Is Free Will ever a Conscious Event

This is a secondary post to one asking about Moral Responsibility. The original post asks for the consequences of Free Will if it is only unconscious. This concurrent post is an attempt to allow discussion of the truth or not of that proposition. The intention of this is to separate the truth/non-truth arguments from the consequences argument.

I read Tor Nørretranders’ book “The User Illusion”:

when it was published and have been a keen follower of Daniel Dennett’s works, especially those on consciousness and free will:

http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/incbios/dennettd/dennettd.htm

I recently started following up the research in Neuro-Psychology around this subject:

Benjamin Libet (who died last month)

http://www.consciousentities.com/libet.htm

and Daniel Wegner

http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/

being major contributors.

What seems to arise from the empirical investigations strongly implies that:

If Free Will exists, it is difficult to contend that Free Will is exercised by what we recognize as our Conscious Mind; if it is locatable anywhere, it is deep within the unconscious brain.

This proposition may be referred to as “Free Will occurs, if at all, in the Unconscious Mind”.

I am coming to believe that this is a reasonable and empirically supported proposition.

What are the flaws in this argument?

Seems to me – assuming that free will exists to some degree – that the most glaring fallacy is that of the excluded middle. One of the elements of free will is that it occurs in conscious thought; that is, there is choice involved in our actions. However, if free will exists, there must be some crossing of the unconscious/conscious mind boundary. It is exactly that “space” that is being excluded here.

Perhaps what needs to happen is a reformulation (or re-definition) of what “conscious” means here. That is, perhaps there’s no clear boundary, but a continuum. Or, in less (conceptually) analog fashion, maybe there’s a mental “layer” between purely reflex actions (the unconscious mind) and those of which we are aware (the conscious mind). A “pre-conscious, but not un-conscious mind”, if you will, that has its own form of decision making. Not that I have much idea how that would work. :confused:

For a start, there’s another way to interpret Libet’s (oft-replicated) data, to wit, that there is a primitive subconsious impulse which moves us to make a decision, but need not influence, much less determine, what the decision will be.

Consider an example. I went to dinner last evening with a friend. We had Indian. Even before we sit down, I know I’m going to order vegetable pakora, because I always do. Whether that’s a free or determined choice let’s put aside for a moment. As to main courses, we naturally order two, intending to share. Each of us pick one. I scan the offerings, narrow the field to three, then choose one. Had I been hooked up to Libet’s equipment, he’d have shown a burst of brain activity about half a second before I was consious of my choice. Now, the way I experienced that was I said to myself, “Okay, time to choose,” and did. Is Libet measuring the choice or the impulse to choose? Frankly, I don’t think his data can tell us either way.

But, to me, the larger problem with this model is how much data it discards. Surely it matters that I was reading a particular menu. Surely it matters that I have prior experience with Indian food and various preferences. Surely it matters that I have a sensibility as simple as that one of the dishes should be medium spicy and the other quite spicy (rather than both spicy or both medium). Ditto that we should have one meat dish and one vegetable. Ditto whether to have bread, rice or a little of each. Ditto the polite negotiation with my dining partner as regards her preferences. And so on. IOW, a lot of this decision (a whole cluster of decisions, actually) was happening in my conscious “space.” If we say, though, that the actual decision was made by my subconsious, where does all the consious deliberation fit in? Until this model can answer that question, I don’t see how it’s very useful.

BTW, I don’t dispute that our decisions are influenced by the subconsious. That is, I am by no means a believer in classic libertarian free will and the notion that we have complete and unfettered control over our decisions. IHMO, though, this is a different set of issues from interpreting Libet’s data.

My $0.02 worth.

D’oh! Throughout, should be conscious and subconscious.

It is not just the findings of Libet, but that of many others in the field. free will seems to be not directly attached to events that could possibly be caused by that person- experiments show that people readily claim control over processes which they believe to be under their will, but are actually caused by others. This calls into question all internal evidence about free will. Further research shows that most human behaviour is caused without the intervention of consciousness.

Given the breadth and complexity of the current neuro-psychological empirical evidence, it is increasingly difficult to maintain that conscious free-will exists. The only sustainable claim is that unconscious processes control most (and probably all) behaviours, and that consciousness is an epiphenomenon.

Attempts by conscious free will advocates look increasingly like an attempt to ‘save the appearances’ of free will, rather than an empirical consideration of the possibilities.

It’s been close to a decade since I read The User Illusion, and the neuroscience I read is generally scattershot, so my neuroscience knowledge is spotty (at best). Would you mind providing a brief summary of the main techniques used in this research?

My thought is that, IIRC, the main method of gauging brain activity is currently the fMRI. But that can only measure brain activity (and rather coarsely at that). Libet’s experiments, IIRC, instead measured the time between stimulus and cognizant response (i.e., ignoring biological monitoring to get at the topic obliquely). Neither of these does much to rule out whatever it is that happens (e.g., a “primitive subconsious impulse”, as PBear42 puts it) between biological function (e.g., blood flow in the brain) and conscious thought. How else do researchers get at the question?

(Note: any mischaracterizations above are my fault and I’d appreciate correction.)

Pjen, it’s been a while since I read about this research, so I’m hazy on details. But I vaguely recall the experiments to which you allude in your latest post. If you could provide links, so we’re all on the same page, that would be helpful.

In the meantime, I will say that my reaction to the research was that the experiments seemed to have been well designed, so I accepted the data, but I felt the interpretation was forced. So, sure, if you put people in an environment where what appears to have been caused by them in fact is not, they will assume they were the cause. That’s called closure. It reminded me of a phenomenon which blew me away the first time I experienced it, which is how watching a film of a roller-coaster ride could make me feel as if I really was on a roller-coaster. To the extent that I would lean into the curves, to the point almost of falling over. (Cleverly, IME, these films usually are presented with the audience standing.) This doesn’t prove that roller-coasters don’t exist. Rather, it proves only that my brain can be fooled by stimuli which closely approximate the real thing.

Further, what about the rest of my post? The finding by Libet (and his colleagues) about which I see the most comment (and the one discussed in the link provided in your OP) is the curious half-a-second by which brain activity precedes consciousness of a decision. I’ve suggested an alternate explanation. Comment? Also, where do the conscious processes fit in? If not at all, why do you say that? Conversely, if they fit in, but (hypothetically) the actual decision is made subconsciously, why do you assume that’s determinism?