Posts tagged ‘free will’

Another strange side light on free will. Some of the most-discussed findings in the field are Libet’s celebrated research which found that Readiness Potentials (RPs) in the brain showed when a decision to move had been made, significantly before the subject was aware of having decided. Libet himself thought this was problematic for free will, but that we could still have ‘Free Won’t’ – we could still change our minds after the RP had appeared and veto the planned movement.

A new paper (discussed here by Jerry Coyne) follows up on this, and seems to show that while we do have something like this veto facility, there is a time limit on that too, and beyond a certain point the planned move will be made regardless.

The actual experiment was in three phases. Subjects were given a light and a pedal and set up with equipment to detect RPs in their brain. They were told to press the pedal at a time of their choosing when the light was green, but not when it had turned red. The first run merely trained the equipment to detect RPs, with the light turning red randomly. In the second phase, the light turned red when an RP was detected, so that the subjects were in effect being asked to veto their own decision to press. In the third phase, they were told that their decisions were being predicted and they were asked to try to be unpredictable.

Detection of RPs actually took longer in some instances than others. It turned out that where the RP was picked up early enough, subjects could exercise the veto; but once the move was 200ms or less away, it was impossible to stop.

What does this prove, beyond the bare facts of the results? Perhaps not much. The conditions of the experiment are very strange and do not resemble everyday decision-making very much at all. It was always an odd feature of Libet’s research that subjects were asked to get ready to move but choose the time capriciously according to whim; not a mental exercise that comes up very often in real life. In the new research, subjects further have to stop when the light is red; they don’t, you notice, choose to veto their move, but merely respond to a pre-set signal. Whether this deserves to be called free won’t is debatable; it isn’t a free decision making process. How could it be, anyway; how could it be that deciding to do something takes significantly longer than deciding not to do the same thing? Is it that decisions to move are preceded by an RP, but other second-order decisions about those decisions are not? We seem to be heading into a maze of complications if we go that way and substantially reducing the significance of Libet’s results.

Of course, if we don’t think that Libet’s results dethrone free will in the first place, we need not be very worried. My own view is that we need to distinguish between making a conscious decision and becoming aware of having made the decision. Some would argue that that second-order awareness is essential to the nature of conscious thought, but I don’t think so. For me Libet’s original research showed only that deciding and knowing you’ve decided are distinct, and the latter naturally follows after the former. So assuming that, like me, you think it’s fine to regard the results of certain physical processes as ‘free’ in a useful sense, free will remains untouched. If you were always a sceptic then of course Libet never worried you anyway, and nor will the new research.

chainWhy does the question of determinism versus free will continue to trouble us? There’s nothing too strange, perhaps, about a philosophical problem remaining in play for a while – or even for a few hundred years: but why does this one have such legs and still provoke such strong and contrary feelings on either side?

For me the problem itself is solved – and the right solution, broadly speaking, has been known for centuries: determinism is true, but we also have free choice in a meaningful sense. St Augustine, to go no earlier, understood that free will and predestination are not contradictory, but people still find it confusing that he spoke up for both.

If this view – compatibilism – is right, why hasn’t it triumphed? I’m coming to think that the strongest opposition on the question might not in fact be between the hard-line determinists and the uncompromising libertarians but rather a matter of both ends against the middle. Compatibilists like me are happy to see the problem solved and determinism reconciled with common sense, whereas people from both the extremes insist that that misses something crucial. They believe the ‘loss’ of free will radically undercuts and changes our traditional sense of what we are as human beings. They think determinism, for better or worse, wipes away some sacred mark from our brows. Why do they think that?

Let’s start by quickly solving the old problem. Part one: determinism is true. It looks, with some small reservations about the interpretation of some esoteric matters, as if the laws of physics completely determine what happens. Actually even if contemporary physics did not seem to offer the theoretical possibility of full determination, we should be inclined to think that some set of rules did. A completely random or indeterminate world would seem scarcely distinguishable from a nullity; nothing definite could be said about it and no reliable predictions could be made because everything could be otherwise. That kind of scenario, of disastrous universal incoherence is extreme, and I admit I know of no absolute reason to rule out a more limited, demarcated indeterminacy. Still, the idea of delimited patches of randomness seems odd, inelegant and possibly problematic. God, said Einstein, does not play dice.

Beyond that, moreover, there’s a different kind of point. We came into this business in pursuit of truth and knowledge, so it’s fair to say that if there seemed to be patches of uncertainty we should want to do our level best to clarify them out of existence. In this sense it’s legitimate to regard determinism not just as a neutral belief, but as a proper aspiration. Even if we believe in free will, aren’t we going to want a theory that explains how it works, and isn’t that in the end going to give us rules that determine the process? Alright, I’m coming to the conclusion too soon: but in this light I see determinism as a thing that lovers of truth must strive towards (even if in vain) and we can note in passing that that might be some part of the reason why people champion it with zeal.

We’re not done with the defence, anyway. One more thing we can do against indeterminacy is to invoke the deep old principle which holds that nothing comes of nothing, and that nothing therefore happens unless it must; if something particular must happen, then the compulsion is surely encapsulated in some laws of nature.

Further still, even if none of that were reliable, we could fall back on a fatalistic argument. If it is true that on Tuesday you’ll turn right, then it was true on Monday that you would turn right on Tuesday; so your turning that way rather than left was already determined.

Finally, we must always remember that failure to establish determinism is not success in establishing liberty. Determinism looks to be true; we should try to establish its truth if by any means we can: but even if we fail, that failure in itself leaves us not with free will but with an abhorrent void of the unknowable.

