Co-operation & Community








Free will and the unconscious brain


Kevin Loughran





The idea of free will and the argument about it has a long history. Susan Blackmore and Emily T. Trascianko (2018) speculated that free will might be the most discussed philosophical problem of all time.[i]


Les Reid summarised the argument about free will in its absolute form when he contrasted the position of 'libertarians' (for whom free will is an obvious fact) and the position of 'determinists' (for whom free will is an illusion).[ii]


The idea of free will touches on human decision-making and, therefore on the workings of the brain. So the science of the brain can inform the argument about free will.


Technology - especially in the form of brain scanning - has helped to provide new insights into what it is that is happening in our brains, and in which parts of our brains, prior to us taking action.


Some brain studies - especially the study led by Benjamin Libet at the University of California in the 1980's - have indicated the possibility of unconscious brain activity before we are conscious of having decided to act (see below). For some people such studies have confirmed the judgement that we lack free will.


These brain studies do touch on the issue of how we make choices and reach decisions; but they do so in respect of a few simple - and directed - tasks. Do they provide sufficient data to justify a generalisation about the reality of free will?


I believe that to claim that we lack free will on the basis of evidence that in certain situations unconscious brain processes are contributing to our decision-making is to reach for a complete explanation of the way things are on the basis of limited data. And I believe that such a claim would underestimate the complexity of activity in our brains.


I would question also words which are at the centre of the argument - What is free will? Is it a helpful term? And is 'unconscious' a straightforward word?


To explore these questions I examine the range of choices which we make in our lives day by day and week by week, and what they might tell us about how we come to make decisions and whether conscious free choice is real. At the very least examining such a range of choices might, in the future, provide a better, wider range of research projects.





In the 1980s, in an experiment which has been described since as 'classic'[iii],[iv], Benjamin Libet and his team at the University of California at San Francisco detected brain movements seconds before the volunteers who were the research subjects became aware of their intention to act (the action being to move a hand in one direction or another).


In 2013 John Dylan Haynes, at the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, reported on a study in which volunteers, subject to M.R.I. scanning, were asked to add or subtract two numbers. The researchers found brain activity that was predictive of the outcome four seconds before the volunteers became aware of making a decision.[v]


Dick Swaab (2014) described an experiment in which volunteers were asked to touch a spot on a computer screen quickly when it lit up. When it did, the volunteer's visual cortex sent a signal, almost instantaneously, to the motor cortex to initiate the touching of the spot on the screen. The processing of the light on the screen within the volunteer's visual cortex could be interrupted by a magnetic impulse. It if was interrupted the volunteer still touched the spot on the screen in response to the light going on, but was not conscious of the light going on.[vi]

The data which these and other brain studies provide might be taken to prove that when research volunteers are asked by a researcher to do one simple thing or another (e.g. move a hand in one direction or another) and they do it, then unconscious brain processes may have moved them towards a choice seconds before they were conscious of choosing an action. Can they be taken to prove more than that?





Choice and moral dilemmas

I may be asked to do something or be required to do something that conflicts with my existing beliefs and values. At some stage I may choose to take a position and to do do something in relation to the moral issue. I may face criticism and come under pressure to change my position. Taking up a position in reaction to the issue is a choice; changing that position is another, different choice; standing by my original position despite criticism and pressure is another choice again.


Choices: life changes, personal interests and careers

I may have arrived at a stage of life where my thoughts turn more and more to the idea of change, or an event occurs which prompts my to think of change; or someone says something to me (because they have seen something in me). I may have arrived at a stage in my life where I decide to choose or develop a new personal interest, e.g. taking up a sport, or playing a musical instrument. Or I may be at the stage of life where I recognise or need to choose a (new) career.


Eventually I may decide to change, or to stay where I am; or I may make a kind of decision to avoid a decision. This stage may keep recurring. If it does is each decision exactly the same?


Choices: going places

I may decide on a day to day basis to go to particular places: to meet someone, or to observe or participate in an activity, or to buy goods or services. I may give a decision to go somewhere a lot of thought, or perhaps no thought at all. I may decide on the day before, or hours before, or on an immediate impulse. In making a decision to go somewhere, I may be expressing an ongoing perception of need or interest. But that perception of need or interest does not in itself represent a decision to act.


Choices: hundreds by the hour

Some social or professional roles may involve a very large number of decisions in a concentrated period of time, e.g. at a Premier League football match: the referee makes around 245 decisions per game.[vii]


I decide on one thing (e.g. awarding a free kick, or ruling a player as offside). I could have decided on the other. Is the decision pre-determined? My role requires me to take a decision; but which decision I take is a matter of choice, reflecting my judgement as to what the facts are.


Choices: improvising

Some decisions involve improvisation within an established framework, e.g. in music making, especially within jazz (one jazz musician explained improvisation as "making up your own melody over the chords that they're playing behind you").[viii] A musician may be drawn to a particular musical effect or phrase and it would be easy to say that the attraction indicates an unconscious process. But does it indicate an unconscious decision rather than an unconscious attraction prompting a conscious decision? (and the following night it will be different).


