Dennis: Free Will (Part 4)

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“The experience of willing an act arises from interpreting one’s thoughts as the cause of the act.” Daniel Wegner, quoted in the excellent book: Consciousness: an Introduction, Susan Blackmore, Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-515343-X. Buy from Amazon US or UK.

The scientific views that are often cited in respect of these discussions stem from experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet in the late 1970’s and by Daniel Wegner in the 1990’s. I described these in my books ‘How to Meet Yourself’ and ‘Back to the Truth’. Since very few people have actually read the former, I will quote at length from that:

What exactly is happening when we decide to do something? We might say that it is an intellectual discrimination between several options or the logical conclusion of a series of reasoned arguments. Indeed we might make a variety of similarly waffly statements but what do they actually mean when reduced to essentials? Do we not simply mean that a thought occurred to us to do something? An idea arose in our consciousness and the action followed?

 Again I ask you, where do ideas come from? What do we do to initiate an idea? Do we sit down and say: “Right, I am going to have an idea about action”? Well yes, you might say, if you are writing a book in which this is one of the subjects! But even if you do sit down with this intention, what do you do to bring those ideas into the open? If you are having difficulty with the whole concept, I will tell you the answer – there is nothing that you can do. Basically, ideas come to you – when they are good and ready. Thoughts arise and that is all that you can say.

 Of course you can put yourself into a particular situation and make good predictions about what thoughts you will have. For example, if you take a man who has been starved of food for several days and place him in a cake shop, you can make a pretty good guess about the sorts of thoughts that will arise. The point is not that thoughts do not follow logically from one to another but that we are unable to initiate a particular thought of our own volition. As far as thinking is concerned, we are still not doing anything. The thoughts are simply coming to us from we know not where and triggering other thoughts and arguments in a manner determined by our particular personality and nature. All of this happens quite automatically and without our conscious consent or will.

 You may now be becoming somewhat desperate in your search to discover something for which you can claim responsibility. We might say that, of course, when I decide to do something (whether or not that process involves real doing on my part), I often actually go ahead and do it, there and then. Obviously in such a situation I am genuinely doing something. An example might be going into a room that is dark. I decide (or the decision is made by a process over which I have no control) that some light is needed and that the light switch should be pressed to put the light on. And, behold, there is light! I have done something; I have switched on the light!

 Difficult though this may be to accept, there is some doubt even here. This precise sort of situation has been investigated under laboratory conditions by scientist Benjamin Libet (and others who have subsequently corroborated his findings). Although the brain is still little understood, much has been investigated over the past century, for example during open surgery on the brain while the patient is still conscious. Probes have been inserted into different parts and stimulated electrically, while asking the patient what he feels. Conversely, electrical activity from the brain can be measured while the patient is listening to music or recognizing colors and so on. Neuroscientists have observed the behavior of people who have suffered damage in specific locations within the brain and lost the capacity for certain functions. In these ways, scientists have made crude maps showing which parts of the brain are responsible for which senses or processes. Thus, that part responsible for initiating action is known with some certainty, even if the detailed mechanism is not understood.

 What Libet found was that there is always a clearly detectable change in electrical potential on the scalp in the area of the brain responsible for action. This occurs between half to one second before any so-called voluntary action. He called this the “Readiness Potential” or RP. The simple experiment that he carried out was to ask the subject to move a finger. One instrument detected the RP and another detected the electrical activity of the finger muscle. The third measure was to ask the subject to state the time indicated by a clock at the point when they decided to move their finger.

 On the face of it, the outcome is intuitively obvious. What one would expect to happen is that the subject decides to press a button at time X, then the RP is detected at time X + t1 sec and finally the muscle trigger is detected at time X + t1 + t2. Obviously we have to decide to do something before we actually do it. How can there even be anything to test here? Equally obviously, the very fact that I am describing this experiment means that the results cannot have been straightforward. Well actually, they were straightforward, just the complete opposite of what common sense would tell us. What was found consistently was that the reported decision to move the finger occurred more than half a second after the readiness potential had been detected (allowance was, of course, made for any delay in reporting the clock time).

 The implications of this are staggering, namely that our supposed free will is an illusion. We never choose to do anything at all. We merely believe that we have freely chosen to do something after it has already happened by some mechanism that excludes our choosing, conscious or otherwise.

 The process that has been proposed by a subsequent researcher, Daniel Wegner, is that any action, A, is directly triggered by a subconscious event, X. The event X, however, simultaneously gives rise to another subconscious event, Y. It is Y that is the cause of the conscious thought and decision to act, D. Thus there are two separate sequences of event: X → A is the actual subconscious cause-to-action process; X → Y → D is the subconscious origin of the conscious decision. Because D occurs before A, we imagine that D causes A; we thus have the illusion of free will.

 This is perfectly reasonable. After all, as the philosopher David Hume pointed out, the very idea of cause and effect only really means that, over many observations, we consistently observe that when the cause occurs, the effect always seems to follow. It is perfectly possible that the next observation of the cause will not be followed by the same effect. Because our actions always follow the awareness of a “deciding” thought, we erroneously think that we have free will.

