World Science Scholars
3.2 Decision-Making in the Real World
Libet-style experiments only examine arbitrary decision making.drop-down

  • In order to make general claims about free will from the results of Libet-style experiments, we must identify what kinds of decisions were being made. The problem is that these experiments measured only arbitrary decision making.
  • These decisions are clearly arbitrary because there is no preferred time for the subject of a Libet-style experiment to flex. There is no reward or punishment for flexing quickly or at specific time; it is all the same.
  • Consider the famous parable of Buridan’s Ass: A hyper-rational donkey exists that will never perform an action unless it has a better reason to do that action than anything else. This donkey finds itself perfectly equidistant to two equivalent bales of hay, and starves to death because it cannot decide.
  • Humans do not suffer this fate because we are capable of making random, arbitrary choices without any conscious processing. A simple example is shopping at the supermarket: people do not agonize over which individual jar of peanuts they should buy, they just grab one from the brand they like.

The arbitrary choices in these experiments do not reflect real-world decision making.drop-down

  • Actual decisions that people have to make in life, like getting a divorce or taking a new job, require significant conscious reasoning.
  • These decisions are made by actively considering the various positive and negative factors about each possible choice.
  • Most real decisions are nothing like arbitrary decisions. But if that is correct, then there is no basis for generalizing from the alleged findings about arbitrary decisions to all instances of decision-making.
  • Furthermore these experiments do not even allow for conscious decision-making because they ask subjects to act on spontaneous urges. They are specifically told not to think in advance, so any connection between these simple arbitrary tasks and real, time-consuming, conscious decision making is unfounded.

These experiments do not disprove free will even under narrow definitions of the term.drop-down

  • Restrictivism is a philosophical view that says that free will is only exercised when humans have to make difficult decisions between competing options.
  • If this view is correct then these arbitrary picking experiments did not test free will at all, since it is not even involved in arbitrary choices.
  • Even if restrictivism is wrong, there is a huge difference between randomly deciding and deciding after painstaking conscious reasoning. Given this difference, scientists and philosophers are in no position to generalize from these arbitrary choice experiments to all cases of human decision.

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