A new study just reported from Germany concludes that “Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain…. The decision could not be predicted perfectly, but prediction was clearly above chance. This suggests that the decision is unconsciously prepared ahead of time but the final decision might still be reversible.”
This echoes a previous study by Benjamin Libet, which had similar results though with a shorter time interval. Many interpreted Libet’s study as refuting free will, since in some sense the brain apparently decided before the conscious mind did. The current study’s authors are more cautious:
Haynes and colleagues now show that brain activity predicts even up to 7 seconds ahead of time how a person is going to decide. But they also warn that the study does not finally rule out free will: “Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought. But we do not know yet where the final decision is made. We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed.”
[From Unconscious decisions in the brain
Regardless of whether those “prepared” decisions can be reversed, however, free will may still exist. First, there are still massive philosophical absurdities associated with its denial. Bill Dembski just blogged on one of those yesterday. Second, is there any requirement that free choices be entirely conscious choices? Why would that be so? Third, it’s unclear from this report in just what way the unconscious aspects of the decision are fed and influenced by conscious thinking. Fourth, if free will is not operating in the decisions this team studied, just how are decisions made? Do they have any explanation for that at all?
Such an explanation would have to jump a significant hurdle. The one providing it would have to show that he or she believes it not because of deterministic necessity, but because there are good reasons to believe it. The distance between the two is enormous.