“EEG Recording Cap” by Colin licensed under CC by 2.0

Can Unconscious Decisions Be Free?

(Image credit: “EEG Recording Cap” by Colin licensed under CC by 2.0)


Over the past few decades, many have tried to make sense of Libet’s Studies and their ilk. Even though the experiments were conducted decades ago, scientists and philosophers (and philosophers of science) still disagree. I suppose that is not surprising since free will is a concept that is tough to translate into a measurable outcome and one that we have strong feelings about.

Some have said that free will is an illusion (Wegner 2002; Harris 2012). But what reason(s) do we have to think that free will is really an illusion? To answer that question, I should summarize the famous studies. If you know about the studies, skip the following paragraph.

In Libet’s studies, subjects were asked to move their hand whenever they willed (if you’ll pardon my using that word). While people were moving their hands, their brain activity was being monitored. After a subject moved their hand, they reported the moment they intended to move their hand (based upon the location of a hand on a clock like the one below). As the story goes, the people watching subjects’ brain activity could predict that the hand was going to move before the subject actually moved his hand. In fact, they could predict when the subject was going to move their hand earlier than the time that the subject reported their intention to move their hand. They could do this by looking at patterns in brain activity (EEG) that preceded hand movements.

"B.Libet.experiment" by CreateAccount licensed under CC by 3.0
“B.Libet.experiment” by CreateAccount licensed under CC by 3.0

As it turns out, many studies similar to Libet’s have been conducted. On average, researchers can predict a person’s action before the person is even aware of an intention to act — sometimes by 200 milliseconds, but sometimes by as much as 7 seconds. While 200 milliseconds might seem negligible, seven seconds probably isn’t.

One interpretation of these results is that people do not become aware of their own intentions until after the intentions form. This interpretation challenges intuitions about how action works. According to the intuition being challenged…

    1. If I am unaware of an intention, then I am not in control of forming the intention.
    2. If am not in control of forming my intention, then I am not in control of whatever action(s) result from the intention.
    3. If I am not in control of an intention of the action(s) that result from the intention, then I am not free.
    4. I am unaware of my intention(s).

Conclusion: I am not free

Let’s call this the anti-free-will conclusion.

I think that this conclusion is the result of our intuitions framing this problem poorly. Notice that the premises above imply a sort of dualism about personal agency. After all, we might ask, “If I am not in control of my intentions, then who is?” Unless we are comfortable granting such dualism, we should be suspect of how we intuitively think about scenarios like Libet’s studies.

But suspicion only gets us so far. If we are to make progress on Libet’s studies, we will need to be more than suspicious. We will need to be critical. If we do this, we will learn that the anti-free-will conclusion involves premises that we have yet to consider. These premises are as follows:

A. An act is “free” if and only if the actor is aware (or “conscious” in Libet’s terms) of their own intention to act at the time that the intention forms (or before, if that is even possible).

B. The intention to act is identical with certain pattern of neural activity.

C. According to Libet’s studies, an intention (or its identical neural activity) almost always precedes a subject’s awareness of that intention.

We can be suspect of premise B, but we will not resolve that suspicion here, so we will grant it. And obviously, we can demand clarification about how the terms “free” and “will” and “intention” are translated into measurable outcomes, but this too will not be resolved here, so we will have interpret these broadly. The point I want to make is that even if we grant B and then try to ignore problems with terms, it is not clear why we should trust A.

And if we do not trust A, then it might not be free will that is threatened by Libet’s studies, but something else—namely, the intuition that people are only authors of their own intentions if they become aware of their own intentions as soon as they manifest (or more precisely, as soon as the researchers with access to EEG data interpret them as forming). We can admit that this might be intuitive, but what if we frame things differently?

Think about it: should we expected to be aware of our own brain or mental activity in real-time?

When I think about this, I find that my intuitions suddenly flip-flop. I become much less concerned by my being temporarily unaware of my intentions and much more willing to dismiss premise A. But in case it is not entirely clear why my intuitions respond this way, allow me to illustrate.

Assume B above. This means that any intention will be nothing more than an intracranial event. So, when we say, “So-and-so formed an intention,” we mean, “So-and-so’s brain did something.” Likewise, when we say that “So-and-so became aware of their intention,” we mean, “So-and-so’s brain did another thing.” So we can take intentions and the awareness thereof to be separate things: some thing X, and the awareness of X.

