Study Tackles Neuroscience Claims to Have Disproved ‘Free Will’

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For several decades, some researchers have argued that neuroscience studies prove human actions are driven by external stimuli – that the brain is reactive and free will is an illusion. But a new analysis of these studies shows that many contained methodological inconsistencies and conflicting results.

“Score one for skepticism of claims that neuroscience has proven – or disproven – any metaphysical position,” says Veljko Dubljevic, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of philosophy at NC State who specializes in research on the neuroscience of ethics and the ethics of neuroscience and technology.

“The problem is that neuroscientists in training are being taught these studies provide definitive proof of the absence of free will, and instructors aren’t being careful about looking at the evidence that supports the claims that are made,” Dubljevic says. “Teaching uncritical thinking like this in science courses is both unscientific and socially dangerous.”

At issue are studies like those pioneered by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, which assessed brain activity in study participants who were asked to perform a specific task. Libet found brain activity preceded a person’s actions before the person decided to act. Later studies, using various techniques, claimed to have replicated this basic finding.

But in the first-ever qualitative review of these studies, researchers are finding that the results are far from conclusive. The review analyzed 48 studies, ranging from Libet’s landmark 1983 paper through 2014.

“We found that interpretation of study results appears to have been driven by the metaphysical position the given author or authors subscribed to – not by a careful analysis of the results themselves,” Dubljevic says. “Basically, those who opposed free will interpreted the results to support their position, and vice versa.”

The researchers also found significant variability across studies. For example, a subset of studies that actually looked at where activity was taking place in the brain, and whether it was related to will (or intent to complete a task), often found conflicting results.

“Meanwhile, the journal articles that drew the most forceful conclusions often didn’t even assess the neural activity in question – which means their conclusions were based on speculation,” Dubljevic says. “It is crucial to critically examine whether the methods used actually support the claims being made.”

This is important because what people are told about free will can affect their behavior.

“Numerous studies suggest that fostering a belief in determinism influences behaviors like cheating,” Dubljevic says. “Promoting an unsubstantiated belief on the metaphysical position of non-existence of free will may increase the likelihood that people won’t feel responsible for their actions if they think their actions were predetermined.”

And this isn’t a problem solely within the neuroscience community. Earlier work by Dubljevic and his collaborators found challenges in how this area of research has been covered by the press and consumed by the public.

“To be clear, we’re not taking a position on free will,” Dubljevic says. “We’re just saying neuroscience hasn’t definitively proven anything one way or the other.”

The paper, “The impact of a landmark neuroscience study on free will: A qualitative analysis of articles using Libet et al.’s methods,” is published in the American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience. The paper was co-authored by Victoria Saigle and Eric Racine of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal.

The work was supported with funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Racine), the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé for career awards (Racine), the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships Programme (Dubljevic) and a seed grant from NC State University (Dubljevic).

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“The impact of a landmark neuroscience study on free will: A qualitative analysis of articles using Libet et al.’s methods”

Authors: Victoria Saigle and Eric Racine, Neuroethics Research Unit, Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal; and Veljko Dubljevic, North Carolina State University

Published: March 9, American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience

DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2018.1425756

Abstract: Gathering evidence across disciplines is a strength of interdisciplinary fields like neuroethics. However, conclusions can only be made if the evidence applies to the issue at hand. Libet et al.’s 1983 experiment is an interesting case study in this problem. Despite ongoing critiques about the methods used and the replicability of its findings, many people consider Libet et al.’s methodology a valid strategy to investigate free will and related topics. We reviewed studies using similar methods to Libet et al. (N=48) to identify its use and the evidence produced. Overall, we found substantial variation between studies. While the Libet paradigm may be useful for examining how stimuli affect temporal judgments, the link between this and free will or moral responsibility is not clear. Being aware and critical of the methods used to gather results is important when applying scientific experiments to complex, abstract phenomena.

5 responses on “Study Tackles Neuroscience Claims to Have Disproved ‘Free Will’

  1. Miguel Delagos says:

    I can’t access the paper discussed but I have always held the position that free will, whatever that even means, is a philosophical issue, not a scientific issue. I’m glad to see some clear thinking on the scope of science as a methodology and that metaphysical interpretations are just that, interpretations. Bravo to the NCSU team!

    1. Mong H Tan, PhD says:

      RE: What’s freewill!?

      I thought “freewill” was originally a metaphysical question that was intended to explain away the problem of “freedom of and in belief” in world religions at a time when all the primordial metaphysical or primitive religious beliefs had begun to aspire, establish, organize, encounter, and subsequently, subconsciously and collectively inspire one another religious livelihood beliefs to compete and dominate one another religious political livelihoods, throughout our human history worldwide, even today!?

      Not until the 17th century in Europe had the “problem of freewill” in religions been turned into a philoscientific question: one which has had been argued, defined, refined, and/or even denied by several most prominent scholars, philosophers, physical scientists, etc ever since the Enlightenment era!?

      Benjamin Libet was a pioneering scientist (or physicalist) who believes that he has had disproved the existence of “freewill” in his now famous 1983 Experiment: that our actions were predetermined.

      Unfortunately — with the benefit of hindsight and the postmodern (or neuro-electro-chemically) understanding of our subconsciousness and consciousness processes — I thought Libet, et al, had had completely ignored the fact our actions are first driven by the reactions of our subconscious Mind as I recently explained in RE: Consciousness vs the Subconscious!?—What’s free will got to do with it!?https://theamericanscholar.org/its-complicated/#comment-3682412601 .

      Best, Mong 3/15/18usct12:14; practical public science-philosophy critic (since 2006).

    2. Theodore A Hoppe says:

      Free will is a belief. If science can provide evidence that substantiates either side why should it not?

  2. Mike says:

    Relative to freedom or “free will,” the flow of humanity is a function of life’s “unalienable Rights,” a version of the physical constructal law; a physical law where no philosophy or man-made law can change:
    http://www.bookdaily.com/book/3341166/scientific-proof-of-our-unalienable-rights-a-road-to-utopia

  3. Theodore A Hoppe says:

    “Experience teaches us no less clearly than reason, that men believe themselves free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.” Baruch Spinoza

    Veljko Dubljevic claims, “Promoting an unsubstantiated belief on the metaphysical position of non-existence of free will may increase the likelihood that people….,” but religion, for one, has for centuries been promoting the unsubstantiated belief in the existence of free will” (One might ask whether the belief in free will actually makes people “feel responsible for actions”).

    “The term “free will” (liberum arbitrium) was introduced by Christian philosophy (4th century CE).”

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