Hackaday Prize Entry: You Have No Free Will

The concept of free will is the perfect example of human arrogance ever conceived. If a gas molecule collides with another gas molecule, simple physics can determine the momentum of the first gas molecule, the kinetic energy imparted to the second gas molecule, and the resulting trajectories of both molecule. Chemical reactions are likewise easy to calculate. Scale a system up to something the size of a human brain, and you have a perfectly predictable system. It’s complex, yes, but predetermined since the beginning of time. You are without moral agency, or any independent thought of your own. You are merely a passive observer in a vast, cold, uncaring universe. You are cursed with the awareness of this fact.

For his Hackaday Prize project, [Patrick Glover] is proving we don’t have free will. Will he win the Hackaday Prize? That’s up for the cold machinations of fate to decide.

In the 1980s, psychologist [Benjamin Libet] performed an experiment. He connected an EEG to a subject’s arm and head, and asked them to flex their wrist whenever they felt like it. It turns out, an area of your brain generates an EEG potential a significant time before the subject is aware of deciding to flex their wrist. This is a foundational study in the physiology of consciousness, and direct evidence an IRB is okay with giving subjects an existential crisis.

[Patrick] is in the process of replicating the [Libet] study. Unlike the 1980s experiment, [Patrick] has access to handy Arduino shields and MATLAB, making the experimental setup very easy. The results, of course, will be the subject of philosophical debates continuing until the heat death of the universe, but we already knew that, didn’t we?

Check out the comments below for objectors predictably saying they do, in fact, have free will.

79 thoughts on “Hackaday Prize Entry: You Have No Free Will

    1. I was hoping we, the hive mind of the Internet, would boycott commenting on this post just to prove Brian’s prediction wrong. But instead we showed ourselves to be individual, free agents, capable of deciding on our own to support his punch line.

  1. Fascinating research and fascinating arguments. After studying Rousseau, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Milne, et Al, and cross referencing with SPPS, social constructive theory, Asimov and the folks from the futurist group hacker crack down, 1980’s, the only truth revealed is that we are sheeple. The alien overlords control us. The 1% of the hidden population with agenda tell us what to wear, what to eat, who to vote for etc. Mr. Robot is on the right track! We don’t have free will. But we could make our lives easier. The 600 lb life show is enough to convince anyone who watches it to consider a vegetarian diet. Brought to you by the farmers of America of course! Free will is and always will be a myth. A myth needed to keep political systems operating. Question: if free will is proven false, would every criminal be allowed out of prison? Doubt it. Their fate regardless is to give prisons money and justification. Child pornographers and molesters will be technically exonerated, but their behavior is unacceptable regardless. They should be destroyed. Overall, the truth of free will, regardless of position will be made null and void when the first hive mind consciousness system comes online. The Borg collective will be dominant. As long as we don’t turn into Daleks, all is good. I look forward to the idiots of the world that will create nano plagues that will turn us all into slaves. Sometimes, its better not to do stuff. Hitler did stuff. Don’t you wish he hadn’t? Don’t you wish he stayed on the couch and smoked a bowl? Doing Stuff is over rated. Free will is quantifiable. And now gentrification is the new world term.

    1. Basically we don’t have free will, but in order to have a nice society and bearable lives, we have to act as though we did have it.

      Things like laws and punishment existing provides input to the chaotic systems that are our brains. That input influences like any other. So they’ll still have a result, even if nobody is truly able to choose to follow laws, they can be influenced, in whatever way. Even though there’s nobody at home, the body / brain still functions.

  2. Brian, I’m sure you are right … for whatever definition of free will you have in your head. But different people use the phrase “free will” to mean different things. So the first step is to define what one means by free will, then we can argue about the consequences.

    1. I completely agree. This is supposed to be some “groundbreaking” research, however, no one has laid out the definitions, assumptions, boundaries, etc. for the experiment. The “result” is stated as if it is a known fact.

      Preparations must be made before we do anything. I see this as science discovering how our brains work, not some way to say that we have no free will. And if we don’t, in fact, have free will, where does the impulse in the brain that starts it all off come from?

