Study tackles neuroscience claims to have disproved 'free will'

March 12, 2018

For several decades, some researchers have argued that neuroscience studies prove human actions are driven by external stimuli -- that the brain is reactive and free will is an illusion. But a new analysis of these studies shows that many contained methodological inconsistencies and conflicting results.

"Score one for skepticism of claims that neuroscience has proven -- or disproven -- any metaphysical position," says Veljko Dubljevic, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of philosophy at NC State who specializes in research on the neuroscience of ethics and the ethics of neuroscience and technology.

"The problem is that neuroscientists in training are being taught these studies provide definitive proof of the absence of free will, and instructors aren't being careful about looking at the evidence that supports the claims that are made," Dubljevic says. "Teaching uncritical thinking like this in science courses is both unscientific and socially dangerous."

At issue are studies like those pioneered by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, which assessed brain activity in study participants who were asked to perform a specific task. Libet found brain activity preceded a person's actions before the person decided to act. Later studies, using various techniques, claimed to have replicated this basic finding.

But in the first-ever qualitative review of these studies, researchers are finding that the results are far from conclusive. The review analyzed 48 studies, ranging from Libet's landmark 1983 paper through 2014.

"We found that interpretation of study results appears to have been driven by the metaphysical position the given author or authors subscribed to -- not by a careful analysis of the results themselves," Dubljevic says. "Basically, those who opposed free will interpreted the results to support their position, and vice versa."

The researchers also found significant variability across studies. For example, a subset of studies that actually looked at where activity was taking place in the brain, and whether it was related to will (or intent to complete a task), often found conflicting results.

"Meanwhile, the journal articles that drew the most forceful conclusions often didn't even assess the neural activity in question - which means their conclusions were based on speculation," Dubljevic says. "It is crucial to critically examine whether the methods used actually support the claims being made."

This is important because what people are told about free will can affect their behavior.

"Numerous studies suggest that fostering a belief in determinism influences behaviors like cheating," Dubljevic says. "Promoting an unsubstantiated belief on the metaphysical position of non-existence of free will may increase the likelihood that people won't feel responsible for their actions if they think their actions were predetermined."

And this isn't a problem solely within the neuroscience community. Earlier work by Dubljevic and his collaborators found challenges in how this area of research has been covered by the press and consumed by the public.

"To be clear, we're not taking a position on free will," Dubljevic says. "We're just saying neuroscience hasn't definitively proven anything one way or the other."
-end-
The paper, "The impact of a landmark neuroscience study on free will: A qualitative analysis of articles using Libet et al.'s methods," is published in the American Journal of Bioethics - Neuroscience. The paper was co-authored by Victoria Saigle and Eric Racine of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal.

The work was supported with funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Racine), the Fonds de recherche du Québec - Santé for career awards (Racine), the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships Programme (Dubljevic) and a seed grant from NC State University (Dubljevic).

North Carolina State University

Related Neuroscience Articles from Brightsurf:

Researchers rebuild the bridge between neuroscience and artificial intelligence
In an article in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers reveal that they have successfully rebuilt the bridge between experimental neuroscience and advanced artificial intelligence learning algorithms.

The evolution of neuroscience as a research
When the first issue of the JDR was published, the field of neuroscience did not exist but over subsequent decades neuroscience has emerged as a scientific field that has particular relevance to dentistry.

Diabetes-Alzheimer's link explored at Neuroscience 2019
Surprising links exist between diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, and researchers are beginning to unpack the pathology that connects the two.

Organoid research revealed at Neuroscience 2019
Mini-brains, also called organoids, may offer breakthroughs in clinical research by allowing scientists to study human brain cells without a human subject.

The neuroscience of autism: New clues for how condition begins
UNC School of Medicine scientists found that a gene mutation linked to autism normally works to organize the scaffolding of brain cells called radial progenitors necessary for the orderly formation of the brain.

Harnessing reliability for neuroscience research
Neuroscientists are amassing the large-scale datasets needed to study individual differences and identify biomarkers.

Blue Brain solves a century-old neuroscience problem
In a front-cover paper published in Cerebral Cortex, EPFL's Blue Brain Project, a Swiss Brain Research Initiative, explains how the shapes of neurons can be classified using mathematical methods from the field of algebraic topology.

Characterizing pig hippocampus could improve translational neuroscience
Researchers have taken further steps toward developing a superior animal model of neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury and epilepsy, according to a study of miniature pigs published in eNeuro.

The neuroscience of human vocal pitch
Among primates, humans are uniquely able to consciously control the pitch of their voices, making it possible to hit high notes in singing or stress a word in a sentence to convey meaning.

Study tackles neuroscience claims to have disproved 'free will'
For several decades, some researchers have argued that neuroscience studies prove human actions are driven by external stimuli -- that the brain is reactive and free will is an illusion.

Read More: Neuroscience News and Neuroscience Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.