Dissecting Intentional Control (or Free Will Redux)

by Dwayne Holmes

This year we received some good news from the field of neuroscience.

No, it’s not that scientists discovered we have free will (or a will at all). That’s something we don’t require advanced technology to deal with. Rather, a recent study has potentially freed neuroscience from further misuse, by undercutting one of the major talking points of the hard-determinist, anti-free will (AFW) crowd. [1]

Note I said talking point and not evidence. That’s because the data emerging from neuroscience never suggested (much less constituted evidence for) what had been claimed. Nevertheless, AFW advocates liked to argue that Libet or Libet-style experiments show that brains make decisions before “we” do, and so disprove personal agency. [2]

Libet was a researcher who found that when subjects were asked to move their hand and note when they made the decision to move it, a signal could be detected in the brain (correlated to the movement) prior to when they felt they had made the decision. Many follow-up studies tweaked Libet’s setup and came to much the same conclusion, some placing the correlated signal full seconds before subjects reported feeling (i.e. became conscious that) they made a decision.

Moving from those interesting findings about brain activity (related to simple motions) to declarations about personal autonomy raises many questions. [2,3] One of the more obvious problems is the AFW claim that the detectable signal (called a readiness potential or RP) actually constitutes the moment of decision that determines what a person can or will do. A recent study addressed this by moving beyond questions of awareness (when do we feel we make a decision?), to testing how long people continue to exert intentional control over an action, throughout the entirety of an action.

Put simply, if RPs are the “final decision” for an action, then a person should not be able to alter that action following an RP. Authors of the new study likened the RP (under the AFW account) to the first domino toppled in a chain of dominos. If there are no other brain mechanisms employed during decision making past the RP then all of the dominoes must fall.

In that case, a computer capable of identifying RPs in real time should be able to predict what the subject will do (akin to knowing what will happen to the dominos, once the first is seen falling), allowing it to produce an appropriate response before subjects are even aware they made a decision.

With this possibility in mind, scientists created a game that set subjects head-to-head against a machine, using a Brain-Computer-Interface that would allow the system to learn to “read their minds.” The goal for the subjects was to beat the machine by not doing something (in this case pressing a foot pedal) that the computer predicts they must do, based on their own brain activity.

If machines beat the subjects… well… to my mind that still wouldn’t prove that we lack free will (that brains decide before “we” do). [3] But AFWs would probably continue citing Libet-style experiments with the same hubris (perhaps more) as before, since there would be no direct, obvious counter-evidence to their position from those kinds of studies. [4]

If subjects managed to beat the machine, then other neural processes located downstream of the RP must underlie our capacity for decision making. Indeed they must in some way facilitate the tracking and evaluation of the potential act (detected RP), with regard to our intentions (beat the machine), and exercise an overriding control over those potential acts. The simplest conclusion coming from such a result being that conscious decision making (since “feeling” we decide comes later than the RP) involves vetoing potential acts, or as Libet argued we might have “free won’t.” [5]

Thankfully (keeping it simple), the humans beat the machines. There is more to our decision-making than what is currently caught in MRIs and EEGs, a fact that should not be surprising to any neuroscientist aware of the limits of such technologies.

The authors briefly mention their paper’s impact on free will arguments:

The possibility of a veto has played an important role in the debate about free will… which will not be discussed further here. Note that the original interpretation of the veto was dualistic, whereas in our case veto is meant akin to “cancellation.”

While not completely clear, the second sentence appears to be denying libertarian, contra-causal (“dualistic”) accounts of free will, while leaving open compatibilist accounts. That is to say if there is conscious/intentional control of our actions, it is not manifested by anything except the physical matter and mechanisms found within our central nervous system.  However, it is possible they are trying to leave the door open to a semi-AFW position that the brain decides (something “you” have no control over), and all you can do is cancel incoming commands. Then again, that would be dualism of another sort.

Their concluding summary is interesting from a neurobiological standpoint, while simultaneously (even if unstated) sounding the death-knell for Libet as an AFW talking point:

To summarize, our results suggest that humans can still cancel or veto a movement even after onset of the RP. This is possible until a point of no return around 200 ms before movement onset. However, even after the onset of the movement, it is possible to alter and cancel the movement as it unfolds.

