I participate in a local reading group that is currently exploring Incognito by David Eagleman. It has opened quite a can of worms about free will and/or conscious control. I've also been recording some of this at my blog, where Andy Smith got into this contentious debate. Below I've cited some of that debate from 3 thread posts: 1) review of Libet and recent research; 2) Patricia Churchland on free will; 3) more on Churchland. From 1):

theurj: So let's review the last few posts on Libet and recent research challenging one aspect of his research. He noted a readiness potential that occurred before the conscious awareness to move, and the latter occurred before the movement. And from that research the reductionistic determinists found support for their “hidden ad hoc assumptions,” assumptions that Libet himself did not share. To the contrary, Libet found that the conscious awareness of the movement indeed supported free will, despite the apparent earlier unconscious response.

Now the latest research shows that this precursor to conscious awareness has nothing to do with either the conscious awareness or the movement, and that the consciousness and the movement are virtually simultaneous. This would seem to support or at least suggest the controlled choice indicative of at least some degree of free will. Since it seems every naysayer of free will has used Libet's precursor neural response as evidence of their agenda, and that vestige of supposed proof has gone poof, it will likely prove most interesting and delightfully entertaining to see their them gasp and groan and flail and kick in the death throes of their cherished fantasy. I for one will revel in the spectacle.

Andy: We really don’t need neurophysiological studies to demolish the notion of free will. It just isn’t coherent. From a physical point of view, every action either has a cause, or occurs randomly. If it has a cause, then the cause determines the action, not free will. If it occurs randomly, then it may not have a deterministic cause, but neither is it the product of free will.

Even if one doesn’t accept the physical argument—which means, in effect, one is a dualist, and believes that free will operates independently of the physical world--the concept is still incoherent from a psychological point of view. The point of doing anything is to achieve some goal, which means to satisfy some desire. That desire is the motivator of the action.

Try to imagine yourself with free will. By definition, free will implies choice, because if there isn’t more than one option, there is nothing to be free about. Why then do you choose one action and not another? If you act rationally, then rational considerations are the cause of your action. If you act irrationally, that is, not entirely logically, you are still choosing based on some desires. If you act “spontaneously”, which is to say, not according to any rational considerations or any desires, then like a random physical occurrence, it isn’t a product of free will.

Rather than spend so much energy trying to defend the existence of free will, people might better ask themselves why they have so much invested in this belief. Therein lies the path to freedom. Not freedom of choice, but freedom from choice.

The way we normally act, certainly in all the most important and critical parts of our life where we would most expect to exercise free will if we had any, is to weigh a large number of factors, and come to a conclusion about which factors are most important.

There is no room in this process for free will. The whole point of making a decision is to weigh these factors as carefully as possible, and this means that the decision is determined completely by these factors. If it were not, then the decision would be counter-productive. In evolutionary terms, it would not maximize the possibility of survival.

theurj: If I understand you, making a choice of any kind is the cause, and that's what I mean by free will: having some (not complete or total) choice on one's actions. I don't know what you mean by the expression. I could ask you the same question, on why you must defend determinism. Seems adherents are afraid to accept responsibility for their actions.

I might also add that the above is entirely bodily-based, not dualist. Take Lakoff's work, for example. While he acknowledges the cognitive unconscious, which handles most of our action and behavior, can nonetheless to some degree be trained and redirected. I.e., we have some control over it and can make some choices.

Andy: You say you mean by free will "having some (not complete or total) choice." Who is the "I" that "has" this choice? Unless you can identify such an "I", independent of the physical world (this is dualism), these “choices” are completely explained by physical processes. The only “I” that makes sense is something that does not own or “have” these choices, but is these choices, that is, identifies with them as they are made by physical and biological processes. This is not free will in any meaningful sense, it’s just something that is along for the ride.

It’s not a matter of being afraid to accept responsibility for actions. It’s a matter of not being inconsistent with logic and facts. As I said before, the notion of free will is incoherent. How could any choice be made except by weighing various options, a process that is completely explainable in terms of physical and mental processes? Free will implies that one does not have to act according to weighing various options.

