Libet’s study into free will


It is strange to think about each and every one of our actions as a product of the environmental, biological and psychological influences that we have experienced during and even before our lives. That is to say that it is strange to think that we have no free will. Still, there is debate on this topic. Perhaps we do have free will, perhaps we do not. Perhaps there is no way for us to know. 

One of the most well-known studies that is said to disprove free will is Libet et al (1983), where Libet would hook participants up to a machine that would measure the activity in the brain, while the participants would watch a line go around, waiting for the urge to stop the line. When the urge struck them, the participants would then press a button, the time of the pressing would be recorded and the participant would be encouraged to enter the number that the line was at when they felt the urge. The participant would then continue, repeating this process a couple of times. This would all be recorded and it would be paired with when the electrical signals were detected within the participant’s brain and which part of the brain was sending out these signals. On average, the electric signals began to rise around five-hundred and fifty seconds before the actual button was pressed, while participants said that their ‘awareness of intention’ was only around 200 milliseconds before the actual pressing of the buttons. Libet, and many deniers of free will, took this to mean that our brains make the decision before consciousness does. Daniel Wegner said that the ‘conscious will’ was really just an epiphenomenon, something that is caused by brain events, meaning that conscious thought is just a bi-product of unconscious thought and all of our decisions are made unconsciously, without any input of free will. Many people would agree with drawing this conclusion from this particular study. 

When looking closely at Libet’s study, many people have highlighted the issues with it. Although it is an important study in the debate about free will and determinism, it is also important that we see why it does not work as evidence against free will. Firstly, it relies on the participants own recording of when they intended to press the buzzer. The issue of this is that there may be a delay between when they first felt the urge to press the button, either because they are unable to accurately judge which point on the clock or they simply misremembered the information, either way, subjective judgement is unreliable. Another issue is that the spike in an electrical signal that Libet called the ‘readiness potential’ is at all measured to the participant’s decision to press the button and make the move. 

It is still up for debate whether or not we have free will, and maybe it always will be. But does it really matter? Free will or not, there is one thing that we do have and that is life. Life is important simply because we have it. Perhaps that is an odd thing to say.


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