Yet another experiment showing that conscious “decisions” are made unconsciously, and in advance

In the last few years, neuroscience experiments have shown that some “conscious decisions” are actually made in the brain before the actor is conscious of them:  brain-scanning techniques can predict not only when a binary decision will be made, but what it will be (with accuracy between 55-70%)—several seconds before the actor reports being conscious of having made a decision.  The implications of this research are obvious: by the time we’re conscious of having made a “choice”, that choice has already been made for us—by our genes and our environments—and the consciousness is merely reporting something determined beforehand in the brain.  And that, in turn, suggests (as I’ve mentioned many times here) that all of our “choices” are really determined in advance, though some choices (e.g., whether to duck when a baseball is thrown at your head) can’t be made very far in advance!

Most readers here accept that our actions are determined by our physical conditions—that there’s no “ghost in the machine”.  Nevertheless, a large segment of those determinists also insist that we nevertheless have free will, with “free will” defined in various and contradictory ways.

Nevertheless, the neuroscience experiments are beginning to refute the classic notion of dualism: the idea that there is some non-physical part of our brain that can “freely choose” among different alternatives. And dispelling dualism has real implications for society—implications for religious dogma (much of rests on the idea that we can choose to accept or reject Jesus or God) and for the judicial system (if we can’t freely choose between right and wrong, the notion of how people are to be punished must be rethought). To me, promulgating physical determinism of our actions, and reforming society based on its implications, is far more important than trying to define “free will” in a way that allows us to have it.

Nevertheless, even those who agree in principle with determinism—including me—are uncomfortable with death of dualism.  I accept determinism and live with it, but still act as if I make real choices (I have no choice about that!).

Nevertheless, I think that some determinists are sufficiently uncomfortable that they try to dismiss the neuroscience experiments, saying things like “you can make decisions without being conscious of having done so.”  But that becomes harder and harder to maintain as the experiments not only become more accurate in predicting actions before “conscious” decisions are made, but also farther and farther in advance.

A new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by C. S. Soon et al. (free at the link; reference below) takes these studies a step further in two ways: 1. It shows a lead time for decisions four seconds before the decision is consciously made, with a prediction accuracy of about 60%, and 2) the decision is not a motor decision (pressing buttons, as in previous studies), but a decision whether to add or subtract two numbers, with the decision conveyed by pressing one of four buttons that corresponded to the correct arithmetical operation.

The design is a bit complicated.  Each observer was presented with a series of screens, each having a letter and five numbers. They appeared at a rate of one screen per second. The letter was in the center of the screen, and right above it was a number from one to ten.  There were also four other numbers between one and ten in the corners of the screen.  The observer was instructed (and trained beforehand) to make a decision whether to add or subtract the two “above center” numbers in the next two screens, and to memorize the central letter at the moment he/she made the decision to act.  This decision was not recorded on the computer.  Then the observer either added or subtracted the two numbers above the letter as the next two screens appeared.  The next frame after that offered four numerical solutions as the corner numbers: two corresponding to the “add/subtract” decision, and two decoy numbers.  The observer was asked to press one of four buttons corresponding to the solution of the arithmetical operation chosen. Finally, in the last screen, a series of four letters were given corresponding to the four screens before the arithmetical operation, and the observer was asked to record (by pressing a button) which letter was on the screen when the observer decided to add or subtract. That corresponded to the time of the conscious decision.

The design, as I said, is a bit complex, so here’s a figure from the paper showing how it worked (capti0n below is from paper)

Picture 1 jpg

 

Fig. 1. Measuring the onset and content of spontaneous abstract intentions. A trial began with a continuous series of stimulus frames refreshed every second, each consisting of a central fixation point, a letter below it, a single-digit number above it, and four single-digit response options, one in each corner. Immediately when participants felt the spontaneous urge to perform either adding or subtracting, they first noted the letter on the screen (frame 0 relative to time of decision). The chosen arithmetic task was then performed on the numbers presented above the central fixation in the next two stimulus frames (frames 1 and 2). The response options for the numbers in frames 1 and 2 were randomly presented in the four corners of the subsequent stimulus frame (frame 3): the correct addition answer, the correct subtraction answer, and two incorrect response options. Participants selected the correct answer for the chosen task by pressing one of four corresponding buttons, thereby revealing the content of their abstract decision. After the response was given, four letter options were presented from which participants selected the letter presented at frame 0, thereby revealing the time of conscious decision.

During the experiment, the subjects’ brains were scanned with fMRI imaging, which detects blood flow to different parts of the brain. This is a crude way, of course, to detect neuronal activity, but it’s the best we can do now. Other members of the research team were trained beforehand to recognize which parts of the brain “lit up” during addition, and which during subtraction.  They could thus estimate the time when the decision to add or subtract was made; the classification, of course, was imperfect.  But, as we’ll see, it was significantly useful in prediction, especially since the subjects made “add” or “subtract” decisions equally frequently.

Here are the paper’s conclusions:

  • About four seconds before a subject was conscious of having made a “decision” to add or subtract, the decision could be predicted from fMRI imaging with about 59% accuracy, a highly significant difference from random expectation.
  • This decision outcome was coded in the medial frontopolar and precuneus/posterior cingulate regions of the brain. The authors note that the functions of these brain regions aren’t fully understood, but seem to be involved in other types of decisions involving rewards.
  • The timing of the decision (as opposed to the specific decision itself) could also predicted about 3 seconds in advance, but that timing resided in the pre-SMA (“supplementary motor area“) of the brain. Thus the decision to act is presumably “made” in an area of the brain different from where the specific decision is made.
  • After the “decision” was made consciously, further brain monitoring showed that withing 2-4 seconds, the decisions could be “predicted” (i.e. decoded) from fMRI scans with 64.2% accuracy—this time from activity in the angular gyrus of the brain. The authors say this brain activity probably reflects the subject’s preparation and performance of the arithmetic task. (The angular gyrus is known to play a role in processing language and numbers.)

Figure 2 from the paper shows the timing of the study, with time passing shown on the X axis (with the vertical red line representing the time of conscious decision) and the predictive accuracy of the scan shown on the y-axis. Note the accuracy of about 60% in two brain regions four seconds before the decision was made consciously, and the accuracy of 62.4% in the angular gyrus four seconds after the decision was made. The figure caption from the paper is below the figure:

real Picture 3

Fig. 2. Decoding the outcome of abstract decisions before and after they reach conscious awareness. Projected onto the medial cortical surface are brain regions that predicted the outcome (red) of the abstract decision before it was consciously made (MNI coordinates). Inset shows similar results for the decoding of free motor decisions before conscious awareness in our previous study (2). The lateral surface shows the region that encoded the outcome of the decision after it became conscious. Line graphs depict for each cortical region the accuracy with which the abstract decision to perform addition or subtraction could be decoded at each time (error bars, SE; chance level, 50%). The vertical red line indicates the point of conscious decision, and the vertical gray dashed line indicates the onset of the next trial. Given the hemodynamic delay, information available at 0 s would have been a result of neural activity occurring a few seconds earlier. Please note that none of the points below chance level was statistically significant and should thus be attributed to random fluctuation.

Now the decisions are not readable with 100% accuracy, but I suspect things will improve greatly when we’re able to monitor brain activity in ways other than fMRI.  But four seconds is still a long time before a decision is made consciously, and yet we can predict it with tolerable accuracy.  Obviously, at least some “decisions” are made before the subject is conscious of having made them, which is completely understandable if decisions are deterministic results of a person’s genes and environments acting through the brain. “Conscious” decisions, as some have suggested, may merely be confabulations—post facto rationalizations of things that were decided long before they bubbled into awareness.

Now I’m sure this study will be criticized, since even some determinists have a sneaking (or unconscious) sympathy for dualism, and like to think that decisions really are “made” at the moment we’re conscious of having made them.  But science will, I suspect, continue to dispel that notion.  Time lags between brain “decisions” and conscious “decisions” will continue to lengthen, and predictive accuracy will increase.  I find this fascinating stuff, and the kind of science that philosophers really must deal with.

h/t: Sam Harris

________

Soon, C. S., A. H. He, S. Bode, and J.-D. Haynes. 2013. Predicting free choices for abstract intentions.  Proc. Nat. Acad. Scie USA, published ahead of print, March 18, 2013, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1212218110

127 Comments

  1. brianbuchbinder
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Fair enough. What about a decision, such as the one I made last week, to buy your book, from Amazon as it happens. I remember having a discussion on this page about the title. Was all that “determined” in advance. Even if I pushed the “buy” button in my brain a few seconds before I knew I had, I don’t think it was determined (from the beginning of time? from lunchtime?) that I would do that. Or maybe you have some power over me that I’m not prepared to acknowledge?

    I like the book, but you (and I) knew that already.

    • steve oberski
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      If you are willing to accept that decisions can be pre-determined in the time range of a few seconds, what basic principles or facts are you using to to say that this can not be done over a longer time range ?

      What would your cut off point be ? Minutes, hours, days ?

      • brianbuchbinder
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Just askin’ I’m not using any principles, but neither is anyone who projects determinism back indefinitely. Something (perhaps GWBush) is the “decider”. Determinism pushed all the way back to 4.5 billion years ago just seems pointless. We can claim we don’t decide anything. So I guess I was “doomed” to reply to this reply rather than getting back to work.

        • darrelle
          Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

          Well, it is a very complex system. Look at multi-body systems, or weather. If you could co opt every bit of matter and energy in the universe for your computational array perhaps you could calculate the kind of thing you are talking about. Otherwise, not really. Even deterministic systems with very simple starting conditions quickly become much more complicated than can be predicted. And though being able to predict general characteristics of large scale systems can sometimes be done with some useful accuracy, predicting specific characteristics of individual components, while perhaps possible “in principle,” is practically impossible.

        • steve oberski
          Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Anyone who finds the evidence compelling for decisions being pre determined in the time range of seconds is using principles when they claim that in the absence of any evidence to the contrary the most compelling conclusion would be that all decisions are pre determined.