Lakoff’s work is irrelevant to the discussion of free will. You seem to assume that conscious actions are an exercise in free will. But conscious actions are just as much a matter of physical and biological processes as unconscious ones.

theurj: Actually it is you who are irrelevant here. One does not have to identify an "I" independent of the physical world to have decision and choice. Lakoff's work is entirely relevant, since this "I" and its rational choices are indeed embodied in the brain and culture, but are not completely determined by it. Our individuality, and its choices, are obviously constrained by body-brain-culture, but also something novel emerges that cannot be reduced to it. That's the whole point of novel emergence, since the physical parts cannot predict what will emerge. And also the point of neuroplasticity, that we can consciously change not just our choices but our actual physical brains and cultural programming, as neuroscientific studies of meditation and leaning attest. There's an entire field now called decision neuroscience. Perhaps you should check out some of the links and articles I've cited.

And it is also interesting that you completely sidestepped the latest neuroscientific study that challenged and overturned an aspect of Libet's reseach, research that the determinists have been using to support their agenda since that research came out. I'm not surprised, for there is no good answer to it at this point.

I'd also suggest reading the book The Neurobiology of Free Will, the subject of a recent post. I've also highlighted some of the articles from that book in recent posts. They provide ample empirical evidence of how emergent structures not only exemplify an unexpected novel occurrence but also how they exert top-down causation on the parts. They grant the predecessor constraint but not their complete determinism, and if fact how emergent structures 'determine' and change the parts to some degree.

Andy: Emergence is not the same thing as free will. If it were, you could conclude that because a cell emerges from molecules, has novel properties that the molecules don’t have, and exerts downward causation on the molecules, that it has free will. A cell is just a much more complex result of causal processes, and so is an organism.

Yes, I’m aware that supporters of free have referred to Libet’s work, but as I said before, it’s unnecessary.

I'm really surprised that anyone with any spiritual experience would be hedging on this issue. One of the first and most important lessons on the spiritual path is that we are asleep, which means we have no free will.

theurj: Another tenet of spirituality is that we can indeed wake up and be liberated, to some degree. I will continue this in the "more on Churchland" thread.

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From 2):

theurj: See her article here. She too doesn't see free will as some dualistic, acausal idealism. She thinks a better frame for the notion is neural self-control, or as I've called it recently, embodied top-down causation from a "real self," as she attests. Some excerpts:

"To begin to update our ideas of free will, I suggest we first shift the debate away from the puzzling metaphysics of causal vacuums to the neurobiology of self-control.... Self-control can come in many degrees, shades, and styles. We have little direct control over autonomic functions such as blood pressure, heart rate and digestion, but vastly more control over behaviour that is organised by the cortex of the brain. Self-control is mediated by pathways in the prefrontal cortex, shaped by structures regulating emotions and drives, and it matures as the organism develops.

"Our larger prefrontal cortex probably means we have more neurons that allow us to exercise greater self control than that displayed by baboons or chimps.... This is the prefrontal cortex using cognition for impulse control.

"So is anyone ever responsible for anything? Civil life requires it be so. Very briefly, the crux of the matter is this: we are social animals and our ability to flourish depends on the behaviour of others. Biologically realistic models show how traits of cooperation and social orderliness can spread through a population; how moral virtues can be a benefit, cheating a cost and punishment of the socially dangerous a necessity.

"From an evolutionary perspective, punishment is justified by the value all individuals place on their social life, and by the limits on behaviour needed to maintain that value. The issue of competent control arises when, given a social harm, we need to determine whether punishment is appropriate. Part of cultural evolution consists in figuring out more suitable and effective ways of limiting violent or otherwise antisocial behaviour. So yes, we must hold individuals responsible for their actions.

"But what is the 'self' of self-control? What am I? In essence, the self is a construction of the brain; a real, but brain-dependent organisational network for monitoring body states, setting priorities and, within the brain itself, creating the separation between inner world and outer world. In its functionality, it is a bit like a utility on your computer, though one that has evolved to grow and develop.

"Complex brains are good at that sort of thing - creating high-level neural patterns to make sense of the world. We lack a word to describe this function, but instances abound. A simpler example is our normal three-dimensional visual perception. Here, a network of neurons in the visual cortex compares the slightly offset two-dimensional inputs it gets from each eye. The comparison is used to create an image of a three-dimensional world. Thus we literally see - and not merely infer - real depth.

"The brain constructs a range of make-sense-of-the-world neurotools; one is the future, one is the past and one is self. Does that mean my self is not real? On the contrary. It is every bit as real as the three-dimensional world we see, or the future we prepare for, or the past we remember. It is a tool tuned, in varying degrees, to the reality of brain and world."

