Correlates of volition

Let’s go through this again. A Patrick Haggard paper gives us the bare list. The Libet paper from 1983 was the first evidence that decisions are not made consciously.

In this experiment, participants are asked to make a simple voluntary action, such as a key press, whenever they feel like it. Brain activity is measured throughout, originally using EEG (Lau repeated using fMRI). At the same time, they observe a rotating clock hand and are asked to note the position of the clock when they first experience the conscious intention, or ‘‘feel the urge,’’ to press the key. This hotly debated marker of volition is referred to as W (judgment of will, following Libet’s terminology). EEG activity over frontal motor areas began 1 s or more before movement (the so-called ‘‘readiness potential’’), while W occurred much later, a few hundred ms before movement itself. Although the Libet experiment was published almost 30 years ago, it is still serves as a nexus in the neuroscience of volition.


EEG blurs space and fMRI blurs time at some extent. Recording from single neurons is very precise in both time and space. This technique has been used on primates and on humans with implanted electrodes in preparation for epilepsy surgery. Fried in 2011 repeated the Libet experiment while recording from electrodes implanted in the medial frontal lobes of 12 epileptic patients.

These areas generate the scalp readiness potentials recorded prior to voluntary movement. Moreover, stimulation of these areas has been reported to generate a feeling of urge to move a particular body part, without necessarily causing actual movement . Therefore, direct recordings from medial frontal neurons are an important part of the puzzle of the neuroscience of will. .. A relatively small subset of medial frontal neurons showed a gradual ramp-like increase in firing rate before movement that recalls both EEG readiness potentials … The time of conscious intention could be predicted from small subpopulations of these neurons, using an integrate-and-fire model, well before the time that participants reported the experience of volition. …these data give the impression that conscious intention is just a subjective corollary of an action being about to occur. Such models agree with previous accounts that voluntary actions begin unconsciously and enter into our conscious experience only when medial frontal activity has reached a given threshold level of activity… the current work is in broad agreement with a general trend in neuroscience of volition: although we may experience that our conscious decisions and thoughts cause our actions, these experiences are in fact based on readouts of brain activity in a network of brain areas that control voluntary action.


Recording from the supplementary and the pre-supplementary motor area has added to the picture in a surprising way.

SMA proper contained relatively more neurons active before W than did the pre-SMA. In contrast, rather few SMA proper neurons were active in the brief interval between W and movement onset relative to the pre-SMA… This finding suggests a revision of how we interpret the W judgment. It is clearly wrong to think of W as a prior intention, located at the very earliest moment of decision in an extended action chain. Rather, W seems to mark an intention-in-action, quite closely linked to action execution. The experience of conscious intention may correspond to the point at which the brain transforms a prior plan into a motor act through changes in activity of SMA proper.


Another surprise was that some medial frontal neurons decrease firing leading up to W. They seem to be holding back action until the right action is prepared and the moment is right. This weakens any proposal of a conscious ‘free-wont’.

…there are interesting differences between the areas recorded, with decreasing neurons being more common than increasing neurons in the rostral anterior cingulate and also in the pre-SMA. The function of decreasing neurons remains unclear. …it is tempting to take decreasing neurons as evidence for an intrinsically inhibitory component of volition. Several classes of evidence suggest that suppression of action and voluntary initiation are profoundly linked in the medial frontal cortex…Decreasing neurons might withhold actions until they become appropriate through tonic inhibition and then help to trigger voluntary actions by gradually removing this tonic inhibition. Competitive inhibitory interaction between decreasing and increasing neurons could then provide a circuit for resolving whether to act or withhold action. …A similar model has already been proposed for decisions between alternative stimulus-driven actions in lateral premotor cortex (Cisek 2007).


This is far from a complete picture of how we act. It will take many more experiments to work out a proper model. But there is clear evidence in favour of the idea that decisions are not taken consciously but rather enter our awareness already taken. But this does not mean that we do not make decisions, we do, but just not make them consciously. If I say that I make decisions, how is this to be interpreted? Who is the ‘I’? It would be simpler if there was agreement on this. If ‘I’ is connected only to consciousness, then ‘I’ do not make decisions or much of anything for that matter. If ‘I’ is a whole unified brain then ‘I’ do make decisions. And this I, me, your truly, this I makes decisions with a unified brain.

