Picture: qualintentionality. I see that this piece on nature.com has drawn quite a bit of attention. It provides a round-up of views on the question of whether free will can survive in a post-Libet world, though it highlights more recent findings along similar lines by John-Dylan Haynes and others. The piece seems to be prompted in part by Big Questions in Free Will a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which  is probably best known for the Templeton Prize, a very large amount of cash which gets given to respectable scientists who are willing to say that the universe has a spiritual dimension, or at any rate that materialism is not enough. BQFW itself is offering funding for theology as well as science: “science of free will ($2.8 million); theoretical underpinnings of free will, round 1 ($165,000); and theology of free will, round 1 ($132,000)”. I suppose ‘theoretical underpinnings’, if it’s not science and not theology, must be philosophy; perhaps they called it that because they want some philosophy done but would prefer it not to be done by a philosopher. In certain lights that would be understandable. The presence of theology in the research programme may not be to everyone’s taste, although what strikes me most is that it seems to have got the raw end of the deal in funding terms. I suppose the scientists need lots of expensive kit, but on this showing it seems the theologians don’t even get such comfortable armchairs as the theorists, which is rough luck.

We have of course discussed the Haynes results and Libet, and other related pieces of research many times in the past. I couldn’t help wondering whether, having all this background, I could come up with something on the subject that might appeal to the Templeton Foundation and perhaps secure me a modest emolument? Unfortunately most of the lines one could take are pretty well-trodden already, so it’s difficult to come up with an appealing new presentation, let alone a new argument. I’m not sure I have anything new to say. So I’ve invited a couple of colleagues to see what they can do.

Bitbucket Free will is nonsense; I’m not helping you come up with further ‘compatibilist’ fudging if that’s what you’re after. What I can offer you is this: it’s not just that Libertarians have the wrong answer, the question doesn’t even make sense. The way the naturenews piece sets up the discussion is to ask: how can you have free will if the decision was made before you were even aware of it? The question I’m asking is: what the hell is ‘you’?

Both Libet’s original and the later experiments are cleverly designed to allow subjects to report the moment at which they became aware of the decision: but ‘they’ are thereby implicitly defined as whatever it is that is doing the reporting. We assume without question that the reporting thing is the person, and then we’re alarmed by the fact that some other entity made the decision first. But we could equally well take the view that the silent deciding entity is the person and be unsurprised that a different entity reports it later.

You will say in your typically hand-waving style, I expect, that that can’t be right because introspection or your ineffable sense of self or something tells you otherwise. You just feel like you are the thing that does the reporting. Otherwise when words come out of your mouth it wouldn’t be you talking, and gosh, that can’t be right, can it?

Well, let me ask you this. Suppose you were the decision-making entity, how would it seem to you? I submit it wouldn’t seem any way, because as that entity you don’t do seeming-to: you just do decisions. You only seem to yourself to have made the decision when it gets seemed back to you by a seeming entity – in fact, by that same reporting entity.  In short, because all reports of your mental activity come via the reporting entity, you mistake it for the source of all your mental activity. In fact all sorts of mental processes are going on all over and the impression of a unified consistent centre is a delusion. At this level, there is no fixed ‘you’ to have or lack free will. Libet’s experiments merely tell us something interesting but quite unworrying about the relationship of two current mental modules.

So libertarians ask: do we have free will? I reply that they have to show me the ‘we’ that they’re talking about before they even get to ask that question – and they can’t.

BlandulaNot much of a challenge to come up with something more appealing than that! I’ve got an idea the Templeton people might like, I think: Dennettian theology.

You know, of course, Dennett’s idea of stances. When we’re looking to understand something we can take various views. If we take the physical stance, we just look at the thing’s physical properties and characteristics. Sometimes it pays to move on to the design stance: then we ask ourselves, what is this for, how does it work? This stance is productive when considering artefacts and living things, in the main. Then in some cases it’s useful to move on to the intentional stance, where we treat the thing under consideration as if it had plans and intentions and work out its likely behaviour on that basis. Obviously people and some animals are suitable for this, but we also tend to apply the same approach to various machines and natural phenomena, and that’s OK so long as we keep a grip.

But those three stances are clearly an incomplete set. We could also take up the Stance of Destiny: when we do that we look at things and ask ourselves: was this always going to happen? Is this inevitable in some cosmic sense? Was that always meant to be like that? I think you’ll agree that this stance sometimes has a certain predictive power: I knew that was going to happen, you say: it was, as it were, SoD’s Law.

Now this principle gives us by extrapolation an undeniable God – the God who is the intending, the destining entity. Does this God really exist? Well, we can take our cue from Dennett: like the core of our personhood in his eyes, it doesn’t exist as a simple physical thing you can lay your hands on: but it’s a useful predictive tool and you’d be a fool to overlook it, so in a sense it’s real enough: it’s a kind of  explanatory centre of gravity, a way of summarising the impact of millions of separate events.