Lest you begin to despair at this point, let me reassure you that from the practical point of view, nothing has changed. Libet’s experiment did not throw into doubt the feeling of free-will that we have. It only demonstrated that it does not actually function in the way that we would expect. We will still continue to act as though we have choice because that is how we feel. Indeed, despite the fact that these experiments were conducted in 1985, most people are quite unaware of them and probably most of those who are aware continue with their lives as if they were not. It is part of what we are as human beings that we behave as though we have free-will and believe that we do. It is not difficult to imagine that the process (of believing we have free will etc.) has some survival value and has developed as part of natural selection. Ultimately, of course, it is the ego that believes it has free will and, since we have already seen that the ego is an illusion, it should cause no additional concern to learn that free will is also an illusion.

[How to Meet Yourself (and find true happiness), Dennis Waite, O Books, 2007. ISBN 1-84694-041-9. Read extracts and endorsements. Buy from Amazon US or UK.

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5 thoughts on “Dennis: Free Will (Part 4)

  1. First some remarks on Libet. He seems to me to be a classical dualist in that he conceives of the freedom of the will as being the freedom of some ideal Cartesian type self. It is this self that is making the decisions and if it is not making the decisions as he claims to have shown then its will is not free. However following the sage Dr.Johnson in his motto ‘doing is the mother of doing’ I propose that there is no homunculus running the show and in fact ‘willing is the mother of willing’. This is where freedom comes in. Willing itself is free in the sense that it runs on untrammelled whether it is bound by obsession, lesion or whatever. I propose to move the metaphysical discussion away from the individual motives, intentions, decisions , vasanas to the free action of consciousness with the mind as upadhi.

    What is being overlooked is whether intention/motive is causal in the same sense that an inclined plane is causal. I can predict certain things like the reappearance of Halley’s comet. Certain forces are at work that I know about and I simply compute them all. Can that sort of view of causal forces operate when we look backward at a choice of mine which I can account for by saying ‘I thought this was the best thing to do even though I was slightly tempted to do something else’ . Is thinking about the play of forces really adequate? Breaking up the flow of process is useful in mathematics, differential calculus for instance but can the flow of human process be stopped in this way except by death. The unfolding of the process itself is free in its very action in that it never stops until the final instant. Conatus as Spinoza referred to it as goes merrily on. Any will whatever is therefore ‘free’ per se no matter how predictable the actions of the person are.

    In other words maybe the ‘free will’ philosophical debate should not be about the play of forces at all and analogies to physics are invalid. The standard ‘free will’ inquiry in the legal and psychological domains ought not to be confused with the metaphysical domain. It is probable that the Advaitic philosophers did not construe this problem in the same way as Westerners have. They have always been more concerned with the metaphysical reality.

    A rough sketch at reconfiguration of the problem.

  2. To sum up my rambling comment. Even with the upadhi of the mind which renders it individual cf. Vedanta Paribhasa, consciousness is essentially free. It is this that gives rise to the universal intuition concerning the freedom of the will. The will is nothing more than the free play of consciousness in the sphere of maya.

  3. All my discussions regarding free will really apply to vyavahAra only – how it seems to be from the point of the individual person. It was intended to go without saying that, from the pAramArthika standpoint, free will is simply not a consideration – there is only brahman (consciousness) which is always entirely free.

    So what I was pointing out is that, from the perspective of the person, the scientific evidence (Wegner rather than Libet) is that the feeling of having chosen to act is an illusion; that the action has already been initiated before the ‘choice’ is made.

    It seems as though you are trying somehow to combine the two views (pAramArthika and vyAvahArika) but this is not really possible. If you are talking about Consciousness per se, it does not act – end of story. If you are talking about Consciousness acting through the mind upAdhi, then we are clearly in vyavahAra, where there are individuals who believe that they have free will (and where science suggests that this is not actually the case).

    I think perhaps I have not actually answered your question here, but I have to confess that your mind always leaps so effortlessly over and through abstruse philosophical problems that I often have difficulty following your thoughts!

  4. I’ve clarified a little at my own blog where I think the intuitions concerning the Freedom of the Will and Self-Identity come from. They cannot be established in the psyche. This causes the Buddhists to deny the existence of the Self (anatma doctrine). As well as the denial of the Self which is commonplace amongst modern philosophers in the Humean tradition you also have the denial of the freedom of the will. My suggestion is that these notions are the result of the pervasion of the mind/body (intellect, understanding, will) by the Self. This is not, as Shankara points out in Upadesa Sahasri, an imputation of activity on the part of the Self. This pervasion is also expressed as reflection by the Antahkarana of the Self. “It thinks as it were, it acts as it were”. It is significant that both thinking and acting are mentioned as they imply conceiving an action and willing or carrying it through voluntarily.

    What I’m essentially proposing is that the common intuition of Self and Freedom have a basis but not where we think it is.

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