Patrick Haggard (2011). Decision Time for Free Will Neuron DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.01.028

Affordance competition

Since the Libet experiment (and many following it), it has been difficult to assume that conscious intention causes motor action as the action decision is chronologically ahead of the conscious feeling of intention. But there was some who thought that the vetoing of a decision was still possibly caused by conscious intention – the ‘free-wont’ idea. A recent paper (citation below) looks at the mechanism of switching motor plans and makes ‘free-wont’ less attractive.

(The) “affordance competition” hypothesis stands in contrast to the classical serial model, in which decisions are made in higher cognitive centers and the resulting choice passed down to the sensorimotor system for execution. Instead, it suggests that decisions are determined when a competition between actions is resolved within the sensorimotor system - e.g., for reaching, within the fronto-parietal cortex and associated corticostriatal loops. This means that although the biases that influence the decision may come from many sources, including the activity of higher cognitive regions, it is in the sensorimotor system that the final decision is taken. … the same “forward models” useful for predicting the consequences of motor commands may also play a role in selecting the actions themselves by biasing activity in sensorimotor cortices. … The affordance competition hypothesis predicts that if we present a monkey with multiple reaching options associated with different rewards, neural activity in Pmd (dorsal premotor cortex) will be modulated by the relative value of those rewards. … However, the hypothesis also makes a complementary prediction: that the same cells involved in selecting the initial action will continue to be involved in adjusting and even switching between actions during overt behavior. In other words, if the environment changes and old opportunities are lost or new ones become available, the same integrated selection and sensorimotor guidance system should reflect the switch of the plan.


The question investigated was whether the very same cells that steer the initial decision will continue with their activities if an animal changes its mind and guide the new action.

It is plausible that once a decision is made and an action is launched toward a given target, the decision-related cells fall silent while a separate circuit becomes responsible for guiding movement toward the selected target. The results presented here suggest that this is not the case. We found that the very same PMd (dorsal premotor cortex) cells previously shown to reflect relative value during a delay period continue to update their activity to reflect when the monkey changes its plan during situations in which a previously selected action becomes unavailable. This argues against the distinction between regions responsible for choosing an action and those responsible for its guidance through on-line feedback, and in favor of the hypothesis that decisions emerge through a competition within the same circuit that guides movement execution. … This suggests a view whereby sensory information continuously flows into the motor system, as opposed to a view of separate computational stages involved in canceling one motor program and computing a new one.


Here is the abstract which outlines the method as well as the results:

Previous studies have shown that neural activity in primate dorsal premotor cortex (PMd) can simultaneously represent multiple potential movement plans, and that activity related to these movement options is modulated by their relative subjective desirability. These findings support the hypothesis that decisions about actions are made through a competition within the same circuits that guide the actions themselves. This hypothesis further predicts that the very same cells that guide initial decisions will continue to update their activities if an animal changes its mind. For example, if a previously selected movement option suddenly becomes unavailable, the correction will be performed by the same cells that selected the initial movement, as opposed to some different group of cells responsible for online guidance. We tested this prediction by recording neural activity in the PMd of a monkey performing an instructed-delay reach selection task. In the task, two targets were simultaneously presented and their border styles indicated whether each would be worth 1, 2, or 3 juice drops. In a random subset of trials (FREE), the monkey was allowed a choice while in the remaining trials (FORCED) one of the targets disappeared at the time of the GO signal. In FORCED-LOW trials the monkey was forced to move to the less valuable target and started moving either toward the new target (Direct) or toward the target that vanished and then curved to reach the remaining one (Curved). Prior to the GO signal, PMd activity clearly reflected the monkey’s subjective preference, predicting his choices in FREE trials even with equally valued options. In FORCED-LOW trials, PMd activity reflected the switch of the monkey’s plan as early as 100 ms after the GO signal, well before movement onset (MO). This confirms that the activity is not related to feedback from the movement itself, and suggests that PMd continues to participate in action selection even when the animal changes its mind on-line. These findings werereproduced by a computational model suggesting that switches between action plans can be explained by the same competition process responsible for initial decisions.