So what about free will? Well of course, one thing you can say about a free decision is that it wasn’t destined. How does that come about? I suggest that the RPs Libet measured are a sign of de-destination, they are, as it were, the autopilot being switched off for a moment. Libet himself demonstrated that the impending action could be vetoed after the RP, after all. Most of the time we run on destined automatic, but we have a choice. The human brain, in short, has a unique mechanism which, by means we don’t fully understand, can take charge of destiny.

I think my destiny is to hang on to the day job for the time being.

42 Comments

  1. 1. RV says:

    hmmm, so until we define who ‘we’ are the question of free will does not make sense to some people.

    What is a more perplexing question that should make sense however is ‘will’ itself. Free will might be an illusion, but it’s a very real illusion – the real question is ‘pure will’ or ‘true will’ in and of itself.

    My collection of ‘entities’ serve at least the function of my biology and my co-biology (others), they all seem to agree that I am here, that I should eat, work, play and make a little love, all the while caring very little as to how they do this or how this process evolved from a simple DNA molecule, which by the way is a perfect description of who I am in the first place. Once the self is defined as nothing more than the shenanigans of the DNA molecule, we are still left with the same questions as to the nature of will.

  2. 2. Tom Clark says:

    Thanks Peter, and who were those mystery commentators? Anyway, the second one wrote:

    “Libet himself demonstrated that the impending action could be vetoed after the RP, after all. Most of the time we run on destined automatic, but we have a choice. The human brain, in short, has a unique mechanism which, by means we don’t fully understand, can take charge of destiny.”

    I doubt that the brain has a unique mechanism that transcends regular old neural mechanisms. Libet tries to make a case that our will resides in the ‘conscious veto’ not to perform an act after unconscious processes have readied it for expression. The obvious question is whether or not this veto itself has neural antecedents and correlates. If it did, then it would simply be yet another part of a complex physical system (the brain) responding in astonishingly intricate ways to generate appropriate behavior.

    He says:

    “I propose…that the conscious veto may not require or be the direct result of preceding unconscious processes. The conscious veto is a control function, different from simply becoming aware of the wish to act. There is no logical imperative in any mind-brain theory, even identity theory, that requires specific neural activity to precede and determine the nature of a conscious control function. And there is no experimental evidence against the possibility that the control process may appear without development by prior unconscious processes.”

    Libet’s case for the independence of the conscious veto from neural activity is not that there is positive evidence for it, but merely that logical and empirical considerations don’t rule it out. But even this is too strong a claim, for surely under mind-brain identity theory, any discoverable conscious control function must be neurally instantiated. And evidence acceptable to the neuroscientific community would inevitably show the connection of such a control function to other brain functions, whether conscious or unconscious. The startling fact is that Libet wants to find a non-neural, non-physical basis for free will (some sort of mental conscious control over the brain itself) *and* he wants to find it doing research predicated on the assumption of neural cause and effect. Such a research agenda, wedded to the a priori goal of defeating mechanism yet rooted in physicalist science, is doomed from the outset.

    – from “Fear of mechanism: a compatibilist critique of The Volitional Brain” at http://www.naturalism.org/fearof.htm

    Commentator #1:

    “The question I’m asking is: what the hell is ‘you’?”

    Exactly right. Why should we limit the self to what’s conscious? It may well be the case that we can’t predict complex decisions in advance of the conscious stages, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the brain making up its mind since both unconscious and conscious stages of decision-making are *completely* neurally instantiated. So long as we identify ourselves with the brain, not just conscious states, then we can say that as the brain makes up its mind, *I* make up *my* mind. This keeps the (expanded, Dennettian) self in control, such that we can justly hold each other responsible even if consciousness doesn’t add control above and beyond what its associated neural processes accomplish. On this view, saying “my brain made me do it” can’t count as an excuse since it translates into “I made me do it.”

    http://agencyandresponsibility.typepad.com/flickers-of-freedom/2011/09/philosophers-fight-back.html?cid=6a0120a8bb6b2e970b015435485178970c#comment-6a0120a8bb6b2e970b015435485178970c

  3. 3. Peter says:

    Thanks, Tom. The commentators are Bitbucket and Blandula: they sort of help me argue with myself without seeming to have Dissociative Identity Disorder… or that’s the intention, anyway.

    I didn’t think Libet was actually looking for non-physical explanations – I thought his CMF, though non-neural, was meant to be based in standard physics. But I’ll have to re-read what he actually says.

  4. 4. Philosopher’s Carnival – September 19, 2011 | Minds and Brains says:

    [...] (Conscious Entities), in a post called “Not Exactly Free“, discusses some issues related to the freewill debate in response to this piece in [...]

  5. 5. Tom Clark says:

    Thanks Peter. I myself am constantly being nagged by a physicalist on one shoulder, an epistemic dualist on the other, and sometimes one or the other gets the upper hand…

    Libet may not have appealed to anything non-physical per se, but his thinking seems motivated by what I call fear of mechanism, and consciousness conceived as something independent of neurons might fill the bill.