From 3):


Continuing from the previous post, in this article she also discusses free will in the context of self control. It is an adaptive mechanism not limited to humans. She said:

“When the very abstract question of free will is put in this context, I am no longer sure exactly what the question is. If it means can we have self-control, then obviously the answer is yes. If it means can we create a choice with no causal antedecent, in all probability the answer is no.”

I’m guessing there are those who make such a claim for the second type of free will, but I am not one of them. Hence I’m referring to it as a means of self control and executive or top-down decision making. She further notes that executive control is also a key part of social mores.

In this article on conscious and unconscious control she reiterates what Eagleman said in Incognito, that quite a bit of control is handled unconsciously. Like him she gave the example of skills once learned, how they then operate automatically. What she didn’t discuss was that those skills required conscious control in the learning process. The same goes for learning social mores or learning anything, for that matter. And that when we must learn new data the conscious control aspect again comes to the fore. In the last section of the article (p. 346) she said:

“To be clear, we are not advancing the radical thesis that there is no such thing as consciousness or conscious control. The main point of this article is rather that although consciousness – for instance of goals and what the neo-Kantian would call ‘reasons’ – does sometimes have an important role in control, it is not required for control. Nonconscious control can be – and frequently is – exercised, and this control can beevery bit as genuine as the conscious variety.”

Of course it can, but she doesn’t focus on the conscious aspects of control because it is not part of her agenda. She then admits that research to date is scant on the interaction of conscious and unconscious control, and conscious control is not well understood. Well duh, no wonder if neuroscience researchers are agog with unconsciousness and too busy debunking consciousness. The good news is that there is an entire field called decision neuroscience that is examining the basis of conscious control. Yet we don’t hear that much about it, if at all, from the eliminative reductionist circles.

As to the issue of emergence, in this article she describes it as follows:

“By emergent property, I do not mean anything spooky or metaphysical. I merely mean that the property is a function of both the intrinsic properties of neurons in the network and the dynamics of their interactions. I mean it is a network property. The network provides the neural mechanism whereby the phenomenon is produced” (108).

Which is how I’ve been using it term, not as some disembodied Platonic ideal. Anyone who has read this blog at all knows I’ve railed against such idealism from the get go. Earlier in the article she notes that morality itself emerges from earlier structures but was an advance into network properties beyond the earlier structures (96).

Andy: I don't disagree much with what Churchland says. But note, that if your definition of free will involves top down causation, than that definition is pretty watered-down. Even machines exert top down causation, let alone, as Churchland notes, non-human animals (and as I noted in another comment, cells). Do machines have free will? Do cells? If your answer is yes, then by that definition of free will, humans do, too. But if machines do not have free will, nor cells, nor primitive organisms, I'm not sure how you make the argument that humans do.

Human behavior is more complex than that of any of these other entities, but it still involves causal chains. These causal chains are frequently too complex to predict outcomes, and it may even be that some outcomes are inherently unpredictable, or non-deterministic. But that does not mean they are the product of free will. Top down actions, fine, but again, what is it about human actions that is different in kind from that of a machine? According to the current scientific worldview, which Churchland supports, nothing.

I don't have a problem with Churchland's point that we need a sense of responsibility in order to maintain social stability. But what this really boils down to is a standard of acceptable behavior, free or not. If someone with a brain tumor repeatedly commits murder, we might say that he can't help himself, we might say he can't take responsibility for his actions, but we still would lock him up. Indeed, most people believe that wild animals can't help attacking humans in certain situations, but we don't have a problem killing them when they threaten humans. So the question of individual responsibility really does not preclude punishment for certain forms of behavior.

Let's also not forget that another rationale underlying punishment is deterrent. We punish certain forms of behavior to make them less likely. The notion of a deterrent makes much more sense if behavior is not free. if an individual could chooses his behavior freely, why would he be swayed one way or another by a deterrent? He could choose to be or not to be. But if our behavior is the outcome of a large number of factors, one of which is the fear of consequences, then deterrents make good sense.

But despite all these philosophical maneuvers, at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, does the person we call "I"--in other words, the brutal reality of our everyday lives--have free choice? I don't see how anyone who observes his behavior carefully can possibly believe this. I have learned again and again and again that i do not have free choice, that everything I do is the outcome of certain factors that "I" have no control over.

I think discussion of Libet is a red herring. Both supporters and critics of his findings—or of the newer research—are missing the point. Consciousness, according to the scientific view, is part of a causal network, so its temporal relationship to some behavioral act is irrelevant.

