Philosophers have spent millennia debating whether we have free will, without reaching a conclusive answer. Neuroscientists optimistically entered the field in the 1980s, armed with tools they were confident could reveal the origin of actions in the brain. Three decades later, they have reached the same conclusion as the philosophers: Free will is complicated.
Now, a new research program spanning 17 universities and backed by more than $7 million from two private foundations hopes to break out the impasse by bringing neuroscientists and philosophers together. The collaboration, the researchers say, can help them tackle two important questions: What does it take to have free will? And whatever that is, do we have it?
Neuroscience’s first and most famous encounter with free will occurred in 1984, when physiologist Benjamin Libet made a peculiar discovery. A brain signal called the readiness potential was known to precede self-initiated actions, such as raising a hand or spontaneously tapping a finger. Libet found the readiness potential starts to rise before people report they are aware of their decision to move. Many took that as a challenge to the existence of free will. But subsequent studies argued that was a flawed interpretation, and that the results said little about free will.