The Libet Experiments and How to Maximize Free Will
What do Libet's Free Will experiments mean for our lives?
The experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet in the early 1980s have caused quite the stir. I vividly remember how even in the late 90s and early 2000s, the media was hammering home the message that these experiments somehow proved that Free Will was an illusion—just as those zeitgeist-enslaved philosophers and scientists had been saying all along.
At the very least, this interpretation has been given much room and put those who challenged it on the defensive.
However, the “no free will” interpretation of the Libet experiments amounts to little more than an opinion, and an unsophisticated one at that. There is a lot more to it than meets the eye, with direct and practical consequences for our lives.
But first, let’s give a brief overview of the Libet experiment.
Short Summary of the Libet Experiments
Libet gave participants of his experiments a simple task, while measuring their brain activity: they had to decide to flex a finger whenever they wished, and note the position on a fast-moving clock at the precise moment they took the decision.
The result was that the brain showed activity at least 400ms before the participants became aware of their “decision making.”
Here’s a diagram showing what’s going on:
“RP” stands for “Readiness Potential,” that is, the supposed build-up in brain activity before the decision to act and the subsequent action. What we see is that this brain activity starts before the participants became aware of their intention to flex the finger.
The results have led the no-Free-Will crowd to exclaim, “see, everything is driven by your brain, and you taking decisions is just an illusion!”
However, this seems to be a typical case of taking something very specific and isolated out of context and then drawing conclusions based on existing biases.
First, Libet himself thought that there is still enough time between our awareness of intention and the action itself for us to “veto” the decision and stop the movement. This would leave free will intact: remember that even the tiniest bit of actual free will leads to the philosophical position of what is called libertarian free will, that is, genuine free will with the power to really cause something.
Second, critics of the “no Free Will” interpretation have pointed out that the process of our decision-making is actually much more complex and involves the generation of different alternatives before we pick out one of those. This would explain the brain activity before our awareness of intention: we begin thinking about flexing that finger, possibly weighing different times when we should do so, before we actually decide to go for it. This “potential” builds up and becomes detectable about half a second before we “shoot.” Heck, it seems that just by introspection, we can literally feel that this is the case—how, tasked with lifting a finger at random times, things start moving in our mind until we decide to execute, with the built-up right before we close the deal rising exponentially.
I might also add that even if we accept that we literally make the decision after the build-up, I can’t see a reason why such things should not take the form of a blurry occurrence in time instead of an imaginary, abstract, dimensionless point on a scale: for all we know, we attract a potential, which shows up on the brain scan, but only actualize that potential a little later.
Alternatively, to leave the safe space of respectable academic orthodoxy entirely, there might even be retro-causation involved: we take a decision, and by doing so, something which is slightly in the past becomes a logical necessity, and therefore actualized.
All that being said, there’s a more straight-forward interpretation of the experiment that I find very useful.
A Better Interpretation of Libet
A slightly different take comes from Christopher Langan—one that I find very interesting and which may have important implications for our lives.
He argues that decision-making might involve different layers, where an overarching decision might be made, which is then split up and executed in different sub-decisions. Such sub-decisions may be taken on an unconscious level, but reported to our conscious awareness so that we still have the option to stop it: to execute our veto power. In other words, when we take overarching decisions (or follow an overarching instruction), we relegate the execution of the sub-decisions to our subconsciousness, which then makes us aware of those along the way, if we are lucky.
In the Libet experiments, the overarching plan is dictated to the participant by the experimenter: look at the watch, take decisions, note times. The participant then decides to follow these instructions and build a plan in his or her mind. After that, the plan is simply executed. And so, what appear to be individual decisions to flex the finger are really part of this bigger plan, and these are simply brought to the participant’s awareness to enable veto power.
The process might look something like this:
In that picture, the conscious mind can delegate a whole set of tasks to the subconscious mind, which then periodically reports an action it takes so that the conscious mind can still stop it. In many cases, what we perceive to be individual decisions are in fact actions executed on autopilot, but we can switch the autopilot off to interrupt the program.
There are two implications:
What we take to be our decisions might actually depend on overarching plans and decisions.
But even then, we still retain a veto power which enables us to change things along the way.
How to Maximize Free Will and Get on the Right Track
Now, if we take that model to the extreme, our daily decisions could be seen as little more than an awareness of us executing plans we have made in the past. Worse yet, it might not actually have been us who have made these plans: perhaps they were instilled in us via our upbringing, influences from the media and others around us, and they may even depend on genetics to an extent.
That is, while we do have Free Will in principle, in practice it might be severely limited.
How do we change that situation?
Since we cannot control our subconsciousness directly (that would be a contradiction in terms), we are left with two levers: our overarching plan or “story,” and our veto power. Let’s talk about veto power first.
The default way of doing things is to not use our veto power, because doing so costs energy. We all have our standard ways of behavior, our ingrained habits of thought and action, our fears and anxieties, and so on. Normally, those pretty much run the show.
Yes, we are aware of our “decisions,” except that it is damn difficult to decide otherwise.
