"When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters however...the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves." -- Sigmund Freud"
Libet argues that free will must, by definition, be conscious; although not all thinkers share this point of view. He sees free will operating in those 200 ms of consciousness between the realization that one is planning to act, and the actual physical execution of the action. Nonetheless, he makes room for the possibility that, "the decision to veto (control) [develops from] unconscious processes that precede the veto." It is his view that, "The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place." Free will then becomes the gatekeeper of action borne of thought, although Libet allows that thoughts spring from the subconscious.
However, "the field remains highly controversial and there is no consensus among researchers about the consensus of findings, their meaning, or what conclusions may be drawn." Kuhn and Brass's research in decision making suggests that people, "persist in believing that they have access to their own cognitive processes...." "When in fact we do a great deal of automatic unconscious processing before conscious perception occurs."
Van Gaal, de Lange, and Cohen state in their "review of studies on the complexity and strength of unconscious information processing....[the empirical evidence shows] local and specific effects of unconscious information on various (high-level) brain regions, including areas in the prefrontal cortex." Furthermore, the authors note that, "it is now generally accepted that several perceptual, emotional, and cognitive processes can unfold in the absence of awareness." This sounds suspiciously like metaphysics.
Merriam Webster defines metaphysics as, "a study of what is outside of objective experience." "Objective" is further explicated as the, "condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers: having reality independent of the mind."
The 350-400 ms between the readiness potential and the conscious awareness of a decision to act are in a general sense, "sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers." However, any observers, including the individual, are not privy to the details of that reality; presumably until the conscious decision is made to act. The crux is how much that subconscious moment influences the conscious decision-making process, which brings us full circle to Libet and his decision to limit free will to consciousness.
There is currently no empirical access to the specifics of this subconscious, possibly metaphysical, experience in the moments before an individual makes a decision to do or do not. One could postulate that some beneficent or malficient force in the subconscious is impacting the individual's conscious decision-making process. The individual him or herself could be operating under their own volition in this subconscious realm. For this reason, it is understandable that scientists and theologians are loathe to explore it. Of course, the question of individual volition--conscious or otherwise--has long been the subject of debate in religious circles.
The subject of free will is historically strongly associated with Calvinists and Arminianists. John Calvin (1509-1564) established the doctrine of predestination in orthodox Protestantism through a system of strict interpretation of the Bible. He reasoned that if God is omniscient and omnipotent, then He is able to do whatever he wants with His creation and everything in it. Accordingly, God predetermines all behaviors, and salvation or damnation. Free will is an illusion. Calvinists believe that Jesus only died for those already chosen for redemption.
In a gross oversimplification, Arminianists agree with predestination in theory, but argue that it only occurs because God knows who will chose Him because he is omniscient outside of time and space. However, they believe that God leaves the decision up to the individual. In their view, Christ died for anyone willing to accept him as Savior.
C. S. Lewis, noted Christian writer and scholar; articulates a benevolent, and largely laissez-faire Almighty, as follows:
"God has made it a rule for Himself that He won't alter people's character by force. He can and will alter them -- but only if the people will let Him. In that way He has really and truly limited His power. Sometimes we wonder why He has done so, or even wish that He hadn't. But apparently He thinks it worth doing. He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn't do anything else. The more we succeed in imagining what a world of perfect automatic beings would be like, the more, I think, we shall see His wisdom."
Where is the nexus of control in our decision-making process? Does it even lie within us? Can we navigate it on a metaphysical plane? Is it merely a cognitive gatekeeper? Our brains themselves are beginning to reveal the comprehensive perceptions and abilities that filter our experience. The Left Brain uses logic, details, facts, words and language, present and past, math and science, comprehension, knowledge, order and pattern perception, objectivity, conventional reality, strategic thinking, practicality, and safety. The Right Brain uses feeling, sees the big picture, imagines, interprets symbols and images, focuses on the present and future, considers philosophy and religion, formulates meaning, believes, appreciates, perceives spatially, knows object functionality, fantasizes, dreams, acts on impulse, and takes risks. Both hemispheres work together to construct what it means to be human.
It's no wonder that unraveling the mystery of free will in all its complexity has raised more questions then it has answered. Wherever the seat of volition resides, I am comforted by C. S. Lewis's case for freedom: "God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata--of creatures that worked like machines--would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that we must be free."
Please see YouTube selection below, "Into the Mystic," by Van Morrison. The writer welcomes your comments on this blog.
1. Libet, B. (1985). "Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action." The Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 8. pp.. 529–566. doi:10.1017/s0140525x00044903.
2. Libet, B. (1999). "Do We Have Free Will?" Journal of Consciousness Studies. 6(No. 8-9), 47-57.
8. Van Gaal, S., de Lange, F. P., & Cohen, M. X. (2012). The role of consciousness in cognitive control and decision making. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 6(121). doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00121
11. Matt Slick, http://www.CARM.org.
13. Lewis, C. S. The Trouble With X.
14. Lewis, C. S. and Norris, K. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.