      1. this is a replication of an already well known and rather old experiment, it has been repeated a few times through history, so what is new here is the easy access to the equipment.

        this was written in not so many words in the article above as well, so if one really wants to know what is happening one should find the original libet experiment and the replications and look at those.

  3. [Patrick] has lack of knowledge of Thermodynamics. Even classic Thermodynamics proves that system becomes highly unpredictable with growing number of particles. You can predict average state of system, but not an individual particle. Add the fact that brains includes electrochemical processes and you go down to quantum mechanics. Which is far away from concept of determinism.

    1. “Highly unpredictable” =/= non-deterministic. We can only predict the average state of a system because, assuming an infinitely complex (or just really, really complex) system, humans cannot hope to model and thus predict all possible factors that contribute to its behavior. But the system itself follows rules, no matter what. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is exactly that: things that are super tiny are hard to predict in multiple dimensions (position, velocity, etc.), because it’s so easy for the tiniest little nudge to influence them. But still, the particle is where it is, and moves where it’s pointing at any one point in time.

      1. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle isn’t the discovery of the unseen. A particle has no reality until it’s coerced to. “Observation” doesn’t mean a human measuring it, but rather the collapse of the wave function. Before that point it can be considered pure probability. The recent PBS Spacetime YouTube videos are really good to understand this better.

        Everything is ultimately affected by quantum probabilities, and therefore is non-deterministic. At macro scale, there is less of an influence, but it’s certainly there.

    2. I don’t want to pretend my project is some definitive answer to the free will debate. It’s more of a demonstration that people with an Arduino can replicate Libet’s experiment and draw their own conclusions. I don’t believe that my project, or even Libet’s original experiment, is able to answer any big philosophical questions.

    1. But if you do the calculation and it is proven to be accurate then that in itself would surely out weigh the winner and therefore win. Hmm, observation changes the outcome, who’d have thought.

      This is a conundrum, a paradox, I am now going back to bed, head baked for the day at least.

  4. Unless a clever plot to fish comments, I think it’s arrogant to imply there is no free will, based on assumption that chemical reactions are deterministic in nature. There is much more fundamental structure of reality beyond that we can directly observe. I’m of course referring to quantum mechanics, experiments of which actually indicate universe to be probabilistic rather than deterministic ( the double slit experiment). Unlike author, i however do not possess the necessary knowledge to provide definitive claims about our extistence, so please take the above comment for what it is: Just some nerdy guy’s opinion.

    1. Surely, Brian knows his statement is inflammatory and it is good for business. Even without quantum mechanics, it would be impossible to actually determine the state of a system exactly, and even if one could be given the exact stae of a system, maintaining enough precision in the calculations would be impossible (the energy costs grow exponentially in time) to maintain for long. However, even though it isn’t computable, and thus the outcome is unpredictable, it doesn’t mean things aren’t deterministic.

      Getting back to the quantum aspect … please explain how adding entirely random perturbations leads to free will.

      I think a much better approach to take is this. Assume one has free will, which I define to mean the ability to make decisions that aren’t strictly the consequence of the physics of the material being possessing this free will. By what mechanism does this free will influence that strictly physical aspect of the being in order to influence the outcome away from the strictly physical conclusion? Or in blunt terms, how does free will cause a violation of physics in order to allow one to choose a glass of white wine instead of a glass of red wine?

      1. Violation of the law of physics is not essential to the concept of free will. Just as a computer can be Turing complete – we humans are running a program that changes with time. The data-set that is input to the program is not limited to the current environment as snippets of the program are passed through generations.

        There must be decisions we make that are totally on the cusp or in a balance and yet we find a solution to the question on what at that point must extend far beyond our understanding of quantum mechanics and whatever is after that, that we haven’t stumbled upon yet.

        So we cannot and never will be able to conclude that there is no free will until we can claim to know all things.

        As for deterministic vs probabilistic and the slit experiment – well it simply proves that the level of physics that you are observing is granular.

