Several simple experiments have shown that certain neural processes that are activated when performing an action increase in intensity by fractions of a second or even whole seconds before conscious thinking is informed about the performance of that action.
The results of these experiments were interpreted as proof that the subconscious decides what we will do before we consciously make that decision. Some critics, however, have noted that this conclusion is an untested assumption, meaning that we do not know for sure whether the neural activity that precedes the conscious realization of the decision is always and exclusively due to subconscious thinking.
However, the conclusions of this type of experiment have been enthusiastically generalized and popularized by supporters of materialist thinking. If the subconscious makes a decision even a fraction of a second before the conscious, this means that, in reality, we do not have free will, they say. Free will would actually be an illusion, a retrospective projection of our brain, which seeks to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
Some interpreted these scientific experiments as confirming Eastern thinking, which, since antiquity, has supported predestination, the human’s relentless fate. In other words, our brain predetermines, in a mechanical way, everything we are going to do. However, two issues, among others, ought to be considered before concluding that free will does not exist.
On the one hand, genetic predispositions or acquired tendencies and habits that fuel subconscious thought processes are not deterministic. Even if we are inclined or genetically predisposed to have certain reactions, when conscious thinking is informed about those specific decisions, the brain has the undetermined ability to oppose and change the decision of the subconscious. It is important to emphasize that the existence of free will does not imply the elimination of the idea of decision conditioning, nor the idea of biological predisposition. In order to assert the existence of free will, it is sufficient to note the possibility of consciously changing the decision-making proposal made by the subconscious.
On the other hand, experiments such as those already mentioned do not tell us anything about how the subconscious was, in turn, determined by conscious decisions that led to the formation of reaction patterns. Through the learning process, we accumulate different information and create certain behavioural patterns that do not exist a priori in our brain, which become the basis on which the subconscious later works. Often, learning is determined by a conscious decision about what we want to learn and by conscious efforts to do so despite our predispositions.
Free will, therefore, has not been scientifically proven to be illusory. This is a conclusion that, scientifically speaking, does us much good. Experiments also show that when we are not convinced that fate decides for us, we are more responsible and moral.