That last sentence holds extra value. Even if we reach a point where a movement must begin (the message has been sent to muscle fibers), we still maintain some intentional control over how it will end. As damaging as that is for AFW claims that “we” don’t control our basic muscle movements, consider how devastating it is for larger time-scale “life” decisions, where discussions of intent and free will matter the most.

Intriguingly, the paper came from a lab whose lead investigator was presumably in the AFW camp. Not only was his prior work cited by AFWs, but he delivered a lecture at my own graduate school on how his work (and other studies) prove determinism. He started that talk by saying he wouldn’t discuss free will implications, yet ended by brow-beating philosophers (yes, he specifically said “philosophers” though we were all neuroscientists) for not getting with the program on hard-determinism.

It is hard for me to understand how any scientist thought the RPs detected by Libet offered an answer to the question of free will, much less that the answer was that it didn’t exist. And it is a shame that some scientists chose to promote such a lazy interpretation of the data, particularly to the public.

At least, it would seem, neuroscientists themselves are beginning to clean up that mess.

End Notes

1) I admit, my statement is an exaggeration. It is likely people will continue to misinterpret and mischaracterize evidence from neuroscience. However, it is true that the study under discussion in this essay should reduce misuse by neuroscientists on topics related to free will (article on study: http://neurosciencenews.com/decision-making-eeg-free-will-3333/ and the paper itself: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4743787/). Of course there may be holdouts, provocateurs, pretenders, or counter-studies which call into question the the results of this paper (and therefore…).

2) There is a nice animated overview of Libet’s experiment and differing interpretations of the results at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjCt-L0Ph5o  as well as Wikipedia’s overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_free_will#The_Libet_experiment

3) I discussed problems with standard AFW interpretations of Libet-style studies, from a neuroscience perspective, in an earlier essay at Scientia Salon: https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/choosing-a-compatibilist-free-will-perspective/

4) Well now here I was just plain lying. Libet argued from the start that conscious decisions may involve canceling whatever unconscious drive the RP might represent (see #2).  There have been studies since then suggesting we possess an ability to cancel actions linked to an observed RP, and even parsed out the timing (reportedly up to 150-200ms before an action begins). The current study cites those earlier papers for precedence, so it’s not like we lacked evidence against AFW interpretations.

The nice thing about this latest study is that it does a better job dissecting intentional actions from the emergence of an RP through the entire course of activity (body and brain) until the action is complete. This allowed researchers to discover more than one kind of “decision” a person can make with regard to controlling a potential action (and their windows of opportunity). It is also important that the study, as I discuss within the essay, comes from a group that previously appeared to support AFW interpretations.

5) Of course I am not happy with the “simplest conclusion”.  Just because a signal related to an action occurs prior to our conscious observation of making a decision, does not mean conscious decisions are limited to vetoes of unconscious “decisions” or “initiations”.

One alternative is that there are many signals that we just do not see with the technology we have. Perhaps we cannot detect them (out of range), parse them out (too weak/mixed with others), or they never get associated to anything they might have caused, for the simple fact they were not chosen. It is possible that out of all the choices of action being considered (whether producing RPs or not), the one with the greatest signal merely indicates an increased relative “attention” toward that action or increased preparation/anticipation to do it. After all, subjects know beforehand the single action they are meant to engage in and so it will be on their mind more than anything else, prior to deciding to go ahead with it. In this scenario the brain processes a decision/choice/selection between actions (rather than simply vetoing one) well after attention, preparation, and anticipation have been paid to all possible actions.

It is also possible that RPs indicate a mounting degree of motivation/inclination toward taking a certain action, rather than being part of the core mechanisms/brain activity underlying decision making. To use a loose analogy, while the carrot may always precede the horse, it is merely a motivating factor for the horse (to choose to move), it is not the decision itself nor an integral piece of the decision making apparatus.

