January 19th, 2018

Perhaps humans don’t possess free will

By Letter to the Editor on January 11, 2018.

Re: “Obeying the Gospel is life changing,” Jan. 2

The above-mentioned letter alludes to the importance of free will in religious thinking.

In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a researcher in the physiology department of the University of California, San Francisco researched neural activity and sensation thresholds. He discovered that conscious decisions to act were preceded by an unconscious buildup of electrical activity within the brain as long as 300 milliseconds before subjects reported the first awareness of conscious will to act. (Libet, Benjamin et al. (1983). “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential) — The Unconscious Initiation of a Freely Voluntary Act.” Brain. 106: 623—642.) The first paragraph of the abstract of this paper follows.

“The recordable cerebral activity (readiness-potential, RP) that precedes a freely voluntary, fully endogenous motor act was directly compared with the reportable time (W) for appearance of the subjective experience of ‘wanting’ or intending to act. The onset of cerebral activity clearly preceded by at least several hundred milliseconds the reported time of conscious intention to act.”

Libet’s results were obtained with an electroencephalogram. They were expanded upon in 2008 by researchers who used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the same phenomenon. (Soon, Chun Siong et al. (2008). “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.” Nature Neuroscience 11, 543—545.) The abstract of this paper follows.

“There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 seconds before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.”

The mounting evidence that human beings do not possess free will is very compelling.

Fred Lewis

Medicine Hat

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