Monthly Archives: January 2016

On the 300 Millisecond Issue I

In Free Will, page 8, Sam Harris describes the research of Benjamin Libet in the 1970’s relating to the timing of certain human brain functions. Libet used EEG scans to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex region can be detected approximately 300 milliseconds before a person is consciously aware of having taken a simple decision to move his or her finger or wrist.

Many commentators, Harris amongst them, feel these findings deal a substantial blow to our common notion of free will. In Harris’ words,

These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next — a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please — your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision”, and believe you are in the process of making it. (Free Will, pg. 9)

Harris goes on to query, “Where is the freedom in that?” (Free Will, pg. 9).

Although on the face of it, these findings do seem to threaten a notion of free will, it is not clear to me that they really threaten all notions of free will. Rather, although I agree they do deal a blow to what might be called conscious free will, there might be other notions of free will that, as Daniel Dennett puts it, “are still worth having”.

Continue reading