And there could be more… like if you challenge their idea of how consciousness/awareness operates: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810013001633

Categories: Essay, Essays

40 Comments »

  1. Great essay, Dwayne.

    Thanks so much for keeping us updated on the, erm, “progress (?) ” being made by neuroscientists on the issue of free will. I haven’t read much into this literature, so all I can say is that from the way you have described things, the experimental program that has resulted from the Libet experiment seems to be, ultimately, a kind of intellectual circle jerk – an illusion of progress due to a lack of understanding of the philosophical considerations about free will.

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  2. If machines beat the subjects… well… to my mind that still wouldn’t prove that we lack free will (that brains decide before “we” do).

    Isn’t the brain (+body) deciding me deciding, however, long it takes to stow it in short term memory and comment on being aware of the decision?

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  3. Dwayne,

    Pretty cool update. I really hope the tide turns against this AFW nonsense. It is one of the most nauseating debates around. I just don’t understand how anyone can listen to the critiques of the the other side and still remain committed to this notion. It isn’t even just bad philosophy, it’s bad science too. Just wild over-generalization from the slimmest of evidence. It depresses me. Good work putting the boots to them.

    Dan,
    “Thanks so much for keeping us updated on the, erm, “progress (?) ” being made by neuroscientists on the issue of free will.”
    XD

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dan, thanks!

    Now I do want to be fair to the neuroscience research itself, which has provided interesting information. The problem has been its (yes somewhat circle-jerky) interpretations.

    I sometimes wonder how much of this “free will implications” garbage is driven by the modern trend demanding scientist give great headline, rather than information, to the public. But I have to admit some really seem to believe what they say, even when found acting or speaking in a totally contradictory fashion in real life. I think the latter cases must involve not thinking clearly about/understanding (sometimes basic) philosophical considerations of free will.

    Hi synred, the short answer is yes. To my way of thinking unconscious decisions are still “your” decisions.

    Some will try to complicate this by bringing in tumors, other problems that affect normal brain function, or the simple matter of conflicted desires, to argue that people can sometimes feel that their brain makes decisions that are out of their control (contrary to their personal desires). But that would be a longer discussion not related to what I describe here.

    More important to what I am discussing here, researchers have been trying to argue that our feelings of conscious control is itself illusory. And to them, if control is not exerted by conscious processes then it is not you who are doing the deciding (the willing).

    While I would dispute that hard equation (you=only that which is conscious), it is nice enough to see that the evidence they wanted (decisions are usually made before conscious awareness is possible) is itself illusory.

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  5. There is, of course, a much quicker way of dispensing with this sort of nonsense — and so much of it, unfortunately is just that — which is to point out that *brains* don’t “decide” anything. Rather it is *people* — who certainly *have* brains — who decide things.

    Brain research will *never* tell us *anything* interesting about the classic Free Will problem. That problem is entirely about the conditions under which we *interpret* peoples’ behavior in certain distinctive ways. In that sense, we have a similar situation here as we do with personhood, about which brain research also will tell us absolutely nothing.

    The basic problem, then, with so much of the sort of “research” that endeavors to un-problematically bring empirical results to bear on classic philosophical problems: Much if not most of it is based on fundamental, major, *howling* category errors.

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  6. There are plenty of “AFW” philosophers, and it is certainly not the case that neuroscience and psychology have nothing important to say about FW. The “classic free will problem” is precisely that we are not sure whether our vocabulary in any way captures our everyday experience of making decisions and carrying out actions, many of which we regret as unreasonable during or after the case.

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  7. It is possible that out of all the choices of action being considered (whether producing RPs or not), the one with the greatest signal merely indicates an increased relative “attention” toward that action or increased preparation/anticipation to do it. After all, subjects know beforehand the single action they are meant to engage in and so it will be on their mind more than anything else, prior to deciding to go ahead with it. In this scenario the brain processes a decision/choice/selection between actions (rather than simply vetoing one) well after attention, preparation, and anticipation have been paid to all possible actions.

    Yes. What you are doing here, it seems, is broadening the (neurological) perspective. And of course (as Dan points out) if we want to talk about what drives our decisions, we have to broaden the perspective even further.

    So I certainly agree with you that the Libet experiments were mischaracterized.

