Is there a free will or a predestination 1

Do we have a free will?

How free are we in our actions? How free is our will? In recent years the assumption that we are free to think and act has come under fire. Are we therefore only slaves to our nerve cells?

People have always thought about how free they are to act. Two standpoints are always opposed to each other: Whereas one standpoint says that people are basically free in their actions and thinking and their decisions are the result of open-ended thought processes, the contrary standpoint says that human thinking and behavior are predetermined and the feeling of Autonomy is just an illusion. The reasons for skepticism about free will differ depending on the worldview and scientific point of view. While from a religious point of view it is the divine predestination that determines our thoughts and actions, it has recently been neuroscience that is driving the most serious attacks on the acceptance of free will.

Act before think

Thanks to technologies such as EEGs and MRTs, it has been possible for a number of years to watch nerve cells at work. According to the assumptions, this technology makes it possible to determine whether thought processes precede actions or, conversely, whether actions are carried out before thought processes occur. The experiments of the American scientist Benjamin Libet were groundbreaking in this regard. In his most important experiment, he attached electrodes to the heads of study participants through which so-called standby potentials can be recorded [1]. Readiness potential arises around half a second before an action in the part of the brain that is responsible for motor activities. The study participants were also instructed to press a button with their right hand; the time of pressing could be freely chosen.

Readiness potential starts earlier

In addition, the study participants were asked to record the moment on a stopwatch when they became aware that they wanted to press the button. Since measurement inaccuracies can occur, the data were averaged over many runs. The results show that the standby potential kicks in on average 550 milliseconds before the button is pressed. The conscious recognition of one's own intention to act did not occur until an average of 200 milliseconds before the act. In other words, the (unconscious) preparation of the action began before the study participants wanted to carry it out.

Unconscious decision 4 seconds earlier

The study subsequently became the subject of extensive interpretation. The results were taken as proof that our actions determine our thoughts and not the other way around, our actions are a consequence of our thinking. Another experiment with an MRI seems to confirm this assumption [2]. In it, study participants should arbitrarily choose to add or subtract two numbers. In the experiment, unconscious decisions could already be detected 4 seconds before the conscious decision.

Framework conditions are decisive

What is the consequence of this research? Is it enough to observe that certain nerve cells become active sooner than we are aware when an insignificant button is pressed, enough to claim that free will is an illusion? Are we really only slaves to our nerve cells? Not at all. A detailed analysis of the experimental setup puts the interpretation in perspective. A study participant must first make a conscious decision to participate in the study, then he / she must decide to follow the instructions and press the button. Only when these conditions are met can unconscious action take over in this narrow framework.

Autopilot can be switched off

Of course, there are many situations in which our autopilot takes the helm. Most repetitive and monotonous activities, such as driving a car, require only a small amount of conscious control after a certain amount of practice and are carried out automatically. That is a good thing; after all, it frees up resources that allow us to devote ourselves to more important topics.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman deals intensively with the question of how we make decisions. He received his Nobel Prize for research that showed that we often rely on rules of thumb that lead to poor results [3].

In these situations we act without consciously thinking. Proponents of the assumption that we do not have free will to evaluate every situation, but rather arrive at decisions through preprogrammed (unconscious) rules of thumb, saw themselves confirmed. More recent research by Daniel Kahneman, however, shows a more nuanced picture [4].

According to this, our autopilot is indeed often active, but when it becomes important, we can very well take control and make other decisions through active deliberation than the autopilot would make. We realize how much we are in control of our behavior during a diet. We resist the automatic reaching into the bag of chips and thus make a conscious decision contrary to our unconscious thinking.

Conclusion: If we want, we are the masters of our thoughts and actions

There are indeed situations in which automatic processes determine behavior, but at any point in time we have the opportunity to take control of the reins of action again through conscious decisions.


1: Libet, Benjamin. 1985. "Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action." The Behavioral and Brain Sciences VIII, 529-539.

2: Soon, C. S., He, A. H., Bode, S., Haynes, J. D. (2013). Predicting free choices for abstract intentions. PNAS, 110 (15), 6217-6222.

3: Kahneman, D., Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk. Econometrica, 47 (2), 263-291.

4: Kahneman (2012). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Verlag