          As darrelle points out, just because they are pre determined does not mean that it is possible to trace back the causal chain of events back to the big bang, however that does not mean it did not happen that way, it just means that it is beyond our current and possibly future capabilities to do so.

          • Wayne
            Posted March 30, 2013 at 5:51 am | Permalink

            Determinism means that one state has a causal effect on a subsequent state, which then has a causal effect on the next subsequent state. Nondeterminism means that one state is not necessarily caused by the preceding state. The evolution of one state to another is nonlinear.

            Just because decisions are made through a nonconscious process, this does not make such decisions “pre-determined” – if pre-determined means created by some mechanical, deterministic process over which the person has no control. Nonconscious decision making means that the brain is making decisions in a neural language that is not accessible to the conscious language of thought. This is similar to a computer that processes input at the level of machine language and then displays the output in a readable/spoken language. We humans think that our ability to have conscious thoughts makes us superior to living entities without an advanced communication language. But much of what we decide occurs through processes not accessible to conscious thought.

            This experiment shows that the brain has an information processing capability of its own that is not accessible by conscious thought, just like our immune system protects us (or not) without a conscious thought process. In this regard, this experiment does not address “free will” at all. After all, does your immune system freely choose its defense strategies on your behalf?

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      you’d not buy the book if you had not heard about it. The choice to buy the book wasn’t determined in advance as you want to claim but rather your buying the book is determined one by the fact that you know the book exists, you are interested in reading it and you can afford to buy it. You may also want to see the evidence for evolution so in a way you didn’t have a choice in the matter really.
      So I don’t think it is the way you want to put it but there are complex decisions being made all the time that all you can do is follow through.

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      that is what i think rather

  2. gbjames
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Now I’m sure this study will be criticized, since even some determinists have a sneaking (or unconscious) sympathy for dualism …

    Perhaps you yourself, Jerry, might be among those with this unconscious sympathy for dualism! Afterall you write:

    … by the time we’re conscious of having made a “choice”, that choice has already been made for us …

    This identifies “us” with our consciousness, which amounts to dualism. We should instead identify “us” just as much with the low-level, unconscious brain machinery that is doing the (deterministic) “choosing”, and which then reports the choice to the “consciousness” module.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      Of course I have a sneaking sympathy for dualism (I say that in the post!)–at least to the extent that I behave as if I make decisions that are “free”.

      • Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        Not sure why you would want to be free in a dualist sense since that would necessarily disconnect you from your neurally encoded character, desires and plans. A causally free, uninfluenced decider has precisely no reason to choose between desires in making a decision, so would be rendered terminally indecisive. Soul control (contra-causal free will) is highly over-rated as something that would do us any good and therefore worth wanting.

        “…I behave as if I make decisions that are ‘free’.”

        Seems to me we behave as if our decisions are determined by our desires and preferences, and they are, and it’s all we could rationally want.

  4. brianbuchbinder
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    True so far as it goes, but was it determined (from the beginning of time? since lunch?) that I’d be purchasing your book, and from Amazon, after a few bookstores were out of stock? I’m sure my brain had determined to click the “buy” button before I knew I was doing it, probably while I was checking the total (another pointless task, since my brain had already approved it(?))

    As I recall, the motivation came from discussions here about “true” in the title. Perhaps my nit-picking was also determined in the Paleolithic, too.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      Given quantum effects active both in the early universe and probably in mutations, I doubt that anything we do was absolutely determined at the beginning of time. The course of evolution in particular was unlikely to be pre-determined since it rests on mutations, which may arise via quantum phenomena. And if evolution wasn’t pre-determined at the Big Bang,neither were our decisions.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        Um, we don’t actually know that quantum events are anything other than determined – all we know is that from a human viewpoint they are unpredictable as our observations affect the outcome.

        Which perhaps leads back to the experience of ‘choice’. Because the causes prior to ‘a decision’ are hidden and unpredictable, our conscious thoughts only experience the crystallization of those causes as a discrete ‘choice’.

        • TJR
          Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

          It is of course possible that the entire universe is deterministic (in the sense of having no probabilistic component), but I would put a very low Bayesian prior on that.

      • brianbuchbinder
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

        Prigogine has something similar to say on that, but it doesn’t require QM. Even ensemble theory such as Boltzman used to tie thermodynamics to individual collections of objects ends up with inevitable indeterminacy. I’m always suspicious when we reach for the quantum hammer every time we’ve got a point to pound home.

        Once it’s conceded that actions are not determined since the beginning of time, when do they become determined? I’m taking the pragmatic view that the question is irrelevant to how human beings live in the world, however much fun it is to talk about.

      • TJR
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        Right, so when you say “deterministic” you mean “physically determined”, by which you mean “determined entirely by physical properties”.

        You don’t mean “deterministic” in the sense of “no stochastic (probabilistic)” component to it.

        OK, that clears up some ambiguity from previous posts.

        • aspidoscelis
          Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          AFAICT, Jerry isn’t really interested in the determinism / indeterminism debate, but is simply using it as a roundabout way of going after dualism.

          It seems to me it would be easier to just argue against dualism directly. For instance, the experimental results discussed in the OP seem like they could be reasonably compelling as part of an argument against dualism. In an argument in favor of determinism, however, they are pathetically inadequate. This is made somewhat worse when Jerry openly endorses indeterminism in the comments!

          So I guess we just have to mentally translate from the metaphysical boondoggle ostensibly under discussion (determinism) to the metaphysical boondoggle actually being addressed (dualism). Ugh.

  5. brianbuchbinder
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Sorry for the duplicate, sort of, comments

  6. peter
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    “And dispelling dualism has real implications for society—implications for religious dogma (much of rests on the idea that we can choose to accept or reject Jesus or God) and for the judicial system (if we can’t freely choose between right and wrong, the notion of how people are to be punished must be rethought). To me, promulgating physical determinism of our actions, and reforming society based on its implications, is far more important than trying to define “free will” in a way that allows us to have it.”

    Penal policy needs to be continuously reformed and improved, nowhere more in modern societies than the US. But doing so on the basis of very preliminary scientific information about the brain is not appropriate. I think that for the time being, it is better to look at all sorts of different societies and policies around the world, see what seems to be best at present, and move one’s own society in that direction (such as not criminalizing many matters related to religious-based morality such as some drugs and prostitution), perhaps going even further than that society in the direction which seems to be better, and being prepared to continuously re-consider. Nobody should inhibit discussion about what science of the human nervous system might eventually tell us in that direction, but it seems far too early to change policies based on what little we so far know.

    • jay
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      It might make some difference in penal policy, but not necessarily so. The brains of all animals with at least a basic brain structure are evolved to respond to stimulus, avoiding behavior that caused bad results, reinforcing behavior that produced good results.

      This learning process can work with a fully deterministic system (including computer programs designed to lear), ‘free will’ is not required

      • brianbuchbinder
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        As as former defense attorney, I’m comfortable with assigning responsibility to people whose actions break the law. The mechanism is ultimately a jury in that assignment. And as with the relationship between one’s “imagined” conscious self and intentional actions, the connection is a practical (dare I say “moral”) one. At what point does it make useful sense to assign to ourselves or another person some agency in physical actions? Although drug sellers, for example might be unable to consciously decide whether or not to sell drugs, the prospect of a prison sentence has the effect that they (or something) take actions directed at concealment and evasion of arrest. Go figure.

  7. Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Every time I see you post one of these stories, I become more and more convinced that you believe in your own form of dualism. Not one of mind versus body, but one of conscious versus unconscious. That for you free will is only a function of the conscious mind and if the is the subconscious mind is involved that it is somehow not free will. I just don’t see it. I work with computers, and the fact that there is hardware and software both involved in the functions of a computer doesn’t make a difference to me. It is all just physical processes and it might be possible for me to measure some part of the hardware and predict the results of a calculation before the software can react to the result, but that doesn’t mean that the software was any less responsible. So too the brain is made up of multiple levels and they all have their role to play.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Seconded.

      So far as I can tell, the only real consequence of this research is that there are things happening in your brain that you aren’t aware of. Not a big shock; we already knew that. In order for this to have any implications for the determinism vs. free will mess, you’d have to start from the position that anything we are not consciously aware of -must- be purely deterministic.

      You’d also have to disregard the minor detail that 60% accuracy in prediction is a bit shy of the 100% predictability required to empirically establish determinism…

      • gr8hands
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        There are “psychics” who can go to a racetrack and have 60% accuracy for short periods of time. Proves nothing but a misunderstanding of the law of large numbers and probabilities.

        But more to the point, a team devises a wonderfully artificial sequence of events that are supposed to reflect what actually happens in reality sounds to me a bit like the tornado-in-junkyard-not-creating-a-747 canard.

  8. jay
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    In a way, I suspect the conscious mind is a kind of interface, the way we pull all our internal brain functioning together, in a way it’s an illusion (just like the ‘windows’ on a computer screen) but like the windows, it’s a necessary organizational component.

    How many times have we encountered something like an emergency while driving where we take evasive action, and only AFTER the instant is passed do we become aware of what actually transpired.

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been convinced of this “very-short-term memory” interpretation of consciousness since reading about the slide carousel experiment in Dennett’s Consciousness Explained quite a few years ago.

      /@

  9. Chris
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Well, I’ve tried quite hard to understand this so I wonder if I’m the only person who still has no idea how this experiment was conducted or how its findings might be interpreted? From the smattering of understanding I have gleaned, the decisions being made by the participants are reminiscent of decisions one may make while driving, or talking, or absent-mindedly looking for your keys. In other words, mundane decisions managed by a sub-process below the top level of brain function where truly conscious, adhoc decisions such as ‘shall I choose raspberry or chocolate ice-cream?’ are made? In which case it might well be the case that the conscious mind only becomes aware of a decision after it’s been made by a lower-level ‘routine’.

    Doesn’t this merely take us to the next level down in the line of turtles? Or what is it that is making the decisions for us? A ghost that waits 4s before it tells us?

    I also wonder if I’m the only one unimpressed by 59%.

