The headline reads “A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked.” It was prominently displayed at the top of the default Google News Spotlight for several days. The article was at The Atlantic.
The headline is wrong, but the underlying story describes a blow to Determinism that I want to bring to your attention. The news hook behind this particular story is new research getting underway to investigate findings originally reported in a 2012 paper. It provides a needed corrective to a meme that has been going around since the 1980s.
Bereitschaftspotential means “readiness potential,” and was first reported in 1964 by a pair of researchers at the University of Freiburg in Germany. They found that latent background brain activity seemed to rise just before a movement was made by a subject.
In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet looked into this Readiness Potential. He asked subjects to watch a clock and report the time it was when they decided to perform a requested motion. He discovered that a heightened background level of brain activity was noticeable between a third and a half of a second before the time the subjects reported choosing to act.
The finding that ‘elevated brain activity preceded the conscious decision to act’ was widely interpreted by Evolutionists and other Atheists as proof that brain chemical interactions trigger human thoughts. This interpretation has been spread all over the internet as if it were a scientifically-proven axiom.
Libet disagreed with the overblown statements of the Determinists, and urged caution.
The 2012 research recounted in this article shows that this investigation needs to be set back to square one.
A new research launch took place this year that is intended to look into the work first reported in 2012. In his article at The Atlantic, reporter Bahar Ghoulipour reviewed the 2012 work of Aaron Schurger of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris.
…Schurger studied fluctuations in neuronal activity, the churning hum in the brain that emerges from the spontaneous flickering of hundreds of thousands of interconnected neurons. This ongoing electrophysiological noise rises and falls in slow tides, like the surface of the ocean—or, for that matter, like anything that results from many moving parts. “Just about every natural phenomenon that I can think of behaves this way. For example, the stock market’s financial time series or the weather,” Schurger says.
From a bird’s-eye view, all these cases of noisy data look like any other noise, devoid of pattern. But it occurred to Schurger that if someone lined them up by their peaks (thunderstorms, market records) and reverse-averaged them in the manner of Kornhuber and Deecke’s innovative approach [from 1964], the results’ visual representations would look like climbing trends (intensifying weather, rising stocks). There would be no purpose behind these apparent trends — no prior plan to cause a storm or bolster the market. Really, the pattern would simply reflect how various factors had happened to coincide.
“I thought, Wait a minute,” Schurger says. If he applied the same method to the spontaneous brain noise he studied, what shape would he get? “I looked at my screen, and I saw something that looked like the Bereitschaftspotential.” Perhaps, Schurger realized, the Bereitschaftspotential’s rising pattern wasn’t a mark of a brain’s brewing intention at all, but something much more circumstantial.
Two years later, Schurger and his colleagues Jacobo Sitt and Stanislas Dehaene proposed an explanation. Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold. Sometimes, this evidence comes from sensory information from the outside world: If you’re watching snow fall, your brain will weigh the number of falling snowflakes against the few caught in the wind, and quickly settle on the fact that the snow is moving downward.
But Libet’s  experiment, Schurger pointed out, provided its subjects with no such external cues. To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.
This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.
Free Will research
The new research was launched at a special International Conference on the Neuroscience of Free Will, which was held this past March at Chapman University in Irvine, California.
“The eight neuroscientists and nine philosophers involved in the new program pledge to do better this time around by asking more precise questions and designing philosophically informed experiments.”
Maybe they will come up with something useful.
In the meantime, we can continue our quarrels.
What do you think? Are you feeling your readiness potential? Is the electrophysiological noise in your brain poised on the verge of producing a coherent thought?