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Home______Looking for Self: Yogi Berra, Forks in The Road, Benamin Libet & Free will

When you come to a fork in the road, take it! said Yogi Berra. Which fork? Why, the one we take. Which one should we take? Should? The question implies an assumption--that we have a choice. Do we?

In 1983 Benjamin Libet and other scientists reported experiments that shed rather interesting light on the issue.

Libet and his cohorts applied a stimulus to the muscles of subjects. What they discovered from subjects' reaction has far-reaching implications for understanding ourselves and our place in the universe.

The stimulus took 550 to 1050 milliseconds before muscles contracted, demonstrating a readiness to react.

Not until 350 milliseconds after contraction did the patient become aware of any will to act on the stimulus. In short, a muscular action occurred before any sense of decision to do it. The patient exercised will to act after the action took place. Muscle response preceded conscious will. Awareness of a decision came after the act had been performed.

In general, a half second must lapse before conscious will occurs.

What does this mean? That human sense of awareness lags stimulus. Put it this way: all events happen before we are aware of them.

So who chooses? That is, who is the chooser? The exerciser of will? By the time sense of will is felt, muscles have already responded.

The sense of will occurs too late, in the past. The I, or exerciser of will, must also be reflected in the past. Your "you" and my "I" then live in the past. We speak about living for the present moment, not the future, not the past, but we, our senses of self, are forever thrown into the past. (See Fait accompli, this same date, below.)

When we discuss the future all words fall into the past before completed. When we snap our fingers to signify the now, by the time snapping is recognized it, too, has fallen into the past.

Libet's experiment implies that we cannot be objective about the present and the future. We can’t be objective because they are beyond control of conscious will.

Responses occur without the sense of a volitional responder, which is another way of saying that doing happens without a doer.

Note, however, in the 28 December article, Free will: Goswami, Balsekar, Libet, that Goswami says "given the choice of negating the action, they could do it," and Balsekar explains the matter with the phrase "consciousness selects a particular thought." This suggests that some volitional ability remains.

So who is doing what to whom? Does the first baseman tag the runner out, or are they both part of some system that determines tagger and taggee?

Given Libet’s experiment, the first baseman doesn’t will that he tag the runner. Perhaps it is a "system" of stimulus and response, in this case a baseball game.

What about that fork in the road? Do you still think you choose? Before answering too quickly, consider the response of a prominent thinker. For this response, see the 15 December article on compatibilist volition and Daniel Dennett.


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