Part two: we do actually make free decisions. Determinism is true, but it bites firmly only at a low level of description; not truly above the level of particles and forces. To look for decisions or choices at that level is simply a mistake, of the same general kind as looking for bicycles down there. Their absence from the micro level does not mean that cyclists are systematically deluded. Decisions are processes of large neural structures, and I suggest that when we describe them as free we simply mean the result was not constrained externally. If I had a gun to my head or my hands were tied, then turning left was not a free decision. If no-one could tell which way I should go without knowledge of what was going on in the large neural structures that realise my mind, then it was free. There are of course degrees of freedom and plenty of grey areas, but the essential idea is clear enough. Freedom is just the absence of external constraint on a level of description where people and decisions are salient, useful concepts.

For me, and I suppose other compatibilists, that’s a satisfying solution and matches well with what I think I’ve always meant when I talk about freedom. Indeed, it’s hard for me to see what else freedom could mean. What if God did play dice after all? Libertarians don’t want their free decisions to be random, they want them to belong to them personally and reflect consideration of the circumstances; the problem is that it’s challenging for them to explain in that case how the decisions can escape some kind of determination. What unites the libertarians and the determinists is the conviction that it’s that inexplicable, paradoxical factor we are concerned to affirm or deny, and that its presence or absence says something important about human nature. To quietly do without the magic, as compatibilists do, is on their view to shoot the fox and spoil the hunt. What are they both so worried about?

I speculate that the one factor here is a persistent background confusion. Determinism, we should remember, is an intellectual achievement, both historically and often personally. We live in a world where nothing much about human beings is certainly determined; only careful reflection reveals that in the end, at the lowest level of detail and at the very last knockings of things, there must be certainty. This must remain a theoretical conclusion, certainly so far as human beings are concerned; our behaviour may be determinate, but it is not determinable; certainly not in practice and very probably not even in theory, given the vast complexity, chaotic organisation and marvellously emergent properties of our brains. Some of those who deny determinism may be moved, not so much by explicit rejection of the true last-ditch thesis, but by the certainty that our minds are not determinable by us or by anyone. This muddying of the waters is perpetuated even now by arguments about how our minds may be strongly influenced by high-level factors: peer pressure, subliminal advertising, what we were given to read just before making a decision. These arguments may be presented in favour of determinism together with the water-tight last-ditch case, but they are quite different, and the high-level determinism they support is not certainly true but rather an eminently deniable hypothesis. In the end our behaviour is determined, but can we be programmed like robots by higher level influences? Maybe in some cases – generally, probably not.

The second, related factor is a certain convert enthusiasm. If determinism is a personal intellectual achievement it may well be that we become personally invested in it. When we come to appreciate its truth for the first time it may seem that we have grasped a new perspective and moved out of the confused herd to join the scientifically enlightened. I certainly felt this on my first acquaintance with the idea; I remember haranguing a friend about the truth of determinism in a way that must, with hindsight, have resembled religious conviction and been very tiresome.

“Yes, yes, OK, I get it,” he would say in a vain attempt to stop the flow.

Now no-one lives pure determinism; we all go behaving as if agency and freedom were meaningful. The fact that this involves an unresolved tension between your philosophy and the ideas about people you actually live by was not a deterrent to me then, however; in fact it may even have added a glamorous sheen of esoteric heterodoxy to the whole thing. I expect other enthusiasts may feel the same today. The gradual revelation, some years later, that determinism is true but actually not at all as important as you thought is less exciting: it has rather a dying fall to it and may be more difficult to assimilate. Consistency with common sense is perhaps a game for the middle aged.

“You know, I’ve been sort of nuancing my thinking about determinism lately…”

“Oh, what, Peter? You made me live through the conversion experience with you – now I have to work through your apostasy, too?”

On the libertarian side, it must be admitted that our power of decision really does look sort of strange, with a power far exceeding that of mere absence of constraint. There are at least two reasons for this. One is our ability to use intentionality to think about anything whatever, and base our decisions on those thoughts. I can think about things that are remote, non-existent, or even absurd, without any difficulty. Most notably, when I make decisions I am typically thinking about future events: will I turn left or right tomorrow? How can future events influence my behaviour now?

It’s a bit like the time machine case where I take the text of Hamlet back in time and give it to Shakespeare – who never actually produced it but now copies it down and has it performed. Who actually wrote it, in these circumstances? No-one, it just appeared at some point. Our ability to think about the future, and so use future goals as causes of actions now, seems in the same way to bring our decisions into being out of nowhere inside us. There was no prior cause, only later ones, so it really seems as if the process inverts and disrupts the usual order of causality.

We know this is indeed remarkable but it isn’t really magic. On my view it’s simply that our recognition of various entities that extend over time allows a kind of extrapolation. The actual causal processes, down at that lowest level, tick away in the right order, but our pattern-matching capacity provides processes at a higher level which can legitimately be said to address the future without actually being caused by it. Still, the appearance is powerful, and we may be impatient with the kind of materialist who prefers to live in a world with low ceilings, insists on everything being material and denies any independent validity to higher levels of description. Some who think that way even have difficulty accepting that we can think directly about mathematical abstractions – quite a difficult posture for anyone who accepts the physics that draws heavily on them.

