In The face of God (Gifford Lectures), Scruton discusses in passing the Libet Experiments as an unimportant framing of the discussion of free-will and determinism; without presenting any arguments, taking the ground as granted.

What are the serious arguments that are presented, and framed in what context?

note: The main position, at least to me, appears to be that a physical ground for the will is apparent before a conscious decision is registered by some device.

Granting all this, doesn't suggest to me that the will doesn't exist but merely that is spread in time.

After all we know that the minimal registerable time period is the plank time; and it is inconceivable, that the minimal moment of human time is this minimal physical now.

So we know human time is not minimal but a duree, a span; and it seems plausible that it extends both forward and backward in time (I'm not talking about physical time here)

This seems a more plausible interpretation of the experimental results, if we grant them the reality that they appear to wish to possess.

  • +1 Interesting suggested interpretation. BTW related
    – Drux
    Jul 25, 2015 at 8:35

4 Answers 4


For a discussion of the Libet experiment see the post Contradiction between the selfish gene and lack of free will demonstrated by Libet experiment

The Libet experiment deals with at least two different topics (Benjamin Libet: Mind time. 2004):

  1. Unconscious versus conscious. Libet derives from the measurements of his experiment: A deliberate action starts as unconscious process and becomes conscious to the proband about 500ms later.

  2. Free will versus determinism. Libet is very cautious whether his experiment rules out free will and can be explained by a deterministic approach only. He does not draw any conclusion on this topic. Until proof of the contrary he votes for the hypothesis of free will. He prefers the latter because it conforms to our sense of self.

Concerning your considerations on our subjective sense of time which may differ from the physical time: Please note that all time-related results of the Libet experiment refer to physical time.


Libet himself concluded that our awareness of decision making appears to be an illusion, that consciousness is "out of the loop".

This appears to be different than denying free will. We are conscious of the need to make a decision but we are not necessarily conscious of how that decision is made.

The neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, gives an interesting take on Libet's results:

Given that we have on the order of 30 billion neurons in the neocortex, there is always a lot going on there, and we are consciously aware of very little of it. Decisions, big and little, are constantly being processed by the neocortex, and proposed solutions bubble up to our conscious awareness.

Ramachandran then goes on to suggest that, rather than free will, we should be talking about "free won't" - i.e., the power to reject solutions proposed by the nonconscious parts of the neocortex.

Daniel Dennett commented on Libet's result:

The action is originally precipitated in some part of the brain, and off fly the signals to our muscles, pausing en route to tell you, the conscious agent, what is going on (but like all good officials, letting you, the bumbling president, maintain the illusion that you stared it all).

One might wonder: If the subject is unaware of when s/he is aware of making a decisions, then who is? But the point is well taken - what we are conscious of is far from clear.

(Both of the quotes I have given are taken indirectly from Ray Kurzweil's book, How to Create a Mind.)


Something that has always intrigued me, and that we have all experienced, is the ability to access our memory, and even our reasoning, without consciously thinking about it. We may be asked a question which we should know the answer to but we cannot seem to form the answer, no matter how hard we try. We might say "I'll have to think about that", although we give it no further conscious thought. Some time later, perhaps days later, the answer will suddenly pop into ones mind. We have submitted our will to our subconscious, where it has been subsumed (intact) and acted upon. Why should the decision making undertaken by the subconscious be any different (less free) than that of the conscious.

EDIT 16 Aug 15

I have (or more precisedly, Kurzweil has) incorrectly attributed the notion of free-won't to Ramachandran. According to Susan Blackmore, it was Libet himself who suggested this alternative.


It is important to realise that the Libet experiments have been subject to a range of criticisms and that Libet never intended his experiments to prove/disprove free will.

There are persuasive claims that free will is logically impossible, most of which run along the lines of: nothing (as far as we have currently observed) can be 'casua sui' (the cause of itself), and insofar as a free decision would need to be independent of prior causes, free will cannot exist.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy deals with logical arguments for and against free will:


and describes the impact of determinism upon free will arguments:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/#DetHumAct https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-arguments/ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/

In 2019, a 68-page white paper, Free Will: Recent Work on Agency, Freedom, and Responsibility was also released by the John Templeton Foundation, freely available here:


See also:

Radder & Meynen, 2012: https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354312460926

Seifert, 2011: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23055749

A 2019 article in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/09/free-will-bereitschaftspotential/597736/

...and the Scientific American (2019) https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-a-flawed-experiment-proved-that-free-will-doesnt-exist/


I would like to offer another plausible interpretation/explanation for the main Libet result - i.e. that a "deliberate action starts as an unconscious process about 500ms before" the conscious becomes aware of it.
Let me start by offering (without proof), that the "conscious" is aware that it takes about 400ms for the signals/commands to the muscles to get executed, and it takes 100ms for the "conscious" to process information.
It this is correct, then in any given situation were the "conscious" has to make the "best" decision, as fast as possible, at the last moment possible, the "conscious" has to issue commands to the subconscious processors 400ms ahead of time. This way, the 400ms muscle delay plus 100ms processing time, would make it appear that the decision was made instantaneously.
In the alternative, if the "conscious" makes the decision to flee and sends the command to the subconscious processors, it will be at least 400ms before the muscles react, increasing the provability of death.
This explanation clearly demonstrates that Libet's 500ms delay has nothing to do with free will!

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