This doesn’t rule out ‘free-wont’ but it certainly weakens it.

Pastor-Bernier A, Trembley E, & Cisek P (2012). Dorsal premotor cortex is involved in switching motor plans Frontiers in Neuroengineering, 5

Why mislead people?

Is it important to society that the public believes in free will even if learned scientists and philosophers do not. Apparently there are those that hold that view. James Miles (see citation) writes that this is irresponsible and a disservice.


Here is the abstract:

Over the last few years, a number of works have been published asserting both the putative prosocial benefits of belief in free will and the possible dangers of disclosing doubts about the existence of free will. Although concerns have been raised over the disservice of keeping such doubts from the public, this does not highlight the full danger that is presented by social psychology’s newly found interest in the ‘hard problem’ of human free will. Almost all of the work on free will published to date by social psychologists appears methodologically flawed, misrepresents the state of academic knowledge, and risks linking social psychology with the irrational.


My nit-picking would not change Miles’ case, just the way in is laid out – and so I will forebear and not discuss his definitions.


Here is the heart of his argument against giving lip service to free will:

Vohs and her co-authors have suggested that perhaps ‘denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes’, and that a scientifically backed repudiation of free will ‘may encourage debauched behavior’ as people disabused of the illusion ‘seem to, at least temporarily, abandon their moral code’. Baumeister has claimed that belief in free will ‘supports honest, responsible, moral, helpful, non-aggressive, and otherwise prosocial behavior’. Moral code? Honest, moral, and prosocial?


The myth of free will has been linked to deceit for four hundred years now; the illusionist camp of Wegner is tied to, well, illusion; the compatibilist camp has been accused above of ‘wretched subterfuge’ and of being ‘a quagmire of evasion’; and the libertarian camp of Vohs and Baumeister is at least guilty of not examining too closely. We have seen evidence that the myth of free will is inextricably linked to contempt for the poor and the unlucky, that it undermines both legal and natural justice, and may even make a mockery of the conceit of Christian compassion for the poor and marginalized. According to Anders Kaye, the myth of free will even allows racial prejudice to find a home within the Western law. Honest, moral, and prosocial?


Of course, even if we were to begin to acknowledge the moral and intellectual downsides to the free will myth, this would not suggest that Vohs and Baumeister were right to claim that belief in free will may also have prosocial upsides. We have seen that Vohs and Baumeister appear as yet to have shown no such thing, because all they have been studying appears to have been the effect of an acceptance of fatalism, not disbelief in free will. Contrary to the claims made in social psychology journals, we appear to have seen no evidence to date that disabusing people of the myth of free choice encourages anti-social behaviour, yet significant evidence that the myth of free choice encourages immoral, unjust, prejudiced, and anti-intellectual behaviour. If nothing else, this paper should stand as an important corrective within the psychological literature on free will. …


Wegner echoes this turning-of-a-blind-eye sentiment when he says that ‘sometimes how things seem is more important than what they are’, but how things seem is never more important than what they are for those, such as the poor and racial minorities, who are being discriminated against on this issue. It is time social psychologists stopped advocating illogic and the suppression of knowledge.

Miles, J. (2011). ‘Irresponsible and a Disservice’: The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02077.x

Free-will again

A. Gottlieb has written a piece for The Economist’s More Intelligent Life magazine. Neurons v Free-will? (here).



Aside: Regular readers will know how I feel about this debate – both determinism and free-will are flawed ideas. What is needed is an actual understanding of how decisions are made. The two concepts can be made compatible by redefining them so that determinism does not involve predictability and free-will does not include consciousness. I would prefer to throw out both words than redefine them.



