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Conscious intent

I have a problem with the continual opposition of free will and determinism – there is always pressure to choose between them – the assumption that if one is right then the other is wrong or or vice versa. Now there is the new stance of compatibility where if I change the definition of both then I can believe both simultaneously. No – I am not willing to change the definitions and I can and do believe in neither. They are both flawed and unacceptable ideas: free will is flawed because it is not materialistic and relies on some non-physical magic process; determinism is flawed because it relies on an impossible ability to predict a system that is too large to be predicted. What we are left with after there two ideas are swept away is that we make decisions and we make them with our physical brains, a simple but believable idea.

Rigoni, Sammicheli and Brass (see citation) carefully review the neurobiology of will. I walk through this interesting review below. At the end they deal with a question of whether it is wise to disbelieve in free will. “Believing that we have free will or in other words that we have control over our own actions and over the environment thus seems to be a psychological and biological necessity.” Here is the problem in a nutshell. They are equating free will with being able to think and act, to make decisions.

The review starts with Libet’s famous 1983 experiment which established a time line between an action that was taken whenever the subject wanted to, the EEG events in the motor areas of the brain (the ready potential) and consciousness of the intention to act. The actual movement was preceded by the conscious intent by about 200ms and by the ready potential by about 500 to 1000ms. Thus the conscious intent did not cause the movement, it simply made conscious that this was going to be an intentional action. Many have attempted to find a fault in this experiment but it has withstood debate for almost 3 decades. So the idea that an act is the result of a conscious intent is dead in the water. The conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action. (I my opinion this marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions were the result of decisions of a particular type or just happened. We need this marker to understand events and to learn from them.) Using elaborations of the Libet experiment others have shown the timing of conscious awareness of intent, relative to the movement, is affected by events happening after the movement. Rigoni and group themselves have published results showing this - “The authors demonstrated that the inferential processes by which the intention is reconstructed involve brain processes related to action-monitoring.

So far there is still a connection between the action and the conscious intent. But Wegner and Wheatley put forward the hypothesis that “people feel that their conscious intentions are the source of their actions because they think about that action in advance of its occurrence, and because alternative sources of the action are not available.” People can believe they performed intentional actions when they were performed by someone else. “Taken together, all these studies provide evidence that the experience of volition is biased by factors concerning the consequences of our behaviour. According to some authors, volition is a perception, rather than the generator of behavior.

(All this makes philosophical sense to me if consciousness is not confused with perception, cognition, affect or action. It is simply the awareness of some of the results of these processes. Consciousness does not do sense, or think or react emotionally or move, it simple reports and not even with very full reports. It is reporting that decisions have been made and action has or is going to follow in the form of a feeling of intent.)

The authors also deal with our experience of ‘free will’ in others, the “ability to immediately and effortlessly discriminate between actions performed intentionally and actions performed unintentionally”, as in Dennett’s intentional stance. This ‘free will’ is a legal/moral concept used to establish personal responsibility for an action. There are several theories of how social cognition is accomplished, how we understand other’s actions by seeing them as the product of goals and intention.

Three theories are outlined. “The simulation theory suggests that people use their own mental mechanisms to predict the mental processes of others.” A theory-of-mind theory suggests “people use inferential and deductive processes that do not involve simulation”. These may be two extremes of a spectrum, an intuitive end and a reflective end, with much of the process happening between these ends. The third theory is that mirror neurons allow a perception of intention that does not involve simulation or cognition. (-perhaps by magic?)

(My opinion is that our brains have a sparse but important inbuilt framework. For example, we can be convinced that there are more than 3 dimensions but we cannot change the way we see the world in 3D. And we can understand action in a different way but we cannot avoid marking some actions, ours and others, with the labels of intended and unintended. I assume that all my actions are a product of my brain planning them and that there were reasons of some kind for putting that planning into train. None of my actions are in any sense not my actions. I am responsible for what I do. I cannot avoid responsibility for my actions by not having consciously registered my intent. Nor do I think that others can avoid responsibility for their actions. Punishment or reward is a completely different and much more complex question, with responsibility being only one ingredient.)

The authors then pass on to Baumeister’s notion of willpower. “One central assumption of the

willpower metaphor is that it draws on a common limited resource. Tasks that require willpower include self-control, decision making, complex problem solving and conflict resolution. From this perspective there is not one task that measures the free will but rather a number of tasks that draw more or less on this resource.” Tasks requiring willpower interfere with each other, the resource can be depleted. Behavior that uses willpower, is willed, is very effortful. (Again, my opinion is somewhat different. I know the feeling of fatigue that is associated with these sorts of activities. But I feel that this has to do with the attentional steering and working memory activity that is required when we have to continuously pass some mental process through consciousness. Metaphorically, if two or more mental processes, that are usually relatively independent, have to cooperate or converse or argue it out, the only way this can be done is through the global awareness of consciousness. But consciousness is a slow, energy consuming and narrow bottle neck. And it is precisely in this situation that it may be important to mark an action as intended.)

The authors have by this time shown in many ways that free will, with the definition discussed through hundreds of years of philosophy, is not in keeping with current neuroscience. They have been discussing actual physical explanations of intent, action and feelings of agency. Now comes the question, “what would happen if people would be induced to believe the subjective experience of free will is completely illusional?” A number of experiments have shown that reading a particular passage from Francis Crick encourages cheating and other antisocial attitudes. The experiments include Rigoni’s own recent work, “brain potentials that precede voluntary movements and that reflect the intentional involvement in action preparation, are strongly modulated by the level of disbelief in free will.” The ready potential is weaker after reading Crick. (As I see it, that case has not been made. What has been shown is that either belief in determinism has produced these results or disbelief in free will. All that is required is to read the passage to know how it undermines the idea that we really actually make decisions and are responsible for our actions. Decision making and responsibility are not the definition of free will – taking decisions without using the physical material world is what free will involves.)

Although the authors are very careful to not confuse their definition of free will with the conventional philosophical one and point to the difference in several places, I expect that others reporting these ideas will not be so careful. This is why I believe that attempting to change the definition of free will (or determinism for that matter) is a very dangerous action.



This post is also posted on the Nature BPCC forum


Citation: Humana.Mente Journal of Philosophical Studies Issue 15 Jan 2011 p.13;Davide Rigoni, Luca Sammicheli, Marcel Brass; Perspective on the Experience of Will;