Suppose someone shows that the conscious intent to make a movement precedes the movement, precedes activation of the neural pathway that results in movement. Does this show that consciousness caused the movement? One could say that, but then one has to ask, what caused the conscious intent? And the answer, according to science, is other neural activity in the brain. That activity, in turn, was probably caused by events in the outer world. The idea that human consciousness is isolated from the rest of the world is of course long out-dated.

This is why the whole idea of free will—in any meaningful sense—is incoherent. If everything is cause and effect, how can we say that free will exists in one cause and not in another? Even the highest level of some system is subject to forces from other systems outside of it.

I think Churchland understands this. She wants to address the problem of individual responsibility, because she thinks without it, society is likely to collapse. I think she’s probably right about that, at least at this point in our social evolution. We have to act as if we, and those around us, are responsible for our actions. But this is just a useful fiction. We have lots of them in our lives. Physics tells us that matter is not solid, but we treat it as though it were. Physics also tells us that the entire world around us is moving tens of thousands of miles per hour in space, but we act as though it’s stable. Science has taught us that many aspects of our existence are not as they superficially appear to us, and one of those is our sense that we are in control.

What we can say is that as life evolves, it becomes increasingly free from lower level causality (Dennett’s Freedom Evolves). The molecules in our body, unlike free molecules in the air, do not diffuse away from each other. They do not start moving faster in response to heat, and so on. So, yes, we are free to some extent from the physical world. But that just means we are subject to higher order forms of causality.

You could interpret this, as some have, as saying free will is not either-or, but a matter of degree. But if you want to take that approach, you have to say that even machines have some degree of free will, and very low forms of life even more. As I’ve said before, I think “freedom from” is a much better way to describe this than “freedom to”.

theurj: Forget the expression "free will," as it has too much baggage from idealists and I don't subscribe to that. Let's stick with Churchland's recontextualization of control, or top-down causation as I'm calling it. Indeed, other entities express it, even chemicals to some degree. But as you admit, with humans it's on an entirely different, i.e., more complex level, so the degree of choice is much higher.

Hence control is of course not "isolated from the rest of the world" and I never made that claim. Again, to the contrary, this is why I cite Lakoff's work in embodied realism. But emergence does indeed allow the human brain-mind to exert much more executive control over lower functions. Yes, it is a causal chain, but one that is sometimes (not always) top-down and these causes are not only not just the result of lower causes but could never arise just from the lower causes. It is the network, or the interactions of the lower causes as Churchland describes, that cause the top-down control. And you agree with that, that there are higher orders of causality.

Even Churchland above said she is not arguing against conscious control, including goals and reasons. Which is pretty much all I'm saying. And that we can to some extent control our lower natures via methods like meditation or biofeedback or even rationality. And that these emergences, while being physically constrained by lower causes, are not completely determined by them. Again, as you admit, we are "increasingly free from lower level causality." So I can accept your "freedom from" definition.

It comes down to what can we control, to what degree, and does it matter? I say it matters quite a bit. And it makes a huge difference in whether our species, and many others, survive climate change. We need to decide to fix it and do what we can within our power or control or its game over. Maybe not for some very low forms of life like viruses, or their close cousins Republicans, but accepting what control we have brings with it a responsibility, one we must accept and get busy with fixing the monster we created in climate change.

As but one example of that control, and another reason I cite Lakoff, is that language framing is a very important means of shaping public opinion to garner enough support to enact policy agendas like climate change. He is using the neuroscience that tells us we can control our lesser urges with our higher angels, to some degree, via the use of framing, a conscious method that acts on unconscious processes. Obama's campaign took his advice and won re-election. And overall these 'liberal' (progressive)values won the day in opinion polls, hence we get regressives (my word for Republicans)caving on increasing taxes on the rich, or no longer holding the debt ceiling hostage, etc. Framing is a very conscious method of top-down control with real-world effects.

Article link referenced from the below (above) post is here.

theurj said:

From 3):


Continuing from the previous post, in this article...

I said above: "Another tenet of spirituality is that we can indeed wake up and be liberated, to some degree." See for example this section on nirvana of the wiki on Buddhism. Granted I have criticisms about some metaphysical (idealist) interpretations of Buddhist liberation but the point is that through conscious effort and learning one can dive into and through the lower programs, thereby re-programming them, to achieve some measure of 'freedom' or liberation from them. THAT is the point of the endeavor, not just accepting all is illusion or samsara.