  6. 6. Vicente says:

    was this always going to happen? Is this inevitable in some cosmic sense?

    Leaving aside macroscopic deterministic physics. How can a pure random event be? how can there be pure stochastic processes?

    The fact that we cannot make deterministic predictions, just probabilistic calculations, doesn’t mean that there is no cause behind. You might not be able to determine when a redioactive decay will happen, but is doesn’t mean that when it happens it is the effect of a certain cause, vacuum fluctuations… whatever, that at the same time should be the effect of a prior cause… and so on, and here is where T. Aquinas comes in… there you have your Stance of Destiny.

    OK, I hear the screaming, there are no hidden variables, fine. I don’t care, if you have something that has not happened for some time, and it suddenly happens, something must have changed.

    I think that before looking at more serious stuff like: What the hell is you? (like Placebo song: every you and every me), we should clarify the physical aspects involved.

    Probably the brain is a complex system, whose physical behaviour cannot be predicted for chaotic and quantum reasons, but that doesn’t mean that its behaviour is not the unavoidable effect of multiple causes (physical).

    IMO physicalism leaves no room at all for free will. It is simply that the system outcome cannot be predicted, like instantaneous values of electronic noise, or the weather. That leaves consciousness as a pure epiphenomenal sadist joke, without explanation.

    First we need a solid and detailed physical model of the brain, and then we could ponder what are the alternatives?

    You will find either no peace at all or absolute peace in physics, no middle way.

  7. 7. Tom Clark says:

    Vincente:

    “IMO physicalism leaves no room at all for free will. It is simply that the system outcome cannot be predicted, like instantaneous values of electronic noise, or the weather. That leaves consciousness as a pure epiphenomenal sadist joke, without explanation.”

    I agree that physicalism leaves no room for free will, conceived as the agent having the power to somehow transcend cause and effect in her decisions, or be ultimately self-caused in some respect. But that wouldn’t do us any good anyhow, so isn’t worth wanting except maybe as a bogus justification for retribution, radical social inequality and other social pathologies, http://www.naturalism.org/fatalism.htm#The_Flaw_of_Fatalism

    I don’t think consciousness can get written off as epiphenomenal, since it doesn’t exist in the same explanatory space as the brain. For one phenomenon to be causally inert with respect to another, and thus epiphenomenal with respect to it, they both have to exist in the same space where causal relationships are adduced in explanations. For instance, the magnetic fields generated by neural processes could conceivably be epiphenomenal with respect to their functional outputs. Both neurons and their associated fields are publicly observable, and the latter might not causally influence the former (just an illustration: it doesn’t matter for present purposes whether they do or not). But since consciousness isn’t measurable or observable along side the brain, it isn’t in the same explanatory space, so can’t be epiphenomenal with respect to it, or so I suggest, http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm#3rdperson

    Of course, if your theory of consciousness identifies it with what parts of the brain are doing, then it isn’t epiphenomenal. But then it also doesn’t play a causal role above and beyond what the brain does. That it might not is no cause for alarm so long as we identify with our brains, not just consciousness, so peace be with you all!

  8. 8. John says:

    This free will debate is crazy. You can only know you have made a decision once you have made it. If you cannot know ahead of a decision being taken what the decision might be then it cannot be a consciously free decision.

    The free won’t debate is equally peculiar because to DECIDE not to act on a decision is another decision…

    We may have the freedom to be a particular state of mind see Conscious free will.

  9. 9. Stephen says:

    Defining the “I” is a good idea.

    I’m not saying that Free Will exists, or that if it exists, it is spiritual. But the fact that observations show that awareness of decision is preceded by some electrical “brain fart”, signifying, I suppose, the mechanical “act” of deciding, does not necessarily conclude that awareness is coupled with will.

    Why can’t an underlying unconscious process be a strong component of the “I”, and our post-facto awareness, also be a component? It’s an artifact of time? We conclude that there is some form of signal-lag, from the “decision-making component” of our self, to the “awareness compiling component” of our self. And it makes sense that this signal-lag comes in the form of some materially-limited physical process. Neurochemical signaling. This supposition makes sense.

    Does it follow that our “awareness compiling component” is somehow subordinate to the “decision making component”, because logically, one happens AFTER the other?

    Why yes, it does.

    Does that mean that our SELF does not INFORM our decision making?

    Hell no. Obviously, the manifestation of our sensory and self awareness serves some important, (evolutionary?) purpose. Perhaps it is some kind of information processing device, for informing decision making – and most of us “aware folks” can say, that’s how it SEEMS to us. Which does not make it so. Of course. Not immediately. Not necessarily so. Perhaps the degree of decision-making-informing, includes a mechanically-necessary time-delay. The meat takes time to process the information, and do it’s thing. This *could* be the case, whether it’s meat, or spirit, or aether, doing the work. Whatever. (Occam’s razor says it’s meat).