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      No, you’re not the only one unimpressed, but science is not my field of training, so maybe it’s a great number and I just don’t know.

      And the four seconds throws me, too. If some unconscious part of me already knows I want cookie dough ice cream (but only if it’s on sale), what’s the other “me” doing for those four seconds?

    • Pierre Masson
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      I was going to say the same thing about the 59% (since I initially thought it was only 9% above chance, but there are four choices, so perhaps it should be interpreted as 34% more than 25% – i.e. 1 in 4). If the second way of viewing this figure is correct, then the margin above is quite a bit larger.

      • gr8hands
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        I guarantee you that anyone playing a video game is making decisions faster than a four second delay would allow.

        • steve oberski
          Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          How many of your decisions while playing a video game are actually conscious as opposed to reflex ?

          I would suspect many decisions made during a video game never make it up to the higher brain centres. Sort of a tactics versus strategy thing, you would consider strategy consciously thus slowing down reaction time but most of the time it’s just tactics handled by reflex.

          That’s why, for example, you can make a 60 minute commute by car to work, and when you arrive you can’t actually remember any specific details about the trip. At least that’s how it worked for me when I commuted by car.

  10. Scott P.
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    So I am asked to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers.

    Second 1: Hmm. Should I add or subtract?

    Second 2: I should probably add them. But is that right? Maybe I should think on it some more.

    Second 3: No, no, I really think adding is the right thing to do. I’m almost certain of it.

    Second 4: But am I 100% certain? No, not quite. Perhaps I should make sure I am happy with that decision.

    Second 5: Yes, I am quite certain. I will add them. “Mr. Scientist? I decide to add them.”

    Mr. Scientist: “It appears from the MRI that the subject was very likely going to add the numbers all the way back in Second 1, when the conscious decision was made in Second 5. Therefore we can say what the answer was likely to be 4 seconds before the subject made the decision.”

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      That’s how I see it too. Chess computers work in a similar way: 90% (or so) of the time they are going to play the move that they thought of in the first few seconds, however long you let them think for. But you can’t therefore say they made the decision to play that move after a few seconds and all their further thinking was pointless. Decisions are made progressively.

      In the case of brains you might expect decisions to be processed first in more primitive brain areas and only sometimes be modified by higher brain processes.

      These experiments are interesting, but they don’t have any bearing one way or the other on whether we can be held responsible for our decisions or not.

      • gr8hands
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        If they come up with 99.99999% accuracy in predicting the outcome of every test, with every test subject, then they might have some bearing on whether we can be held responsible or not.

  11. budala
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    This seems to be an ongoing confusion but a prediction or a fact that a person WON’T do X does not in any way imply that that person CAN’T do X.

    I can understand an inference from “can’t” to “won’t” but i do not know of any successful inference from “won’t” to “can’t”, and free will is all about what we can or cannot do.

    I am also unimpressed with the rate of successful predictions in this experiment. I can predict the behavior of the people i know in very complex situations with a much higher accuracy than 60%, and i can do it days or even months before it happens.

    • gr8hands
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      All hail budala!

  12. Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Is there such a thing as willpower? How does it work?

    Is there a thing as free won’t? Can the mechanics of my brain have decided “you’re going to say a sarcastic remark to your spouse” and then my conscious self vetoes the decision and holds its tongue?

    Does it make sense to separate the “conscious” and unconscious? Aren’t I really a single unit? (Like the computer examples from folks above me).

    Will lawyers latch onto this and start to argue their client had no say in the matter? Their illegal actions were written the moment of the Big Bang? It’s immoral to punish them for what is tantamount to bad luck in the genes and environment department?

    • brianbuchbinder
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Lawyer here. It’s been tried, but there are legal principles that limit its application. If a person is known to honestly believe he’s killing an ant when it was actually a person, he’s not convicted of crime, but sent to the bin instead. But nobody gets to cite Libet in claiming he didn’t do that armed robbery.

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Doug Hofstadter has a dialogue where he talks briefly about “free won’t”. In this case, one character asks another if he has the freedom to do anything whatever, and the first character says yes. The second then replies that “even kill me, right now, in cold blood?” and is answered with shock. The point is that there are many constraints and influences on our behaviour even to a “libertarian”, and the absolute such liberty would be a nightmare. Friendships, to use the example, would be impossible, if at any time someone we care for could do something off the wall crazy and dangerous. (This is why I’ve always said that if one of my friends tries something like that, I would be convinced by their actions that *they* had been lost to stroke, etc.)

  13. drew
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    About four seconds before a subject was conscious of having made a “decision” to add or subtract, the decision could be predicted from fMRI imaging with about 59% accuracy, a highly significant difference from random expectation.

    So in other words, only slightly better than, say, flipping a coin.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      With a coin like that, and a plausible manner, you could make a living.

    • steve oberski
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      For many games of chance the house edge is less than 10% and casinos do very, very well.

  14. Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Though we think we see the way we see, instead of the way we really do via blindspots and reconstructions, we still trust our eyes as they do the job of navigating us to where we want to go, avoiding obstacles.

    I am beginning to regard the illusion of free will as being in the same category–it gets the job done in the sense we are motivated to move muscles and execute the deterministic program. Our precious free will becomes a rather mundane cog in the wheel, but still, a very important and valuable one.

    Therefore just as our knowledge of how our eyes work does not cause us to sit in the corner, afraid to move, nor will the understanding how we are motivated to get things done will cause the end of society as we know.

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Those who think that free will is an illusion should explain how they know that their view that free will is an illusion is not itself an illusion and that thus free will is not an illusion after all.

  15. TJR
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    As others have noted above, its not clear what this has to do with “free will”.

    Its uncontroversial that a lot of our decisions are made by our sub/unconscious and not by our conscious mind, the “little man behind the eyes”. When we decide which flavour of ice cream to have, we can almost feel that our conscious mind is twiddling its thumbs waiting for our sub/unconscious to say what we want. It is still us making the decision, though.

    Hence it is not at all surprising that some of our decisions register on scans some time before our conscious mind is aware of them. It would be a major shock if they didn’t.

    However, as JAC has said before, the term “free will” is probably best abandoned. Very few people here would accept “dualist free will” but many would accept “compatibilist free will”, and using the same term in both just seems to cloud the argument.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      It’s also not clear with this has to do with genes. Jerry touts this experiment as showing that “decisions are deterministic results of a person’s genes and environments”. But in fact the experiment makes no attempt to measure anything genetic, and provides precisely zero evidence for the role of genes in choosing addition over subtraction.

      If we take “environments” to mean “causal factors that aren’t genetic”, then the claim that decisions are determined by genes and environments boils down to the trivially true statement that decisions are caused by causal factors. But again, this experiment provides no basis for factoring “causal factors” into “genes plus everything else”.

      A similar experiment measuring electrical impulses in the brains of chess-playing robots might lead to similar conclusions about conscious volition, without any reference to genes whatsoever.

  16. Roo
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Intriguing. On a slightly off-topic but related note, I’ve decided the free will debate is a lexical nightmare and will never be resolved until we come up with new vocabulary. It seems to me “fee will” has become synonymous with “volition”, so that if you tell anyone there is no free will, the first ‘Gotcha!’ response is inevitably “So then if I punch you in the face you can’t be mad, right? No free will. Game set match, booya!” Of course we distinguish between an involuntary arm spasm or seizure that results in a fist to the face, and in someone smashing you in the face because you looked at him funny. I don’t know what Dennett’s thoughts on the topic are, but it does seem necessary to have a term that denotes what is presumably “sensitive to environmental inputs”. No amount of pleading on your part can keep me from having a spasm in my arm. If I try to punch you of my own volition, however, then you can tell me to stop – and if this has no effect then it tells you something very different about me (whether free or no) than if I was having a seizure. Even historical environmental inputs are probably worth considering. If you knew I grew up a one-legged orphan soldier on the streets of a war torn country and had no interaction with civilized people; you might judge differently than if I was the snotty, pampered, wealthy daughter of a narcissistic millionaire, living a Kardashian-esque existence. None of this speaks to free will – simply available information and likely outcomes in the future based on various responses. So again, to me, another word is needed.

    I don’t, as a rule, go around punching people in the face, by the way. My brothers used to tease me because I could never even remember the right way to make a fist, and I still can’t (Is it thumbs in or out?)

  17. darrelle
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    “Obviously, at least some “decisions” are made before the subject is conscious of having made them, which is completely understandable if decisions are deterministic results of a person’s genes and environments acting through the brain.

    True, and I do think that decisions are the result of deterministic processes. But these results would still be understandable even if there were a ghost in the machine. No matter what kind of process is generating the decisions it all takes place in the brain. Whether part or all of the process is conscious or unconscious, it is still us making the decision.

    That leads into, the one issue that I have with the Incompatiblists is that they often make it sound like we are not making our own decisions. I find it hard to tell if the “we are puppets” type arguments are intended as a bit of hyperbole or not, but that category of argument is certainly seems very wrong to me taken at face value. Whether it happens consciously or unconsciously, whether the process is wholly deterministic or not, it all happens in our brain and our decisions are our own.

    Perhaps part of the problem is the meaning of the word decision. It sometimes seems that while the Compatiblists want to change the meaning of the term “free will” the Incompatiblists want to delete the word “decision.”

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      “the Incompatiblists want to delete the word ‘decision.’”

      Yes, some anyway, as for instance when Jerry says:

      “… by the time we’re conscious of having made a ‘choice’, that choice has already been made for us—by our genes and our environments—and the consciousness is merely reporting something determined beforehand in the brain.”

      If the choice is determined in the brain, then it isn’t made in advance for us by our genes and environments, it’s made by *us*, since as people earlier in this thread have pointed out, brains *R* us.

      As for the causal role of consciousness (phenomenal experience, qualia), the neural processes *associated with it* seem functionally essential to higher-level behavior control, so even if experience per se doesn’t add to what the brain does, it’s the subjective marker for some important goings-on.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        All the contents of consciousness are the result of unconscious brain processes. The feeling of being I – “I-ness” – is no less a quale than redness. The “I” has no more freedom than the colour red.

