Feb 122015


According to a study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, random fluctuations in the brain’s “background electrical noise” might have a say in our decisions. An article on the ucdavis.edu website suggests that this could possibly be labeled “free will“. In other words, it opens the free will door.

Take a look at the article here:
Does ‘free will’ stem from brain noise?

The article is brief, but has some conclusions that simply do no follow from what is explained in the study. It first says this, in order to prep you for the really bad thinking to come:

“How do we behave independently of cause and effect?” said Jesse Bengson, a postdoctoral researcher at the center and first author on the paper. “This shows how arbitrary states in the brain can influence apparently voluntary decisions.”

The article then goes on to explain the study in which volunteers are hooked up to an EEG (to record their brain states)and are told to watch the center of a screen. Then, once a cue, set at a random interval, appeared on the screen, the volunteers were asked to make a decision to either look left or right, and show what they decided on. What the researchers  found was that a second before the cue appeared on the screen, a pattern appeared on the EEG that allowed them to predict a likely outcome.

You can watch a short clip here:

They then go on to explain how this builds on the experiments of Libet in the 70’s in which brain states before someone made a decision to press a button with their left or right hand helped determine which one they would decide on before they were consciously aware of their own decision.

The new results build on Libet’s finding, because they provide a model for how brain activity could precede decision, Bengson said. Additionally, Libet had to rely on when volunteers said they made their decision. In the new experiment, the random timing means that “we know people aren’t making the decision in advance,” Bengson said.

And that’s all fine, until of course the grand finale when they decide to “jump the shark” with this assessment:

Libet’s experiment raised questions of free will — if our brain is preparing to act before we know we are going to act, how do we make a conscious decision to act? The new work, though, shows how “brain noise” might actually create the opening for free will, Bengson said.

“It inserts a random effect that allows us to be freed from simple cause and effect,” he said.

The first mistake here is in thinking that such states are independent of cause and effect. That such is a truly “random” event, in the sense of not being caused (what I call an acausal event). They seemingly pull this idea from where the sun doesn’t shine as there is nothing in this experiment that even suggests this. The fact that there is “brain noise” that helps determine their assessment of the outcome says absolutely nothing about the noise not being itself caused.

But that’s not the worst part of the assessment. The worst part is in thinking that if the noise truly was from a non-causal process (if we were to grant that non-sequitur), that such could in any way be considered “free will”. Such noise, in fact, would be entirely outside of any “willing” at all. It would just be a spontaneous happening that the person would have absolutely no control over.

Is it possible that an event can really take place without a cause? Sure, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Of course such an event has some major problems to contend with that I go over thoroughly in the book Breaking the Free Will illusion. But if there were these events that didn’t have a cause, and if they truly did have an effect on our decisions, such would be an event that could never be caused by a willer. And worse, it would be detrimental to our coherency and decision making capabilities.

People who think that an event that is outside of causality can ever help grant free will, it seems to me, have never given much thought on what such an event actually implies.

But in reality this study neither shows that the “brain noise” is free from causation, nor does it empirically open the door to free will. If anything, it closes that door a little more than it was. Of course the real closer of the door is the logically incoherent nature of free will when assessed from the only two possible ways events can come about, either causally or acausally. But that’s a whole other story. 😉

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  5 Responses to “Brain Noise Being Labeled as Free Will? Not So Fast!”

Comments (5)
  1. You are of course correct, Trick.

  2. It would be interesting if the mind partly worked on an internal Darwinian model–“random”(not in the ontological sense, but like a gambling device or a random number generator) generation of ideas, fragments of ideas and connections could be done very rapidly on a subconscious level.

    Higher order cognitive processes would screen out most before they even reach our awareness while the competition between the last two or several would enter our awareness.

    This would be consistent with the feeling of intuition many people have as well as the phenomenon of odd thoughts seeming to pop into the mind (where did that come from?) and being interpreted in various situations as artistic inspiration, disturbing intrusive thoughts or even communication with another entity.

    • I’d think many thoughts and experiences probably come about this pseudo-random way, dreams, daydreaming, obscure thoughts, and so on. 😉

  3. Hi Trick,

    You might have some insight to add to this discussion that is of actual merit, and I certainly look forward to hearing it. But before then, I suggest that you thoroughly read the actual published paper, including the most important part, the methods. It is clear from your small piece here that you have not done your homework; although you do seem intelligent enough to have an informed opinion, you may have missed the boat on this one.


    Jesse Bengson

    • Hi Jesse,

      Thanks for the visit. Do understand that my criticism here isn’t with the “paper” or it’s methodologies, but rather the article I linked to that uses the “free will” term in correlation with addressing the paper (and misunderstands causation as well). As my post says “An article on the ucdavis.edu website suggests that this could possibly be labeled “free will”.” I also quote directly the relevant parts of my assessment of the article.

      And do understand that my post isn’t about knocking down the “paper” (which I deem as valuable) but rather these poor assessments of “free will” or what ambiguous words such as “randomness” actually imply, in the article that is addressing the paper. This is an important distinction for my criticism. I do see that you are a media contact for the Center for Mind and Brain, so perhaps some clarifications on why the “free will” term was decided on here may be in order. But from my perspective I hopped on the (correct) boat. :-)

      Also note that claims like this “It inserts a random effect that allows us to be freed from simple cause and effect,” are very strong claims. Even at the quantum level we don’t know if there are events that are actually free from cause and effect (it depends on the interpretation of QM). But even if we accept such, that does not open the “free will” door (hence the greater criticism).

      Take care,

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