    All I’m saying is that the location of our “awareness” on the timeline of our existence, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how our “Free Will” (if there IS such a thing) would work. Just as our sense of physical location (between our ears, behind our eyes) doesn’t really have anything to do with our physical center-of-mass, (for most people, right above the beltline, in the center of the belly). Just because we “feel” our awareness, and existence one way, doesn’t mean that it functions that way. And scientific measurement obviously shows that not to be the case. I doubt it’s really any more significant than many other simple perceptual illusions.

  10. 10. Vicente says:

    Tom:

    For one phenomenon to be causally inert with respect to another, and thus epiphenomenal with respect to it, they both have to exist in the same space where causal relationships are adduced in explanations

    You mean in different spaces, don’t you?

    For instance, the magnetic fields generated by neural processes could conceivably be epiphenomenal with respect to their functional outputs. Both neurons and their associated fields are publicly observable, and the latter might not causally influence the former

    OK, I will accept that “functional” is the keyword that saves the statement, if functional referes only to self-action. Note that those fields are created using brain energy, and for example in Magneto-encephalograhy are detected by the superconducting coils of the squid, i.e. they transmit information. That is why from a physical point of view, the moment you have qualia you have a closure problem, irrespective or their functional effect on the brain. Either that or… qualia are not physical. I don’t see epiphenomenalism satisfactory at all.

  11. 11. John says:

    Vicente: “That is why from a physical point of view, the moment you have qualia you have a closure problem, irrespective or their functional effect on the brain.”

    As Arnold has often pointed out, qualia are almost certainly very strongly correlated with neural activity in some fundamental system in the brain that underpins conscious experience. If Arnold is right, and I am fairly convinced he is, then all the functional properties of a quale will be functional properties of the underlying neural activity. This neural activity is strong, causal activity like action potentials and is not simply epiphenomenal debris, like waste heat, of some other activity.

    But what is “causal activity”? As I pointed out in a previous post about Dennettian Dualism, it is easy for philosophers to just assume incorrectly that once a problematical set of events is placed in the “physical world” it is no longer problematical. Usually we find that when philosophers such as Dennett perform such a sleight of hand the problem they should be addressing is precisely a physical problem.

    Philosophers who declare that the physical world is causal but mind is epiphenomenal are usually mistaken because they are incorrectly assuming that the physical world is both a succession of fixed 3D slices AND causal.

    If events in the brain are successions of neural states then we need an explanation for how one state leads to another. This problem largely reduces to the old conundrum of discovering the difference between a moving ball and a stationary ball at an instant – in the next instant the moving ball undergoes a change in position: why?

    So, to return to Vicente’s statement, qualia are not unique in being apparently epiphenomenal, given the state of scientific knowledge, this is a property of all events.

  12. 12. Rodger Cunningham says:

    “You can only know you have made a decision once you have made it. If you cannot know ahead of a decision being taken what the decision might be then it cannot be a consciously free decision.”

    I’m with Pierson and Trout that the function of consciousness is to concentrate attention. Once our attention changes, our perceived environment changes. Our actions are then determinate responses to our perceived environment. The “illusion” of free will is the usual illusion of a linguistic animal that our decisions occur at the moment of our “conscious” (i.e. narrative) awareness of them.

    I think that takes care of Libet. The real question for me is whether the conscious change in attention is itself wholly determined. I’m again with P and T that it isn’t. That’s still subject to debate, but I think the debate should proceed on that basis.

  13. 13. Sam Hopkins says:

    Vincente: “The fact that we cannot make deterministic predictions, just probabilistic calculations, doesn’t mean that there is no cause behind.”

    Why do you suddenly change the question? Peter asked if the event was inevitable, not whether it was caused. Causation is tricky indeed, and I agree that a quantum decay event could be said to be caused in the sense that we can come up with a physical theory that explains it. But that has no bearing on whether any particular quantum decay was inevitable; certainly we can say that it could as easily have not happened. No physical description of the world has ever really been deterministic; classical mechanics is not and quantum mechanics surely is not. Why is it wrong to think that multiple futures are possible?

  14. 14. Vicente says:

    Sam:

    from Tom[#7] the agent having the power to somehow transcend cause and effect in her decisions, or be ultimately self-caused in some respect.

    In a Universe utterly ruled by the laws of physic (including conscious beings)every event is inevitable, that is precisely what cause-effect means. If that were the case.

    You might not be able to know what the weather will be like the 13th September 2056 but given the current boundary conditions and the laws of physics it is determined, (actually it was determined at the big bang), in all aspects, the laws of physics would account for the greenhouse gases emission resulting from the behaviour of humans, which is also ultimately ruled by physics.

    Multiple futures are possible for you, due to the intrinsic uncertainties you can’t resolve, but maybe just one single path can be followed. It is just a psychological subproduct.

    (A different issue is the multiverse theory with several coexisting Universes resulting from the superpostion of quantum states.)

    All these under the assumption that it were the case, which is not my believe.

    Roger:

    Interesting view. Any idea of what could be the agent controlling the attention beam?