        We are bodies, not brains. Brains need bodies and sense organs; bodies and sense organs need brains. As bodies, however free we may feel to act as we choose, it is after all, just that – a mere feeling.

  18. neil
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    If there is a sector of my brain that activates when confused then, from JAC’s description, this experiment would light it up like a Christmas tree.

  19. Nathaniel Hagthorpe
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Jerry, did you know that Soon’s et al. study design could be very seriously flawed on purely methodological grounds? Larges and Jaworska 2012 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3294282/) argue this, and as far as i know there is also a paper of Hermann et al. with the same idea coming.

    The idea is, that Soon et al. selected their participants on highly arbitary grounds to include only those, who will give a very precise 50% to 50% distribution of “choices” during the trials. That means, that after each “add” choice, the probability for a “substract” choice rises highly. Larges and Jaworska repeated the same procedure, but instead of using fMRI trained a computer program to predict each following choice based on the previous. They came to a probability of 61,6% which is even higher, then in Soon et al. indicating, that the choices where determined more by the experiment’s setup, than by neuronal correlates.

    I would be glad to hear your and and other commenters’ take on this.

  20. David Duncan
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I want to say at the outset that thinking about this stuff makes my brain hurt, but I take the idea of a lack of some sort of “free will worth having”, as Dan Dennett would say, with a large grain of salt.

    Firstly, I’ve read that there is at least sometimes an ability to “veto” a decision that we’ve unconsciously made. So if Prof Coyne decides on morning to vote Republican a veto can occur before he does that.

    I also wonder if it’s really important that I be conscious of the decision before I make it, so long as I am the one who makes it. I want to be free of external restraint.

    Lastly, decisions we make have to be “ours” in the sense of “in our interests”. When I am considering what to have for breakfast I should not want to have food I know to be laced with cyanide. That would not be in my evolutionary self interest.

  21. Jim Thomerson
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I fly model airplanes, and I am often a judge in control line precision aerobatic competitions. I observe a maneuver, decide what point score it deserves, and write same down. I occasionally notice that I have written down a score a point or two off what I had decided. I tend to blame that on an unconscious decision, but how does it get to my hand without me being aware?

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Read Dennett or Minsky on the “multiple drafts” model. Essentially, there are several completing decisions vying for attention, and your consciousness sometimes “remembers” a non-winning decision.

      I experienced this once very clearly when a waiter brought me the flavour of dessert I swore I hadn’t ordered, but my dining companions assured me I had.

      /@

  22. abandonwoo
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Free Will are two words with (most likely) prehistorical etymological history, both singularly and combined as a term, and immeasurable emotional religious baggage. It is possible that the confusion about the meaning of Free Will displayed in commentary today (and every time the subject appears on WEIT and elsewhere when I encounter it) is more than ample evidence that different vocabulary is required for any hope of lay comprehension on a useful scale. Presently the conversation is about as fruitful as debate over string theory.

    The results of neuroimaging tests are what I think are micro findings of dubious value in explaining human behavior outcomes. Perhaps I simply fail to comprehend their significance due to ignorance (this is certainly true about my relaionship to string theory). If these micro results can be shown to apply to what I would consider macro events, things might become more clear.

    For example: Presently polls consistently show that nearly 60% of Americans approve of civil unions — if not outright marriage — for homosexual couples, including all the rights and privileges accorded same-sex married couples. As recently as 1969, before a group of patrons at a NYC gay bar publically outed themselves en masse, disapproval by the US population of any sexual orientation other than hetero was close to universal.

    Over the course of the four + decades during which this massive shift in opinion occurred, what sort of brain activity would neuroimaging have revealed had all those Americans been tested? What terminology choices best describe all the individual attitude and belief changes that transpired during this period, necessary for the almost complete reversal of a societal belief/attitude paradigm nearly ubiquitous less than a half century ago?

  23. Tulse
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Most readers here accept that our actions are determined by our physical conditions—that there’s no “ghost in the machine”.

    But if our actions are completely determined by our physical conditions, then to return to an earlier post we really aren’t distinguishable from Chalmers’ p-zombies. If free will is just epiphenomenal, then surely consciousness in general is as well, and in both cases, all that is needed to explain objectively observable behaviour are the physical processes.

    • gr8hands
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      No one arguing from a “no free will” perspective seems to want to accept that it means they are p-zombies.

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Although phenomenal consciousness can’t add to what the brain already does in terms of 3rd person explanations of behavior, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s epiphenomenal. Something can only be epiphenomenal with respect to a system if it exists in the same causal space as the system and plays no causal role. But subjective experience, being private and unobservable (unlike brains, which are public and observable), doesn’t exist in the causal space of brains, bodies and behavior, hence can’t be justly characterized as epiphenomenal with respect to them, or so I would suggest. See “Respecting privacy: why consciousness isn’t even epiphenomenal.”

  24. romanticrationalist
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Whatever hope there may be for the future of our species lay not in a (mistaken) belief that our “wills” are “free” (whatever that might mean), rather it is in how “aware” our “selves” can be. It is the extent to which we, as individuals and as societies, apply what we can learn from modern neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc., about how we can be mistaken in our reasoning and, if anything we can do about it going forward.

    What we need to ask ourselves is, “is there anything I was not taking into account; or, to put it another way, “knowing now, what I did not know then, should I have chosen otherwise?”

  25. Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    1. Determinism, according to our most successful physical theory – quantum mechanics – is most likely untrue, so why frame the free will debate around it?

    2. Subconscious decision making occurs all the time – there is nothing surprising about this study at all. The question of free will rests on whether the conscious mind is a) non-epiphenomenal and b) has a veto over the subconscious.

    3. You don’t have to be a dualist to believe in traditional libertarian free will.

    https://informationvoyeur.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/free_will_defense/

    • darrelle
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      But, what if the conscious is a result of unconscious processes? Which really does seem to be the case? Then b becomes very confusing and it all likely devolves to arguing about the variable meanings of terms, directly or indirectly.

      • Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        That’s certainly a possibility, but this study, nor any other that I’ve seen, shows that to be the case, because they all target “off the cuff” rather than deliberated purposeful decision-making.

        On what evidence do you justify “But, what if the conscious is a result of unconscious processes? Which really does seem to be the case?”?

        • darrelle
          Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

          I think “what evidence supports consciousness not being a result of unconscious processes(?)” is at least as good a question. Consciousness is commonly thought to be an artifact of unconscious processes by the scientists who study it, because a lot of the data so far gathered indicates that that is the case.

          Here are a few quotes from that mecca of one stop shopping Wikipedia that support the idea.

          “For example, subjects who stare continuously at a Necker Cube usually report that they experience it “flipping” between two 3D configurations, even though the stimulus itself remains the same.”

          (Paul Rooks and Jane Wilson (2000). Perception: Theory, Development, and Organization. Psychology Press. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-0-415-19094-7.)

          “In several paradigms, such as the technique of response priming, the behavior of subjects is clearly influenced by stimuli for which they report no awareness.”

          (Thomas Schmidt and Dirk Vorberg (2006). “Criteria for unconscious cognition: Three types of dissociation”. Perception and Psychophysics 68: 489–504.)

          “The scientific literature regarding the neural bases of arousal and purposeful movement is very extensive. Their reliability as indicators of consciousness is disputed, however, due to numerous studies showing that alert human subjects can be induced to behave purposefully in a variety of ways in spite of reporting a complete lack of awareness.”

          (Thomas Schmidt and Dirk Vorberg (2006). “Criteria for unconscious cognition: Three types of dissociation”. Perception and Psychophysics 68: 489–504.)

          “Studies of the neuroscience of free will have also shown that the experiences that people report when they behave purposefully sometimes do not correspond to their actual behaviors or to the patterns of electrical activity recorded from their brains.”

          (Patrick Haggard (2008). “Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9 (12): 934–946. doi:10.1038/nrn2497. PMID 19020512.)

          Now, I sure wouldn’t say that any of this is definitive. We have just started figuring out cognition and have a very long way to go. Another quote regarding that.

          “We have no idea how consciousness emerges from the physical activity of the brain and we do not know whether consciousness can emerge from non-biological systems, such as computers… At this point the reader will expect to find a careful and precise definition of consciousness. You will be disappointed. Consciousness has not yet become a scientific term that can be defined in this way. Currently we all use the term consciousness in many different and often ambiguous ways. Precise definitions of different aspects of consciousness will emerge … but to make precise definitions at this stage is premature.”
          (Human Brain Function, by Richard Frackowiak and 7 other neuroscientists, page 269 in chapter 16 “The Neural Correlates of Consciousness” (consisting of 32 pages), published 2004)

          But, having said all of that, I see no obvious reason why whether or not we are conscious of our decision making as it is happening is dependent on whether or not that process is deterministic. And by deterministic I mean what TJR described in a comment up above.

          “Right, so when you say “deterministic” you mean “physically determined”, by which you mean “determined entirely by physical properties”.

          You don’t mean “deterministic” in the sense of “no stochastic (probabilistic)” component to it.”

          Like I said above somewhere, just because you aren’t aware of it until a few seconds later doesn’t mean it isn’t you that made the decision. For that matter, even if contra causal free will were what we actually had, I still don’t see why not being aware of the decision until a few seconds after it has been made would be a problem. But, then again, I am not a proponent of contra causal free will and so have no underlying interests in believing in it.

  26. Jeff Johnson
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Showing that at least some of our decisions are made as much as 4 seconds in advance of conscious awareness helps to dispel the illusion of free will. I think it is easier for people to accept that unconscious choices are deterministic than it is to accept that the conscious decision making we experience subjectively is deterministically caused.

    But if some of our decisions are influenced or mediated by conscious processes, that does not make them any less deterministic than the unconscious. Just because we feel like we are controlling our conscious mind, that doesn’t mean that the motives for thinking one way rather than another are wholly voluntary based on the fiat of a stand-alone will without causes. The conscious mind rests on an enormous amount of support from the unconscious mind.

