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;


2 thoughts on “Conscious intent

  1. My (layperson’s) understanding is that the essence of determinism is not prediction but fixedness.

    Also, I think that your statement “…the idea that an act is the result of a conscious intent is dead in the water.” is over-reaching. We know that some acts were not decided consciously, but we do not know that *all* acts are decided unconsciously.

    JK: Thank you for comments.
    Your second comment is easier to answer. “… the idea that an act is the result of a conscious intent is dead in the water.” is based on the experimental result that the preparation of the action happens before the feeling of conscious intent. With clever experiments the moment of feeling conscious intent can be moved around in time relative to the action and can even be made to happen for an action that is not done by the subject. Therefore the feeling of conscious intent cannot be the cause of the action. Do you know of experimental results that contradict this?
    There is the idea of type 1 and type 2 decisions – type 1 being completely unconscious with the decision taken without any consciousness of the decision process and type 2 being a decision taken with conscious participation (of some sort). This data about the feeling of conscious intent would apply to both types. In type 1 the action happens without the conscious feeling of intent so the action cannot be caused by conscious intent. In type 2 the feeling of conscious intent is not the cause of the action, as shown by Libet type experiments.
    Your first comment is more difficult. We are on the edge of a semantic discussion. What is it about the idea of determinism that makes people think that it takes away their ability to decide and their onus of responsibility for their decisions? It is the idea that their decision is pre-ordained before they even know that a decision is needed and the decision process is redundant, that makes the idea unacceptable. The idea that decisions are made by their brains and their brains are part of the physical universe is acceptable to non-dualists. The difference between these two visions, one acceptable and the other not, is the notion that their decisions are predictable. But we know that we cannot predict complex processes in principle because of quantum effects and in practice because the time, material and energy needed to do such a prediction is probably greater than the resources of our galaxy and even then would be a stimulation with some level of error. The only way we can know what our decision will be is to actually make the decision for real with our real physical brains in real time.
    I know that there is no real logical difference between the compatible theory where the meaning of both determinism and free will are changed so that decision and responsibility are part of a physical world, on the one hand, and throwing out both determinism and free will so that, again, decision and responsibility are part of a physical world. The reason I prefer to get rid of the old terms is that they carry baggage from their long philosophical use – a clock-work physical world, fully specified by a small number of equations on the one side, and dualism with a separate mind that is not in the physical world, on the other. I believe that science should avoid, if possible, misleading terms.
    Again thanks for raising these questions.

  2. In your response, you mentioned problems in our predictive ability due to quantum effects.

    I would like to direct you towards this article, I thought you might find it interesting:

    It discusses how quantum states must correspond to physical reality-even under our current model. If this holds true, does your argument change?

    JK: Sean, Thank you for the link. I have read the paper as best I can (in a limited way). My position on quantum physics is that I trust physicists when (1) they have a consensus in their community (2) what they are saying is based on actual experiment, not disembodied mathematics, logic, or thought experiments (3) they are talking about the facts of the experimental data and not alternative interpretations. This means that I am agnostic on most of what physicists say about quantum physics. I am familiar with quantum ideas in the domain of chemistry, trust the experiments and much but not all of the interpretation. Otherwise I am sitting on the fence.
    As far as prediction is concerned there are three levels of problem. First, we do not have, at the present time, the equations to predict a human decision nor do we have any assurance that we will ever have those equations. There is a little worm with 302 neurons and we know exactly how they are connected and which neurotransmitters the synapses use and we know the genome. We cannot predict what will happen next in this nervous system. There is a long way to go. Second, we will never have the resources (material, energy, time) to solve such huge problems as brain process to a level of unmeasurable error – assuming we found the equations. And third, the fastest and most accurate way to know what a brain will decide is to let the brain make the decision. No possible calculating system is going to be faster and more accurate that that. So although I think that there is no thought that is not the product of a material, physical brain (nothing but natural processes) that does not imply that a thought is predictable. We must in the end go through the whole process of making the decision for real – there is no shortcut.
    Of course there is a chance that in some far future time, we can predict decisions individually and accurately, in which case we will have to deal with it – until then (if then even comes) we cannot predict our decisions.
    I did find the paper interesting in its own right – thank you again for the link.

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