Many sports involve a continual process of decision-making in team games within fixed periods of time, e.g. when to move and where to move, and when to strike. And for the next time, in a similar situation, the player may make a different decision.


Choices: negotiations

Some decisions are based on and follow from formal negotiations, whether to resolve a labour dispute, or to agree terms for the sale of goods and services, or to arrange for the sharing of political power, or for and end to armed conflict.


It could be said that prior to the negotiations, the individuals who came to comprise the groups which negotiate took individual personal decisions to involve themselves in the process. Groups will enter such negotiations after deciding on common objectives. The negotiations will open with proposals from both sides and the exchange of comments. Some ideas are rejected, some are accepted; new proposals may be put forward. Decision-making is involved in selecting proposals to be put forward; in rejecting or accepting ideas; in having negotiations; and in reaching a final agreement. And the decision-making is collective.


When I am a member of a group involved in negotiations my participation in the group can be seen as following from a personal choice: perhaps representing a serious commitment, or simply habit. While involved in negotiations, I may choose to agree to a particular proposal which, if agreed to by a majority, then becomes the group's choice.


Choices: impulse decisions

Impulse decisions can be an immediate response to a sensory stimulus. Such decisions can arise especially in response to commercially calculated stimuli, e.g. the smell of freshly-baked bread attracting a customer who has just entered a supermarket and who decides in consequence to buy some fresh bread. Is such a decision the outcome of considered conscious choice, choosing between alternatives, or is it the outcome of unconscious brain processes determining the apparently conscious choice? (And if you do identify an unconscious element in the process, could it be that what is unconscious is the attraction: that the decision to act - to buy - is a conscious choice?)





Such is the number of decisions I am taking day by day or week by week; such is the variety of timescales within which I may be making decisions; such is the variety of needs and interests I may be reacting to: that it would seem unlikely that unconscious processes as well as conscious processes would not be threaded through the decision-making of my everyday existence.


But the ways in which my brain turns an issue over, the variations in the time which it takes to make a choice, the ways in which I may pause, or hesitate, or hold back or draw away from a choice, the ways in which I may put something to the back of my mind - they indicate that my thinking does not necessarily follow a straight line from unconscious to conscious.


In each case the brain activity that precedes a decision has to have a starting point. It has to have a stimulus: a problem or opportunity or challenge in my life which means that my brain begins to function in reaction to it.


Sometimes it is unclear when the process begins: what the point of origin, the original stimulus is. With the brain studies described above, the stimulus is readily identifiable and simple. The subjects (research volunteers) are asked to choose a simple either/or action which is specified by the researcher; or they are asked to do one simple thing which is specified by the researcher. The only thing which the subjects get to choose is the precise timing of the action. With these brain studies the subjects are conscious of the beginning of the process because the process begins when the subjects / volunteers receive their instructions.


Sometimes I may face a choice and grow towards a decision without a stimulus being readily identifiable. Perhaps at first I am not fully conscious of the issue. It may be 'at the back of my mind'. But the ball has started to roll. I am already on the road to making a choice.


I may wrestle with an issue and then decide 'I'll leave it for now and come back to it later' - but it is still somewhere 'on my mind'. Another matter, or other matters, come to the fore. It is likely that at any one time when one particular issue is at the 'front of my mind', when I am consciously considering a decision to do something in relation to it, that there are other issues bubbling over somewhere further back in my mind.


I may have had something on my mind, but have come to a decision about what to do gradually, over a period of time. I may, for example, agonise over a perceived moral dilemma or a possible life change such as a move to a new career. I may push the issue to the back of my mind because I am uncertain as to what to do. But the issue is likely to be 'on my mind' continually at some levels (and in some part of my brain).


For example, when do I start to think about a new career? What prompts me or my interest? Perhaps it is born out of a growing dissatisfaction, which is especially difficult to pin down to a clear starting point, or to relate to a clear stimulus. Perhaps someone says something; or I come across a public message which sets me thinking.


Perhaps I will reach more than one conclusion about a matter or make more than one decision. I may make a decision to do something and then change that decision because of the difficulties I perceive in the choice I have made.





To claim that we lack free will on the basis of evidence that in certain situations unconscious brain processes are contributing to our decision-making is to reach for a complete explanation of the way things are on the basis of limited data: it reflects a kind of absolutism.


The data provided by the brain studies described above could be taken to support the claim that when research volunteers are asked by a researcher to do one simple thing or another which are specified by the researcher (e.g. move a hand in one direction or another) and they do it, then their unconscious brain processes may have moved them towards a choice seconds before they were conscious of deciding on an action.


But some people go further in interpreting the data. For example, the New Scientist guide Your Conscious Mind concluded that Benjamin Libet's results suggested that there was a time when the brain was preparing to do something but you yourself didn't yet know that you were going to do it.[ix] That is a large and broad conclusion to draw from such a particular study.


