Libet (1916-2007) was a pioneering scientist in the field of human
consciousness. His classic experiment showed that when asked to press a
button, prior to their decision to do so, subjects’ unconscious brains
had already started getting them ready to act. This implies that things
happen in the following order: first comes automatic brain activity,
then a conscious decision, then the action itself.
These findings seem to challenge our common sense idea of ourselves. ‘We’ seem to be nothing more than conscious decision-makers with the occasional power of veto over unconscious forces.
If this is right, does it put in question personal responsibility? Or does it simply shift us to a conception of indirect responsibility? For example, an athlete and her coaches are all indirectly responsible for the reactions of her unconscious brain through the training of habits, skills and intuitive responses. Is all responsibility for action like this? If so, what does this mean for social policy areas such as education and criminal justice?
In a special event at the RSA, a version of the Libet experiment will be explained by neuroscientist Patrick Haggard.
Philosophers A.C. Grayling and Barry Smith, will give their views on what the experiment might imply, before discussion is opened up to the audience.
Speaker: Professor Patrick Haggard, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, University College London
Respondents: Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, London; A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford
Chair: Anil Seth, reader, School of Informatics and co-director, Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, University of Sussex
Suggested hashtag for Twitter users: #rsalibet
When & Where
For more than 200 years, the RSA has provided platforms for leading public thinkers. That tradition lives on in our free events programme.
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