Gottlieb starts with the fact that determinism is a very old idea that just will not die. “Every age finds a fresh reason to doubt the reality of human freedom.” He mentions ancient Greek ideas of fate and necessity, God’s foreknowledge, science’s lawful universe, Freud’s unconscious and now findings of modern neuroscience. He says, “Hardly anybody doubts that the grey matter in our skulls underpins our thoughts and feelings, in the sense that a working brain is required for our mental life.”, and, “The more we find out about the workings of the brain, the less room there seems to be in it for any kind of autonomous, rational self. Where, in the chain of events leading up to an action, could such a thing be found?”. Even in the opinion of Webner and many others, “Investigations of the brain show that conscious will is an “illusion”.” But, I wonder, how determinism can die as long as the only alternative is conscious free-will? It does not die but it does not win the day either.



Gottlieb goes on: “In 2011, Sam Harris, an American writer on neuroscience and religion, wrote that free will “could not be squared with an understanding of the physical world”, and that all our behaviour “can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge”. Really? There are now hopeful signs of what might be called a backlash against the brain.” What is this backlash? Gottlieb gives some evidence that scans have been overhyped but does not mention other methods that have not been overhyped. And in the case of decision making, they have confirmed that the process of decision making does not start in conscious awareness. This whole part is beside the point – Libet type experiments do not depend on scans.



Gottlieb feels that it is not practical to look for free-will in the brain. Referring to the simplicity of the Libet experiment, he says, “But while twitches of the wrist may be simple to monitor, they’re an odd place to search for free will.” I disagree, what would be a better place. Here we have a simple act that is easy to identify and time; it is done whenever the subject chooses without any sort of ‘want’, ‘need’, ‘habit’, ‘place in a chain of actions’, etc. to interfere with the subject’s freedom; it can be followed and timed without recourse to scans. If there is conscious free-will it should show itself here and it definitely does not. So why does conscious free-will not die if it has been shown to not happen where it should. How can it die when the only alternative is seen as a already determined future outside one’s control?



Tallis is quoted in the context of more complex and natural decisions, “And it would be crazy to think that conscious deliberation isn’t really involved in them.” (I must be crazy.) Gottlieb leans too heavily on Tallis’ ideas. Stephen Cave puts his finger on it when he says that most philosophers and scientists do in fact believe that mind is just the product of certain brain activity, even if we do not currently know quite how and that Tallis “does both the reader and these thinkers an injustice” by declaring that view “obviously” wrong. He has not put forward any alternative.



There is a way out of this dispute – reject both sides.



We do not have two brains or separate thinking systems or separate ‘minds’. We have one brain, it thinks, and some of the results of thinking are made conscious. We cannot have our brains being one thing and our consciousness another; that really is crazy. Our brains make decisions, they are as close to an autonomous, rational self as we get (and that is fairly close). The decisions are not determined or predictable – there is no shortcut to actually making the decision. The bottom line is that we do make decisions. If it is important to the processes of decision making for the brain to be globally aware of some step or to hold it in working memory, then it will be made conscious. If it does not needed to be conscious then it probably with not be. Strings of steps passing through consciousness may appear to be a thought process but really all the cognitive thinking work behind each step is not entering consciousness. We are not consciously making a decision; instead we are making a decision and we may be aware of some ingredients in the process. We are not in a determined world but we are in a physical one and part of it. We do not have conscious free-will – no problem here because that doesn’t mean we lack a will or are not responsible for what we do. Both determinism and free-will are straw men, red herrings, passe and flawed half-truths.


Possible functions of consciousness 9 - marking agency

We have various ways of moving. Here are four obvious ways and there may be more. First, a spinal cord reflex happens without the involvement of the brain at all. We have no forewarning of it or way to stop it, but we can block it ahead of time by a sort of steeling against it – example removing finger from burning heat. Second, there are inborn and learned patterns that we do without thinking but can do by decision – example blinking. Third, there are well learned complex patterns that we are almost always aware of and can initiate but do not think about on a continuing basis – example walking. Fourth, there are actions which we think about and decide to do – decide to take the red one rather than the blue when offered a choice. As any action can result in a good, neutral or bad outcome, we need to know what kind of an action it was to know how to deal with the outcome.


