While the problem of free will is as old as ancient Greece, modern neuroscience is breaking new ground with the debate, while drawing into question our deepest notions of consciousness, morality and society.
In 1980, Benjamin Libet conducted a study in which he asked people to flex their wrists at random, while he read their brain activity. Libet recorded the time in which they thought of acting and compared it with his data. His results demonstrated that the subjects' brains made decisions milliseconds before they did. This led many scientists to believe that people’s decisions occur without free will – a position known as determinism.
Skeptics of Libet's study argue that it only deals with decisions on an impulse level and that other more complex decisions, such as which career to pursue or who to marry, could still be up to free will. This view reflects the classic libertarian position that at least some of our actions are freely made.
The free will debate has many philosophical and moral implications. For one, if people don’t have free will, it follows they are not responsible for their actions - criminal or otherwise. Determinists would argue that although choice is an illusion, prisons and rehabilitation centers are still necessary to control and improve society. Their opponents would counter that responsibility is essential to our concept of justice and without it society would likely fail to function.
Whether you’re a determinist, a libertarian, or somewhere in-between (see compatibilism) the free will debate remains one of the most engaging and consequential topics of our time.
Dive into the debate with this gallery of brains and neurons.
- How Free is Your Will? Scientificamerican.com
- Do We Have Free Will? Psychologytoday.com