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Study Tackles Neuroscience Claims to Have Disproved ‘Free Will’

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For Immediate Release

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).


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.

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  1. “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).”

    1. Precisely,..the notion of free will arises from our self awareness. Prior to the acquisition of full theory of mind humans were acting and behaving in the same way they are now. Nothing has changed, only that we are self aware. Remember for a long time the universe was full of aether. We believed this to be true until it wasn’t. We believe, or actually we accept without question among ordinary citizens that we can actually think about something and it happens. There is no contest so we relegate the question to meta-physics. The issue of greatest concern is that all of a sudden we will lose our ability to act as moral beings. When in fact we have always acted and will continue to act in the same manner. Bad brains (brain behavior that does not conform to the socially acceptable norm) will do bad things and will need to be separated from the rest of society etc…

    2. So, because religion has been promoting unsubstantiated belief of free will we should just accept that there are scientist who put out studies claiming to disprove the idea of free will, knowing that most of the audience will be passive and not give full attention to it but accept the idea that free will doesn’t exist. This paper is warning against against the “uncritical thinking” that these claims with little base are promoting. When we accept half-truths and say that something is scientifically proven by them we are just showing people who do not “believe in” important topics like climate sciences that science is in fact misleading. I think that also bringing up the fact that religion did something with equal negative impact is just an excuse for the “uncritical thinking” brought up in this paper. It is important to note that I am not saying we passively accept the idea of free will, I like the authors of this, am not taking a position but think it is important point out things which I feel could be more harmful than good. I do believe that studies into topics like this are important but it is necessary to make sure we do our due diligence and fall into the trap of conformation bias.

  2. 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. 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!? .

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

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