    On the other hand, I think there may be something fatally flawed about the whole philosophical debate about “free will” which I see as a very vague and ambiguous concept which still carries traces of its origins in medieval Christianity. There is no term for it in Classical Latin. ‘Liberum arbitrium’ is Late Latin. So the Romans didn’t even have a term for it. This is very significant, I think, because it suggests that our focus on “free will” as a problem in a secular (or post-Christian) context may be based on confusion.

    The English term, as I understand it, originated as a direct translation of the Latin. This is (in part) why I am suspicious of it.

    We use the term in innocent ways, of course. “He did it of his own free will” means he was not coerced by others. This is fine.

    But the term has a second meaning which relates to the philosophical debates, and it is this usage which I am querying.
    Personally, I have never been quite sure what the question (or the problem) is. (Nor am I happy with the “compatibilist” standard line.)

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  8. In different ways, both Mark and DanK hint at an interesting question regarding the general issue: Would the world be any different if the West had never developed some idea of ‘free will’? I’m not sure that’s the case.

    We should remember that for the Medievals the question was only debated among the most learned of the clergy. I doubt that even among the educated lay intellectuals of the time, the matter was felt to be pressing. Certainly by the Renaissance we find quite a number of writers – of poetry, plays, and prose, – for whom psychological motivations and social circumstances are more important, and more complex, than mere reduction to questions of ‘choice.’

    So it is really the AFW/ hard determinist crowd that has had to make the case that acceptance of their view point would change things in a big way. But if the insistence on free will never had that much effect culturally, why would we think hard determinism would, accepted as part of our cultural ideology? Hard determinists say for instance that acceptance of their doctrine would necessitate radical transformation of our judicial system. That’s laughably naïve. Many people supporting capital punishment don’t care if the convicted acted freely or by any pre-determination, they just want revenge.

    On the other hand, a hard determinist discourse would make it easier to say to the protesting poor, “Well, such is your lot in life, learn to accept it” – oh, wait a minute, we have plenty of people saying as much now (and they have been for many decades).

    I agree with Dank on what neuroscience has to tell us about human behavior – about such matters as truly interest us about ourselves : pretty much nothing.

    Dwayne,

    Thank you for an interesting update. It is unsurprising that such a fledgling science should wander off track, its practitioners dazzled by their own data. Hopefully they’ll learn that the possible useful applications of their discoveries are largely in medicine. But why would anybody wish it otherwise?

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  9. Graffiti, from the men’s room at University of Illinois physics dept.?

    To be, is to do — Sartre
    To do, is to be — Camus
    ToBeToBeDo — Sinatra

    Wittgenstein?

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  10. Thanks David O and Thomas!

    Hi Dan K, I agree with what you just said, but I would defend (slightly) people’s ability to talk about a brain “deciding” something as long as it was understood as some loose, casual language. It certainly shouldn’t be used in serious scientific or philosophical discussions or as descriptions of what is happening. That leads to some serious miscommunication and confusion.

    Hi Davidlduffy, I sort of take it that our ordinary language does capture our ordinary experiences. The point I take AFW types to be arguing is that our ordinary experiences have little to do with what is actually going on. That is we feel that we have choice, and we talk as if we have choice, but everything is done by organic machinery which then (as some by product?) feeds us those inaccurate feelings and for some reason forces us to talk about those false feelings (as if true). I agree with Dan K that I don’t see what neuroscience can tell us that is of any real interest regarding FW. Do you have an example in mind? You mention regrets, but the fact that we have regrets was known long before neuroscience and psychology, as well as that our minds can be tricked, or don’t function accurately at small time scales or effectively over long periods without rest.

    Hi Mark, I’m not sure what you mean by the compatibilist standard line? I consider myself a compatibilist. You can check out the link I provided to my essay at Scientia Salon and see if I am making that or not. Uhm… please forgive the sloppy intro paragraphs. At the time Dan T and I believe David O nailed me pretty hard for how I started the piece, which I agree could have been handled better. I agree that the concept of a libertarian free will seems vague, and I argue there basically impossible even in a logical sense. It seems to have sprung from religious thought, but I am not totally up on its origins. I’m curious about your doubts and the nature of the confusion you mention.

