Decision making and neuroscience

Hi all. I recently read about an experiment that neuroscientists conducted. This experiment consisted of the following: a neurosurgeon placed electrodes in the open brain of a patient with epilepsy. This made it possible to read brain signals directly from the brain itself in real time. Then, neuroscientist Uri Maoz asked the patient to play a game. The rules of the game are quite simple: the patient had to raise his hand, the neuroscientist also raised his hand. If the patient raised the same hand as the scientist, then the patient won 5 cents, if not, then the scientist won. A monitor hung behind the patient’s back, which only the neurobiologist could see, and the patient did not see this monitor. Also, a wire extended from the patient’s head, thanks to which brain activity could be seen. The problem is that a few seconds before the patient raised his hand, the experimenter recorded his intention, and the monitor behind the patient almost always correctly predicted the hand that the patient would raise, even a few seconds before he did it. From here the conclusion is drawn that a person does not have free will, since his decision was known to the scientist a few seconds before he raised his hand and realized it. Does this really prove a lack of control over one’s actions? Or does it only work in some simpler situations, and in more complex ones we can, albeit to a limited extent, act independently? I want to make it clear: I do not think that free will is something causeless, unlimited and magical. In my understanding, freedom is simply at least some kind of conscious control in life: where to go to study, what book to read. This control has a reason in the form of my past experience and I can veto some actions. Is this also an illusion? Thank you!

I have some questions about the description of the experiment as well as what you mean by free will and the context in which you found the article.
Regarding the experiment:

Whose intention did the experimenter record? Sorry if this seems like a kooky question. The pronoun “his” though is masking whose intention is being discussed.

Free Will:
What exactly do you mean by it? I have become acquainted with many variations of the concept. I think the individual’s concept of it makes a great deal of difference in a discussion.
Does the description of the experiment discuss the concept of Free Will as well? If so, what assumptions are expressed there?

What is the source you looked at for this piece? If it wasn’t the study itself, did you consult that as well? It’s really necessary any more in order to find out if the reported version is remotely like the original.

What was the context where you became aware of this study? Was there discussion of it and possible implications?



Hi Alexy,

The original free will experiment(s) you refer to seems to have been done by Libet in the 1980s. I haven’t read his original papers, but have read some secondary sources discussing them. A fascinating question, but things get complex and technical very quickly if one is not a neurologist (I’m a biologist but not a neurologist).
But many other researchers have disputed the “lack of free will conclusion”, pointing to alternate interpretations of Libet’s experiment, and those like it. And many subsequent experiments have been done… with much debate about what they really show. Suffice to say, the idea that we have real (libertarian) free will is not dead yet!
For an overview (if you don’t want to get in to the primary literature first) check Wikipedia under “Neuroscience of free will” . It has a long section on the science in this field with citations of the original articles there (series of experiments and rebuttals), if you want to machete your way through that.


Thank you for the answer! Regarding the question about experiment and intention. The neuroscientist recorded the patient’s intention. The experimenter had 2 monitors. One is on the table, next to the experimenter, and the second is behind the patient. The monitor that stood next to the experimenter recorded brain activity, and the monitor behind the patient’s back showed which hand the patient would raise. Now free will. In fact, this is a complex concept and, as you said, different people define this concept differently. To be honest, I’ve been reading a lot lately on the topic of the neurobiology of consciousness and free will. And I’m scared and confused. But I’ll try to explain. I am interested not so much in complete free will, but in whether I can control at least something in life and make at least some simple choice between X and Y, or is this just an illusion. Of course, a person is limited by genetics, environment and his experiences, which leave their mark on our behavior. But is there at least something that I do consciously? I saw this experiment on the YouTube channel Closer to truth. I will share a video with you. I have read various studies on this topic and it seems that many scientists agree that our conscious choice and self-control is an illusion.


Thank you for the answer! I read this article on Wikipedia and, to be honest, I got even more confused :slight_smile: some scientists criticized Libet’s experiments, emphasizing that they were incorrect, other scientists conducted similar experiments and said that Libet was right, so it’s difficult for me, as a non-neurologist, to understand which of them is right. What is frightening is that many scientists, such as Christoph Koch, Patrick Haggard and others, seem to insist that we are not solving anything. They give examples of experiments similar to Libet’s experiment, but more modern. And there it is also clear that the awareness of our action is preceded by brain activity, this is interpreted as the fact that the brain has already decided everything before we realized it. And therefore free will is an illusion. I don’t know how to feel about this information.

It is clear that we are creative about making new things, discovering new things, and understanding new things. I do not see why then we cannot be creative about doing and deciding things. To me, that is free will. To the extent free will is real, it is also inescapable.

