Science suggests we have no free will: Implications on belief

In 1985 Benjamin Libet published a peer-reviewed paper where he instructed his test subjects to lift their arm while recording their brain activity. What he found was interesting. Brain activity increased before the subject had even decided to lift their arm. In other words, the brain made the decision before they were aware of this decision. This lends some evidence towards the position that we do not have free will. Instead decisions might be made subconsciously based on both internal and external conditions and stimuli. That is, the neurological and the environmental.

(For the sake of intellectual honesty, I must also point out that the author went to great lengths to avoid jumping to conclusions: “it is important to emphasize that the present experimental findings and analysis do not exclude the potential for ‘philosophically real’ individual responsibility and free will.” But he also said this: “Processes associated with individual responsibility and free will would ‘operate’ not to initiate a voluntary act but to select and control volitional outcomes.”)

There is a very minor debate about free will in the scientific community, but most of the community agrees: The idea of free will is a construct. We are not free to decide. I’ll leave a bibliography at the bottom of this post if you wish to read the scientific literature on free will.

If we take the scientific position that free will does not exist, then we are not free to decide whether or not supernatural agencies exist. Whether or not we believe in the supernatural—be it god or other—is the result of natural response through internal conditions to external stimuli. We might also invoke the rational actor model (which makes few assumptions about free will, but many about natural response). Our position regarding the divine is a natural conclusion based on how much utility that position grants us. Since we are all utility driven creatures, belief in supernatural agencies might grant us some comfort in a dog eat dog world. However, as existential security rises, the utility of belief declines, and our natural position then shifts back to the default position and disbelief might offer more utility.

Both atheism and theism, therefore, are probably natural responses. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make fun of religious belief, because doing so increases the amount of external stimuli that might lead religious people toward reason.

To sum up, the religious idea of free will is largely contradicted by what we’ve discovered in the scientific community. It’s unlikely that we are free to decide whether or not we believe in supernatural agencies. I would suspect, however, that secularism will continue to rise in the West as existential security increases.

Further readings on free will in the scientific literature:
(Contact me for copies of these articles)

Baumeister, R. F. (2008). Free will in scientific psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 14-19.

Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & DeWall, C. N. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 260-268.

Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8, 529-566.

McAdams, D. P. (2013). Life authorship: A psychological challenge for emerging adulthood, as illustrated in two notable case studies. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 151-158.

Pronin, E., Wegner, D. M., McCarthy, K., & Rodriguez, S. (2006). Everyday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 218-231.

van Roekel, E., Verhagen, M., Scholte, R. H. J., Kleinjan, M., Goossens, L., & Engels, R. C. M. E. (2013). The oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) in relation to state levels of loneliness in adolescence: Evidence for micro-level gene-environment interactions. PLoS One, 8(11).

Further readings on secularism and existential security

Inglehart, Ronald. 1997. Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Inglehart, Ronald, and Pippa Norris. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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10 Responses to Science suggests we have no free will: Implications on belief

  1. It’s obvious that we have free will.

    The cited study simply shows that there is lag time between metaphysical and physical processing.

    Hypothesizing that we don’t have freewill from this study indicates, not science, but a leftist-atheist agenda.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Something tells me you either read just the abstract or just what I said about the study. I’m not saying you’ll change your mind after reading it. I’m just saying I find it highly unlikely that you read the study in 29 minutes. But I might be wrong.

      • Zehn,

        Science can’t contradict the obvious.

        I don’t need to read the whole study. The whole study has nothing to do with this.

        What this is, is yet another case of atheists commandeering science in order to lend some authority to an idea that is totally bogus.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        HAHAHAHA! Libet explicitly discusses the implications against the religious idea of free will in his study!! If you bothered to read the study–that was socially controversial at the time but well accepted by the academic community–you would’ve seen from where I borrowed these ideas. You can’t blame me. And no. Libet was an academic, but he was not an atheist.

      • Zehn,

        It doesn’t make any difference what Libet says about freewill. He is using science to push atheist dogma.

        Freewill is what makes us human.

        If people didn’t have freewill then there would be peace of Earth because we, like all the rest of creation, would be blithely obeying the laws of nature.

        But that’s not how it is.

        Do to freewill, human society from tip to toe is profoundly messed up.

        Libet needs to quit using science to push nonsense, and get back into the lab where he belongs.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        “Libet needs to quit using science to push nonsense, and get back into the lab where he belongs.”

        You do understand that scientists don’t use science to push things, don’t you. They use it to discover and to increase our knowledge. If a scientist used science to push something, the scientific community would react in a manner sufficient to not only cause him to fail peer review, but also to be pushed out of a job.

        Don’t worry though. Libet died seven years ago. Lucky for me, however, is that despite him being dead, the march of scientific progress continues.

      • Zehn,

        Scientists use science to push nonsense all the time.

        The global warming hoax is just one example.

        Another example of scientists pushing nonsense is renewable solar and wind energy.

        Wind mills take us back 500 years in the past and solar energy is what plants do which is zippo when it comes to satiating the energy appetite of an advanced civilization based on modern science.

        Atheist scientists even use science to push the nonsense that there is no God when clearly, science proves otherwise, and has for years.

  2. Hi, I liked the topic and how you presented it. I don’t however share your conclusions. I’m familiar with the peer reviewed paper on the subject you mentioned and don’t accept that it is an indicator of our lack of free will. If anything, it appears to me to show that our subconscious plays a bigger role in responding to our decision making, and there are more to the decision we make than the conscious choice to execute them. Because his subconscious registered the decision before the subject in question consciously made the decision, it shows that there is a deeper connection and process involved throughout the decision making process. I have no doubt that if the subject in question chose against making the decision to move his arm at the last minute – he would have interrupted the process that allowed his subconscious to pre-empt the conscious. Free will is absolute.
    A theist however would usually insist that we have free will because the boss demands it – and many of our choices we make while exercising god given free will are more than likely going to land us in eternal torture. This somewhat cheapens the freedom.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Hey, thanks for the response. While scientists have almost universally accepted that free will is merely an illusion, the case is anything but settled. In the suggested readings at the bottom of the post, I shared both papers that support free will and others that don’t. I’m pretty sure you can figure out which is which based on the titles. Give them a look. Those supporting free will definitely make compelling arguments.

      And because this issue is not settled, it’s good to have your own voice.

      • Of course, as usual I’m glad you have opened up the debate and, at the very least, prompted me to consider the issue in more depth. I’m currently going through the reading and will drop you a line.

        I must say that I think the issue that free will is an illusion to be as risky an assumption as the idea that our entire reality is a projection or a mass illusion. I personally believe that we are pattern seeking mammals with a tendency to grow accustomed to things and also behave instinctively, but – where I think genuine free will may not be the case for animals – I am convinced (at this point in time) that our abilities to reflect, reason and communicate has lifted us out from the animal cycle that we once dwelled in and has empowered us with intelligence to make decisions freely.
        The only time I would consider free will not to be free at all is if I had convincing evidence of a deity. Only then would our decision appear less free.

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