The other thing is the apparent, direct reality of our decisions. We just know we exercise free will, because we experience the process immediately. We can feel ourselves deciding. We could be wrong about all sorts of things in the world, but how could I be wrong about what I think? I believe the feeling of something ineffable here comes from the fact that we are not used to dealing with reality. Most of what we know about the world is a matter of conscious or unconscious inference, and when we start thinking scientifically or philosophically it is heavily informed by theory. For many people it starts to look as if theory is the ultimate bedrock of things, rather than the thin layer of explanation we place on top. For such a mindset the direct experience of one’s own real thoughts looks spooky; its particularity, its haecceity, cannot be accounted for by theory and so looks anomalous. There are deep issues here, but really we ought not to be foxed by simple reality.

That’s it, I think, in brief at least. More could be said of course; more will be said. The issues above are like optical illusions: just knowing how they work doesn’t make them go away, and so minds will go on boggling. People will go on furiously debating free will: that much is both determined and determinable.

chainThe Platopus makes a good point about compatibilism (the view that some worthwhile kind of free will is compatible with the standard deterministic account of the world given by physics).

One argument holds that there isn’t effectively any difference between compatibilists and those who deny the reality of free will. Both deny that radical (or ‘libertarian’) free will exists. They agree that there’s no magic faculty which interrupts the normal causal process with volitions. Given that level of agreement, isn’t it just a matter of what labelling strategy we prefer? Because it’s that radical kind of free will that is really at issue: that’s what people want, not some watered-down legalistic thing.

That’s the argument the Platopus wishes to reject. He accepts that compatibilism involves some redefinition, but draws a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate redefinition. As an example of the latter, he proposes the example of atoms. In Greek philosophy, and at first in the modern science which borrowed the word, ‘atom’ meant something indivisible. There was a period when the atoms of modern physics seemed to be just that, but in due course it emerged that they could in fact be ‘split’. One strategy at that point would have been to say, well, it turns out those things were never atoms after all: we must give them a new name and look elsewhere for our indivisible atoms – or perhaps atoms don’t actually exist after all. What happened in reality was that we went on calling those particles atoms, and gave up our belief that they were indivisible.

In a somewhat similar way, the Platopus argues that it makes sense for us to redefine freedom of the will even though we now know it is not libertarian freedom. The analogy is not perfect, and in some ways the case is actually stronger for free will. Atoms, after all, were originally a hypothesis derived from the purest metaphysics. On one interpretation (just mine, really), the early atomists embraced the idea because they feared that unless the process of division stopped somewhere, the universe would suffer from a radical indeterminism. Division could not stop until the particles were of zero magnitude – non-existent, and how could we make real things out of items which did not themselves exist? They could not have imagined the modern position in which, on one interpretation (yes) as we go more micro the nature of the reality involved changes until the physics has boiled away leaving only maths.

Be that as it was or may be, I think the Platopus is quite right and that the redefinition required by compatibilism is not just respectable but natural and desirable. I think in fact we could go a little further and say that it’s not so much a redefinition as a correction of inherent flaws in the pre-theoretical idea of free will.

What do I mean? Well, the original problem here is that the deterministic physical account seems to leave no room for the will. People try to get round that by suggesting different kinds of indeterminism: perhaps we can get something out of chaos theory, or out of quantum mechanics. The problem with those views is that they go too far and typically end up giving us random action: which is no more what we wanted than determined action. Alternatively, old-fashioned libertarians rely on the intervention of the spirit, typically with no satisfactory account of how the spirit makes decisions or how it manages to intervene. That, I submit, was never really what people meant either: in their Sunday best they might appeal to the action of their soul, but in everyday life having a free choice was something altogether more practical; a matter of not having a knife at your throat.

In short, I’d claim that the pre-theoretical understanding of free will always implicitly took it to be something that went on in a normal physical world, and that’s what compatibilism restores, saving the idea from the mad excrescences added by theologians and philosophers.

Myself I think that the kind of indeterminism we can have, and the one we really need, is the one that comes from our power to think about anything. Most processes in the world can be predicted because the range of factors involved can be known and listed to begin with: our mental processes are not like that. Our neurons may work deterministically according to physics, but they allow us to think about anything at any time: about abstractions,  remote entities, and even imaginary things. Above all, they allow us somehow to think about the future and enable future contingencies (in some acceptable sense) to influence our present decisions. When our actions are determined by our own thoughts about the future, they can properly be called free.

That is not a complete answer: it defers the mystery of freedom to the mystery of intentionality; but I’ll leave that one for now…

wiring a neuronA few years ago we noted the remarkable research by Fried, Mukamel, and Kreiman which reproduced and confirmed Libet’s famous research. Libet, in brief, had found good evidence using EEG that a decision to move was formed about half a second before the subject in question became consciously aware of it; Fried et al produced comparable results by direct measurement of neuron firing.

In the intervening years, electrode technology has improved and should now make it possible to measure multiple sites. The scanty details here indicate that Kreiman, with support from MIT, plans to repeat the research in an enhanced form; in particular he proposes to see whether, having identified the formed intention to move, it is then possible to stop it before the action takes place. This resembles the faculty of ‘free won’t’ by which Libet himself hoped to preserve some trace of free will.

From the MIT article it is evident that Kreiman is a determinist and believes that his research confirms that position. It is generally believed that Libet’s findings are incompatible with free will in the sense that they seem to show that consciousness has no effect on our actual behaviour.