  15. 15. Sam Hopkins says:

    Vicente, what “laws of physics” allow for only one possible path? We’re not talking epistemology here, we’re talking metaphysics. Of course it is difficult to predict the future. But as far as I understand, a further and different issue is that multiple futures are consistent with the past and the commonly accepted scientific theories of the world.

    I think a deeper issue still is that, at least conceptually (and so regardless of what particularly physical theory is en vogue at the moment), there is a difference between an event being caused and it being necessarily determined. It seems fine to think that A and not-A are both possible under reasonable physical theories.

  16. 16. Rodger Cunningham says:

    @Vicente: Thanks. As for what agent is controlling the attention beam, I don’t think that has an answer more specific than consciousness itself as Pierson and Trout define it. They’re biologists, by the way, and since Peter brought them to our attention a good while ago, here’s the link again:

    http://cogprints.org/4482/1/whatisconsciousnessfor.pdf

    I must say this accords with my own sense of how I make decisions: I concentrate my attention on a circumstance and then realize I intend to do such-and-such about it. Even when I start out by deliberately saying “I intend to do X,” this is ancillary to directing my attention.

    Concerning freedom in general, what Sam Hopkins says. I believe that’s P&T’s assumption as well. If there were only one possible future, what would the word “choice” *mean*? I find this a serious *logical* problem with determinism, not just some hand-waving feeling. Compatibilism I regard as a transparent verbal shell-game on a level with the Amselmic proof of the existence of God. From a biological viewpoint, why in a universe like that would organisms’ reactions have evolved beyond tropisms? As for freedom being “a bogus justification for retribution, radical social inequality and other social pathologies,” I can only say that that’s the opposite of my own politics. Any thinking person can see that freeedom is highly constrained by pre-existing circumstances. Eliminating freedom to get rid of right-wing individualist misinterpretations of it strikes me as burning down the barn to get rid of the rats, the barn being experience in general.

  17. 17. Tom Clark says:

    Rodger:

    “If there were only one possible future, what would the word “choice” *mean*? I find this a serious *logical* problem with determinism, not just some hand-waving feeling.”

    The meaning of choice if there’s only one possible future (as in the block universe view held many physicists) doesn’t present a logical problem for determinism, it’s only a problem for how you currently think about choice. Compare: If there were only one possible future, what would internal combustion mean? Here’s Gary Drescher from his book Good and Real, reviewed at http://www.naturalism.org/reviews.htm#Drescher:

    “Thus choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism: choice is a process of examining assertions about what would be the case if this or that action were taken, and then selecting an action according to a preference about what would be the case. The objection ‘The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined’ is as much a non sequitur as the objection ‘The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined…’ Both choice making and motor spinning are particular kinds of mechanical processes. In neither case does the predetermination of the outcome imply that the process didn’t really take place.” (p. 192)

    Rodger:

    “As for [contra-causal] freedom being ‘a bogus justification for retribution, radical social inequality and other social pathologies,’ I can only say that that’s the opposite of my own politics. Any thinking person can see that freedom is highly constrained by pre-existing circumstances. Eliminating freedom to get rid of right-wing individualist misinterpretations of it strikes me as burning down the barn to get rid of the rats, the barn being experience in general.”

    We disagree about whether contra-causal freedom exists in the first place, but I’m glad to know we’re on the same page politically. Of course it isn’t the case that believing in contra-causal free will *necessarily* leads one to conservative excess, but it makes it a lot easier. Any exemption from causation, any notion of ultimate self-causation, can and often will be used to blame outcasts (the poor, obese, criminal, addicted, etc.) for their plight by those inclined to do so, which you fortunately are not. My favorite example is NY Gov. George Pataki who said the root cause of crime is criminals.

    Re a fixed future as a mainstream view among physicists, and why it isn’t a threat to effective agency and choice, see Scripting the Future:
    Spacetime and the Nature of Control at http://www.naturalism.org/spacetime.htm

  18. 18. Vicente says:

    Sam:

    what “laws of physics” allow for only one possible path?

    All of them, as we know them. Maybe future models will account for a broader understanding.

    The reason for which you see several possibilities ahead is just a consequence of the uncertainty. Next week could rain or not. Atmosphere physics only allow for one option, unknown for you. Of course, once next week becomes the present, rain or sun, whichever becomes real, will be consistent with the past.

    This fact is very difficult to be idenfified in human activities, for they are extremely complex.

    In order to consider the problem of free will (or just will) you have to move to a higher or different “stance”. Within the scope of physics it is pointless.

    What that “higher stance” or “different stance” could be ??

    Additionally, you have to see how to make that stance coherent with underlying stances (physics). Some could claim that emergent behaviours are decoupled from their constituent elements. e.g. An ants colony collective behaviour cannot be fully explained in terms of single ants behaviour, I don’t think so. It is just that some traits of a single ant behavior are only activated when living in society, but they were already there.