What we need is the way to mark actions as one of: not ours, automatic, the result of our unconsidered decisions and the result of our considered decisions. We need to know what it was that caused the action. What is the involvement of consciousness in this marking? Our actions are committed to episodic memory with a sense of how the action came about. Do I ‘own’ this action? If someone bumps my elbow and therefore I move in a way that spills my drink, I do not own the spill; I did not do it. But if my muscles are moved by my body – I own the movement. But I may not have intended it – I sneezed and spilled the drink. I’m sorry but I didn’t do it on purpose. Or I forgot I had the drink in my hand – I didn’t mean to do that, I was not paying attention and I should have been; sorry. Or I may have intended it – putting out a fire or making a physical criticism of the quality of the wine.


For those actions were it is possible, what we register consciously is: an intention to act, followed by an initiation of an action, followed by the sensation of doing the action. It is reasonable (if we are naïve) to assume that the action is the result of the initiation which is the result of the intention. Not so. The way actions happen is different from the way they are marked in our conscious experience. We know this from three types of experiment.


The famous experiments of Libet (see citation) showed that the motor action was being prepared before the subject was aware consciously of his intent to act. Therefore the conscious intent could not be the cause of the action. This does not mean that there was no intent to act but just that the conscious awareness of intent was not the cause of the action, some sort of unconscious intent was the starting point.


Wegner’s experiments (see citation) showed that people will take ownership of actions that are not their or refuse ownership of actions that are theirs. If the timing is right between the subject thinking about some action and perceiving the action, if they could physically do the action and if there is no better agent for the action around, then they will feel they did it even if they have been manipulated by experimental tricks with priority, consistency and exclusivity. They can also reject having done something that they did by the same sort of manipulation in reverse. This means that what we experience is not knowledge of our motor actions but a cognitive judgments of what they must have been (in other words, good guessing).


Desmurget and his group (see citation) have done experiments on the relationship between action and the consciousness of action. They show that correlation is being confused with causation. The posterior parietal cortex does sensory predictions but not motor commands and if it is stimulated mildly the subject senses the intention to do something. A stronger stimulation gives the subject the illusion that the intended action is happening. But stimulation of the PPC does not result in any action at all only the conscious experience of the desire, initiation and execution but no actual movement. On the other hand stimulation of the premotor cortex results in a movement but no conscious awareness of intent or action. Without experimental direct stimulation, in ordinary life, these areas with others, produce a predictive conscious model of what is happening but the conscious experience is not causal – definitely not causal. The conscious experience does mark the type of action in memory though and this is a useful function.


I wish that the freewill-v-determinism argument would go to some dark corner and die. We should forget both notions as not useful and concentrate on how and why our brains actually work. Consciousness can be extreme important to understanding and learning from our actions without actually being in the causal path. It marks the type of action in the episodic memory and it is the predictive model used to monitor action.


Wegner, D., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54 (7), 480-492 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.54.7.480

Desmurget, M., Reilly, K., Richard, N., Szathmari, A., Mottolese, C., & Sirigu, A. (2009). Movement Intention After Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans Science, 324 (5928), 811-813 DOI: 10.1126/science.1169896

Here we go again

Sometime soon I will have to stop rising to what is said about free will. I started this posting in response to K. Smith’s article (see citation below) because the article seemed a way to confuse rather than to clarify. I almost finished when I read the sensible blog by Bjoern Brembs (here) with which I largely agree. It did not cover all my problems with Smith’s article but enough make me simply change course. I confined myself to one interesting passage rather than the rest of the badly done article.


Haynes’s research and its possible implications have certainly had an effect on how he thinks. He remembers being on a plane on his way to a conference and having an epiphany. “Suddenly I had this big vision about the whole deterministic universe, myself, my place in it and all these different points where we believe we’re making decisions just reflecting some causal flow.” But he couldn’t maintain this image of a world without free will for long. “As soon as you start interpreting people’s behaviours in your day-to-day life, it’s virtually impossible to keep hold of,” he says.


The Haynes quote is interesting. I have had such moments of clarity from time to time where I am part of a ‘causal flow’ (although I would describe myself and my surroundings as physical reality rather than deterministic universe). I would be very surprised if this was a rare image although it is probably not common either.