That actually sheds an interesting side-light on our view of what free will is. A decision to move still gets made, after all; why shouldn’t it be freely made even though it is unconscious? There’s something unsatisfactory about unconscious free will, it seems. Our desire for free will is a desire to be in control, and by that we mean a desire for the entity that does the talking to be in control. We don’t really think of the unconscious parts of our mind as being us; or at least not in the same way as that gabby part that claims responsibility for everything (the part of me that is writing this now, for example).

This is a bit odd, because the verbal part of our brain obviously does the verbals; it’s strange and unrealistic to think it should also make the decisions, isn’t it? Actually if we are careful to distinguish between the making of the decision and being aware of the decision – which we should certainly do, given that one is clearly a first order mental event and the other equally clearly second order – then it ceases to be surprising that the latter should lag behind the former a bit. Something has to have happened before we can be aware of it, after all.

Our unease about this perhaps relates to the intuitive conviction of our own unity. We want the decision and the awareness to be a single event, we want conscious acts to be, as it were, self- illuminating, and it seems to be that that the research ultimately denies us.

It is the case, of course, that the decisions made in the research are rather weird ones. We’re not often faced with the task of deciding to move our hands at an arbitrary time for no reason. Perhaps the process is different if we are deciding which stocks and shares to buy? We may think about the pros and cons explicitly, and we can see the process by which the conclusion is reached; it’s not plausible that those decisions are made unconsciously and then simply notified to consciousness, is it?

On the other hand, we don’t think, do we, that the process of share-picking is purely verbal? The words flowing through our consciousness are signals of a deeper imaginative modelling, aren’t they? If that is the case, then the words might still be lagging. Perhaps the distinction to be drawn is not really between conscious and unconscious, but between simply conscious and explicitly conscious. Perhaps we just shouldn’t let the talky bit pretend to be the whole of consciousness just because the rest is silent.

angelanddevilTom Clark has an interesting paper on Experience and Autonomy: Why Consciousness Does and Doesn’t Matter, due to appear as a chapter in Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Responsibility (if your heart sinks at the idea of discussing free will one more time, don’t despair: this is not the same old stuff).

In essence Clark wants to propose a naturalised conception of free will and responsibility and he seeks to dispel three particular worries about the role of consciousness; that it might be an epiphenomenon, a passenger along for the ride with no real control; that conscious processes are not in charge, but are subject to manipulation and direction by unconscious ones; and that our conception of ourselves as folk-dualist agents, able to step outside the processes of physical causation but still able to intervene in them effectively, is threatened. He makes it clear that he is championing phenomenal consciousness, that is, the consciousness which provides real if private experiences in our minds; not the sort of cognitive rational processing that an unfeeling zombie would do equally well. I think he succeeds in being clear about this, though it’s a bit of a challenge because phenomenal consciousness is typically discussed in the context of perception, while rational decision-making tends to be seen in the context of the ‘easy problem’ – zombies can make the same decisions as us and even give the same rationales. When we talk about phenomenal consciousness being relevant to our decisions, I take it we mean something like our being able to sincerely claim that we ‘thought about’ a given decision in the sense that we had actual experience of relevant thoughts passing through our minds. A zombie twin would make identical claims but the claims would, unknown to the zombie, be false, a rather disturbing idea.

I won’t consider all of Clark’s arguments (which I am generally in sympathy with), but there are a few nice ones which I found thought-provoking. On epiphenomenalism, Clark has a neat manoeuvre. A commonly used example of an epiphenomenon, first proposed by Huxley, is the whistle on a steam locomotive; the boiler, the pistons, and the wheels all play a part in the causal story which culminates in the engine moving down the track; the whistle is there too, but not part of that story. Now discussion has sometimes been handicapped by the existence of two different conceptions of epiphenomenalism; a rigorous one in which there really must be no causal effects at all, and a looser one in which there may be some causal effects but only ones that are irrelevant, subliminal, or otherwise ignorable. I tend towards the rigorous conception myself, and have consequently argued in the past that the whistle on a steam engine is not really a good example. Blowing the whistle lets steam out of the boiler which does have real effects. Typically they may be small, but in principle a long enough blast can stop a train altogether.

But Clark reverses that unexpectedly. He argues that in order to be considered an epiphenomenon an entity has to be the sort of thing that might have had a causal role in the process. So the whistle is a good example; but because consciousness is outside the third-person account of things altogether, it isn’t even a candidate to be an epiphenomenon! Although that inverts my own outlook, I think it’s a pretty neat piece of footwork. If I wanted a come-back I think I would let Clark have his version of epiphenomenalism and define a new kind, x-epiphenomenalism, which doesn’t require an entity to be the kind of thing that could have a causal role; I’d then argue that consciousness being x-epiphenomenal is just as worrying as the old problem. No doubt Clark in turn might come back and argue that all kinds of unworrying things were going to turn out to be x-epiphenomenal on that basis, and so on; however, since I don’t have any great desire to defend epiphenomenalism I won’t even start down that road.

On the second worry Clark gives a sensible response to the issues raised by the research of Libet and others which suggest our decisions are determined internally before they ever enter our consciousness; but I was especially struck by his arguments on the potential influence of unconscious factors which form an important part of his wider case. There is a vast weight of scientific evidence to show that often enough our choices are influenced or even determined by unconscious factors we’re not aware of; Clark gives a few examples but there are many more. Perhaps consciousness is not the chief executive of our minds after all, just the PR department?

Clark nibbles the bullet a bit here, accepting that unconscious influence does happen, but arguing that when we are aware of say, ethnic bias or other factors, we can consciously fight against it and second-guess our unworthier unconscious impulses. I like the idea that it’s when we battle our own primitive inclinations that we become most truly ourselves; but the issues get pretty complicated.

