The neuroscientists running the experiment identified a consistent pattern in the recorded brain activity. Signals were appearing a split second before the volunteers were able to report that they had made their choice. A split second is not much, you would think, but when a scientist is able to show that a result in an experiment cannot be attributed to chance, then this scientist might want to interpret it.
This those scientists did. They explained this pattern of brain activity, observed just before an actual choice was made, as evidence that “unconscious neural processes” determined the volunteers’ actions before they were ever aware of making a decision. They gave it the name “readiness potential”.
According to the New Scientist article, the researchers reasoned that if the RP was really representing the participants’ decision before the participants knew that they had made up their minds, (this is what the original experiment allegedly showed), then it (RP) would be present in the readings for those participants who would decide to tap the key.
To cut the long story short, the newer experiment’s results were apparently disproving the previous experiment’s results. There was, indeed, this unexpected, anticipatory RP, but all participants to the experiment had it, both those who had chosen to tap the key, and those who had chosen not to tap it. Conclusion? The researchers said that the RP possibly shows that the brain is paying some sort of attention, and not that a decision has been made.
Relief! The free will is still with us. It survived yet another attack.
Now, let us for a minute imagine this: Imagine that free will has been proven not to exist. Imagine that scientists have shown that it is always and invariably an illusion. Imagine, moreover, that they (the scientists) are in the position to predict, in a most systematic way, the actions of each and every human being that they put under their focus. Should they be, let’s say, observing someone writing down the numbers to play in the national lottery, they are in a position to predict all the numbers, one by one. Because free will does not exist.
Spooky one would say.
Now, put yourself in the place of this hapless lottery player, and imagine that you are in friendly terms with these scientists. You sit down to choose numbers for the lottery, and your friend, the scientist, calls you.
“Don’t bother choosing”, he says. “We are monitoring you, and we know that you are going to choose 1, 32, 35 and 43. So, go ahead and play these numbers. There is no free will. Don’t waste your time.”
What would you do? Would you not say to yourself something along the lines of the following?
“I don’t know what has gotten them scientists, but I know this. I am not gonna play those numbers. Ever. Period.”
And then you would play something like 19, 22, 23, 45 –anything that would prove the scientists wrong.
So much for the scientific prediction.
But what does this mean? What’s the problem with a prediction, if I choose to contradict it as soon as I get to know it? Does my action invalidate the prediction?
No, it does not invalidate it. But it certainly undermines it.
I shall return to this here.