Here is an aside - as regular readers of my blog will know, I disagree with determinism as much as I disagree with free will. Here is a condensed version for those who have not encountered previous blogs on this subject on my site. Both free will and determinism are flawed, outdated ideas. I think that we make decisions using only material brains and physical processes but the decisions are not very predictable and we are usually responsible for them. Causal does not necessarily mean predictable. I do not think that consciousness has much to do with decision making or any other cognitive process. But whether decisions can or cannot contain some conscious processes along with unconscious ones, either way, it does not affect our ownership of our decisions. I am more interested in my decisions being appropriate than free and I am more interested in how decision are made than in arguments about free will and determinism. This way of looking at things is partially due to a similar image to the one Haynes reports.


Beside the Haynes like image, there is an image that I have much, much more often and that I find very comforting. I seem to be very whole and full of rhythms of heart beat, breathing, walking, blinking – not distinct but intermingled. I seem in real contact with the world around me, with the thinnest of boundaries, almost nothing separates me from the rest of reality. On top of this feeling is something like a flickering movie screen – a thin insubstantial stream of consciousness. It is very comforting to feel that I am more real and more substantially than that movie. I feel part of reality rather than free of it and I do not feel like part of a clock-work type of reality but something far more complex. The image is gone when I try to actually live in the world – get things done, communicate in words and so on. The movie becomes the me-in-the-world. Now I’m in consciousness again, but also with a renewal of a deep trust and identification with the unconscious part.


Of course such images are not very well expressed in words, but words is what we have - sorry. We also have science, so we do not have to rely on vague feelings, but can work for a more accurate understanding.

Smith, K. (2011). Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will Nature, 477 (7362), 23-25 DOI: 10.1038/477023a

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;


Real prediction is not possible

Another interesting piece from the answers to the Edge question (here) is Rudy Rucker’s. She is author of Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. Her piece of useful wisdom:

A little-known truth: Every aspect of the world is fundamentally unpredictable. Computer scientists have long since proved this. How so? To predict an event is to know a shortcut for foreseeing the outcome in advance….The world can simultaneously be deterministic and unpredictable. In the physical world, the only way to learn tomorrow’s weather in detail is to wait twenty-four hours and see even if nothing is random at all. The universe is computing tomorrow’s weather as rapidly and as efficiently as possible any smaller model is inaccurate, and the smallest error is amplified into large effects.

At a personal level, even if the world is as deterministic as a computer program, you still can’t predict what you’re going to do. This is because your prediction method would involve a mental simulation of you that produces its results slower than you. You can’t think faster than you think. You can’t stand on your own shoulders.

It’s a waste to chase the pipedream of a magical tiny theory that allows us to make quick and detailed calculations about the future. We can’t predict and we can’t control. To accept this can be a source of liberation and inner peace. We’re part of the unfolding world, surfing the chaotic waves.

The only way a decision is deterministic is that it is made by the brain. The only way it is free is that it cannot be predicted. The freewill vs determinism is a dead end (like nature vs nurture). We should be concerned with how decisions are actually made in neuro-scientific terms and how to make better ones in psychological terms.

Is quantum uncertainty necessary?

I just read a post (here) called “We Seem to be Zombies” by Stuart Kauffman. It repeatedly annoyed me. I try very hard not to write angry postings but really this was just more than I could stomach. I apologize to those readers who dislike angry posts and I will still try to avoid them in future.

So here is a list of annoying bits.

  1. The introduction starts with this picture: “according to some of our finest scientific minds, you are not conscious at all. You are a mechanical zombie, a calculating-machine idiot. You have no responsible free will. You are not even an ‘I’, the subject of experiences that you naively have the illusion you have. You cannot act responsibly because machines are machines, you are a machine, and like a marble rolling down the side of a bowl, mechanisms ‘happen’ they do not act. So you cannot act. You cannot be a autonomous agent blazing with life, its anguish and joy”. I would like to see the names of a handful of ‘our finest scientific minds’ who have said such things. The impression is given that this exaggerated picture is accepted science in some quarters – why not name them? My impression is that most scientists, especially those with fine minds, believe that we are living organisms not mechanical machines and that we are aware not zombies. Why this unrealistic characterization of science?

