Free Will Is Only an Illusion if You Are, Too

Imagine you are shopping online for a new pair of headphones. There is an array of colors, brands and features to look at. You feel that you can pick any model that you like and are in complete control of your decision. When you finally click the “add to shopping cart” button, you believe that you are doing so out of your own free will.

But what if we told you that while you thought that you were still browsing, your brain activity had already highlighted the headphones you would pick? That idea may not be so far-fetched. Though neuroscientists likely could not predict your choice with 100 percent accuracy, research has demonstrated that some information about your upcoming action is present in brain activity several seconds before you even become conscious of your decision.

As early as the 1960s, studies found that when people perform a simple, spontaneous movement, their brain exhibits a buildup in neural activity—what neuroscientists call a “readiness potential”—before they move. In the 1980s, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet reported this readiness potential even preceded a person’s reported intention to move, not just their movement. In 2008 a group of researchers found that some information about an upcoming decision is present in the brain up to 10 seconds in advance, long before people reported making the decision of when or how to act.

These studies have sparked questions and debates. To many observers, these findings debunked the intuitive concept of free will. After all, if neuroscientists can infer the timing or choice of your movements long before you are consciously aware of your decision, perhaps people are merely puppets, pushed around by neural processes unfolding below the threshold of consciousness.

1 Like

Exactly. The problem of free will exists only if we assume there is some “I” or “self” that exists apart from our brain. Dismiss that notion, and I see no problem in understanding what free will is.


Could you quote the part where free will is real and the part that explains what it is that you don’t expect?

Yes. I would just object to the statement that “I” is an illusion. It’s just that when we speak of “I” we are speaking of this thing or process that runs on the brain hardware. That doesn’t make it illusory, it just means it has a nature that is different from what free will proponents assume.


I think that one of the things that crosses people up horribly – I see this in that other thread on consciousness – is that it’s one thing to say a sheep is “real” and quite another to say that some abstraction, like “intention” or “meaning,” is real. And, weird as it may be, some parts of the way we talk about ourselves are abstractions. We certainly exist. But does “my mind” exist? My inclination always is to say that it does, in one sense, but that as we don’t know how to fully characterize what we include in that abstraction, it’s hazardous to reason about it as though it’s a sort of res in itself.

1 Like

I think the term does refer to an illusion when people argue “If my every decision is determined by my brain then I do not have free will.” That statement entails the existence of something called “I” that exists apart from the brain.

1 Like

I think one can interpret that statement in that way but I don’t think it’s a necessary understanding of the statement. I don’t think it is entailed. I think what is illusory is that the “I” is separate from the brain, not that the “I” is illusory.


An important test, which I don’t see being done, is to assess whether this early neurological activity that predicts ones actions before conscious awareness holds up after one contemplates, plans, and then commits a crime. A lot of conscious thinking happens before one does something serious.

This topic was automatically closed 7 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.