As a side issue, Clark’s examples all suppose that more or less wicked unconscious biases are to be defeated by a more ethical conscious conception of ourself (rather reminiscent of those cartoon disputes between an angel on the character’s right shoulder and a devil on the left); but it ain’t necessarily so. What if my conscious mind rules out on principled but sectarian grounds a marriage to someone I sincerely love with my unconscious inclinations? I’m not clear that the sectarian is to be considered the representative of virtue (or of my essential personal agency) more than the lover.

That’s not the point at all, of course: Clark is not arguing that consciousness is always right, only that it has a genuine role. However, the position is never going to be clear. Suppose I am inclined to vote against candidate N, who has a big nose. I tell myself I should vote for him because it’s the schnozz that is putting me off. Oh no, I tell myself, it’s his policies I don’t like, not his nose at all. Ah, but you would think that, I tell myself, you’re bound to be unaware of the bias, so you need to aim off a bit. How much do \I aim off, though – am I to vote for all big-nosed candidates regardless? Surely I might also have legitimate grounds for disliking them? And does that ‘aiming off’ really give my consciousness a proper role or merely defer to some external set of rules?

Worse yet, as I leave the polling station it suddenly occurs to me that the truth is, the nose had nothing to do with it; I really voted for N because I’m biased in favour of white middle-aged males; my unconscious fabricated the stuff about the nose to give me a plausible cover story while achieving its own ends. Or did it? Because the influences I’m fighting are unconscious, how will I ever know what they really are, and if I don’t know, doesn’t the claimed role of consciousness become merely a matter of faith? It could always turn out that if I really knew what was going on, I’d see my consciousness was having its strings pulled all the time. Consciousness can present a rationale which it claims was effective, but it could do that to begin with; it never knew the rationale was really a mask for unconscious machinations.

The last of the three worries tackled by Clark is not strictly a philosophical or scientific one; we might well say that if people’s folk-dualist ideas are threatened, so much the worse for them. There is, however, some evidence that undiluted materialism does induce what Clark calls a “puppet” outlook in which people’s sense of moral responsibility is weakened and their behaviour worsened. Clark provides rational answers but his views tend to put him in the position of conceding that something has indeed been lost. Consciousness does and doesn’t matter. I don’t think anything worth having can be lost by getting closer to the truth and I don’t think a properly materialist outlook is necessarily morally corrosive – even in a small degree. I think what we’re really lacking for the moment is a sufficiently inspiring, cogent, and understood naturalised ethics to go with our naturalised view of the mind. There’s much to be done on that, but it’s far from hopeless (as I expect Clark might agree).

There’s much more in the paper than I have touched on here; I recommend a look at it.

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.

Picture: Raymond Tallis‘Aping Mankind’ is a large scale attack by Raymond Tallis on two reductive dogmas which he characterises as ‘Neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’.  He wishes especially to refute the identification of mind and brain, and as an expert on the neurology of old age, his view of the scientific evidence carries a good deal of weight. He also appears to be a big fan of Parmenides, which suggests a good acquaintance with the philosophical background. It’s a vigorous, useful, and readable contribution to the debate.

Tallis persuasively denounces exaggerated claims made on the basis of brain scans, notably claims to have detected the ‘seat of wisdom’ in the brain.  These experiments, it seems, rely on what are essentially fuzzy and ambiguous pictures arrived at by subtraction in very simple experimental conditions, to provide the basis for claims of a profound and detailed understanding far beyond what they could possibly support. This is no longer such a controversial debunking as it would have been a few years ago, but it’s still useful.

Of course, the fact that some claims to have reduced thought to neuronal activity are wrong does not mean that thought cannot nevertheless turn out to be neuronal activity, but Tallis pushes his scepticism a long way. At times he seems reluctant to concede that there is anything more than a meaningless correlation between the firing of neurons in the brain and the occurence of thoughts in the mind.  He does agree that possession of a working brain is a necessary condition for conscious thought, but he’s not prepared to go much further. Most people, I think, would accept that Wilder Penfield’s classic experiments, in which the stimulation of parts of the brain with an electrode caused an experience of remembered music in the subject, pretty much show that memories are encoded in the brain one way or another; but Tallis does not accept that neurons could constitute memories. For memory you need a history, you need to have formed the memories in the first place, he says: Penfield’s electrode was not creating but merely reactivating memories which already existed.

Tallis seems to start from a kind of Brentanoesque incredulity about the utter incompatibility of the physical and the mental. Some of his arguments have a refreshingly simple (or if you prefer, naive) quality: when we experience yellow, he points out, our nerve impulses are not yellow.  True enough, but then a word need not be printed in yellow ink to encode yellowness either. Tallis quotes Searle offering a dual-aspect explanation: water is H2O, but H2O molecules do not themselves have watery properties: you cannot tell what the back of a house loks like from the front, although it is the same house. In the same way our thoughts can be neural activity without the neurons themselves resembling thoughts. Tallis utterly rejects this: he maintains that to have different aspects requires a conscious observer, so we’re smuggling in the very thing we need to explain.  I think this is an odd argument. If things don’t have different aspects until an observer is present, what determines the aspects they eventually have? If it’s the observer, we seem to slipping towards idealism or solipsism, which I’m sure Tallis would not find congenial. Based on what he says elsewhere, I think Tallis would say the thing determines its own aspects in that it has potential aspects which only get actualised when observed; but in that case didn’t it really sort of have those aspects all along? Tallis seems to be adopting the view that an appearance (say yellowness) can only properly be explained by another thing that already has that same appearance (is yellow). It must be clear that if we take this view we’re never going to get very far with our explanations of yellow or any other appearance.