    Hi EJ, you and mark seem more knowledgeable about FWs history, or religious pedigree. This is interesting and I admit not something I am qualified to speak about. I agree with basically everything else you said. The judicial reform aspect (while well meant by people like Greg Caruso) seems implausible to me, and even if that conclusion were accepted it would also remove any reason to reward positive actions, or as you suggest could be used to argue against helping those in need. The one caveat I would make is that it is only “some practitioners dazzled by their own data”, not everyone in neuro is interested in the studies I am talking about or believe the purported implications. Also, I am still concerned that some of this is just about trying to “add dazzle to their data” in order to get attention and so money and/or publications. I mean who wants to pay money for figuring out the location and speed of signal processing related to limited, specified intentional movements? But to answer THE QUESTION OF FREE WILL?

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  11. dbholmes:

    Yeah, but without speaking that way — and meaning it — all the alleged implications for Free Will dissolve. If the brain isn’t deciding before we decide, then there’s no issue.

    So, I don’t think it’s a matter of charitableness. It’s the fact that the only way there’s any issue *at all* is if one commits a basic category error. That scientists make this sort of mistake doesn’t surprise me at all — there appears to be a whole stable of philosophical-ignoramuses out there in the scientific community, who have no problem talking complete rubbish in public. What’s much more depressing is how many philosophers there are in the “cognitive science” community, who think that experiments like Libet tell us anything at all about Free Will.

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  12. Isn’t the brain (or brain+bod) deciding, us deciding and (self)consciousness is us sitting back and telling ourselves a story about deciding?

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  13. synred: Brains neither decide nor fail to decide. People decide and fail to decide.

    I’ve linked to this in the past, before you started hanging out with us. It explains the sort of mistake I am talking about very well. The most relevant part is Peter Hacker’s presentation, which begins at 1:01:30, though Raymond Tallis is excellent too.

    The “Mind=Brain” folks are essentially crypto-Cartesians. What that means, exactly, is at the heart of Hacker’s presentation.

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  14. dbholmes

    Let’s assume ‘free will’ (in its philosophical sense) is a term derived from the writings of theologians who had a very different picture of the world from ours. Why would we want to use this term in our discussions of human behavior etc.? Sure, we can usefully talk about and try to understand ‘free will’ as an idea which arose at a certain point in Western intellectual history and which was tied up with other ideas concerning the deity and human moral responsibility, etc.. The term’s philosophical meaning, it seems to me, is inextricably bound up with this history. But compatibilist philosophers typically take the term out of its original context and in so doing drain it of significant meaning.

    Let me emphasize that I am not saying (as some people naively do) that the ‘real meaning’ of a word is revealed by its etymology or history or origin. Meaning is use and all that. I recognize that the term ‘free will’ can be used in idiomatic and perfectly acceptable ways. (Standard dictionaries distinguish clearly between its idiomatic and philosophical meanings.)

    It seems to me that the more interesting questions relate (from a practical point of view) to moral responsibility and (from a philosophical/theoretical point of view) to the ‘self’, personal identity and so on.

    But let me say what I think about our perceived freedom to choose etc.. I am unsure of my position, to tell the truth.

    I know where I stand in a practical sense. Like everybody else I try to apply reason here and there, sketch out alternative scenarios and go with the most appealing, etc..

    Clearly our complex brains and cultures etc. give us behavioral options and flexibilities which are lacking in less complex animals.

    But the key question is, who or what is in charge of the choosing process? (If anything.)

    So I still like Wittgenstein’s parable of the leaves on a tree being blown this way and that, each one saying to itself, “Now I think I’ll go this way; now I think I’ll go that way…”

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  15. Hi Dan K, agreed and agreed and ugh… just today (though it is dated as next month) the Atlantic published an article by a philosopher titled “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will, But we’re better off believing in it anyway.”

    In it, the author makes the completely inaccurate claim that “In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate—and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”

    I don’t know where to begin with how wrong that is, and will settle for saying that the idea the nature-nurture debate has been resolved is counterfactual, and the fact that scientists agree that brain structure and activity–such as the firing of neurons in networks–underlies and enables thought is not the same thing as saying it “determines” our thoughts.