        1. Actually, the “cusp” argument is very well explained by chaos theory. Small perturbations in one direction instead of another lead to drastically different outcomes on a larger scale than the perturbations themselves. Still, you’re right, you can’t ever disprove free will. Just like you can’t disprove the existence of a God or pigs being able to fly.

      2. “please explain how adding entirely random perturbations leads to free will.”

        Because nothing else is free than what happens of its own accord. It’s the only meaningful way a “will” can be “free” – by doing random things.

        If the brain can output something which isn’t entirely dependent on the input and the environment it’s in, then it’s free. If not then not.

        1. if “doing random things” is even remotely a reason to call something free willed then plenty of inanimate objects fall into that Venn diagram.

          you have as little reason to believe that a brain does anything without external input as anyone has believing that everything that happens in the brain is deterministic.

          1. If the brain can’t do it, then nothing can – unless you can explain why the brain would be a special case – and you’re back to asserting that everything is deterministic.

            “then plenty of inanimate objects fall into that Venn diagram.”

            The argument only addressed the definition of “free” by saying that anything free must be non-causal – ie. non-deterministic. We’ve still to define “will” to say that inanimate objects would have it. They certainly can be “free”, but to have a will without a mind?

          2. if the brain cant do it then the brain cant do it, that doesn’t necessarily provide a hard argument against other structures in the universe, though it would affect how likely we would say they are.

            what i meant wasn’t that inanimate objects had will, but to say that if “randomness” is an inherent sign of free will then one would also have to look at everything with a part of that factor just to determine whether or not they are alike.
            of course for a lot of objects that is quite definitive, but depending on ones definition of will there could be machines or systems that fall into that category.

            terms like will and especially free will aren’t hardly defined to begin with, with good reason.

            i still stand by the statement that there is as little reason to believe the brain isn’t deterministic as there is to believing it is.

    1. Yep. The problem of the experiment is the narrow definition of “you” to only mean whatever you’re concious of. We’re unconcious of a lot of things, and yet we’re still doing it.

        1. How do you conciously will anything?

          I.e. how do you will to will? It seems to me that any will arises out of unconcious preferences and priorities that are not conciously chosen, and concious thought is merely the feedback reflection of the brain onto itself about what it had just done.

          1. That is nonsense, sure everything might be motivated by involuntary things, but what we call will is having that process create a conscious thought that then is acted upon. Regardless if it came from unconscious sources the will is only the part that is decided after the dubious motivation has done its part.

            Say your body needs nourishment, it creates a hunger feeling in your brain, your brain creates an imputes to get food, but then you consciously decide the course of action to go to the kitchen for example and to cook something, or to go to a restaurant, or to get a snackbar from your pocket, or to pick a place and call it and have something delivered, whatever it is, you decide which one you do.

          2. ” but then you consciously decide the course of action to go to the kitchen for example and to cook something”

            Except that’s not how it goes. For all the studies, and what the experiments show, the conscious mind is more of a narrator than a decisionmaker. When you feel hungry, you don’t think “Oh, I’ll go to the kitchen to make food” – you just stand up and go. You may mentally announce to yourself that you’re going to the kitchen to make food, but that’s entirely unnecessary for the action.

            There’s a famous zen meditation technique where you try to consciously observe everything that’s going on while doing anything; “There’s a lifting of a foot, there’s an observation of a lifting of a foot, there’s an observatoin of the observation of the lifting of a foot…” etc. trying to mentally catch yourself and find out who exactly is doing the thinking.

            When you don’t pre-announce it to yourself, it’s still you deciding to do it, but you become conscious of the decision only as it is happening, and note that you decided so – if you choose to pay attention to yourself. Consciousness is a review of what we are about to do before we do it, and what we are doing while we’re doing it, and it’s just another input to the actual “you” that’s making all the decisions without constantly mentally announcing what they are – you just do it.

            The question is similiar to, “does the compass steer the ship?”. Of course it does – in a sense – because by it pointing north the captain makes corrections to the course, even though the compass is not connected to the rudder. It’s inseparable from the process. Of course the captain doesn’t always need to see the compas, and so you don’t always need to be conscious of your actions to make them – and that doesn’t mean you didn’t will them.

