Do we have free will? The answer has big implications.

That more than 99.99% of human brain processes occur at a non-conscious level has reduced the importance that scientists accord the conscious self in human decision-making. (X/@CEA_Officiel)
That more than 99.99% of human brain processes occur at a non-conscious level has reduced the importance that scientists accord the conscious self in human decision-making. (X/@CEA_Officiel)


  • Studies show non-conscious decisions get taken before we consciously ‘decide’ our actions. Human behaviour theory is undergoing a Copernican scale paradigm shift as a result.

On 25 October 2023, Robert Card, a US Army reservist walked into a restaurant and bowling alley in Lewiston, Maine, and shot dead 18 people. After the incident, he too was found dead with self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Everyone in that small town and many around the world were keen to find out why Robert committed this heinous crime. His family too was keen on an answer to this question.

Card’s brain was sent to Boston University for further examination. The analysis found that repetitive sound-waves of the blasts he was exposed to during his military stint had caused much damage to the inner wirings of his brain. 

According to Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Centre, “While I cannot say with certainty that these pathological findings underlie Mr. Card’s behavioural changes in the last 10 months of life, based on our previous work, brain injury likely played a role in his symptoms."

Also read: Machines and models versus humans: Not a no-contest

This diagnosis of Robert Card’s brain raises many questions. Where exactly does the accountability for his mass shooting lie? Is Card, the person, to be held guilty of it, or his damaged brain?

Almost always, society at large, law enforcement agencies and even the prevalent legal systems assume it is the former. So, had Card been alive, sending him to prison or even the gallows would have been the usual response of the justice system. But if a damaged part of his brain was actually responsible for that ghastly act, would it not have been better to have Card admitted to the neurological ward of a hospital?

Unfortunately, Card’s case was not very rare. There are many individuals with damaged brains living around us. The recently published book, Determined: Life Without Free Will by Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, is significant in this context. A belief in free will, the ability of humans to decide what is right or wrong before taking action, is integral to any discussion on human behaviour. 

According to the book, human decisions are not the outcome of free will. Our actions spring from prior causes: our environment, upbringing, genes and primeval causes that go back to the Big Bang. Sapolsky clarifies that the absence of free will does not mean the absence of an ability to veto our actions; nor does it make an individual to run amok. The book focuses on the origins of our intentions.

The book’s key proposition is built on the work of several others. Prominent among them is Benjamin Libet, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. He did an experiment in 1983 whose provocative findings many find hard to accept even today. 

This experiment involved a respondent having to press a button with his or her fingers. The respondent was to decide which finger to use for the pressing action at predetermined times. Meanwhile EEG data was collected of the respondent as his or her fingers were moving.

It was found that from the time a person decides to use a finger to press the button, it takes 200milliseconds for that action to happen. This is the time it took for the respondent’s brain to activate his motor cortex and then muscles to undertake the task. 

Also read: Alas: Behavioural science should never have become a catch-all term

But there was another highly intriguing observation made. About 500 milliseconds before the respondent had decided to push the button, a readiness potential was captured by the EEG that the finger had committed itself to that action.

It was always believed that a human action begins when an individual consciously wills an action. But Libet’s experiment proves that much before an individual thinks consciously of taking an action, another part of the brain has already willed that action.

Studies by neuroscientist Patrick Haggard of University College, London, and another by John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues at Humboldt University, Germany, who used more sophisticated fMRI machines instead of EEG machines, replicated Libet’s study with the same results. So these experiments clearly cast a serious shadow of doubt on the existence of a conscious free will.

A 1989 paper, ‘The Nervous System in the Context of Information Theory’ by Manfred Zimmermann of Heidelberg University concluded that of the 11 million bits of the human brain’s processing capacity, only 77 bits are available for use at a conscious level. 

This fact that more than 99.99% of human brain processes occur at a non-conscious level has further reduced the importance that scientists accord the conscious self in human decision-making.

Occasionally comes a theory that causes a paradigm shift in human thinking. Think of the helio-centric theory of Nicholas Copernicus, the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and the theory of relativity by Albert Einstein. These have all forced significant shifts in human thinking.

In the past few decades, much new knowledge has emerged about neuro-biological facets of human behaviour. This knowledge is converging on a new theory of human behaviour that replaces existing theories based on human decisions arising from our conscious free will.

Also read: Why do we behave the way we do? The secret lies deep within.

The emerging theory of human behaviour is founded on the vast non-conscious processes of the brain. This new theory will force us to rethink all that we thought we knew about human behaviour. Since it concerns all that we humans do, it will possibly have implications that reach farther than the paradigm-shifting theories of Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein combined.

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