  2. After a historical look at dualism he says: “Virtually all contemporary thinkers on the subject assume that mind and brain are identical.” You would assume that he included himself in contemporary thinkers. But, no, a couple of sentences later, he reverts to a dualist mind set, mind and brain are now not identical. “if the brain is a deterministic system, like the billiard balls, the current state of the brain is entirely sufficient to determine precisely the next state of the brain. Woefully, there is NOTHING FOR MIND TO DO! Worse, there is no way for MIND TO DO AYTHING TO BRAIN ANYWAY.” The capitals are his. This does not sound like a description of a brain and mind that are identical. It sounds dualist. There is an ‘if’ at the start so it is just as possible that he is abandoning a deterministic system because he thinks it leads to dualism. Is it identity of mind/brain or causality that he is questioning? Why is this not clear?

  3. Ah, here comes the clarification. It is a confusion of mind and consciousness. “Maybe mind really is an illusion? Maybe it is an epiphenomenon?” What is the definition he is using for this ‘mind’ that can at the same time be: identical to the brain, have nothing to do while the brain is ‘doing’, and be an illusion. Come on, is he talking about consciousness or is he talking about thought (perception, cognition and action)? He is not communicating what he means to me – is he talking down to me or is he trying to confuse me with a bait and switch?

  4. Now is a history of positivism and its ilk which he shows is as much of the dead end as dualism. Then he goes on, as if positivism was alive and well, to look at computer artificial intelligence and finally the Turing machine. All this is outlined as if it is relevant to the subject of our brain/minds and not just fit for symbolic logic or digital computers. In capital letters, we learn that a Turing machine and a very particular type of artificial ‘neural’ network are absolutely defined, algorithmic and understandable in terms of entirely classical physics. So what? He says that this has led to the belief in computer science, cognitive science and neuroscience that “the mind MUST BE algorithmic” and “IF consciousness is real, consciousness will somehow emerge when sufficiently many computer chips are coupled together.” This is a funny way to abandon the spirit of positivism. For heaven’s sake, who are these people who believe that the brain works like the most mundane (or universal) computer imaginable or works like the first try at artificial intelligent networks? I am sure there are scientists who believe that the brain is probably algorithmic but how many believe it must be? The comparison of brain/mind and computer is a metaphor not some strict specification and most scientists know that. Why am I being led down the garden path to think the brain is algorithmic?

  5. So now we have the key statement: “In the world of classic physics, the only hope its proponents hold out for consciousness so that we are not zombies is that a sufficiently complex network of calculating gadgets will ’emerge’ into consciousness.” So now I am asked to accept two ideas without the help of either logic or evidence: (a) what has just been described in the terms of brain-being-computer is the sum total of what classic physics has to offer. Does biochemistry, biophysics, physiology etc. now require something more than the physics it has always used to underpin chemistry? What is it? I have to assume it is the uncertainty principle in quantum physics the only part of quantum physics that does not usually figure in chamistry; (b) mind has now become consciousness. Where did the other mind go, the one that was identical to the brain - the one that is perception, cognition and action? I insist that I will not be dealt some slight of hand that confuses thought with awareness of thought. That is like confusing the actual tree with my awareness of the tree. It will not do. And how did non-algorithmic brain/mind come to be impossible by classic physics?

  6. Next is the promise that future postings will explain synapses in terms of coupled Trans-Turing Systems. I will probably read these postings but I am not hopeful that they will be very enlightening and I fear that they will continue the unconvincing paths of this posting.