This is obvious when we think of various addictions, from compulsive smartphone usage to drugs, from eating sweets to binge-watching TV shows, from video games to compulsive clubbing. Whatever it is we are addicted to, breaking the urge to give in when it hits us often seems almost impossible. But this might hold true for all kinds of behavior and thinking patterns where it is less obvious than in the case of addiction. (And even with addictions, it is remarkable how we can go into denial and pretend that we could always end them if only we decided to do so…)
The good news is that using our veto power makes it easier to do so every time we pull it off, and across all areas of life—just like training our muscles in the gym makes us stronger each time we practice, and that strength is then available for all kinds of tasks.
The first order of business, then, is to start small and practice stopping our default behavior in its tracks in situations where it isn’t really difficult, but difficult enough for us to feel some resistance. Whether it’s resisting the urge to watch the next episode, have that third piece of chocolate, refresh our social media feed for the 10th time… whatever it is, even the smallest victory means progress.
That way, we can slowly extract ourselves from the “overarching plans” that we just seem to follow, whether we have actually come up with them in the past or they have been imposed on us. If we want to do so, of course. Motivation is key.
But we can also attack the overarching plan directly. Keep in mind though that such plans might not only be minor sequences, such as in the Libet experiment, but whole life stories spanning decades. So don’t expect quick results.
We can go about it in different ways. Perhaps the most important one is to absorb helpful and true knowledge on a daily basis. This constantly reminds us that different options are available and why they might be preferable. In the long run, absorbing the good, the true, and the beautiful can bend the original program to the point that it breaks and gives rise to new, more healthy and better “overarching decisions.”
The model of Free Will described here also explains why positive affirmations can be so effective. Over time, these can directly impact the big stories we tell ourselves and which dominate our lives. For instance, if I suffer from anxiety, whenever it is triggered I can tell myself, “I have trust in the life process. It will make things alright. I trust that.” This is also a good example of combining the veto power with directly going after the overarching story: instead of freaking out (default behavior), I stop it in its tracks, and via a positive affirmation, I change my overarching story, which is the root cause of the automatic “decision” to freak out in the first place.
Whatever prayer is and does besides that, we can also recognize here that at the very least, daily prayer can have a profound effect on our background program, our default story, our overarching volition—on that which controls our lives. In that sense, prayer could be seen as the conscious attempt to bring our life under the influence and guidance of a new spirit: a leap away from the unconscious and fragmented state where we just perceive different bits and pieces, calling them “decisions” while being powerless to do anything different, towards an integrated state with the cosmos where we are aware of all aspects of our experience and align ourselves deeply with something very different, and much better.
Perhaps we are all, in a sense, participants in an experiment, not unlike the participants in Libet’s experiments. And although it might cost energy and needs a patient grinding down of behavioral and intellectual patterns, we always have the power to tell the experimenter: no thanks, I won’t do it your way. There is something better out there with which I can align myself, and which, instead of controlling my life, can inspire me, integrate me, and lift me up so that I become more than a passive something that just gets the occasional report.
Free Will is real, but like everything else of value, it doesn’t come for free: let’s work on it.
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Diagram and clock taken from this site, which also gives a very helpful overview of some of the arguments against the no-Free-Will-interpretation of Libet.
There are also general issues with brain scans: just because something “lights up the strongest” in a certain brain region doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the cause, or plays the crucial role in the process. Think of a radio: were you to draw a heat map of a radio in operation, the final stage of the amplifier would “light up” because the currents are strongest there; however, the music literally plays in the initial, low-current stages—in fact, the music is in the electromagnetic field which induces a very low current in the antenna—almost undetectable with a heat sensor, and definitely undetectable with one calibrated to the high power of the final stages!
See Christopher M. Langan, The Art of Knowing: Expositions of Free Will and Selected Essays, Mega Foundation Press, 2021, p. 11ff
Langan also argues that there might be epistemological problems with testing his hypothesis: if you design an experiment and tell your subjects what they should do, you will never know whether their “decisions” just depend on their overarching decision to participate. But even if you could monitor their brain activity while they go about their daily lives, by what criteria could you distinguish between genuine free will decisions and secondary decisions that were merely relegated to the subconsciousness? This is especially true in light of the problems raised in the previous footnote.
This picture also jives well with what I wrote in my previous essay about Free Will. A lot of things seem to play out somewhat automatically, but there are crucial junctures on our way we have to put all our effort into changing trajectory: these junctures could be seen as aligning with new “overarching plans”, which then play themselves out.
The Libet experiment explains the form of propaganda we've been seeing among planted agents in the Medical Freedom Movement! These agents get ahead of peak readiness potential and coopt the action that would otherwise gain steam to effectively push back against tyranny!
Thank you for this moment of education.
Update: I made your lesson the foundation of my most recent article:
Whether it’s resisting the urge to watch the next episode, have that third piece of chocolate, refresh our social media feed for the 10th time… whatever it is, even the smallest victory means progress.
This is key. For a lot of people, these little actions don’t feel like enough. But culture is built up by the actions of many individuals. Detoxifying our own lives is the first step towards creating a truly free society.