Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments showed that people arrive at their decisions preconsciously. Many – although not Libet himself – have taken this result as an indication that we are not free.
It is not.
First, from the fact that we do things first preconsciously it does not at all follow that some altogether other things are doing them – some things, i.e., other than previous or constituent or subsidiary occasions of our own careers as persons. We can do a thing without being conscious of doing it. Indeed, almost all the things we do are done unconsciously. When was the last time you consciously decided to breathe? Does the fact that you’ve kept on breathing unconsciously for the last umpty ump years mean that you could not stop if you decided to do so?
Ex hypothesi, men are free per se, so all our acts are more or less free, whether or not they are conscious.
Second, the conscious mind is not necessarily the only free component of the human being. To think so is to fall prey to the fallacy of the homunculus, and thus to an infinite regress; the sort of error to which students of the embodied mind are especially alive, and particularly averse.
A subroutine of whose operations we are not consciously aware might make a decision and forward it to conscious attention; that does not mean that its decision was not free. Nor does it mean that the decision has not been made by the person conscious of having made it, for the subroutine is after all a subsidiary of that very person.
And third, how for Heaven’s sake could we possibly become conscious of a thing – such as one of our own decisions – that was not yet complete? The consciousness of a decision cannot – metaphysically cannot – occur until the decision has been made and is a fact, thus potentially a factor of awareness. We can’t be conscious of a thing that has not yet happened. Thus the only sorts of decisions of which we might possibly be conscious are those that we have already made.
What we feel then in the moment of decision – the what-it-is-like-to-decide, the quale of becoming – is, not the decision itself (for that decision is a product of the completed moment of decision, and therefore inaccessible from within that moment), but the process or act of deciding. Like the origin of that act, its end, and therefore its character, is for us shrouded in mystery; for we cannot know what it means, or therefore is, until we know what successive occasions in the causal nexus (especially our own) make of it.
To be is to be aware of having decided, and to be then deciding.