I do not see free will in some sort of tension with the brain, nor the brain as just a container for the mind to independently ghost around in. Given that, neurological experiments cannot resolve free will. Free will does not manifest in overcoming our impulses, hormones, electrolytes, and prior states, to break free and in that moment to order chocolate rather than vanilla. Expressing free will is a continuous rational process. Others may not be satisfied that is an adequate conception of free will. If not, then I do not think we have free will, but it works for me.


Yeah, if one is not a neurobiologist the rabbit trails of the different experiments become hard to follow. If one does not want to spend time learning neurobiology, I’m personally content with knowing that there is debate among qualified scientists in the field about the conclusions that can be made with such experiments…hence not strong evidence refuting free will yet.


Thanks for the answer. Some neuroscientists will say that creativity is also predetermined by the work of the brain and it seems to us that this is our conscious creativity, but in fact it is an illusion. But to be honest, then I don’t understand what is the point of science and these experiments? If free will is an illusion and a deception, then science is biased because the outcome is predetermined and is simply a product of the brain that has nothing to do with reality.

Unfortunately, the neuroscientists I’ve read all agree that we don’t have free will. And it makes me sad. Perhaps they mean by this term something magical and different from what other people imagine. Few scientists admit that our choice and freedom are limited, but at least they exist.

Were that so, I fail to see why we would need to be conscious at all. We could as dark as space, the brain handling input/output without harboring some deadbeat mind.

In other words, if it is all an illusion, why do we need the illusion?

Behavior can be predetermined, but still firmly tethered to reality.


The ‘when’ of my consciousness of having made a decision compared to the neurological when of my subconsciousness decision, even though there is a temporal lag, does not necessarily mean that it is still not my free will making the choice.


I suspect the lag will dissolve once the participant is allowed to see what the neurologist is seeing on the computer screen

On this noteworthy study, I found the dataset is not disclosed in the published paper, and must be requested. My suspicion is there an appreciable range of results between the various participants

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These neurological experiments may provide useful insights into the details of brain function, but the philosophical interpretations being promoted do not deserve to be taken seriously.

Various versions of the experiment exist, but basically there is some system reading brain signals that can detect particular signals faster than the experimental subject can turn them into actions. So what? Any decision reached in the brain has to be made and then transmit the signals to whatever body part needs to respond as a result. The assumption that a signal existing before the person can make the action proves determinism is ridiculous and shows a total disregard for actually investigating the relevant philosophical questions. (My own position is relatively deterministic, but that doesn’t mean that I like stupid arguments.)

Such experiments have often been claimed to disprove dualism, the idea that humans have a spirit/soul/etc. that is totally independent of the body. But again, this is nonsense. Suppose that the experimental subject does have such a spirit. That spirit has to interact with the physical substance of the brain to transmit its decisions in some fashion. No amount of neurological measurement will disprove the suggestion that the initial signal detected is the working of a non-material spirit making a free-will decision and then triggering a chemical response in the brain. It is also possible that such a spirit exists but does not regard the psychology experiment as worth bothering with and leaves the brain on auto-pilot for the experiment.

The Bible affirms that human nature involves more than just the physical, but it doesn’t give details about how the spirit relates to the physical body. My guess, given the NT emphasis on bodily resurrection, is that there is a greater interconnection between the spirit and body than an extreme dualist position might hold. For that matter, some claim a threefold division of spirit, soul, and body - several ideas about how body and non-physical aspects of human nature connect within a Christian context.

In the study for which I saw detailed information, the challenge was for the subject to decide to either add or subtract two numbers. The computer reading the brain scan was able to predict the decision accurately before the person entered their decision about 60% of the time. But that’s not too close to 100%. Claiming that proves determinism is a stretch there as well.


And all it takes is a single instance of a single individual affecting an action or decision for determinism to be false

I strongly suspect that those claiming that neuroscience, sociobiology, etc. proves determinism would be very unlikely to accept the premise that you couldn’t help punching them in the nose because your actions are all predetermined. “It’s not my fault” tends to sound better than “It’s not your fault.”

Again, there is serious philosophical and theological consideration relating to determinism; it is the naive, poorly argued and poorly considered arguments that are at fault.


Dunno – the electronics involved is quicker than the neurotics neuronics. :grin:

And what David @paleomalacologist said.


7 to 10 seconds is quite a lag

In the electronics? I’m not disagreeing with you about the neuronics. What the clinician sees won’t speed up the subject’s perception even if the latter could see what the former sees.

11 seconds is what was measured with one or more subjects between the brain imagery and the subjects conscious awareness of making the decision. The number of milliseconds that figure into the electronics is not an issue.

Reading about these type of experiments, I have wondered what would happen if the subject could see the imagery of the computer screen and then consciously manipulate it. I suspect consciousness is capable of resyncing itself, or as Musk might say, the lag is a factor from our embodied bandwidth.