According to the Libet experiment, there is no such thing as a free will, only the illusion of it. This means that not only biologically every living creature follows a program that is aimed to spread and preserve his genetic code, but also our thinking follows a somehow fixed program (depends on the level of abstraction we look at it).

But if Libet is right, doesn't that cause some conflicts, when it comes to preservation of the own genetic code? If we have no free will and we follow our inner program than why are people able to commit suicide? Why are women able to decide to have no children?

I am total layman when it comes to philosophy/biology and this topics, but I am very interessted in it. I hope you get my point above.

  • 1
    What do you mean by "fixed program"?
    – Dave
    Jun 30, 2015 at 13:00
  • Natural Selection. God of the atheist.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 30, 2015 at 16:03
  • 1
    As it stands, this question ought to be clarified. If I understand it correctly, you are asking how one can reconcile Darwinian evolution with human behaviour that might damage chances of healthy offspring. The free-will/Libet aspect of your question seems irrelevant.
    – innisfree
    Jun 30, 2015 at 19:23
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    Note that the "aiming" by evolution is post-hoc and at the individual level. It's not like evolution gets to select every action--just overall, all things considered, who left progeny (who themselves left progeny, etc.) vs. those who didn't.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jul 1, 2015 at 3:17

4 Answers 4


Benjamin Libet in his book "Mind time. The temporal factor in consciousness (2004)" carefully describes the experimental setting of his investigations. His result: First, our brain starts the process of volition. At about 350-400 milliseconds later, the proband realizes - consciously - that he wants to act.

Libet explains that a proband can well discriminate whether he acts on the base of his own volition or whether he is forced to act because his motor cortex is stimulated by an electrode of the investigator.

In his book Libet discusses a series of conclusions from his experiment which refer to the concept of free will.

The second topic from your question refers to the book "Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene (1976)". In my opinion Dawkins point of view is very helpful and sheds new light on the principles of evolution. But I would not expect that every facet of human behaviour and human decision is determined and can be explained solely from the genotype of the individuum. An individuum is also strongly affected by his sociological and his cultural environment as well as by other factors of his personal situation, e.g. concerning the decision whether a person wants children or not.

I consider both, the problem of free will and the problem to which degree the "selfish" genes determine our behaviour, two big and unsolved problems. Combining them and asking how they are linked, seems to me more than today's neuroscience, biology, psychology and sociology can work on. Therefore I would consider each problem in separation and postpone the answer to your original dilemma.


I suggest looking at Libet experiments more closely, because their results are often misreported. They showed essentially that the onset of unconscious cerebral activity that initiates a move comes way before the awareness of the wish to move. However, "Libet himself argued that there was still room for a veto over a decision that may have been made unconsciously over 300 milliseconds before the agent is consciously aware of the decision to flex a finger, but before the action of muscles flexing". Moreover, identifying unconscious activity that precedes the action as its cause is itself problematic.

Nevertheless, the issues you mention are perfectly compatible with "no free will". First, natural selection works at the level of species, not specimen. Particular individuals committing suicide or not having children may in principle benefit the species overall. Second, no machine is perfect, software can have errors, and hardware can have glitches, especially when software and hardware are as complex as genetic code and human body, and the method of construction is as messy as natural selection. Third, the evolution is ongoing and we are relatively young species, if there are genetic markers for suicides and childlessness natural selection may well wash them out of the gene pool eventually, but not already.

And finally, genetic explanation of these actions is very far fetched. Whether or not free will exists, genetic code is not a program that directly controls behavior. Outside of hard wired instincts its effect is very roundabout and vague even in higher animals, let alone humans. There are plenty of environmental, situational and just plain random factors that affect brain activity and decision making patterns that may be determinative, but have nothing to do with genes.

  • "Mentally weak individuals committing suicide, or unsuitable mothers not having children may well benefit the species overall" - I find that phrasing rather troubling and callous
    – innisfree
    Jun 30, 2015 at 20:38
  • @innisfree I made it more neutral.
    – Conifold
    Jul 1, 2015 at 0:09
  • @conifold: Godel starved himself to death, as did Simone Weil; Turing committed suicide - do you consider these three to be mentally unstable and weak creatures? Jul 1, 2015 at 19:46
  • @Mozibur Ullah Considering the quote was written in subjunctive mood, and "genetic explanation of these actions is very far fetched" in indicative the answer follows from the grammar.
    – Conifold
    Jul 3, 2015 at 0:36

The Libet experiment has nothing to do with free will. In that experiment, the subject has decided what he wants to do. He wants to press a particular button. He then has to decide when to press it. The process of making that decision is instantiated in his brain. It turns out in this particular case that you can read part of that process and use it to surprise the person before the process is complete.

If Libet had connected the button to a gun that would shoot somebody in the head if you pushed the button, then some people would have refused to participate. People who agreed to participate could have been talked out of it if presented with the right argument. Nobody who participated could claim that he didn't have a choice: participating in the experiment requires that the person take certain actions, and refrain from backing out.

Now you say that every living creature is programmed to propagate its genes. This is not accurate. Genes contain behavioural programs that resulted in those genes being copied in the past. In the case of human beings, that genetic program gives us the hardware required to create new explanatory knowledge. As a result, a person can learn a new explanation and decide not to do things that will result in his genes being copied.

Free will is a moral idea about how we ought to deal with people: that is, we ought to treat people as if they act on ideas. If a person does something bad you don't act as if it was an accident. Rather, you should treat him as if he might do it again. By contrast, a rock doesn't have ideas and if it falls down and hurts somebody there's not much point in locking it up or talking to it.

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    I wouldn't say the experiment has nothing to do with free will. It showed that the onset of unconscious cerebral activity that initiates the move comes way before the awareness of the wish to move. This certainly challenges, if not rules out, most naive theories of conscious will, although it is compatible with some more elaborate ones, like the Jamesian model or Libet's own "conscious veto". informationphilosopher.com/freedom/libet_experiments.html
    – Conifold
    Jun 30, 2015 at 19:16
  • this doesn't answer the question and contains contentious, underdeveloped statements about free-will and Libet experiments
    – innisfree
    Jun 30, 2015 at 19:27

I find the discussion on the Libet experiment troublingly unsophisticated.

No-one would deny that when I wave my hand that an impulse has been directed along nerves; and that this transmission physically happens just before my hand moves; (and of course it happens before as it must do, and not after) though of course I think it happens just when I think of doing so - there is an illusion of simultaneity.

But there are two unlike things being compared here: myself to myself, and myself as a physical object. These are qualitatively different.

Supposing that there is an exact Correspondance between mental acts and physical acts, at every level; then this, by itself does not deny free-will.

But of course it's not by itself, and this is where the crux of the problem lies: in that physical acts are seen as determined; and this is prominently a conception of the mechanistic philosophy as derived from Newton.

But consider that the first mechanistic philosophy (in the West) was originated by Democritus; and elaborated by Epicurus and put down in well-rounded Latin hexameters by Lucretious.

And that in this conception we see that atoms are in a sense given free-will (the Clinamen) so that they will interact; this, had any one bothered to note it with sufficient acuity at the time will have brought out the notion of uncertainty in physical motion as an irreducible notion before the advent of QM.

What I'm pointing out here is that, in Antiquity, taking the notion of the will seriously brought out a physical notion; whereas we seem to be troubled now with taking determinism seriously as seeing all our acts as determined.

Schopenhauer took the Will seriously enough that his philosophy was wholly based on it.

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