    The ant’s organism has to be consistent with biology, biology with chemistry and chemistry with physics. So I don’t accept that we can constraint ourselves to different isolated explanation levels, unless there is a clear progress path in which coherency and consistency are preserved.

    So, can you decouple psychology from physics?

    I believe that, in part, yes. We are “something” trying to govern a philosophical zombie, we are hybrids. That “something” is to do with what Rodger pointed out about directing the attention beam.

    Mind you, just to understand the sheer biological side, the subconscious brain is a paramount endeavour. That is why I think, that first we need to understand the physics (and physiology) of the brain, and then, maybe, by exclusion, determine what remains “unknown” and move on.

    Before, we can do metaphysics.

  19. 19. John says:

    Rodger:

    “I’m with Pierson and Trout that the function of consciousness is to concentrate attention. Once our attention changes, our perceived environment changes. Our actions are then determinate responses to our perceived environment. ”

    This does not seem to have much to do with the “free will” debate other than being a statement of belief. A servo system that locks a sensor on to a data source is as mechanical and deterministic as the result of a binary addition in a digital computer. Pierson and Trout’s definition of consciousness: “There is, as far as we
    know, no valid theoretical argument that consciousness is needed for any function other than
    volitional movement and no convincing empirical evidence that consciousness performs any other
    ultimate function” is absurd, when I was a kid we used to build toys that could drive themselves towards light. The idea that the moment we have a servo we have conscious experience ignores the whole of experience. Incidently, the idea is not at all new and goes through resurrections every generation – Chalmers was the last philosopher to make a name out of servo-consciousness in the nineties.

    Sam:

    “Vicente, what “laws of physics” allow for only one possible path? We’re not talking epistemology here, we’re talking metaphysics. Of course it is difficult to predict the future.”

    Standard quantum electrodynamics see: Quantum Physics explains Newton’s Laws of Motion.

    I agree that the free will debate is about metaphysics (ie: cosmology).

    Tom:

    Gary Drescher is from that late twentieth century philosophical movement in which some philosophers decided that the way forward was to redefine terms such that the new definitions avoid any further questions. Certainly he can redefine “free will” to be the equivalent of a “mechanical series of steps” but I do not recognise such a definition.

    I was glad to see in your link that you recognise that the free will debate is about cosmology. I agree that dimensional time exists and so a block universe exists. In such a universe objects are four dimensional so the difference between a moving ball and a stationary ball is that one has a vertical worldline and the other does not (obviously there can be no instantaneous ball, only a particular slice of 4D ball). A causal series is then a set of linked 4D objects.

    Your article was disappointing because it did not tackle the other major aspect of time: “becoming”. As Vicente was suggesting above, there appears to be a Multiverse. A multiverse has multiple block universes. According to standard decoherence theory each observer in each block universe is a deterministic product of that universe fixed into a particular set of quantum states by the environment. Each block universe has its own history that is fixed for observers within it and each universe is being added to by QM events and hence the future is not fixed. (cf: growing block universe). Despite this non-fixed future the observers are deterministic being large-scale events.

    It astonishes me that correspondents are often unaware that decoherence theory is an experimentally demonstrated reality and not science fiction. It is used daily by quantum physicists, especially those working on quantum computing devices.

  20. 20. Vicente says:

    From the dynamic Blogroll:

    http://guidetoreality.blogspot.com/2011/09/aaronson-on-qm-and-free-will.html

    spontaneous event!! that’s the pain !!

  21. 21. Tom Clark says:

    John:

    “Each block universe has its own history that is fixed for observers within it and each universe is being added to by QM events and hence the future is not fixed.”

    Seems to me this would mean it isn’t a block universe, since the idea of the block has to do with the fact that all events, past present and future, equally co-exist. On the block universe view, the future only appears to come into being as a function of consciousness, http://fqxi.org/data/essay-contest-files/Petkov_PetkovFQXi.pdf page 3.

    Anyway, I’m happy to accept whatever the settled science has to say about the nature of reality, so if the future isn’t fixed, I’ll have to fix my views! Is the multiverse with quantum generated open futures now scientific orthodoxy?

  22. 22. Rodger Cunningham says:

    This is all so interesting that I have a great many things to say about it, but let me start with: John, Pierson/Trout distinguish “volitional movement” from the kind of movement shown by servomechanisms or, for that matter, probably animals below a certain (undetermined) level of brain complexity. (I’m reasonably sure insects have no consciousness, no freedom, and no sensations or emotions in our sense.) This distinction may be untenable, but ignoring it is another thing.

    I intend to follow, when I have time, with some thoughts about “naturalism” as a position. This may appear to be off thread, but since Tom Clark is here and keeps referring us to his excellent site to support his position, I think it rounds back on the specific topic of freedom. At any rate I intend to make it do so.

  23. 23. John says:

    Rodger, try just sitting still and not attending to anything. Does your conscious experience disappear? If Pierson and Trout are correct this should be their most important prediction.