  27. Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    The study has nothing to do with “Free Will”, it is merely analyzing the performance of behavioral scripts we have chosen to memorize.

    We memorize scripts for efficiency and convenience that are never *consciously* chosen or executed. Many of them are far more complex than a binary choice of mathematical functions, or the script for solving single numeral operations.

    OF COURSE those script playbacks occur before we get the results and consciously report them.

    The claim of “predictive accuracy of 60%”, which is nonsense. I can predict the flip of a coin with 60% accuracy on 10 flips, but not a hundred. The 10% better-than-average IS the margin of error, not a successful prediction.

  28. DV
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    This is framing the question of free will in terms of determism. So of course there is no such thing as “free” if by free is meant “not deterministic”.

    Instead of insisting on this definition, why not actually use the common sense definition of free will – the one we use in the everyday sense of “did you sign this contract of your own free will”?

    What does the above “free will” mean? It simply means that at the level of abstraction where goal-seeking competitive (and conscious) agents exist, an agent is not acting contrary to its goals to further another agent’s goal. This level of abstraction is the level of evolutionary psychology. Free will does not make sense in the level of chemistry or physics.

    The “free” part of free will does not mean freedom from physical causation, it means freedom from coercion by a competitor agent. Again, evo psych not physics!

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Answering a question by redefining its terms is not answering the question, unless the terms make no logical sense.

      Knowing that I’m sure, you try to deal with it by claiming that “Free will does not make sense in the level of chemistry or physics”.

      However, last time I checked we have very little understanding of what underlies our current best-fit physical theories: quantum mechanics and general relativity.

      We only know that those foundations produce completely counterintuitive phenomena that suggest that concepts like spacetime, causality, and physicality itself are probably emergent, rather than fundamental.

      None of this proves that consciousness in not an illusion or that free will exists.

      It does however – once digested and understood – suggest that the case-closed attitude of many (which is probably motivated by anti-theistic and quasi-scientific feeling – with which I sympathize) is not only premature, but anti-scientific.

      Hard problem anyone?

      https://informationvoyeur.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/problems-with-physicalism-2/

      • Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        That? We dealt with blind Mary rather thoroughly in another post.

        /@

        • Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          Apologies – I’m not suggesting that anyone is unaware of the Hard Problem, only that it remains unresolved (i.e. that I know of no philosophers who don’t acknowledge it as so, or any science that solves it – if there were we’d know in principle how to create a machine that has subjective conscious experience)

          No matter, it’s not essential to this debate, as even the existence of free will wouldn’t necessarily resolve it.

      • Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        “…the case-closed attitude of many (which is probably motivated by anti-theistic and quasi-scientific feeling – with which I sympathize) is not only premature, but anti-scientific.”

        Perfect!

  29. Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mort.

  30. Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    That really changes some Rush lyrics.

    “If you choose not to decide, it’s because of the physical environment!”

    • TJR
      Posted March 26, 2013 at 3:55 am | Permalink

      If only they had told us which type of free will they were choosing!

      • SMF
        Posted March 26, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        “If you choose not to decide
        You still have made a choice
        (although the question of whether you could have chosen to decide, rather than not decide, remains open.)”

        Love that song!

  31. Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    The implications of this research are obvious: by the time we’re conscious of having made a “choice”, that choice has already been made for us—by our genes and our environments—and the consciousness is merely reporting something determined beforehand in the brain.

    This is like saying that a pocket calculator does not subtract numbers because it is really predetermined by its component parts and the environment what it is going to calculate. Surely it still makes sense to say that the pocket calculator does a calculation and not, for example, the factory that produced it.

    Likewise, it still makes sense to say that I make a decision. Saying that my genes and previous experiences from my environment “make choices for me” is merely saying that I make the choice because my genes and experiences are precisely what is “me”.

    • Lyndon
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      X (and only X) causes Y, and Y (and only Y) causes Z; was X or Y more necessary for Z to come about? What caused Z? We should quit trying to think of that as a useful question. In other words, there are problems in our identification and categorization of causality, we have known that for awhile. The idea that the calculator made the “decision” and that the programmers did not make the “decision” is poised by you to be something of strong emotional value; “How dare you say that calculators, or computers, or humans do not make “decisions?”” Our goal here is not for assigning responsibility, to try to isolate a causal link and assign it an individuality that rests outside of the rest of causal structures.

      Speaking of the calculator alone (such by ignoring the human who is inputting the command at a specific time), we get the story right about why the calculator makes the correct “decision.” And we put no weight on the idea that the calculator makes math “decisions,” except for understanding that if we want something that “produces sums of large numbers” we will pick up the calculator and not a football. If we say that the calculator makes “decisions” it is not because (most of us) are misunderstanding the causal relationship about programming, making of plastic and batteries, and then how the calculator works while being put to use. We say “decision” nakedly or in poorly anthropomorphizing it, while also not being worried that we really believe this calculator is an isolated “decision” maker.

      • Lyndon
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        The reason we so strongly want to isolate human “decisions” as isolated causal events is because of phenomenology. We feel (consciously) the decision being made, and we feel this without feeling or sensing or understanding all the bits of brain processing going on. We also, starting early, model our selves or some conscious isolated voice, “I,” as being the decider. We consciously feel that when I desire a cookie, “I” urge my arm to rise and it raises (processes of raising and manipulating probably are really evolutionarily structured and/or come early on in pseudo-non-conscious processing, or something like that). That “decision” becomes isolated in conscious feeling to my self, to my “I,” without being able to feel or to model all the underlying brain processing (and perhaps what we would call other brain/mind structures, say Freudian, if we must). The conscious “self” or “I” feels time and again an isolation of decision caused by the “I” or by the rambling voice in my head.

        All I mean by that, is that the phenomenology of the “decision” made by the voice in the head becomes thoroughly untangled, really it starts as completely untangled, from any intermediary causal processes, say brain processing but also the genetic and environment and socialization/habitualization/education structures. We are calculators who start out operating thoroughly separated from sensing or understanding the structures within our plastic bodies and of the programmers and factory workers (the Makers), and as such calculators we do believe that the final decision rests only in our selves. Sure, we will admit strong influences and environmental situational coaxing, but our phenomenology for a long time made it feel like all that was important, in the end, as regards the present decision, was the unique voice in the head that told my body to do what to do. And then we called our selves free.

  32. Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    For a brain-scan experiment to be really impressive, the brain-scan readers should be able to predict with high accuracy what decision was made WITHOUT ANY advance knowledge of whether the decision was about pushing buttons or doing arithmetic or whether to refinance a mortgage or what restaurant to go to or . . . whatever. To generalize from decisions about button pushing or arithmetic to choices in general is just bizarre!

  33. PascalsGhost
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    It seems… odd… to berate compatibilists for redefining “free” will when no other use of the word “free” requires this sort of complete removal from deterministic causality.

    It’s almost like a weird accomodationism whereby certain atheists allow the faith-heads to set all the parameters of discourse e.g. if it isn’t Christian free will then it isn’t free will at all.

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      Traditional free will is metaphysical free will, not “Christian free will”, or anything to do with the notion of a god.

      This mistake is made not only by theists, but also by atheists, and hence the free will debate becomes part of that battleground instead of a part (or not as it may be) of science (and before science is able to address the question fully, philosophy).

      “Free” means unconstrained. To what proper use of the term are you referring when you say that “no other use of the word “free” requires this sort of complete removal from deterministic causality.”

      And on what physical theory are you grounding the claim that determinism is true anyway?

      • Posted March 25, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        “Free” means unconstrained. To what proper use of the term are you referring when you say that “no other use of the word “free” requires this sort of complete removal from deterministic causality.”

        “not being in prison”

        “not being forced to do something at gunpoint, doing it voluntarily”

        “not being occupied by the army of another country”

        “degrees of freedom (statistics)”

        “degrees of freedom (mechanics)”

        Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head…

        • Posted March 26, 2013 at 1:40 am | Permalink

          The first three examples are unqualified examples of free, exactly the same as in free will. Someone who is free from being in prison isn’t “mostly free, but a little bit in prison”, they are *completely* free from being in prison

          The last two are different only by virtue of the word “degrees” and so are not the same as “free will” unless one redefines the concept.

          You say that free will requires “complete removal from deterministic causality” and claim that no other use of free demands this. But this is unsurprising because that’s exactly what the concept means.

          One could equally argue that:

          ‘It seems… odd… to berate compatibilists for redefining “free” from prison when no other use of the word “free” requires this sort of complete removal from incarceration.’

          It is true but trivial, and hardly “odd”.

          • Posted March 26, 2013 at 3:14 am | Permalink

            infovoy,

            One of us has clearly misunderstood PascalsGhost. I assumed he meant precisely that the “free” in free will does NOT require complete removal from deterministic causality, just as it does not in any other use of the term.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted March 26, 2013 at 4:22 am | Permalink

              I think this is right. Pascal’s ghost was defending compatibilist usage of free will, it appears.

              • Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

                To be clear, I am arguing for the possibility of traditional free will.

                Questions regarding “compatibilist free will” may be interesting in their own right, but they do not address free will – they simply redefine the term.

                Additionally, the justification for redefinition consists in a framework of determinism, which is most likely false.

                Our current best-fit scientific theory – quantum mechanics – suggests that most likely the universe is not deterministic, but random and probabilistic in nature.

                So the question of free will becomes not one of whether agents are unconstrained by determinism, but whether they can independently constrain the random nature of the universe to their own ends…… or not as the case may be.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

                Randomness is not the same as free will.

                Also, we understand the chemistry of neurons and glial cells very well, and it occurs at a level where quantum mechanics does not apply.

                We also have a good understanding of the large scale anatomy of the brain, what kinds of things happen where, and to some degree how they interconnect and interact.

                What defies us is the breathtaking quantity of nerves (100 billion) and connections (several trillion), and the staggering complexity of it all.

                But there is little reason to think some strange hidden quantum effects are playing a role. That could be wrong, but all the evidence argues against this.

                I take it you are not arguing in favor of dualism, but rather freedom from physical deterministic forces via quantum indeterminacy?