But I think that’s the weakest point in a sceptical case which is otherwise fairly plausible. Tallis is Brentanoesque in another way in that he emphasises the importance of intentionality – quite rightly, I think. He suggests it has been neglected, which I think is also true, although we must not go overboard: both Searle and Dennett, for example, have published whole books about it. In Tallis’ view the capacity to think explicitly about things is a key unique feature of human mindfulness, and that too may well be correct. I’m less sure about his characterisation of intentionality as an outward arrow. Perception, he says, is usually represented purely in terms of information flowing in, but there is also a corresponding outward flow of intentionality. The rose we’re looking at hits our eye (or rather a beam of light from the rose does so), but we also, as it were, think back at the rose. Is this a useful way of thinking about intentionality? It has the merit of foregrounding it, but I think we’d need a theory of intentionality  in order to judge whether talk of an outward arrow was helpful or confusing, and no fully-developed theory is on offer.

Tallis has a very vivid evocation of a form of the binding problem, the issue of how all our different sensory inputs are brought together in the mind coherently. As normally described, the binding problem seems like lip-synch issues writ large: Tallis focuses instead on the strange fact that consciousness is united and yet composed of many small distinct elements at the same time.  He rightly points out that it’s no good having a theory which merely explains how things are all brought together: if you combine a lot of nerve impulses into one you just mash them. I think the answer may be that we can experience a complex unity because we are complex unities ourselves, but it’s an excellent and thought-provoking exposition.

Tallis’ attack on’ Darwinitis’ takes on Cosmidoobianism, memes and the rest with predictable but entertaining vigour. Again, he presses things quite a long way. It’s one thing to doubt whether every feature of human culture is determined by evolution: Tallis seems to suggest that human culture has no survival value, or at any rate, had none until recently, too recently to account for human development. This is reminiscent of the argument put by Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s co-discoverer of the principle of survival of the fittest: he later said that evolution could not account for human intelligence because a caveman could have lived his life perfectly well with a much less generous helping of it. The problem is that this leaves us needing a further explanation of why we are so brainy and cultured; Wallace, alas, ended up resorting to spiritualism to fill the gap (we can feel confident that Tallis, a notable public champion of disbelief, will never go that way). It seems better to me to draw a clear distinction between the capacity for human culture, which is wholly explicable by evolutionary pressure, and the contents of human culture, which are largely ephemeral, variable, and non-hereditary.

Tallis points out that some sleight of hand with vocabulary is not unknown in this area, in particular the tactic of the transferrred epithet: a word implying full mental activity is used metaphorically – a ‘smart’ bomb is said to be ‘hunting down’ its target – and the important difference is covertly elided. He notes the particular slipperiness of the word ‘information’, something we’ve touched on before.

It is a weakness of Tallis’ position that he has no general alternative theory to offer in place of those he is attacking – consciousness remains a mystery (he sympathises with Colin McGinn’s mysterianism to some degree, incidentally, but reproves him for suggesting that our inability to understand ourselves might be biological). However, he does offer positive views of selfhood and free will, both of which he is concerned to defend. Rather than the brain, he chooses to celebrate the hand as a defining and influential human organ: opposable thumbs allow it to address itself and us: it becomes a proto-tool and this gives us a sense of ourselves as acting on the world in a tool-like manner. In this way we develop a sense of ourselves as a distinct entity and an agent, an existential intuition.  This is OK as far as it goes though it does sound in places like another theory of how we get a mere impression, or dare I say an illusion, of selfhood and agency, the very position Tallis wants to refute. We really need more solid ontological foundations. In response to critics who have pointed to the elephant’s trunk and the squid’s tentacles, Tallis grudgingly concedes that hands alone are not all you need and a human brain does have something to contribute.

Turning to free will, Tallis tackles Libet’s experiments (which seem to show that a decision to move one’s hand is actually made a measurable time before one becomes aware of it). So, he says, the decision to move the hand can be tracked back half a second? Well, that’s nothing: if you like you can track it back days, to when the experimental subject decided to volunteer; moreover, the aim of the subject was not just to move the hand, but also to help that nice Dr Libet, or to forward the cause of science. In this longer context of freely made decisions the precise timing of the RP is of no account.

To be free according to Tallis, an act must be expressive of what the agent is, the agent must seem to be the initiator, and the act must deflect the course of events. If we are inclined to doubt that we can truly deflect the course of events, he again appeals to a wider context: look at the world around us, he says, and who can doubt that collectively we have diverted the course of events pretty substantially?  I don’t think this will convert any determinists. The curious thing is that Tallis seems to be groping for a theory of different levels of description, or well, a dual aspect theory.  I would  have thought dual-aspect theories ought to be quite congenial to Tallis, as they represent a rejection of ‘nothing but’ reductionism in favour of an attempt to give all levels of interpretation parity of esteem, but alas it seems not.

As I say, there is no new theory of consciousness on offer here, but Tallis does review the idea that we might need to revise our basic ideas of how the world is put together in order to accommodate it. He is emphatically against traditional dualism, and he firmly rejects the idea that quantum physics might have the explanation too. Panpsychism may have a certain logic but generate more problems than it solves.  Instead he points again to the importance of intentionality and the need for a new view that incorporates it: in the end ‘Thatter’, his word for the indexical, intentional quality of the mental world, may be as important as matter.