Smith replied to my last post above at the blog but was so personally insulting to me that I deleted it. I'm just not going to abide abuse.

Here's another of my blog posts relevant to this thread, "Damasio on free will":

Given the reference to his work in the last post, here is an excerpt from this interview, his response to the specific issue of Libet's work and what it tells us about free will. This relates to what Churchland said about the past and future and the self being just as real as external reality. Apparently he develops these ideas in his book Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

"Well, it doesn’t because in fact most of the notions that we associate with deliberation and decisions that are important for one’s life are not taken the same way that we move this finger or we pick up the glass.  When we think about important decisions in one’s life, when we think about, for example, what we’re going to do with ourselves in terms of one’s career or what we’re going to... you know, how our relationship is going to be, whom we’re going to get married to or live with, those decisions are not taken on the fly.  Those decisions are, in fact, deliberated. And I love the word deliberated; it’s a word that has sort of disappeared from the vocabulary of decision making studies. But that is exactly what you’re doing.  Sometimes you deliberate for minutes or hours or weeks or months and you do it not in the moment of execution of the action.  You do it offline.  You take yourself away from the moment and you put yourself in a space that in fact competes with what you’re doing in the moment.  One thing that I like to point out is that if you are deliberating, even about something as simple as what you’re going to do this afternoon.  For a moment you say, “How am I going to plan this? I need to talk to three different people and I have only certain number or hours. How am I going to organize this?”  You don’t do that at the same time that you drive and drink glasses of water and other such.  You take yourself away from the perceptual moment and in fact you do that in such a way that others looking at you will get the impression that you are distracted and when somebody says that you are distracted you’re not paying attention.  It means you’re not paying attention to me.  What you’re paying attention is to what you’re going to do. And it’s a very interesting theory because what that does is also give you an incredible inkling as to how and where these processes are going on in the brain, because it immediately serves notice that there is a competition going on between what is in the perceptual brain."

Andy responded: If routine behavior that we can all observe every day in our lives demonstrates that we don’t act freely, let’s “refine” our definition of free will. That’s exactly what Churchland is doing as well, with her “self-control”. As I said before, I have no real quarrel with Churchland, but let’s be clear that she’s in effect giving up the defense of free will in anything remotely resembling the traditional understanding of it. As are Dennett, Gazzaniga, etc.

This maneuver is somewhat reminiscent of what Dennett tried to do with consciousness before: he claimed that he had “explained” consciousness, when most scientists and I think philosophers would argue that he avoided the heart of the issue, the hard question of qualia or ineffability. In much the same manner, Churchland et al. are “explaining” free will by avoiding the heart of the issue, which is causal independence. Unlike the case with Dennett and consciousness, all of these thinkers (including Dennett, when he discusses free will) are at least admitting this. But then it’s easier to do in this instance, because while free will can be dismissed as an illusion, one can’t do this with consciousness. IOW, there has to be some explanation for consciousness, because it really exists, whereas there does not have to be an explanation for free will, because it does not necessarily exist.

I replied: And I made clear in other post comments that I am not defining free will by any "traditional understanding" of "causal independence." The reason I'm bringing in Churchland and Damasio is to show how I too am defining it in terms of "self-control."

Current comment on the above: It's amazing how clear I've been in the posts above, yet he's still stuck that if anyone says "free will" it has to mean what he says, despite my laying it out time and again.

I like the following quote from Self Comes to Mind, relevant to the above discussion:

"The ultimate consciousness product occurs from those numerous brain sites at the same time and not in one site in particular, much as the performance of a symphonic piece does not come from the work of a single musician or even from a whole section of an orchestra. The oddest thing about the upper reaches of a consciousness performance is the conspicuous absence of a conductor before the performance begins, although, as the performance unfolds, a conductor comes into being. For all intents and purposes, a conductor in now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor--the self--not the other way around. The conductor is cobbled together by feelings and by a narrative brain device, although this fact does not make the conductor any less real. The conductor undeniably exists in our minds, and nothing is gained by dismissing it as an illusion" (25).

Not having read the article yet, by "ultimate consciousness product," does he mean the self?


On a related note, the above quote reminds me of a question I had in mind earlier:  for certain of our trained meditative states, is there more evidence that they involve return to certain "basic" systems, or that they involve a new coordination of brain systems?

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