I think therefore I am, I think
By Stephen Cave
Published: March 22 2007 19:50 | Last updated: March 22 2007 19:50
If I had free will, I would choose to be funnier. I would choose always to have the right witty riposte ready to disarm adversaries and delight friends. But sadly, it is not so. My lot is for the same lame old gags to hobble out whether I will them to or not, like embarrassing aunts at a wedding.
Indeed if we had free will, we might all choose to have the punning powers of the Two Ronnies, combined with the benevolence of Bob Geldof. But we do not. And that is a fact, laboratory proven.
But of course we have free will, you might be thinking. You could prove it by, for example, choosing to raise your arm at some point in the next five seconds. Go on then. Done it? There, that was easy. Of your own volition, at the time of your choice, you moved your arm: QED.
But the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet has shown that before every such movement, there is a distinctive build-up of electrical activity in the brain. And this build-up happens about half a second before your conscious ”decision” to move your arm. So by the time you think, ”OK, I’ll move my arm,” your body is halfway there. Which means your conscious experience of making a decision - the experience associated with free will - is just a kind of add-on, an after-thought that only happens once the brain has already set about its business. In other words, your brain is doing the real work, making your hands turn the pages of this magazine or reach over for your cup of tea, and all the time your conscious mind is tagging along behind.
It is as if, after years of driving around in your car, you discover that the steering-wheel is not attached to anything, and the car has been steering by itself.
Two neuroscientists working in Australia have taken Libet’s discovery one step further. They found that, when asking people to choose to move either their left or right hands, it was possible to influence their choice by electronically stimulating certain parts of their brains. So, for example, the scientists could force the subjects always to choose to move their left hands. But despite their choice being electronically directed, these patients continued to report that they were freely choosing which hand to move.
So not only is your steering wheel not attached to anything, but if your car was being steered by someone else by remote control, you would not even notice. Every time it turns left, you just move your toy steering wheel and think, ”Ah yes, I want to turn left.”
Thanks to modern neuro-imaging technology, we now know that our minds - our conscious, mental life - are a product of activity in the brain. What Libet’s and subsequent experiments show is that even when we have the conscious experience of deciding, our brains have really already taken the decision for us. Free will is an illusion.