Picture: dials. Libet’s famous experiments are among the most interesting and challenging in neuroscience; now they’ve been taken further. A paper by Fried, Mukamel and Kreiman in Neuron (with a very useful overview by Patrick Haggard) reports on experiments using a number of epilepsy patients where it was ethically possible to implant electrodes and hence to read off the activity of individual neurons, giving a vastly more precise picture than anything achievable by other means. In other respects the experiments broadly followed the design of Libet’s own, using a similar clock-face approach to measure the time when subjects felt they decided to press a button. Libet discovered that a Readiness Potential (RP) could be detected as much as half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to move; the new experiments show that data from a population of 250 neurons in the SMA (the Supplementary Motor Area) were sufficient to predict the subject’s decision 700 ms in advance of the subject’s own awareness, with 80% accuracy.

The more detailed picture which these experiments provide helps clarify some points about the relationship between pre-SMA and SMA proper, and suggest that the sense of decision reported by subjects is actually the point at which a growing decision starts to be converted into action, rather than the beginning of the decision-forming process, which stretches back further. This may help to explain the results from fMRI studies which have found the precursors of a decision much earlier than 500 ms beforehand. There are also indications that a lot of the activity in these areas might be more concerned with suppressing possible actions than initiating them – a finding which harmonises nicely with Libet’s own idea of ‘free won’t’ – that we might not be able to control the formation of impulses to act, but could still suppress them when we wanted.

For us, though, the main point of the experiments is that they appear to provide a strong vindication of Libet and make it clear that we have to engage with his finding that our decisions are made well before we think we’re making them.

What are we to make of it all then? I’m inclined to think that the easiest and most acceptable way of interpreting the results is to note that making a decision and being aware of having made a decision are two different things (and being able to report the fact may be yet a third). On this view we first make up our minds; then the process of becoming aware of having done so naturally takes some neural processing of its own, and hence arrives a few hundred milliseconds later.

That would be fine, except that we strongly feel that our decisions flow from the conscious process, that the feelings we are aware of, and could articulate aloud if we chose, are actually decisive. Suppose I am deciding which house to buy: house A involves a longer commute while house B is in a less attractive area. Surely I would go through something like an internal argument or assessment, totting up the pros and cons, and it is this forensic process in internal consciousness which causally determines what I do? Otherwise why do I spend any time thinking about it at all – surely it’s the internal discussion that takes time?

Well, there is another way to read the process: perhaps I hold the two possibilities in mind in turn: perhaps I imagine myself on the long daily journey or staring at the unlovely factory wall. Which makes me feel worse? Eventually I get a sense of where I would be happiest, perhaps with a feeling of settling one alternative and so of what I intend to do. On this view the explicitly conscious part of my mind is merely displaying options and waiting for some other, feeling part to send back its implicit message. The talky, explicit part of consciousness isn’t really making the decision at all, though it (or should I say ‘I’?) takes responsibility for it and is happy to offer explanations.

Perhaps there are both processes in involved in different decisions to different degrees. Some purely rational decisions may indeed happen in the explicit part of the mind, but in others – and Libet’s examples would be in this category – things have to feel right. The talky part of me may choose to hold up particular options and may try to nudge things one way or another, but it waits for the silent part to plump.

Is that plausible? I’m not sure. The willingness of the talky part to take responsibility for actions it didn’t decide on and even to confect and confabulate spurious rationales, is very well established (albeit typically in cases with brain lesions), but introspectively I don’t like the idea of two agents being at work I’d prefer it to be one agent using two approaches or two sets of tools – but I’m not sure that does the job of accounting for the delay which was the problem in the first place…

(Thanks to Dale Roberts!)

Picture: Experiment. Shaun Nichols’ recent paper in Science drew new attention to the ancient issue of free will and also to the very modern method known as ‘experimental philosophy’. Experimental philosophy is liable – perhaps intended – to set the teeth of the older generation on edge, for several reasons. One is that it sounds like an attempt to smuggle into philosophy stuff that shouldn’t be there: if your conclusions can be tested experimentally they’re science, not philosophy. We don’t want real philosophy crowded out by half-baked science. It also sounds like excessive, cringing deference to those assertive scientists, as though some bullied geek started wearing football shirts and fawning on the oppressors. We may have to put up with the physicists taking our lunch money, but we don’t have to pretend we want to be like them.

Actually though, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in experimental philosophy. All the philosophy that goes by the name appears to be real philosophy, often very interesting philosophy; the experiments are not used improperly to clinch a solution but to help clarify and dramatise the problems. Often this works pretty well, and by tethering the discussion to the real world it may even help to prevent an excessive drift into abstract hair-splitting. Philosophers have always been happy to draw on the experiments of scientists as a jumping-off point for discussion, and there seems no special reason why they shouldn’t do the same with experiments of their own.

In this particular case, Nichols shows that there is something odd about people’s intuitive grasp of free will. Subjects were told to assume that determinism, the view that all events are dictated by the laws of physics, applied, and then asked whether someone would be responsible for various things. In the vaguest case they all agreed that in general, given determinism, people were not responsible for events. Given a specific example of a morally debatable act they were less sure; and when they were offered the example of a man who takes out a murder contract on his wife and children, most felt sure he was responsible even given determinism.