It does not seem to follow from the fact that a neural event precedes a person’s awareness of it that the intention or the subsequent act is not free. And we can take this further. What if someone is never aware of an intention? Is the subsequent act not free? Not necessarily. So long as they intend to do something and they do it, then, conceptually speaking, free will could be intact. We can say that they are unaware of their free will, but it would seem odd to say that they are without free will.

So even if our awareness on an intention is delayed, then we are not required to conclude that we are not free. Quite the opposite. We can take such delays as natural. Our awareness must be delayed! Of course our awareness of some thing happens after the thing itself. How could we expect it to happen earlier?  And given that some sort of causal series of events is at work here, how could it happen simultaneously?

We have arrived, then, at the following claim: whether or not a person is “free” is not a matter of their becoming aware of an intention at the same time the intention (or its correlates) form. We do not need to be surprised or concerned that our brains are not contemporarily aware of their own neural activity. Indeed, it seems only natural that we are a few steps behind in monitoring our own mental activity.

Also, and this will be more obvious to philosophers, it does not follow from the fact that a decision can be made unconsciously that a decision can be made by someone (or some thing) other than the unconscious decider. It is still the person who makes the decision when some part of the person seems especially involved in the decision. If this were false, then it would not be “me” that is breathing, blinking, digesting, and writing these words; it would be something else!

Still, I doubt this argument is water-tight. Perhaps an argument against it could be made. Perhaps it has already been made! Either way, I am unaware of it, so I invite you to make it or point me to it.


Lau, HC, Rogers, RD, & Passingham, RE (2007). Manipulating the experienced onset of intention after action execution. Journal of cognitive neuroscience19(1), 81-90.

Libet B, Gleason CA, Wright EW, and Pearl DK (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary actBrain, 106: 623-642.

Libet B (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary actionBehavioral and Brain Sciences, 8: 529-566.

Libet, B. W. (1993). Neurophysiology of consciousness: Selected papers and new essays.

Mele, A. R. (2009). Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, USA. (Chapter 2)

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. MIT press.

See also “Libet Experiments” from The Information Philosopher.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog

9 thoughts on “Can Unconscious Decisions Be Free?”

  1. I think there is a difference between “I did this but did not intend to do it” (e.g. some reflex, but also digestion) and “I did this consciously”. It’s not a question of who did what: “intentionnaly” and “consciously” are quasi-synonymous

    1. I think I agree with what you are saying, but only as a semantic point. Conceptually speaking, intending to do something and being aware of doing something are not the same (otherwise being aware of a reflex would require that the reflex was intentional, and clearly reflexes are not always intentional).

      Does that sound right to you?

      1. Well I guess that “doing something consciously” and “being aware of something” are different things but to me, conceptually speaking, intention and consciousness are tied together. If you view consciousness as pure awareness without any dynamic feature then in my opinion you already assume that free will does not exist.

        1. I see. I think Block’s distinction between ‘awareness’ and ‘attention’ (not intention) provide two dynamic features of consciousness (2008). If we have good reason to acknowledge Block’s distinction (and I think we do), then we need not worry about people assuming that free will does not exist based upon the assumption you mention.

          And I think I would agree that intention and consciousness are “tied together,” but only so much that intending to do something requires one to be conscious (as opposed to in a brain dead state). Beyond that, I am unsure what the conceptual or actual relationship between ‘intention’ and ‘conscious’ would be.

          1. Do you mean that consciousness is required for having an intentional state, but not awareness? Or maybe that awareness retroactively changes the intentional nature of a mental state (a kind of “free won’t”)?

          2. I am not sure about this. My first pass thought is that awareness also requires consciousness (again, as opposed to a brain death), but that consciousness is not sufficient for awareness. I think I would say the same for Block’s attention.

            This is all from the armchair though. I look forward to updating what I think with empirical results.

  2. Q: As always, I appreciate your thoughts on this. I seem to remember you giving me some instructive points awhile back. I wish I still had them on this post. Alas, a DDOS attack deleted everything on that server. I am still going through my back-ups. Should I find your comments, I could re-post them. All the best!

    1. Thank you. I also apreciate the great clarity of your articles.
      My view on Libets experiments is that we are merely measuring some unconscious propensities to act, which definitely exist, but that does not mean that we are not free at all as far as predictability is not 100% (which amounts to criticizing premisses 2 or 3, depending on what one is willing to call “neural activity”). I can remember having posted something like that.

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