                Many have gone down this road, and it has not proven to be fruitful.

                One last point: we can talk about determinism of brain function as a system with well defined boundaries, without addressing the much larger problem of an entirely deterministic universe. The two are not equivalent problems.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted March 26, 2013 at 5:31 am | Permalink

          When we use ‘free’ as an adjective, it confers on the noun it modifies freedom from something we can usually identify.

          In each example above we can identify what the implicit subject is free from: prison, threat of being shot, occupation, dimensional limitation, constraint of movement in a direction.

          What is compatibilist “free will” free from?

          If compatibilist free will means anything non-trivial, than it should be free whether you have a gun to your head or not. Certainly it says nothing important about the brain if it can be taken from us at gunpoint. What is lost in this scenario is a different freedom, freedom from coercion.

          The important thing about free will has always been to make choices free from divine or physical determinism.

          If a dog is on a chain connected to a stake, is it free? If the chain is longer the dog has more freedom of movement, but ultimately it is still constrained and it cannot go most places.

          The more intelligent humans are, the longer our chain is from the point of constraint, which is physical determinism. In other words, our intelligence gives us flexibility to react in complex ways to a changing environment compared to a machine or a puppet or a leaf blowing in the wind.

          So as I see it the compatibilists argue that our intelligence and its complexity is a long enough chain that it merits the label free will, even though, assuming we reject dualism and accept determinism in the brain, the brain is ultimately entirely dependent on physical forces.

          The incompatibilists say, yes, but we are still chained to a post that absolutely constrains us within a boundary, and ultimately it determines where we can go. We can exhibit lots of apparent freedom within these boundaries, but we never leave the constraint.

          For incompatibilists the constraint is the physical determinism in the biochemical actions of the brain. We make choices, but no choice is made without causes. They are complex causes, and they originate mostly from inside our skin, but still no choice is originated without causes, no choice is simply created out of nothing by a will free of deterministic forces.

          If I will something, it is always in pursuit of some goal, which is in service of some want or need, which may derive from other goals, but ultimately it can be traced back to emotional motives and physical needs which arise in us beyond our conscious control.

          Just will yourself to stop thinking. Will yourself to stop eating or stop sleeping. Will yourself to not want anything. These exercises give a taste of how little in control of our brain “we” are, where by “we” I mean that conscious “I”. We see how the brain contains competing currents vying for control, driven by unconscious processes. Try to will something that does not have an identifiable goal or cause associated with it, that can’t be traced back to a desire or need: the need to be loved, wanted, accepted, to win, to survive, to avoid pain, to obtain pleasure.

          Even if we try to do something randomly or contrary to our own needs and wishes, to defy these causes or constraints, to prove to ourselves or others that our will really is free, we are still doing that for reasons that boil down to motives that are emotional, hard to identify, and we don’t consciously control.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted March 26, 2013 at 4:12 am | Permalink

        Actually a great deal of concern about free will throughout the history of Western Civilization has been by Christian philosophers and theologians, and has everything to do with God.

        If God is omnipotent and omniscient, the reasoning went, all things happen by his will and he also knows the future. If God knows the future then everything is predetermined. In the context of Christian belief in heaven and hell, this means everyone’s destination is already determined before birth. This unsatisfactory paradox was resolved by free will, a divine gift to humans that allowed them to choose to either obey or defy God’s will. Their soul was independent and free of determinism, and decided its own fate by its choices and actions.

        This makes free will essential to Christians and other religions, and a major part of their theology.

        This is exactly why I think it is important that cognitive science should prove we have no free will, i.e. a will free of determinism, and why compatibilist usage muddles things.

        • Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

          I don’t disagree with your history, but free will is a broader subject than that – it is a metaphysical concept used by religion (as you would expect, since religion is made-up by humans).

          “This is exactly why I think it is important that cognitive science should prove we have no free will, i.e. a will free of determinism”

          This is a poor reason and unscientific – Christian theology also relies on the wooden cross used to crucify Jesus, but we need not prove that wood does not exist.

          It does however, betray some of the motivations of those that wish to dispel traditional free will before there is justification in doing so. Others just keep quiet about it and pretend they’re being rational.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

            I make no secret that my motives for objecting to compatibilist claims of free will comes from a decidedly anti-religion point of view. The claim that we have free will placates and falsely comforts religious believers, who number around at least 5 billion, not an insubstantial number. This belief in dualism and soul is not something on the fringes to dismiss. It is central to the lives of most humans.

            I think that science’s best available chance to convince many religious believers that they are believing something false, is to fully understand the brain and to prove that consciousness cannot survive physical death, and that there is no soul.

            The sooner the better.

            • Posted March 26, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              As I said, I sympathize with the motive, but disagree that it’s the right course of action. To be frank, if even an agnostic/border-atheist like myself is put off by science getting ahead of itself on the issue of consciousness, I’m sure the religious will be far less convinced and much more antagonized.

              You pretty much understand my position. I believe that phenomenal consciousness is a real phenomenon and cannot be explained by classical physics. There is not even a hint of an answer as to how subjective experience can emerge from physical matter as we currently view it.

              Yet I balk at dualism and am confident that science should be able to explain all phenomena in principle.

              That, plus the fact that the cutting edge of science physics suggests that properties like time space and matter are only emergent (e.g. see http://arxiv.org/abs/1302.2849), leads me to think that there is plenty of room to possibly investigate qualia and free will if we situate mind at smaller scales. There are striking parallels between sub-Planckian and boundary phenomena and mind, and very good evidence that evolution is quite capable of taking advantage of those phenomena.

              I realise that this is not good evidence, but neither is neuroscience, which only investigates the neural correlates of phenomenal consciousness, not the beast itself.

              Again – I merely think the case-closed attitude is way premature when foundational physics is a completely open question, and that pretending otherwise hiders rather than helps the case for science.

              • Posted March 26, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

                And sorry for the spelling and grammar… in a rush :)

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted March 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think science should get ahead of itself, I agree with that, and nobody would seriously claim that the matter has been resolved.

                But there are lots of reasons to feel confident that a solution exists that is purely materialistic, and that it doesn’t necessarily require sub-Planckian phenomena.

                For example, starting with the rejection of dualism and non-material magic, which has its own problems of logical incoherence, then we have to believe that consciousness evolved genetically. I’m not sure what kinds of genetic mutations might result in evolution “discovering” and utilizing sub-Planckian phenomena rather the chemistry of DNA. You hint that there is evidence evolution could take advantage of this, so if you have any references on that I’d be interested.

                Also the dramatic changes in our consciousness as a result of fairly simple changes in the chemical environment of the brain seem like striking evidence that the biochemical mechanisms we are now aware of, together with the complex networked structure of the brain, could actually give rise to the “qualia” of subjective experience and self-awareness. I know how hard it is to imagine this, but that doesn’t make me give up on the idea.

                We have a pretty clear understanding of how unconscious mental processes can occur using neural network modeling. If I let my imagination go wild in thinking about how self-awareness might arise, it seems to me that some set of redundant connections involved in rapid feedback processes might be able to create and sustain the effect in some way analogous to a critical mass or phase transition. Perhaps beyond a certain threshhold in complexity and rapidity a self-sustaining feedback process starts-up or lifts-off and can create the effect of “watching yourself” think by sustaining some sequence of rapid mutually supporting cycles. Thinking of the tiny germ of an evolutionary consciousness, it might first have been dark and soundless, but with a minimal ability to think something akin to a non-verbal “Hey, I thought that” or “Hey, I’m here”. Once some tiny kernel of consciousness is created, it could slowly branch out and add more abilities over hundreds of millions of years, as evolution has done with everything, adding bit by bit, sight, hearing, scent, touch, pain, emotion, etc. but not necessarily in that order. The long time this could require would argue in favor of fairly primitive animals having the rudiments of simple consciousnes, perhaps fish but at least reptiles I would imagine, still just guessing and speculating wildly of course.

                Consider what Isaac Newton might have made of an internal combustion engine were one magically teleported back to the 17th century. This was prior to any real understanding of atoms, chemistry, or thermodynamics. If he had no clue what it was used for and what it could do, how easily could he imagine that it could be more than an inert hunk of metal with moving parts that could actually “start up” and “run” and “power a vehicle”?

              • Tulse
                Posted March 26, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

                we have to believe that consciousness evolved genetically

                But if we are thoroughgoing materialists, we don’t have to believe that it was selected for. That is, if behaviour is purely the result of materialist causes, then subjective phenomena are at best mere epiphenomena, and not causally efficient. If that’s true, then in a real sense consciousness can’t be selected for, since it is causally impotent.

                (If we don’t believe that behaviour is purely the result of material causes, that teh subjective aspect of consciousness does affect behaviour, then we are indeed dualists.)

                the biochemical mechanisms we are now aware of, together with the complex networked structure of the brain, could actually give rise to the “qualia” of subjective experience and self-awareness

                I would agree absolutely, but also argue that, because we are talking about phenomena that are inherently subjective, there is no way for us to understand how to bridge that gap between the third-party-observable material and consciousness. (I suppose this would technically be the “mysterian” position, although that label always sounded too comic-book to me.)

        • Posted March 26, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

          “This unsatisfactory paradox was resolved by free will …”

          Except it wasn’t. If humans have free will, then God cannot logically know their choice and cannot be prescient … much less omniscient. Free will is an *antidote* to the God fable, not a confirmation.

          “… it is important that cognitive science should prove we have no free will …”

          Hmmm. You can’t even say what anyone “should” do, if they have no choice about what they *will* do.

          I agree that the phrase “free will” begs the question: “Free of what?” Certainly not free of causality. But, I do think there are human neural abilities that make it possible to chose from alternatives which aren’t fully dictated by *external* causes; namely the capacity to create fictious concepts.

  34. trentcc
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on MOUNT IMPROBABLE.