Also this line of thinking implies that the brain - 'preparing to do something' - is a separate entity from the rest of you - 'you yourself don't know'. Patricia Churchland encapsulated this distinction between the brain and you, between the brain and self, when she spoke in an interview for New Scientist of having "made my peace with my brain."[x]


To claim that we lack free will on the basis of the data provided by the brain studies described above would underestimate the complexity of activity in our brains. The brain activity that results in me making a choice and deciding on certain actions has to have a starting point. It has to have the stimulus provided by a problem or opportunity or challenge in my life which means that my brain begins to function in reaction to it. With the brain studies described above the stimulus is simple and it is external: the researcher asks the volunteer to do one simple thing or another (or sometimes only one simple thing). But the brain activity that leads to choice and decision-making in real life is more complex and more varied in the situations that stimulate the brain activity. Often it is more drawn out in the time taken for the processes of choice and decision-making. And different processes of choice and decision-making, from different starting points, may be proceeding at the same time.


To assert that free will is an illusion, as is common, seems to be setting up a model of what people are supposed to believe and then rejecting it in favour of another, opposite absolute. I would suggest that popular phrases such as 'at the back of my mind' or 'on my mind' indicate that many people have some sense of the complexity of activity in their brains, even if they are unaware of the latest findings of neuroscience. Dick Swaab (2014) argued that we believe that we are constantly making free choices and that we call the process 'free will'. But does everyone believe that or assert that without qualification? Is it possible that some or many people, if presented with evidence of various influences on their decision-making in a particular situation, might not say "Yes, I understand that."?[xi]


And although much human activity could be described as habitual, that does not mean to say that a decision to do something again, or again and again, is pre-determined. I may decide to do something 'without thinking' or without much thinking, because the decision to do that is convenient for me, and it may not be a pressing issue for me. Julian Baggini referred to the situation described by David Eagleman of standing before a buffet supposedly free to choose but time after time taking the same items.[xii] My taste, my upbringing, my character may push me towards taking the same items time after time. But I am choosing what I want. Why should I choose differently when I have established already what I like and what I want?





Free will

Too much weight can be placed on a word in terms of what it might signify. What does it mean to say 'I have free will' or 'I lack free will'? Karl Popper (who was not much given to diffidence or humility) claimed that usually he avoided talking about free will because he was not sure what it meant.[xiii]


I see free will as a rainbow phrase - vivid when observed first but increasingly difficult to pin down. I prefer to talk about real choice so that I can ask: how much real choice do I have in a particular situation? - rather than have to grapple with general questions such as 'Do I have free will? or 'Is free will an illusion?' These general questions carry the risk of provoking absolutism. Instead, the question 'Do I have real choice in this situation?' and 'How much real choice do I have?' can be tools for examining and clarifying the situation I am in.



'Unconscious' seems to be a straightforward word - but is it? Various dictionaries refer to the prefix 'un-' as indicating the opposite of or the reverse of or the absence of something.[xiv] So to talk of unconscious processes is to imply the opposite of or the reverse of or the absence of consciousness. That might make sense if, for example, you suffered a head injury and become unconscious for a time. But to imply that in general unconsciousness represents the opposite of or the reverse of or the absence of consciousness would be to pose them as false opposites.
















Cooperation and Community, 2019

[i] Susan Blackmore & Emily T. Trascianko. Consciousness: an Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

[ii] Les Reid. Book review. Philosophy Now, Nov./Dec. 2014. p. 42

[iii] New Scientist. Your Conscious Mind. London: John Murray Learning, 2017. p. 56

[iv] Moheb Costandi. 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know about the Human Brain. London: Quercus, 2013. p. 60

[v] Eddy Nahmias. 'Why we have free will' in: Scientific American, January 2015. pp. 77-79

[vi] Dick Swaab. We are our Brains. London: Penguin, 2014. p. 333

[vii] Daniel Rhodes. 'How Accurate Are Referees? The PR v The Research'. The Tompkins Times. 5th March 2018. <>

[viii] Martin Taylor. Kiss and Tell: autobiography of a travelling musician. London: Sanctuary, 2000.. p. 35

[ix] New Scientist. Your Conscious Mind. London: John Murray Learning, 2017. p. 56

[x] Patricia Churchland. 'The benefit of realising you are just a brain', interview with Graham Lawton in: New Scientist, 30 November 2013. p. 31

[xi] Dick Swaab. We are our Brains. London: Penguin, 2014. p. 332

[xii] Julian Baggini. Freedom Regained: the Possibility of Free Will. London: Granta, 2015. p. 50

[xiii] Karl Popper. Conjectures and Refutation. 4th ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. p. 123

[xiv] Chambers Dictionary. 13th ed. London: Chambers, 2014; Oxford Students' Dictionary. OUP, 2013. p. 1142; Collins' English Dictionary. Reference ed. London: Collins, 2017. p. 537.