Can we freely decide on our own actions? This question has been latent since humanity could be considered as such. Philosophers like Plato already explored these concepts centuries ago with the means at their disposal.

It seems a simple question to answer, but it should not be so simple when it is a question that is latent in the whole legal structure that shapes modern societies. In order to decide whether someone is responsible for an action or not, the first thing that needs to be clarified is whether he or she had the capacity to understand what he or she was doing, and then whether he or she had the possibility of making a different decision. The principle of innocence derives from that precept. What seems clear is that it is not so easy to know the answer. Perhaps neuroscience can help us clarify this question a little.

Libet and his research on decisions

A few years ago, a researcher named Libet tested people’s ability to identify in real time the decision that has been made. His conclusions were clear; until almost a second before the subject became aware of his own decision, the researchers already knew what it would be by looking at the activity of his neurons .

However, Libet also discovered that, before executing the decision, there was a small period of time in which such action could be “vetoed”, i.e. not executed. Libet’s experiments have been expanded and refined by some of his disciples over the past few years, having repeatedly confirmed his findings.

These discoveries shook the basis of what until then was considered free will . If my brain is capable of making decisions before I am aware of them myself, how can I be responsible for anything I do?

The problem of free will

Let’s take a closer look at the neuroscience behind this problem. Our brain is an evolutionarily selected machine to process information , make decisions based on it and act, as quickly as possible, efficiently and with the least possible consumption of resources. For this reason, the brain tends to automate as much as possible the different responses it finds.

From this point of view there would not seem to be free will and we would be more like an automaton; a very complex one, yes, but an automaton after all.

But, on the other hand, the brain is also an organ with the capacity to analyze and understand its own internal processes, which, in turn, would allow it to develop new mental processes that would act on itself and modify the responses that it already had automated.

This approach would thus transfer the possibility of the existence of free will to the greater or lesser capacity we have to acquire knowledge of ourselves , and new habits capable of modifying our own responses. This approach, therefore, would open the door to the possible existence of free will.

The importance of self-knowledge

Here, the reflection we should make then is: if we want to be freer and make better decisions, we should be able to start by “making the decision” to try to know ourselves better and, in that way, have the opportunity to develop new mental processes that act on our own mind and allow us to better manage our own responses. In a word, self-knowledge.

This is quite similar to the famous saying that crowned the entrance of the Temple of Delphi in Greece, “Nosce te ipsum”, or “know thyself” and you will know the world. True freedom is only achieved when we are able to free ourselves from ourselves.

But, giving one more twist to the subject… What does it depend on that we decide to start the process of self-discovery? Does it depend on something external, like the opportunity for someone to make us reflect on it? And if that doesn’t happen… does our free will depend on luck?

I think this is a good point to leave open for discussion and exploration in future articles.