  35. romanticrationalist
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Damn! I ought to have known that it was a bad idea to rush home to comment during my already too brief lunch break. What I meant to say was…

    “Whatever hope there may be for the future of our species, it is not in a (mistaken) belief that our ‘wills’ are ‘free’ (whatever that might mean), rather it is in how ‘aware’ our ‘selves’ can be by learning from what modern neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc. tells us about our own nature. The question that really matters is whether or not we, as individuals and as societies, can own up to all the ways we can be mistaken in our reasoning and what, if anything, we can do about it.

    What we need to ask ourselves is, ‘Is there anything I was not taking into account before, but should have?’ or, to put it another way, ‘Knowing now, what I did not know then, what should I choose next time?’

  36. Posted March 26, 2013 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    “Dispelling dualism has real implications for society — implications for [...] the judicial system (if we can’t freely choose between right and wrong, the notion of how people are to be punished must be rethought).”

    No, it mustn’t. Our current judicial system doesn’t presuppose anything about free will, dualism, spirits etc. All it requires is that response to criminal behaviour (be it punishment or rehabilitation) must be effective. How we treat those who break the law is just an empirical question.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 26, 2013 at 2:58 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry but you’re wrong on two counts: It does presuppose that some people can’t MAKE free decisions, and those people are considered impaired or insane and given lighter punishments. My views also deny punishment as retribution, and yes, punishments are to be weighted by their empirical consequences for society.

      You haven’t read what I’ve written on this issue before, have you?

      • Posted March 26, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink

        No, I haven’t. And I apologise if I’ve misrepresented you in my comment. I’ve read what plenty of other people have written on it before though (Harris, Dennett, Pinker).

        I’m not sure what you mean by “free decisions” though. Is that ‘the ability to do otherwise in exactly the same circumstances, full stop’? If it is, it seems a lot more like ‘randomness’ to me – and something I’d expect an insane, misfunctioning brain to suffer from.

        The way I see it, we give people who suffer from insanity lighter punishments because they’re less responsive to deterrents. A completely irrational man wouldn’t consider the repercussions of his actions before committing a crime, so ‘making an example’ out of similarly insane criminals is no kind of example at all. Sane people, on the other hand, can think “do I really want 25 years in jail for this?” and, thus, are responsive to deterrent.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

          I think there are three motives to our punishments: to rehabilitate, to deter, and to inflict pain as moral retribution.

          This third aspect shows up most powerfully in the death penalty. It is not just for deterrence, but is also commonly viewed as a catharsis for society and especially for the victim’s friends and loved ones.

          We have done away with much of this cruelty that has been practiced historically. But still in the US we have much more severe sentencing and much harsher prison conditions than in, for example, Scandanavian countries. Why is this so? I think it is for more than just deterrence. It also factors in to some degree society’s indignance, moral outrage, and need for revenge.

          The problem is that much of this penalty based on vengeance, while it may contribute to deterrence, it can be absolutely contradictory to the goal of rehabilitation. Once a criminal is ostracized from society far enough, treated like an animal more than a human, and made to feel powerfully resentful, they lose the sense of being a stakeholder in a lawful ordered society. They lose the sense that any of the rewards of good behavior are available to them.

          We have a horrible problem in the US. Once a person is “in the system” it changes their identity, their opportunities, it nearly irreversibly influences them in the direction of becoming lifelong outsiders and lawbreakers.

          The better we understand the brain, the less moral retribution and the more rehabilitation we can apply. We should be able to better tune the mix of deterrence and the incentives to obey the law, and entirely eliminate all logic based on moral retribution.

          • gbjames
            Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

            Jeff, would you entertain a friendly amendment, replacing “and need for revenge” with “and desire for revenge”?

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

              I think you are absolutely right, revenge isn’t really a “need” in the sense that we can’t live without it. It often has the gut level urgency of many of the things we call “needs”. But ultimately “desire” is a better word because it includes the sense of being optional.

          • Posted March 26, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

            I completely agree with you there, Jeff, and think that we probably have the same hopes as to how society progresses.

            However, I stand against retributive laws because – as you note – they just don’t seem, empirically, to work. Whether free will exists or not is irrelevant to such an opinion.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted March 26, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

              I agree one can reach the conclusion purely rationally that retribution is ineffective and pointless, without considering free will. But not everyone can.

              I think if you ask yourself whether mental compentence is relevent to sentencing and punishment (and you already answered that above), it becomes clear that how much we think a transgressor deserves to be punished depends not only on how deterrable they are, but also on how much freedom or ability to act differently we believe they had.

              The gap today between standard punishments and reprieves in cases of insanity or incompetence probably consists partly of, as you mentioned earlier, a dispensation that derives from the understanding that the incompetent are less deterable, but there is also a component that stems from the sense that they are less responsible or blameworthy for their deeds. These are hard to quantify, but I think they are both discernable if you think about how people argue and behave in these cases. When people sneer at phony insanity pleas, it stems much more from an emotional sense of injustice that retribution will not be meted out, than it stems from a genuine concern that the cuplrit won’t be adequately deterred next time. There is a real will to inflict suffering, not just a concern about recidivism.

              As we better understand the mental causes of crimes and failures of impulse control, I think it will become more and more apparent that a majority (if not all) of criminals are products of genes, environment, hidden brain injuries or developmental problems, poor nutrition, frustration from lack of opportunity, and others from a very complex variety of causes. Our sense that they freely engaged in crime and deserve painful punishment because they are “naturally bad or evil” will lessen. We will still want effective deterrence and rehabilitation.

              There is already some signs that lesser penalties can have superior deterent effects, but the ones I know of are in the context of parole and probation. The HOPE project in Hawaii, and the 24/7 sobriety program in North Dakota are two examples applying the idea of “swift, certain, and not severe” punishment. The swiftness and certainty of a short jail sentence of a few days turns out to be a better deterent than a potentally furloughed incarceration for the duration of probation, which can be many years. People just aren’t rational enough calculators to correctly factor in the value of time risk. There is an economic win that involves some higher up front administration costs that are more than recouped by the lesser incarceration costs.

              Understanding why people commit crimes and how they respond to punishment and incentives should diminish the appetite of the general public, who are mostly less rational than you are, for retribution. How commonly do you hear complaints that “it’s too good for criminals” if there are any programs designed to rehabilitate them, to reward them for good behavior, or to stimulate positive habits in the attempt to reduce recidivism? These changes generally involve improved conditions, which many people object to as taking it too easy on bad guys.

              I don’t know the numbers, but I believe that in Scandanavia good results are acheived with lesser sentences in more humane conditions. If I’m right about this, I suspect that a big factor is that criminals don’t feel excluded from society, and thus don’t have as much resentment and hostility toward rule of law and society. They retain the feeling that they have something at stake in society, and tangible rewards available to them for obeying the law. Not to mention that if such approaches are effective, a higher cost per prisoner is traded off against the larger gain in savings from less crime, less recidivism, and therefor less incarceration.

              So free will enters into consideration, but it is not the only significant factor.

              • Posted March 26, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

                Thanks Jeff, a great prescription for a rational criminal justice system.

            • Posted March 27, 2013 at 12:41 am | Permalink

              Jeff – when I say that there is good evidence that natural selection exploits sub-Planckian phenomena I’m talking about quantum biology, so the use of quantum dynamics by photosynthesis, enzymes, navigation in robins, and possibly in DNA mutations:

              http://www.ias.surrey.ac.uk/workshops/quantumbiology/report.php

              Again, this is not evidence that consciousness in whole or in part resides at that scale or makes use of phenomena at that scale, but it does open that possibility by putting pay to the previous argument that quantum effects could not be sustained by warm wet biological systems.

              On phenomenal consciousness emerging from physical complexity, I’d argue that that would be very strong emergence in a sense that we have not seen before. Usually the properties of emergent systems can (at least in retrospect) be seen to be contingent on the properties of the underlying structure (e.g. the wetness of water from the properties of the H2O molecule.

              In this case, the properties of phenomenal consciousness (qualia, cognition etc) seem totally unlike the physical properties of the brain at any scale we’ve cared to look thus far.

              Additionally, that fact that emergent properties seem themselves to be reliant on conscious systems (e.g. water is only wet in relation to a subjective observer at a certain scale) makes me suspicious, although this is not something I’ve considered fully as yet.

              It seems to me that the story you tell regarding how consciousness might arise is still a good one in regards to phenomena like conscious awareness, control, etc. My suspicion is that consciousness is a composite of both the classical story you tell and another evolved quantum story that we are yet to investigate.

              My biggest worry is that in rejecting the totality of our own experience (non-epiphenomalism, free will, and even qualia and consciousness itself by some) on the back of rejecting gods and the supernatural, science is being mis-guided, and that future thinkers will look back on the whole episode as slightly ridiculous.

              For me, rejecting the basics of our own subjective experience is tantamount to an extraordinary claim, and you know what that requires.

              Finally, I struggle to understand why rejecting free will helps to reject god. The latter is by necessity supernatural, because god is by most accounts omnipotent (i.e able to perform miracles) and resides outside the universe. Free will on the other hand is necessarily bound by the laws of physics and can reside within the universe – just perhaps not somewhere we’ve been able to look as yet.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted March 27, 2013 at 3:27 am | Permalink

                I don’t reject our subjective experience in the least. I only reject some of the ideas we have formed about it, free will, as opposed to flexible intelligence, being one of them. I don’t reject compatibilist claims that we have worthwhile capacities that appear both externally and internally to be based on what we think of as free will. But I think “free will” suggests to most people very special uniquely human abilities to create and imagine without limits, to be a unique source of uncaused, wholly independent, newly minted ideas and impulses fabricated out of nothing by the pure energy of will. This is how it feels subjectively, and this is practically an invitation, if not a hard to avoid temptation, to leap to the conclusion of some type of dualism. I think this is an illusion, that our behaviors that seem “free willed” are really based on much more plodding and mundane capacities to iterate, experiment, evaluate, arrive at a result, learn, remember, vary, and repeat. We have physical stuff exquisitely structured that we can incrementally improve, but no divine sparks of magic insight as most people want to believe. I know compatibilists reject dualism, but I can’t avoid the feeling that perpetuating the idea of free will just helps prop up this egotistical human presumption that there is a categorical difference between human and, say, primate or dolphin intelligence. I think the difference is merely a matter of degree, of extra brain capacity and advanced features in the human brain that extend but don’t fundamentally alter the kind of intelligence that other mammals possess.