    Further… “Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.”

    Major, major fail. Didn’t even get Libet right. From there he goes over the whole relation of this misguided interpretation to behavior, justice, and punishment.

    At least it ends with someone holding, and explaining, a vaguely compatibilist position. But the author never gets around to fixing the misconceptions within the piece, both philosophical and scientific.

    Why, it’s as if the author didn’t read my article at all! 🙂

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  16. Hi Synred, your question involves both semantic and conceptual issues. At least the first part of your sentence could be “acceptable” if the language used is taken to be very loose and not trying to describe what is going on with any accuracy. The problem is that in any serious discussion sloppy semantics (the result of routinely using loose language) can lead to real misconceptions which are not useful for philosophy or science.

    So Dan K’s reply gives the more accurate and useful way to talk about decision making. I decide, while my brain enables my capacity to decide. The video he links to is good as a starting point on understanding these kinds of distinctions, which at first may seem only a matter of semantics, but has a real impact on the way we conceptualize what is going on.

    As a neuroscientist there are criticisms I would make about some of the claims/ arguments made in the video. But I am indebted to Dan K for having provided it earlier and recommend it for people interested in philosophical push back on some misguided interpretations of neuroscience data (by some neuroscientists). I think it is important to watch the Q&A as well. Some problems I had within the speeches were (thankfully) worked out there.

    After watching the video I have been studying Hacker’s work. His journal articles co-authored with a neuroscientist were great combos of philosophy and science on the subject. I don’t agree with all of his positions–this is something I hope to write about later–but you can’t simply wave his arguments away. He is right that there is a lot of misuse of language (sloppy or as intended) by scientists and so needless continuation of misconceptions and/or miscommunication about what we know or can discuss.

    Hi Mark, I ran out of time and will get back to you tomorrow.

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  17. Hi sb,

    ” your question involves both semantic and conceptual issues”

    My basic problem is that I don’t know what Dan or anybody else mean by ‘free will’. So definitely a semantic issue to start.

    I guess I should try to look at that Video, though pre-occupied with other things at the moment.

    -Traruh

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  18. I’m starting to wonder whether “free” isn’t a bit like “true” in the sense of being largely redundant.

    If I say “the sentence ‘Fido is a dog’ is true,” what have I really said, beyond saying that Fido is a dog?

    Similarly, if I say, “John acted of his own free will,” what have I really said, beyond saying that John acted?

    In short, isn’t “free will” already built into the distinction between actions and events? If not, then what differentiates my arm raising from me raising my arm?

    Once you’ve ascribed an action, you’ve already ascribed free will. In that sense action-ascriptions are “thick.”

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  19. It seems people who use the term ‘free will’ are looking for something beyond just willing, deciding or doing. There is, I think [a], a religious sub-text. Some reference to something ‘above’ mere matter and stuff.

    DoBeDoBeDo — Sinatra

    [a] I use ‘I think’ as a mere weasel word to avoid flame war, I think.

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  20. “Brains neither decide nor fail to decide. People decide and fail to decide.”

    Precisely. The video is excellent and highly seconded, particularly the ultimately Wittgenstein-inspired discussion of the mereological fallacy that is at the heart of the problem. This is further discussed in Bennett and Hacker’s 2003 Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience and their 2012 History of Cognitive Neuroscience.

    Wittgenstein also had the following interesting remarks concerning volition in Zettel:

    577. What is voluntary is certain movements with their normal surrounding of intention, learning, trying, acting.
    Movements of which it makes sense to say that they are sometimes voluntary and sometimes involuntary are
    movements in a special surrounding.

    578. If someone were now to tell us that he eats involuntarily–what evidence would make one believe this?

    579. One produces a sneeze or a fit of coughing in oneself, but not a voluntary movement. And the will does not
    produce sneezing, nor yet walking.

    580. My expression came from my thinking of willing as a sort of producing–not however as a case of causation,
    but–I should like to say–as a direct, non-causal producing. And the basis of this idea is our imagining that the causal
    nexus is the connexion of two machine parts by means of a mechanism, say a train of cogwheels.