    Tom: “Is the multiverse with quantum generated open futures now scientific orthodoxy?”

    Well, there is little freedom for qm states of molecular sized and larger entities to be anything other than we would expect from classical predictions. Decoherence theory shows how the lack of superpositions of state in objects bigger than small molecules is due to entanglement. What happens is that the whole environment acts as a conjoint entangled state, like a giant particle – an observer outside of the environment would see infinite environments, hence the multiverse. There is scope for isolated molecules, electrons, photons etc. to be outside of this entanglement but the moment they are struck by a photon derived from the environment they “decohere” into a state that is dictated by the environment (hence “decoherence theory”, any other possible states are part of different environments). Our universe is awash with photons, from the microwave background up, so decoherence is very rapid. If you are making a quantum computer you need to calculate the decoherence rate exactly so the predictions of decoherence theory are well tested. Decoherence Theory also answers questions such as why a distant photon can appear to instantaneously acquire a given polarization (it simply has that polarization in the particular branch of the universe where we find ourselves).

    Decoherence theory is not only profligate beyond the imagination but it also does not answer the problem of why we are in this particular environment. The Anthropic Principle is usually invoked to explain this but as far as I can see what the Anthropic Principle is saying is that our universe is one with the 3 spatial and one temporal dimension of “classical” physics and a particular total energy When I examine my experience I discover that it, itself, demands a classical form of 3 spatial and one temporal dimension to exist. So did the FORM of the observer create our environment or the environment create the form of the observer? The moment an observer occurred in the quantum universe the form of the observer would have been impressed into an environment that would then allow further observers to exist…. Given that “form” is selective rather than interactive is it possible that extra neural events are occasionally being selected into our universe in the small part of our brain that hosts conscious experience?

  24. 24. John says:

    PS: I should have invoked a “god like” observer when I said “an observer outside of the environment would see infinite environments, hence the multiverse.” because any real observer would become entangled with one particular environment if the observation involved the transfer of energy between observer and observed.

  25. 25. Rodger Cunningham says:

    John: I take it that from an evolutionary viewpoint, continuous conscious experience is either an exaptation or a background condition of volitional activity. If that’s not what Pierson/Trout are saying, at any rate I am. Note, too, how difficult it is for many people to attend to nothing without in fact losing consciousness.

  26. 26. John says:

    Rodger, can you explain how the light that goes into your two eyes and forms retinal images then forms a single image that you seem to be looking at as if from a point but such that it is separate from you as a “view”? This is visual experience. Attention occurs within that experience but perhaps you could explain the container first?

  27. 27. Rodger Cunningham says:

    John, I’m not sure what this has to do with the point I was making. Pierson/Trout are trying to explain the evolutionary origin of consciousness, not its ontological status.

  28. 28. Richard J R Miles says:

    The evolutionary origin of consciousness is because of the somatic nervous system that a tree or some creatures do not need to evolve due to their environment which is why when we are asleep we don’t need it. We should try and relate to the world we live in.

  29. 29. Arnold Trehub says:

    Rodger, if “volitional movement” is movement directed at something somewhere in our phenomenal world, then evolution must have given our brain the machinery to represent to us the world in which we exist. I have proposed that the putative *retinoid system* is the essential neuronal machinery. For more on this see “Evolution’s Gift: Subjectivity and the Phenomenal World”, here: http://journalofcosmology.com/Consciousness130.html

  30. 30. Rodger Cunningham says:

    This is all leading in fascinating directions. May I say that I’m not a biologist and I’m not committed to defending Pierson/Trout in every detail. I was most interested in their project of finding a historical-functional explanation for the origin of consciousness in terms of Darwinian reproductive advantage, and my main interest in their explanation is the fact that displacing the locus of freedom from decision to attention seems to obviate a good many of the problems with voluntarism, including the empirical neurological ones. I think “free will” is in fact a very bad way to put the problem, as “will” is a linguistic function posterior to what seems to be actually going on to direct our actions. Of course we still have the very big problem of how attention itself could be not exhaustively determined. I just think that’s the right question to be asking.

  31. 31. Tom Clark says:

    Rodger:

    “Of course we still have the very big problem of how attention itself could be not exhaustively determined.”

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but it sounds like you think it would be a problem if it turns out that attention is determined. What would be the problem?

  32. 32. Rodger Cunningham says:

    If it could be demonstrated that attention is determined it’d be a fact, not a problem. Whether voluntarism is true or not is certainly a philosophical problem. I’m just trying to refine it.

  33. 33. John says:

    Rodger, what Pierson/Trout are arguing is that attention may have a particular evolutionary origin. Both these authors and yourself seem to be confusing attention with conscious experience.

    Many events happen within conscious experience from the occurrence of colours and other events through to attention. To equate attention with the whole of conscious experience is like declaring that a car is a gear stick/gear shift. Pierson/Trout are making an absurdly wide claim if they are claiming that attention is the reason for consciousness. When they say that there is “no valid theoretical argument that consciousness is needed for any function other than volitional movement” they miss the fact that everyone knows that consciousness is required for all executive functions from adding 1+1 to planning tomorrow’s meeting to enjoying a chamber orchestra.