This is odd because it’s normally assumed that determinism means no-one can be responsible for anything. In order to be responsible, you have to have been able to do something else, and according to determinism the laws of physics say you couldn’t have done anything but what you did. It’s odder because of the distinction drawn between the cases. Where did that come from?

It could be that something in the experiment predisposed subjects to think they were required to make distinctions of this kind, or it could be that ordinary subjects are just not very good at coming up with strictly logical consequences of artificial assumptions; but I don’t think that’s really it. The distinction between the three cases appears to be a matter of who we’d blame – so it looks as if the man in the street doesn’t really grasp the philosophical concept of responsibility and relies instead on some primitive conception of blameworthiness!!!

But,  um – what is the philosophical concept of responsibility? It’s pretty clear when we cite the laws of physics that we’re talking about causal responsibility – but causal responsibility and moral responsibility don’t coincide. It’s clear that you can be causally responsible for an event without being morally responsible: someone pushed you from behind so that you in turn pushed someone under a train. Less clearly, in some cases it is held that you can be morally responsible for events you didn’t deliberately bring about: the legal doctrine strict liability, Oedipus bringing a curse on Thebes, poor Clarissa wondering whether having been raped is in itself a sin.  All of these are debatable; we might be inclined to see strict liability as a case of legal overkill: “we care so much about this that we’re not even going to entertain any discussion of responsibility – you’d better just make damn sure things are OK” . In the other cases we typically think the assignments of blame are just wrong (although Milan Kundera notably reclaimed the moral superiority of Oedipus in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Nevertheless the distinction between moral and causal responsibility is clear enough: does the determinist case equivocate between the two, and were Nichols’ subject actually just too shrewd to be taken in?

It seems it might be so. No-one would suggest to a writer that he was not the author of his novel because it was all the result of the laws of physics, although in one sense it’s so. No-one would accept on similar grounds that I’m not responsible for a debt, however abstract and conventional the notions of debt and money may be compared with the rigorous physical account of events. So why should should the physical story stop us concluding that on another level of description we can be interestingly and coherently blameworthy?  That would be a form of compatibilism, the view that we can have our determinist cake and eat our free will, too. (I’d be a little uncomfortable leaving it there without some fundamental account of agency and morality, just as I’d be a bit unhappy to say that debt is a convention without some underpinning concept of money and economics – but that’s another discussion.) So perhaps Nichols’ subjects were compatibilists.

That would be an interesting discovery but… I hate to say this… an interesting discovery in psychology. The fact that most people are instinctively compatibilists provides no particular reason to think compatibilism is true. For that, we still have to do the philosophy the old-fashioned way. Scientists may be able to gather truth from the world, like bees with nectar: philosophers are still obliged, like spiders, to spin their webs out of their own internal resources.

 

Picture: Sleepwriting. Here’s an interesting piece by Neil Levy from a few months back, on Does Consciousness Matter? (I only came across it because of its  nomination for a 3QD prize). Actually the topic is a little narrower than the title suggests; it asks whether consciousness is essential for free will and moral responsibility (it being assumed that the two are different facets of the same thing – I’m comfortable with that, but some might challenge it).  Neil notes that people typically suppose Libet’s findings – which suggest our decisions are made before we are aware of them – make free will impossible.

Neil is not actually all that worried by Libet: the impulses from the event of intention formation ought to be registered later than the event itself in any case, he says; so Libet’s results are exactly what we should have expected. Again, I’m inclined to agree: making a conscious decision is one thing;  the second-order business of being conscious of that conscious decision naturally follows slightly later.  (Some, of course, would take a very different view here too; some indeed would say that the second-order awareness is actually what constitutes consciousness.)

Neil particularly addresses two arguments. One says that consciousness is important because only those objectives that are consciously entertained reflect the quality of my will; if I’m not aware that I’m hitting you, I can’t be morally responsible for the blows.  Neil feels this is a question-begging response which just assumes that conscious awareness is essential; I think he’s perhaps a bit over-critical, but of course if we can get a more fully-worked answer, so much the better.

He prefers a slightly different argument which says that factors we were not conscious of cannot influence our deliberations about some act, and hence we can only be held responsible for acts consciously chosen.  George Sher, it seems, rejected this argument on the grounds that our actions are influenced by unconscious factors; but Neil rejects this, saying that although unconscious factors certainly influence out behaviour, we have no opportunity to consider them, which is the critical point.

Personally, I would say that agency is inherently a conscious matter because it requires intentionality. In order to form an intention we have to hold in mind (in some sense) an objective, and that requires intentionality.  Original intentionality is unique to consciousness – in fact you could argue that it’s constitutive of consciousness if you believe all consciousness is consciousness of something – though I myself I wouldn’t go quite so far.

But what about those unconscious factors? Subconscious factors would seem to possess intentionality as well as conscious ones, if Freud is to be believed: I don’t see how I could hold a subconscious desire to kill my father and marry my mother without those desires being about my parents. Neil would argue that this isn’t relevant because we can’t endorse, question or reject motives outside consciousness – but how does he know that? If there’s unconscious endorsement, questioning and so on going on, he wouldn’t know, would he? It could be that the unconscious plays Hyde to the Jekyll of conscious thought, with plans and projects that are in its own terms no less complex or rational than conscious ones.

I think Neil is right: but it doesn’t seem securely proved in the way he was hoping for. The unconscious part of our minds never has chance to set down an explanation of its behaviour, after all: it could still in principle be the case that conscious rationalising is privileged in the literature and in ordinary discourse mainly because it’s the conscious part of the brain that does the talking and writes the blogs…