    Many of my “volitional” activities aren’t really all that volitional (at least in the sense of the relevant experiments). Do I self-consciously engage in each specific movement of my body when driving? No, not really. And if I did, I would be hampered in the very activity of driving by my self-consciousness (sort of like Borges’ short story “Funes the Memorious,” about a man who cannot think because he is conscious of everything- “To think is to forget,” as Borges puts it).

    Wittgenstein observes in the Philosophical Investigations,

    622. When I raise my arm I do not usually *try* to raise it.

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  21. DanK,

    Surely there is a class of actions which are not free or at least less than fully free. There are actions one can perform under hypnosis or influence of drugs etc. although I suppose it is questionable whether you could say the *person* performed them. But even then what about actions performed on strong compulsion or something similar. At the very least they seem less free.

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  22. I’m just going to throw this in with apologies for not having read everything written so far.

    I keep coming back to something like this: If there is some vantage point to stand in and observe ourselves not having free will, it is a place where, of logical necessity, we can’t possibly stand.

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  23. “…don’t see what neuroscience can tell us that is of any real interest regarding FW”: As per the not terribly good Atlantic article, we do have legal systems that assume FW, and these systems accept neuroscientific evidence as to excusability of particular acts due to impairment of will. Mechanistically? The fact that I broadly associate the pre-frontal cortex with intention (the other kind!), decision and choice would make me claim that a person can only exert FW (over a range of definitions) if this region is mature and intact. And this would lead me to mention the idea that the “feeling” of FW is associate with prospection (eg Seligman 2013):

    …[P]rospection models the event of one’s choice in a given episode of deliberation as exogenous, and thus as carved off from its antecedent causes and allowed to vary freely across a range of values. If an agent experiences deliberation in this way, then she likely experiences her choice as not having antecedent sufficient causes. And a choice that is experienced as not having antecedent sufficient causes is, a fortiori, experienced as not having antecedent deterministic causes.

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  24. Hi Mark, so the way I learned it, which may not be true, is that the basic social/legal concept of “free will” (that one’s ability to choose has not been hindered in some relevant way) coexisted with or perhaps predated religious/libertarian concepts of “free will” (that one’s ability to choose exists without constraints).

    If basic free will coexisted with or predated libertarian free will, then I’m not sure compatibilists are taking it out of its historical context, they just aren’t using one of its historical meanings. If one’s philosophical position is that libertarian FW is bankrupt, it’s hard to view that particular meaning of the word as being more significant than the basic account.

    I am personally mystified by libertarian accounts. They seem completely incoherent, and so it is no wonder that many feel they don’t know what to have free will actually means. I don’t get what that account means either.

    But the basic account seems understandable and largely amenable to the questions you describe as interesting: moral responsibility, self, etc.

    Compatibilists (at least the version I am) mainly exist as a response to AFWs who in trying to reject libertarian accounts, dismiss basic accounts as well (and eliminate concepts of responsibility, self, etc) usually by referencing mechanical or causal properties found within the world. The name compatibilist refers to the fact that they find mechanical properties in the world compatible with basic free will accounts (and concepts related to self, etc). Both describe activity at different levels. They are complementary and not competing.

    “But the key question is, who or what is in charge of the choosing process? (If anything.)”

    I don’t see that as a key question in general. For a healthy, fully-functioning person, who is not being coerced in some way by someone else… they are in charge of the choosing process. This being in charge can be altered or diminished or hijacked, which means it can become a key question in specific cases.

    And I don’t think I agree with Wittgenstein’s parable. Is it suggesting that human choice should be viewed to be as wholly constrained as the movements of a leaf being blown about by a wind?

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  25. Hi Synred, in short… and overly symplified… basic free will (which compatibilists endorse) means an ability to act without being hindered/coerced in some relevant way, while libertarian accounts suggest that actual free will means having the capacity to act without hindrance/coercion of any kind including the physical state of your own body/brain (and more!).

    As I said to Mark, I have found no coherent libertarian account and so have no “real” idea what they mean. Compatibilism (I think!) saves basic FW accounts from overzealous AFWs, many of whom (while attacking libertarian FW) treat things like normal brain activity as an impediment or contradictory to basic free will accounts. Basically, AFWs argue your brain made you do it, while compatibilists would say your brain enabled you to do it.