    If Pierson and Trout were to stick to the role of attention within conscious experience their thesis would have some validity.

  34. 34. Rodger Cunningham says:

    John, I think it has to be remembered that Pierson and Trout are discussing the *origins* of consciousness, and that they attribute consciousness of a sort to animals with brains a good deal simpler than ours. Human consciousness has certainly developed a great many more functions by exaptation.

    When my cats aren’t actively attending to something, they’re generally asleep. That seems to be what consciousness is for them.

  35. 35. Arnold Trehub says:

    Rodger, “Evolution’s Gift ….” speaks directly about the evolutionary origins of consciousness. According to the retinoid model, the evolutionary adaptation that gave creatures a brain representation of being at the spatio-temporal *origin* (the self-locus, designated as I!) of a coherent surrounding volumetric space is the brain’s putative retinoid system. Activation of retinoid space constitutes consciousness. Objects, features, and events within retinoid space, i.e., the phenomenal world, are targeted for perception by selective attention which is realized in the brain by excitatory excursions of what I call the heuristic self-locus (I!*). See The Heuristic Self-Locus and Fig.2 here:
    http://journalofcosmology.com/Consciousness130.html.
    See also Fig. 3, here: http://people.umass.edu/trehub/YCCOG828%20copy.pdf

    The upshot of this is that consciousness is a prerequisite for the deployment of attention, and one can experience the world in an unanalyzed pre-attentive mode.

  36. 36. Vicente says:

    cats and dogs dream.

    I was thinking about the control of the attention focus and free will.

    The first control option for any system is start/stop. Do we have the option to shut down consciousness? (without downing 10 gin-tonics in a row I mean).

    I find it funny, you have to be conscious (except for some sleep phases). We might have the possibility to direct our attention, but not to turn it off. You can commit suicide, but you can’t unplug the system.

    Trained people can act on their heart beat consciously, they can reduce it to a very low frequency, or act over other body systems usually under unconscious control (most physiological systems). They can control their emotional response, but they cannot stop conscious flow.

    Even the best meditators, they can intensify conscious awareness but not the opposite (I don’t think the no-thought state can be considered as the absence of consciousness, rather the void as content).

    We are forced to a conscious state in the first place.

  37. 37. John says:

    Attending can be done by non-conscious entities and can be tracked back to the operation of control systems that use feedback. That attention is not essential to conscious experience is evident if you attend to attention – see the section on attention in Meditations: Space in the Dark. Pierson and Trout are clearly barking up the wrong tree here.

    Vicente says “We are forced to a conscious state in the first place.”, I agree. I also think Vicente’s introduction of the “no thought state” is crucial to understanding consciousness. Without thought, in a dark place, you are still conscious – what is left is the essence of consciousness so if you describe what is there and how it is laid out you have the basic description of conscious experience.

  38. 38. Paul Bello says:

    John:
    Exactly right. The sensory deprivation thought experiment more or less dismantles the consciousness-as-attention hypothesis. I hope you’ll excuse my neo-Scholastic/Cartesian diversion, but something like reflection (or attention) upon a mental representation of our own haeccaeity…or the object of the first-person pronoun “I” seems to be an ineliminable aspect of conscious experience.

    I don’t know all that much about the meditation/consciousness literature, but I’m under the impression that “no-thought” states involve something like un-situating yourself from space-time…does that necessitate having no focus of attention, or object of conscious awareness? Just curious.

  39. 39. Rodger Cunningham says:

    “Both [Pierson/Trout] and yourself seem to be confusing attention with conscious experience.”

    Again, I’m not committed to defending them, and I hadn’t in fact read them for some time before I posted the link, but I at any rate am perfectly clear on the difference between attention and experience, and I wonder whether we’re all clear on the difference between the evolutionary *origin* of something in simple animals and its central *function* in the most complex animal on the planet. One word: exaptation.

  40. 40. Richard J R Miles says:

    I think self-consciousness/awareness was an exaptation of consciousness which could lead to further developments, as Michio Kaku suggests people affected by evolving knowledge becoming type 0,1,2&3 beings.

  41. 41. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter: “Sometimes it pays to move on to the design stance: then we ask ourselves, what is this for, how does it work? This stance is productive when considering artefacts and living things, in the main. ”

    I think this is simple but an important observation. Our best guess is that conscious entities are living things. So if we want to understand what makes a living thing a *conscious* entity, it seems reasonable to find out what biological design/mechanism distinguishes the conscious entity from the non-conscious entity. This is what the retinoid model aims at.

  42. 42. Angus Stone says:

    I read some things about emotional hijacking and why our consciousness is, basically, an illusion. So I came here. However, now that I have read your text, Peter, twice, I still cannot catch up to your thoughts :) Nevertheless, I think it gives me some knots to unravel!
    My best wishes

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