          3. Besides, in the Libet experiment, you’ve already made the conscious decision to start action at some later time, and also set what that “later time” is without explicitly announcing it to yourself. You let the unconscious decide when it should happen, as if setting an oven timer by twisting it without looking, which is also a free concious decision you can make – just like you can choose to flip a coin. The consciousness of your decision cannot come before the coin has been flipped.

            So the whole argument that the Libet experiment disproves free will is a bit of a sharpshooter fallacy, because it ignores free will prior to the experiment and only observes it during the actual event. Of course if you choose to flip an actual coin, you can say “I didn’t decide that, the coin did”, but when you choose to make an unconcious choice, you can’t say you didn’t do it.

          4. I do know that various people experience and use consciousness in different ways. Perhaps you focus too much on your way.
            It’s interesting to see discussions about such areas, like for instance how some people apparently do not have the ability to imagine physical things, they simply cannot do it. Or how various people experience that ‘inner voice’ and how some need it for everything and some don’t seem to use it much at all.

            I am not suggesting any limitations on you in that second paragraph BTW, nor are those examples suggesting they apply to you. But I do think that the various commenters here might not have a 100% overlapping way of thinking, or using their mind, in such regards. And specifically regarding consciousness.

  5. Thanks to [Patrick], hobbyists will have the technology to build a “most useless machine” that can retract its power button *before* you can turn it on.

    Actually, that wouldn’t be a bad experiment. Using such a setup, could you train your brain to suppress the usual signals appearing before taking the physical action?

  6. “The concept of free will is the perfect example of human arrogance ever conceived. If a gas molecule collides with another gas molecule, simple physics can determine the momentum of the first gas molecule, the kinetic energy imparted to the second gas molecule, and the resulting trajectories of both molecule. ”

    Then quantum mechanics, uncertainty principle, etc. came over and shat all over your salad and the Newtonian universe went bust.

  7. Whenever this comes up I wonder what this “will” is free from. I know that when I make a decision I base it on my understanding of consequences and possibilities. If I make a decision without these understandings I am well aware that decision can have horrendous possibilities. I therefore conclude that all politicians and economists and the US military stationed in foreign posts in charge of the situation all are equipped with free will. Happily I am free from free will and managed to survive for quite a while.

  8. “The concept of free will is the perfect example of human arrogance ever conceived.”

    The concept that humans are even remotely close to a complete characterisation of the universe is the perfect example of human arrogance ever conceived.

  9. Shouldn’t chaos theory play into this too? Even if a system is “deterministic” it may not be predictable. Also, plenty of scientists in history and today were not materialists. It is another nice example of arrogance to assume that hard science is the only way to truth (as opposed to philosophy, etc.). Reason casts a wide gaze. Surely this was implied by the author though, gotta love Hackaday sarcasm!

    1. Exactly I was just going to post this. Why are we assuming a lack of control decision. We all know that our reality is a small slice of what out sensory inputs gather. The smarter assumption would be that our brain works faster than our nervous system and muscles so the brain automatically adds a delay from when we decide to when we perceive the decision in our reality. It would be very bogus for us to decide to do X then have to wait for it to happen. “I am going to raise my hand . . . And my hand goes up” could it be possible that some of the mental defects we see in humans are linked to not having this pre programmed delay between consciousness and perception of action?

      1. It’s certainly the case that if you record someone’s speech and replay it back to them a couple milliseconds later, they start to stammer.

        It’s also the case that if you have an input lag, such as pressing a button in a game and an action happening on-screen, people quickly ignore the delay. When you suddenly remove the delay, the people report that they’ve pressed the button after the event, as if the computer anticipated their response.

        It’s perfectly clear that the brain learns to time-tag sensory events to brain events in attempts to keep a consistent history, so the person reports the action taking place when it actually takes place rather than when they actually decided to move their hand.

