Plants have free will

Is human free will just an illusion?

Experiments by the American neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet received a lot of attention. They suggested to some observers that people don't do what they want, they want what they do.

Libet had asked test subjects to spontaneously make the decision to move a finger or the whole hand, while recording the moment of the decision with a watch. This point in time was then recorded, firstly, secondly, the point in time at which a so-called readiness potential was first built up in the brain as preparation for movement, and thirdly, the point in time of the actual movement. The result was a surprising sequence: the conscious decision to act occurred 0.2 seconds before the start of the movement, but only more than 0.3 seconds after the start of the preparedness potential.

So can't wanting to be the cause of neural activity at all? For Gerhard Roth, the act of will actually only occurs after the brain has already decided which movement it will carry out. For Libet himself, his result means that the power of will is restricted. The will is not an initiator, but a censor.

The discussion also questioned whether decisions are momentary acts. And not rather processes, the result of which is sometimes only apparent after they have been completed. For example, some researchers believe it is entirely possible that the current decision adopted by Libet is only the final stage in a decision-making process that began earlier.

In an interview with the journal “Spectrum of Science” (Heidelberg), the neurophysiologist Prof. Wolf Singer (Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main) spoke of two separate areas of experience in which the realities of the world are represented: The area the researchers who look at the brain scientifically (third-person perspective). And the socio-cultural area, in which value systems and social realities are discussed. And they can only be experienced and represented in the first-person perspective, that of the self.

“A neurobiologist must take for granted that the content of one area emerges from the processes of the other,” Singer continued. "In this respect, viewed from the third-person perspective, what the first-person perspective describes as free will must be defined as an illusion," the researcher stated. “But, I think, 'Illusion' is not the right word, because we actually experience ourselves as free.” Almost all people in our culture shared this experience.

Such a consensus is generally considered to be sufficient to assess a situation as correct. Just as true is the consensus of the neurobiologists that all processes in the brain are deterministic (excluding free will) and that the cause of any action is the immediately preceding overall condition of the brain.

The philosophy professor Hans Goller (University of Innsbruck) refers to the Brazilian researcher Gilberto Gomes in an article entitled “Fictional Freedom?” In the Catholic magazine “Herder-Korrespondenz” (Freiburg). For them, the contradiction between the free will experienced in the first-person perspective and natural causation dissolves if we assume that we as free acting people are brain systems that have the ability to choose, decide and act .

Goller states that brain research is far from having identified the neural basis for experiencing free will. “There are some interesting hints. These prove the fact that certain brain areas and functions are a necessary condition for will experiences. Are they also a sufficient condition? The interdisciplinary discussion of free will shows that our knowledge of the brain and its performance is incomplete in a fundamental sense. "

November 16, 2001

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