                A purely materialistic account of consciousness can defeat the persistent idea of the soul, of mind as something that can live outside of the body, and therefore something that can survive the death of the body. This would effectively be scientific evidence against the afterlife. Of course there would be dead enders who believe in the face of all contrary evidence, but surely for large numbers it would bring realization that major premises of their belief were simply not true.

                I think our subjective experience is valuable. I doubt it would have evolved if it weren’t. It seems to me that the conscious mind has a kind of general purpose flexibility that more specialized unconscious functions lack. The unconscious excels in rapid complex tasks like auditory, visual, and much of language processing. The conscious mind excels in reusable abilities such as abstraction, recursion, symbolic associations and relations, stuff we use in language and reasoning and conceptualizing new variations on old themes.

                I think the conscious mind is very important to learning, memorization, and evaluation. All of this is dependent upon unconscious capabilities, but the conscious seems to play a very important integrative function, and doing it as it does, in a slow plodding way, reusing general purpose capacities, compared to say the rapid complex specialized processing of unconscious visual information, makes it more efficient in terms of the ratio of energy and brain volume required to the resultant utility.

                I wrote some more thoughts on why consciousness may be important, but it got too long. The full post is at this link if you are interested.

                http://simp.ly/publish/vPdD8D

              • Posted March 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

                I think I can summarize by saying that you suspect that our current physicalist ontology is sufficient to account for all aspects of consciousness, whereas I suspect that we need to extend that ontology into a scientific description of sub-Planckian scales to do so.

                Your model is entirely plausible, and I’ll admit, at the moment seemingly more likely than my own.

                But in turn I don’t think you’d deny that either holds an entirely convincing hand of evidence, because both run into major theoretical difficulties and objections.

                And that alone is my real beef here as I’ve stated – that many otherwise right-thinking people wish to dispense with questions like free will as if we already know the answer.

                As you’ve pretty much admitted, much of this attitude (which strongly influences those who know little philosophy of mind and metaphysics) is down to a wish to counter the public’s even greater ignorance – belief in god, the supernatural, immortal souls, quantum cosmic telepathy or any number of other hogwash ideas.

                Yet non-epiphenomenal consciousness, free will, and even quantum consciousness, says nothing about immortal souls or any of that other nonsense for which there is no evidence at all (not only objective evidence, but even evidence in a subjective-but-universal sense – like qualia for instance).

                So for me, free will is another casualty in the war against nonsense that science feel it has to wage (and understandably so). It may be that free will turns out to be made of straw, but I still think it’s a shame to burn her before we know for sure….

                Matt

                Ps – thanks for the discussion, it’s good to find someone who at least understands the objections, even if he doesn’t agree with them.

  37. Posted March 26, 2013 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Jerry, interesting article about these new findings. But your opening sentence rather overstates results of earlier research:
    a)”brain-scanning techniques can predict not only when a binary decision will be made, but what it will be (with accuracy between 55-70%)—several seconds before the actor reports being conscious of having made a decision.” In fact, one set of experiments (Libet et al) seemed to be able to predict when a movement will be made; other experiments claimed to predict (at 70-80% accuracy, I think) what the decision will be, but within fractions of a second, not several seconds. I don’t think a single experiment showed both results.
    b) “The implications of this research are obvious: by the time we’re conscious of having made a “choice”, that choice has already been made for us—by our genes and our environments—and the consciousness is merely reporting something determined beforehand in the brain.” Not so obvious to me – isn’t it more likely that the decision is made by our unconscious minds before we are consciously aware of it, and it’s the ‘unconscious’ activity that is picked up by fMRI?

    Anyway, keep up the fight against idiocy….

    Gerry

  38. Posted March 30, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    What do you guys think? Does this experiment disprove the existence of free will?

  39. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    That is interesting, but can likely be interpreted as “planning” and “decision”. (And honestly, I think it is showing us that planning and decision isn’t as strict separated as we sometimes experience it.)

    It would be interesting to see an experiment series with “choice changes” and whether the delay remains 4 s.

  40. Jonathan MS Pearce
    Posted May 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi there Jerry – is there any chance I can repost this on A Tippling Philosopher, giving full legendary status to its source?

    Jonathan MS Pearce

  41. Ben
    Posted May 29, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Four seconds is a long time in the world of survival. Predictive behavior based on learned experience would happen at the speed of the bio system based on the integrity of that system. Any lags inthesystem would be seen as a minus and the system would be punished accordingly with injury or death. Action to be effective will always be as close to instantaneous as possible. Chess Grandmasters do not invent moves on the go rather they rapidly review all known solutions that they have studied or used previously. The best move move then presents itself and is played. This is why fighter pilots and race car drives appear phlegmatic because they are responding to situations rather than thinking them throu?gh. Thinking we are automatons jerking to a silent will is proved incorrect by the more than abundant bad decisions we see around us every day. Have you driven in rush hour traffic lately, or gone to a shopping mall. The horror, the horror.

  42. qbsmd
    Posted May 30, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I’ve tried to argue that it should be apparent a-priori that there is no free will: a given person has knowledge, uncertainty in that knowledge and values certain things. Given that, for a choice, there is a decision that should maximize the things that person values given their knowledge at the time, which is their best choice. Who would ever pick the second best choice?

    This experiment isn’t really looking at choices based on results, though. Because the choices have no meaningful effects on the future, they’re closer to picking random values. This research is investigating whatever human brains use as a random number generator.

    Also, asking a person what they saw at the same time something else happened will generate strange effects by itself. Human brains take longer to do vision processing than sound or smell or perform other tasks. In order to percieve a sound as being simultaneous with the sight of what caused it, your brain has to fudge the information about exactly when things happened.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce
      Posted May 30, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      “I’ve tried to argue that it should be apparent a-priori that there is no free will: a given person has knowledge, uncertainty in that knowledge and values certain things. Given that, for a choice, there is a decision that should maximize the things that person values given their knowledge at the time, which is their best choice. Who would ever pick the second best choice?”

      I love that simple argument – so effective. That is a blog post waiting to happen! Thanks qbsmd!

      • Posted May 30, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        Larry Niven has a wonderful science ficton book that touches on this subject called “Protector”. It postulates a species that has two life stages, one is the juvenile breeder stage which is largely unintelligent and the adult “protector” stage which is hyper-intelligent. The protector stage is instinctually programmed to protect its own “kin”, i.e. related breeders. the neat part is that because each protector has one overriding goal that it cannot change and because they are so intelligent, in any situation they really don’t have even the illusion of free will because they always see exactly the best course of action available to them.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Ironically, compatibilists find a way to turn this argument around.

        They come at it from that angle of using the same idea, “who would choose second best,” to attack the idea that intedeterminism would somehow represent a better form of free will, which is apparently a libertarian argument against determinism.

        Then somehow they conclude that the idea of “free will” need not include the freedom to choose second best, and that choosing what we want (which is always the best choice) qualifies as free will, I guess because nobody with a gun forced us to want it or choose it.

        A confusion that many people have is that we do appear to choose secnod best at times, for example if we are choosing what someone else likes, or we decide we can’t order our favorit dish 75 times in a row, so we pick something we like less, or when we try to prove to our friends that we really do have free will, or if we want to win a bet, etc.

        This is an absurd objection, because each of these example simply involves a modification of the criteria prior to completing the choice, so the choice really is our “best” and only possible choice according to the modified criteria.

  43. David Santee
    Posted February 4, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Man, what a leap! By studing the physical mind we draw conclusions about the existence of a spirit or soul. That’s like studying a dog to understand a cat. You cannot disprove the spiritual by studying the physical. Daniel Kahneman does a great job in his recent book describing how the mind uses it’s system 1 and system 2 processors. But just because the system 1 is below the unconscious, it is still, nontheless, part of our physical nature. It says nothing about our spiritual nature. Understanding the distinction between system 1 and system 2 does not confirm nor deny the expistence of a spirit or soul. It is simply how our physical mind works. You can’t disprove the spirit by studying the physical.

    • Posted February 4, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      “You can’t disprove the spirit by studying the physical.”

      Why, yes. Yes, you can. The LHC discovery of the Higgs does just that. See Sean Carroll’s talk at Skepticon 5.

      /@

  44. Robert
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Interesting, but, as presented, the testing method and conclusions are so biased and incomplete that I cannot take seriously what’s written above. First of all, even if the decision is made and seen in the brain seconds before it manifested itself, this could just mean that you cannot change a decision between when it is made and when it manifests itself. This does not in any way mean that you actually had no choice, the decision still might have been yours to make! And since when are you conscious of yourself and your decisions only when you physically manifest yourself (it suits the experiment, of course, but still)? Second of all, I don’t like the method, as presented, and its results are far from “tolerable accuracy”. Actually, those results could have been predicted I think, and the reason is simple: most of the individuals would assume that they are not allowed to change their decision (to add or subtract) once they made it and they simply stick with it. And, from this assumption, of course, the “predictability”. Some, on the other hand, like I would have done, because it is not specified as it shouldn’t be done, would simply both subtract and add the two numbers and memorize the two results (4 and 8 in the example) and “randomly” (whatever that means) choose one of the two numbers when the presented frame appears, without “thinking” what operation (add or subtract) that was. Now, I’m sure that if the task was presented like that, you would predict a few seconds in advance which of the two buttons I’m going to press with an accuracy of, shocking, fifty percent!


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] prove that we consciously make decisions after our brain has already made them.  For example, Jerry Coyne describes has a blog post titled ”Yet another experiment showing that conscious [...]

  2. [...] Coyne has published another post discussing another recent experiment that stacks more evidence against the notion of us freely [...]

  3. […] evidence that you probably don’t have free will Yet another experiment showing that conscious “decisions” are made unconsciously, and in advanc… Predicting free choices for abstract intentions  How Mind Emerges from Brain (BSP […]

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