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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I haven't closely inspected all the positions alluded to in the conversations presented as part of this thread. What I can do at the moment is situate my own attitude on the subject of Free Will in 3 points:

1. It is a colloquial phrase. "Free will" does not live or die on attempts to nail it down into an absolutist formality. That is already like driving in the ditch rather than on the road. Free intentional is a descriptive concept which establishes a coherence in relations -- but that is not reductionistic. Semblances are not unreal. I ordered the soup and not the nuts... that is very plain significance of Free Will. This concept only need to be philosophical combated as "incoherent" after it is been taken far too seriously and exaggerated beyond its realm of applicability.

2. Free Will describes the inconclusive situation of complex patterns. Patterns which are "as complex or more complex than the experiencer" reach what Wolfram calls computational equivalence -- they cannot be specifically predicted. There is no functional anticipatory compression despite the fact that they are still embedded participants in the orderly mechanics of Nature. This explanatory limitation, reminiscent of the Uncertainty Principle, does not invoke a simple lack of knowledge but rather an ontological constraint upon the possibilities of knowing. So free Will really IS free will if only it simply describes an unpredictable behavior potential (whether conceived as initiating or inhibiting impulses) relative to a specified system. Other than that the phrase has no significance... not even enough significance to be denied.

3. Does the "I" of the free agent exist? Again -- in order to assert a NO, one must first jettison common sense and assume the "I" which we are discussion is intended to be a fixed separative entity. These terms did not humanly evolve to describe such extremist nonsense but rather to colloquially describe various embodied demonstrations of entity-like behavior in real beings. And -- as it observable -- there is  a spectrum of possible variation in the degree to which individual entity-semblances (gross, subtle or causal) can exhibit apparent free-will-like behavior. Practice and chemistry make a lot of difference in the brains of gross entities and it is entirely appropriate to have a term to describe this axis of possibilities... 

Meditation is not an ontology. What that means here is that denial of free will, carried to its logical extreme, is a form of Jnana Yoga designed to produce a particular -- and usefully profound -- state of consciousness. Ramesh Balsakar teaches this very thing. But recipes for meditative states, despite the understandably profound urgency which they exericise over the mind of certain thinkers -- are not ontological descriptions of the conditional and inherently relative cosmos.

I hope this is on topic. Either way -- cheers.

Blackmore mentioned Peter Tse's recent work, as did I on the previous page for his new book. The New Scientist article Blackmore references requires a subscription to access. I somewhere linked before to his 2 hour YouTube talk but have yet to listen to the whole thing.

I will listen but haven't had a chance yet.  Is he basically arguing for free will?

In the last video no, just noting that readiness potential doesn't mean what the anti-free willers think. But in the long video I referenced yes, which is apparently the same in his new book, which I've yet to read. But of course it depends what we mean by 'free' will, and it's not some Cartesian theater red herring that began this thread.

There can be no neurological argument FOR or AGAINST free will.

Any biophysical mechanism will remain ambiguous in this regard... unless we have pre-specified a definition of this term which has a precise biophysical meaning. But if we do that -- we are almost guaranteed to find whatever functional mechanism most closely resembles our definition.

Multiple overlapping definitions of "Free will" can lead only to irresolvable debate. We may rejoice in the creative friction, or decide that "irresolvable debate" is itself the shape of truth, but unless we agree in advance on verification parameters then any philosophical, computational or neurological discussion on this topic will necessarily get bumped and recirculated by every participant...

Free will revisited with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Have yet to listen to it, (free) will when I have the time.

Just listening to the first few minutes, Harris discusses his previous encounter with Dennett on the topic when things got uncivil, to say the least. Harris wonders if dialog can ever really happen, since we often end up vociferously and often disingenuously defending our steadfast positions instead of mutually learning from each other. I must admit that's pretty much how I've come to view dialog these days unless its within a mutually shared worldview. Even then it can be a challenge. More later.

After listening to about 20 minutes I must say, what's the fucking point? All this philosophical gibberish is useless to the dire political circumstances under which most people live in this world. And such discussion does absolutely nothing to ameliorate such conditions, much less even address them. What does such fine philosophical parsing have to do with anything other than maintaining one's position and standing in an intellectually effete profession?

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