        1. I was thinking that it could be something like this. I’ve noticed the opposite with myself. I decide to do something and my body has a small amount of lag before it happens. Like when crossing the street. There is the natural lag of reaction time between when the crossing man turns green and when I realise it has changed but I’ve noticed a lag between when I tell my muscles to start moving and when they actually do.

  10. Everybody is talking free will, avoiding the hot potato of Brian asserting we live in a closed universe and there will be a big crunch when he says “… debates continuing until the heat death of the universe”

  11. How I’ve heard it explained, is that we don’t so much have free will, as free “won’t”…. meaning we get a load of impulses, but filter which we act on.

    Which does raise an issue for “brainwave control” of things. In that detection such as this, of the impulse, may preempt the free won’t” mechanism.

    1. That’s not free will, or won’t. That’s a basic function of highly-parallel pattern matchers, i.e. neurons. And no, it doesn’t impede brainwave control of things. You control your arms and legs, don’t you?

  12. I am going to hook my central nervous system up to a signal generator that uses atmospheric noise to generate random pulses. In doing so I may not gain freewill but I might be the only non predictable person in the world. In fact what am I talking about atmospheric noise is created by atoms and electrons moving in a predetermined way, which leads me to the fact that we still don’t have a REAL random number generator *sigh*

  13. This is a funny conclusion. Fine, so there is a louder voice among several centers of your brain, it convinces the motor center to, as in the example, move the arm. Why decide is there no free will just because decisions are made in the committee of the human mind, or the process takes time where we do not detect the process in conscious thought. I was just discussing a chimera twin with my kids and explaining that just as their brain decides things by committee and coordination so does the chimeras brain which could be composed of different regions belonging to one or the other twin’s(or mutated growth’s) brain tissue; yet the decisions are not really divergent from a person ~100% genetically uniform.

  14. Getting away from the click-bait first paragraph, which does nothing but distract from the discussion of practical applications of the technology (good job, Brian and Patrick…), the fact that there was a measured difference of around 300ms means that there is a significant-enough difference in reaction speed to warrant investigating using the experiment rig as a form of computer input. Even though the setup doesn’t have the resolution required for full control, it does allow for, say, triggering left-click even a quarter-second faster than normal. In practical application, using this to augment a normal mouse/keyboard or controller setup for online gaming has the potential to add a significant effective latency increase to any opponent you’re likely to come across.

  15. To a large degree the arguments involving free will are considered from a theological and legal standpoint as to how responsible we are for the outcomes of our decisions. Whether actions are based on emotions or logic the actual outcome may be quite different from the presumed outcome of our intentions. Bringing in random factors such as quantum mechanics or the inability of actually knowing what the outcome might be is irrelevant. It is the presumption of the outcome of an action that makes a person legally responsible. Accidental causes of death involve much less legal and theological responsibility than than intentional moves to cause death. Attempted murder is a crime even if it is unsuccessful.Any action that I make intentionally is the result of a chain of decisions that moves me to energize a conclusive act. No element of that chain comes from nothing. Each link has a reason which can be logical or emotional but it is not free of some previous stimulation. That’s what consciousness is all about.

  16. No debate from me today. I don’t have free will, and am quite comfortable with that. I find the arguments for free will very interesting though. They are interesting because they imply that rational arguments favoring free will will cause us to believe in it, and I appreciate both the irony in this and the skill with which the arguments are made.

    What amuses me even more is that if someone would present an apparently perfect argument for my free will (I’m pretty easy to fool too, my mind is apparently made of meat although I’ve never checked), I would concede the point and then believe in free will without experiencing it. I would then go and share the argument with others when the topic comes up in conversation.

    I’ve read what various philosophers have said about the subject for the same reason many of you have… because I needed to pass an exam. I was impressed by the breadth and depth of their knowledge on all subjects they discussed except quantum physics!

