Why neuroscience does not disprove free will

Marcel Brass*, Ariel Furstenberg, Alfred R. Mele

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


While the question whether free will exists or not has concerned philosophers for centuries, empirical research on this question is relatively young. About 35 years ago Benjamin Libet designed an experiment that challenged the common intuition of free will, namely that conscious intentions are causally efficacious. Libet demonstrated that conscious intentions are preceded by a specific pattern of brain activation, suggesting that unconscious processes determine our decisions and we are only retrospectively informed about these decisions. Libet-style experiments have ever since dominated the discourse about the existence of free will and have found their way into the public media. Here we review the most important challenges to the common interpretation of Libet-style tasks and argue that the common interpretation is questionable. Brain activity preceding conscious decisions reflects the decision process rather than its outcome. Furthermore, the decision process is configured by conditional intentions that participants form at the beginning of the experiment. We conclude that Libet-style tasks do not provide a serious challenge to our intuition of free will.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)251-263
Number of pages13
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
StatePublished - Jul 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Elsevier Ltd


  • Attention
  • Awareness
  • Bias-signal
  • COINTOB model
  • Choice
  • Conditional intention
  • Decision
  • Drift-diffusion model
  • Free will
  • Implementation intention
  • Integration-to-bound process
  • Intentional action
  • Libet
  • Picking
  • Psychopathology
  • Readiness potential
  • Stochastic noise
  • Vetoing
  • Volition
  • W time


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