The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Free Will & Benjamin Libet?

Tom, can you give me your thoughts on the research by Benjamin Libet (and others)?


  • Pat

Thanks for your question, Pat. Interestingly, I just returned from a conference (the Central Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association in Chicago) that included a session on Libet’s work. But unfortunately, as I explain in my announcement, I have little time to post right now, so my response to your question must be brief and inadequate.

Be that as it may, I seriously doubt that Libet has interpreted correctly his own experiments concerning the matter of forming intentions, of making decisions, and of consciously controlling our actions. For a close examination of these experiments and a devastating critique of Libet’s own interpretation of them, see Alfred R. Mele, Free Will and Luck (Oxford University Press), pp. 30-46. See also Mele’s forthcoming book Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will (Oxford University Press) to be published within a month or two. As Mele points out, we must distinguish carefully between the experimental data or the actual results of experiments, on the one hand, and the concepts used to represent the data, on the other. In particular, Libet’s failure to distinguish an intention to do something from wanting to do it or even from having an urge to do it results, according to Mele, in a lot of confusion about when an intention supposedly appears on the scene. Mele thus concludes: “Attention not only to the data but also to the concepts in terms of which the data are analyzed makes it clear that Libet’s striking claims about decisions, intentions, and free will are not justified by the data” (p. 45).

Incidentally, I thought the discussion at the URL you provided was pretty good, and the following quotation, which coheres nicely with Mele’s discussion, seems to me right on target:

Thanks again for your question, and sorry for the brevity of my reply.


Incidentally, when I was teaching people to fence, one of the things I focused on was the relationship between action and reaction (not least because the scoring of two of the weapons heavily relies on this distinction), and the subsequent relationship between consciously intended action, trained habits (which occur automatically but which don’t start off that way) and instincts (which occur automatically without conscious direction, or not at first anyway).

Fencing is great as a sport-illustration for this, because so many of its practices in a martial-art sense are built on suppressing faulty instincts (to overparry, for example; or to cover one’s chest with the unweapon’d hand, which can actually be very useful in other sword styles but not in Olympic fencing); building new habits (such as keeping the body rotated to present a minimum target section, and rotating the sword-wrist over palm-up in order to help minimize parrying and keep the tip on/near target); encouraging helpful instincts (not much of this compared to other martial-art forms, but the overhead sabre parry would be an example); and consciously planning and putting into operation strategies and tactics.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of designing martial art forms which encourage and direct already-existent instincts, too, of course. But the purpose is still to shape instincts and to create habits which can be relied on to occur more-or-less automatically in mental subprocessing.

Since it’s relevant, here’s a link to Sam Harris’ new book on free will: … _itm_img_1

Here’s a link to an article in Nature magazine titled "Taking Aim at Free Will by Kerri Smith which nicely summarizes the issues being talked about here.

This topic continues to be one of the most intriguing for me as a UR believer…


Hey guys! Long time! Just wanted to update this thread with a link to Christof Koch describing experiments that allow scientists to (to some degree) accurately predict what your next move will be-- before you’re aware of it!

I can link to peer reviewed papers and longer talks, but here’s a teaser for now.

This seems much more difficult to deal with than Libet’s work. Or maybe not?


  • Pat