  17. Actually I don’t quite understand the implications of this experiment on the debate wether or not humans have a free will.
    Its results just state that the subconscious parts of our brain are involved in primitive decision making processes. Sure, there are many automatisms in our brain that happen separated to our consciousness.
    The main problem is that there isn’t any clear definition from either side.
    From the physical view of things, it is totally impossible to determine the behavior of real-world chaotic systems under classical mechanics, because it’s impossible to measure the accurate starting conditions and then maintain absolute precision in every further calculation step. But even if it was, say hello to quantum physics and let complete non-deterministic laws ruin the measurement of the starting conditions and consistency of the system. Please remember that I don’t only mean a single human, but the whole universe.
    To get back to the medical/psychological debate, we do have a conscious veto over the readiness potential, so our consciousness can stop and alter the subconscious action, if it wants.

  18. Free will may work a bit more like this: When the subject is asked by some head shrink to flex their wrist whenever they felt like it, they didn’t flex it at all. They decided to flex their ankle instead.

  19. This is not an experiment in free will. The experiment in free will ended long before you put the probes on. With your free will you decided weather or not to do the experiment and others would have decided otherwise.

    Once the probes are on and the equipment is running it only remains a matter of time “when” you have some physical movement and that is not a decision because you already decided that you are going to do exactly that.

    Because you have not been given any specification as to “when” to react then you leave that decision to background neuron noise and that is exactly what you have measured. The results are exactly as one would expect for the given conditions.

    What is *does* demonstrate is one ability that humans have and computers cannot be programmed to do. That is – given any (even limited) stimulus, the human mind can create a *result* – even with *no* input. This is why you dream when you sleep and why people have *un-worldly* experiences when they take drugs that cause neuron performance disturbances and why highly psychologically stressed people exhibit unusual, unpredictable and often unacceptable behaviors.

    Computers will give the absolute correct result (for a given program) or no result at all – an error message.
    Humans will *always* give a result – the result being correct in any way is desirable but otherwise completely irrelevant.

    1. That computer you speak of is a pretty basic and ancient system then, because we can get way more complex with modern computers, including using fuzzy logic and randomness either from a seeder or from external random input.
      And of course it’s easy to force an always output, and necessary too if for instance you want a guidance system, you can’t have a self-driving car for instance say you know what, I don’t know, I;’m going to sleep and do nothing’ all of a sudden in the middle of a drive. Regardless how confusing or lacking the input is, it has to do some action, even if it’s stopping at the side of the road.

      1. You can build a mansion on dirt but the dirt is still dirt no matter how good the mansion looks.

        1) Write me a program that *generates* purely random numbers. What is the formula for random?

        2) Fuzzy logic sounds *fuzzy* but it still deterministic logic.

        None of the things you mentioned cover the *no input* scenario.

        1. “fuzzy logic” is just a fancy buzzword for “apply continuous functions instead of boolean logic”.

          For example, a fuzzy thermostat might have a falling ramp as an output value instead of an on/off point at exactly 85 F. Instead of trying to keep the temperature at exactly 85 degrees, it will allow the temperature to drop slightly when it’s cold outside, and rise when it’s hot – so it’s not a very good thermostat but it will save you some energy by not running the heat/AC so much when it’s very hot or very cold.

        2. Well, sorry that you can’t think beyond 1970’s Apollo flight controllers. I don’t think I can fix that.
          Clearly you stopped listening to any development beyond that even when the world and internet is full of it.

          1. I was supporting my original observation by commenting about computers. A Turing complete computer CANNOT POSSIBLY *generate* a random number – end of story – it doesn’t matter if it a 1970’s Turing complete computer or a Turing complete computer from thousands of year into the future – it is – by definition – a principle.

            And by that *very principle*, *any* form of logic *is* undeniably deterministic.

            Here is how a Turing complete computer and Logic are related.


  20. I need a volunteer, I have this WAT that if you reduce the thermal noise by plunging the subjects head in a vat of LN2, then clearly defined decision making will be observed in the cerebral cortex… … …

  21. If you have a will you are not really free. If you are free, you don’t really have a Will. After all, why would you decide something you other than what you would decide? What fun is there in that? If you decide something arbitrary, you didn’t really decide, you just did something random, that isn’t will, that’s a plinko board.

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