believe in free will because we are Christians. The implications of their research kind of scares me but I am sure you guys have an explanation. Personally the thing that makes me question it, is that the experiments were done in a controlled environment and the people that were experimented on knew they had to make a decision, paving the way for your subconscious mind to take over. What is CMI’s thoughts on these experiments that were done? The implications of the research would conflict with Adam and Eve’s free choice and thus creation unless the research is debunked.

Keaton Halley of CMI–US responds:

Hi Caleb,

Thanks for the opportunity to address this, because others have raised the concern as well. Plus, you can find articles on this all over the internet and in atheist blogs.

I do think it is important to affirm that people were created by God as agents who make real choices and have genuine goals. We are not passive cogs in a machine whose decisions are determined by physical processes alone. The Bible indicates that we are body-soul composites, and our souls have an influence on the physical world (see Does the soul violate physics?). Also, rationality and moral accountability seem to require the commonsense notion of free will at some level.

But there’s really nothing to fear from these experiments. You suggested we might need to ‘debunk’ them, but I will argue that there is no need to challenge the research per se, only the interpretations placed on it.

First, here is an overview of the studies. Several experiments, conducted by Libet, Haynes, and others, monitored the brain activity of volunteers while they performed a simple decision-making task. The task involved carefully noting the precise time they believed they made a decision to push a button, and then pushing the button. The researchers found that they could correctly predict the decisions and actions by observing the brain activity that occurred beforehand. According to the more recent studies, the predictions were made based on brain activity that occurred as much as 7–10 seconds prior to the self-reported decision. So the sequence of events was:

A. Brain activity that could predict the result
B. Time gap of 7–10 seconds
C. Reported Decision
D. Time gap of less than 1 second
E. Button press

News reports based on this research contained claims like: “You may think you decided to read this story – but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it.”1 And, in the link you provided, Haynes himself is quoted as saying, “there’s not much space for free will to operate.”2

But such conclusions do not follow from the evidence. Here are seven reasons why these experimental results do not undermine human freedom.

  1. It is possible that there is a lag time between making a decision and becoming aware of it.

    The reported decision in step C indicates an awareness of a decision, but awareness is not the same as the decision itself. The events of deciding and becoming aware may well be separated in time. This means that a decision could have been made at some point prior to step C, so some of the brain activity could be downstream from this decision. That is not to say that I think the lag time between a true determination to act and one’s awareness is likely to be 7 or more seconds. For other reasons I’ll touch on, it could be significantly less.

  2. Making a decision may not take place in an instant, but involve a process.

    It could certainly be the case that people deliberate or even subconsciously move toward a decision before the point where they eventually act on it. Philosophers distinguish between desiring to act, deciding to act, and exercising active power.3 These steps may take time, which suggests that the brain activity could correlate with the earlier parts of the process. Early brain activity might indeed strongly indicate what we will do, even if the ‘point of no return’ in the decision-making process has not necessarily been reached.

  3. Brain activity is not the same as brain causation.

    The headline of the article you referenced begins, “Brain makes decisions … ”. But why think the physical brain is in charge? That conclusion is not due to the experimental results alone, but due to the (naturalistic) assumption that only physical things have causal power, so that all our decisions ultimately must be traced back to some physical cause.

    But the Bible indicates that humans have an immaterial component that interacts with the physical world. If the immaterial minds of the volunteers used their brains to control their fingers to push buttons, then it’s not true that the brain initiated some deterministic chain of events. The people freely did it.

  4. The predictive success based on brain scans was not 100%.

    The researchers admitted that the predictions didn’t always come true. Some studies said they only did so around 60% of the time, and even the studies with the highest accuracy only claimed they were 80–90% accurate. This definitively proves that a final, irreversible ‘decision’ was not really yet made in step A. It may be that a preliminary decision was made then, but the mind was still deliberating or retained power to change that decision, which undermines the deterministic conclusion.

  5. In a 2007 study by Brass and Haggard, it was found that even after a self-reported ‘decision’, people still had the power to change their minds before they performed the act.4

    This shows that even the self-reported ‘decision’ (step C) wasn’t the true, final decision at all. Some have humorously called the power to veto one’s own intention ‘free won’t’. So, even if all the supposed decision-making up to this point had been deterministic, the power of free won’t during step D leaves room for an agent’s will, and thus determinism has not been demonstrated. Brass and Haggard identified certain brain activity that is associated with the veto process but, again, brain activity does not equal brain causation.

  6. Lack of freedom in one area wouldn’t prove a total lack of freedom.

    Even if these experiments did prove that physical causes alone were responsible for the outcomes, the setting is somewhat artificial and limited, as you mentioned. In more complex, real-life decisions, we could have freedom even if in these experimental circumstances we do not. Atheists like Daniel Dennett have made this very point.5

  7. The argument against free will is self-refuting.

    For those who deny free will, how did they come to that conclusion? Through mental deliberation about the implications of these experiments? Well, if there is no free will, then all their mental deliberations were really a consequence of non-rational physical processes. Without freedom, they did not reason; they just reacted—the same way their atoms always would under these conditions. But if non-rational forces alone are responsible for all our thoughts, this would undercut the basis for trusting our own conclusions. Thus, we cannot argue against free will without presupposing it. For more, see the Related Articles section below.

I hope that helps. Thanks for getting in touch.

References and notes

  1. Keim, B., Brain scanners can see your decisions before you make them, 13 April 2008, wired.com/2008/04/mind-decision. Return to text.
  2. Smith, K., Brain makes decisions before you even know it, Nature news online, 11 April 2008, nature.com/news/2008/080411/full/news.2008.751.html. Return to text.
  3. Moreland, J.P. and Craign, W.L., Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2nd edition, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2017, p. 313. Return to text.
  4. Brass, M., and Haggard, P., To Do or Not to Do: The neural signature of self-control, Journal of Neuroscience 27(34):9141–9145, 22 August 2007, jneurosci.org/content/27/34/9141. Return to text.
  5. Hendricks, S., Free Will or Free Won’t? Neuroscience on the choices we can (and can’t) make, bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/free-will-or-free-wont-what-neuroscience-says-about-the-choices-we-can-and-cant-make. Return to text.

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