To set the record straight I will state clearly what I think is likely so. The brain is physical (as in matter and energy with no supernatural, non-physical or magical bits). The brain has biological function and its function is perception, cognition, learning, memory, action (muscular and glandular), conscious awareness and perhaps other associated processes. We have a word for this biological function, it is ‘mind’. Brain does mind in the same way as heart does circulation or stomach does digestion or lung does gas exchange. Brain is a living organ and mind is the function of that organ. Mind does not exist in the sense that the brain exists, it exists like circulation exists. Mind is not res cogitans; it is not ‘Res’ anything because it is not a thing, not an object. There is no shred of evidence that the brain does its mind function using algorithmic calculations and at least some evidence against it. Why the assumption that thought must be a fixed, stepwise procedure. There is no reason to think that the functions of the brain give predicable results in the sense of actually being able to predict them. It does not matter whether the attempt to predict uses classical physics or not – it is not in practice possible and therefore it doesn’t really matter if prediction is theoretically possible. Who cares? We can assume that consciousness is an important part of the function of the brain because it is biologically expensive. We can assume that it interacts with other aspects of the function of the brain (ie consicousness is part of mind but not a large part of it and is integrated with other parts of mind – mind being what brain does). There is nothing in this that makes us non-autonomous, machine-like things or zombies. There is nothing here that gives us freewill either, if by free we mean free from physical/material constraints. Our brain/minds make real decisions, and act on them and are then responsible for those decisions – the decisions are neither free or un-free, they are not determined or un-determined. Freewill and determinism is a dichotomy that is fictitious – neither term is true or false – but instead they are meaningless – they are not possible. They are silly answers to a silly question. It does not seem useful to bring the uncertainty of very, very small things into the discussion of processes that scan of few inches, produce electrical fields that can be measured through the skull bone, weighs many grams, and use the energy of a fifth of what we eat. It may turn out that we need quantum uncertainty in order to explain the brain/mind and if we do than so be it. If it turns out that an explanation of the brain/mind needs the uncertainty principle, that still will not give meaning to either freewill or determinism. Why?

Because if we start with the ridiculous assumption that the mind makes decision which it then imposes on the brain, we still have the problem of exactly how the mind makes decisions. Does the mind have a process? Does the mind have a mind in an endless regression, or is it random, or is there a magical way?

Postscript: Still feeling that I should not be so annoyed by Kauffman’s blog, I have set this aside and waited for his next two posts on the subject. The first read almost identically to the ‘Zombie’ blog. The next blog dealt more with the physics. I am still annoyed after a suitable wait and so I am posting this.

Alien hand

A recent study of a Parkinson patient with alien hand syndrome has been published by Schaefer, Heinze and Galazky (citation below). This patient offered an interesting opportunity because his left hand made both involuntary and voluntary (but with effort) movements. What is more, a particular sort of involuntary movement could be triggered in a predictable manner. Blocks of fMRI scans were made under 4 conditions and rest.

  1. left handed triggered to move without volition by pushing it slightly resulting in a counter movement (Gegenarbeiten) – it gave activity as compared with 2 in primary motor cortex, left premotor cortex, precuneus, right inferior frontal gyrus, and cerebellum;

  2. a similar trigger on the right hand that does not result in any movement – it gave no significant activity compared to 1;

  3. a voluntary movement of the left hand which took extra effort to achieve – it gave activity as compared with rest in primary motor cortex, supplementary motor area, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, precuneus and cerebellum;

  4. a voluntary movement of the right hand – similar activity to 3 compared to rest except for inactivity in the precuneus and inferior frontal gyrus.

  5. motionless rest.

A difference between conscious and unconscious movement was found in the precuneus, where it would likely be due to conflicts of agency.

“Similar to the precuneus, the IFG is not typically activated in motor paradigms. This brain area has also been reported to be uniquely activated during alien movements in the fMRI study by Assal et al. Recent lesion studies discuss a role for the right IFG in inhibitory control over motor responses. Since the IFG was active only in the condition when we elicited involuntary movements, involvement of this brain region may reflect attemptions to control and inhibit movements of the alien hand. Thus, we argue that both precuneus as well as the IFG may reflect conflicts of agency in unconscious and unwanted movements.”

So the main difference between conscious and ‘alien’ movement seems to be attempting and/or resisting the sense of agency or ownership of the movement and attempting/resisting inhibition of the movement. There appears to be no difference in the planning, specifying and execution of the movement.
Schaefer, M., Heinze, H., & Galazky, I. (2010). Alien Hand Syndrome: Neural Correlates of Movements without Conscious Will PLoS ONE, 5 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015010