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  26. Hi Dan K, I was going to challenge your claim, then realized you are right. It really is redundant, outside cases where someone has started an argument by claiming something was done contrary to someone’s will, and then one is forced into debating the extent of freedom a person had while acting.

    Of course many AFW positions inherently advance such claims regarding normal human capacities to act. To read some biologists, like Jerry Coyne, one would think we should re-title our neuroscience texts: “Brains: the enemy within”

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  27. Ok, going to lump a few answers together here…

    Hi Mpboyle, without having read those books by Hacker and Bennett (though I hope to) I will second them. If the books are anything like the quality of their journal articles, they will be very useful… even in the spaces where I disagree.

    “622. When I raise my arm I do not usually *try* to raise it.”

    Are you saying that Yoda was a Wittgensteinian?

    ………….

    Hi David O, I think Dan K’s comment was not discounting those cases. It is simply that in such cases you would mention how the person’s will was impeded. Under all normal circumstances mentioning the “free” part is redundant.

    For example, it makes sense to say “Johnny robbed the bank because a gang threatened his wife’s life unless he did it”. But it doesn’t add anything to say, “Johnny robbed the bank of his own free will.” In that case you can just say “Johnny robbed the bank.”

    ………………

    Hi Hal, the argument is that viewing ourselves as devoid of free will would result in changes to the justice system that would end cruelty (no retribution based sentencing) as well as making people less angry with each other… because no one is really to blame. I don’t buy any of it. First that such a view entails such results, and second that one needs such views to obtain such results.

    ……………..

    Hi Davidlduffy, I would disagree that our legal system assumes libertarian free will, as compatibilist accounts work just fine. However, I agree that some neuroscience data might show how an individual’s capacity for decision making has been reduced/compromised (and in what ways). The problem is when neuroscience data is suggested to show that normal, productive brain activity means “you” lack the ability to make decisions.

    “… decision and choice would make me claim that a person can only exert FW (over a range of definitions) if this region is mature and intact.”

    I won’t quibble with details like specificity of region and what “mature” means, and say this statement sounds ok to me in the broad strokes.

    However, I will quibble with the idea FW is dependent upon denying, or ignoring, or being oblivious to antecedent causes. I can have a full understanding of how I got here. FW is about being able to project into (model) the future and select among options in the present to reach my goals.

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  28. So that sounds kind of like how I think of ‘will’. Whatever process is going on that produces decisions is me deciding. I can will but not ‘will to will’.

    I think Dan is right. The term ‘free will’ should be dropped outside its legal context – not that it will be.

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  29. dbholmes

    I am claiming that the religious/philosophical notion was invented at a particular point in time and reflected in the new (Late Latin) term ‘liberum arbitrium’ from which our term ‘free will’ derives. I am not claiming anything about the legal uses of this term. You are saying the legal notion is all about lack of coercion etc. and this sounds right (and is in accordance with the idiomatic use – what you are calling the basic use – I referred to). The ancient Romans who had a very sophisticated legal system got by perfectly well without the term ‘liberum arbitrium’. I don’t know why we need to use the term ‘free will’ in discussions like this at all: it only causes confusion I think. (Because some are using it more or less in its original philosophico-religious sense and some (e.g. compatibilists) in a stripped-down sense.)

    You say ‘liberterian free will’ is not coherent. But this (by my account) is the original philosophico-religious concept. From what I know I would say that it is coherent enough within the context in which it was framed but these discussions were/are about an imagined reality which bears little relationship to reality as I see it.

    Interestingly there are important strands of Christian thinking (Augustine, Calvin, the Jansenists) which reject a naïve notion of ‘free will’. (I’m thinking of predestination, for example. Karl Barth has a beautiful take on this.) Mystical strands of Christian thought are God-centered rather than human-centered in a similar kind of way. Though no longer a Christian, I think these traditions of thought are far more psychologically plausible and realistic than the traditions which emphasize human free will.

    Synred jokingly suggests that Wittgenstein might have been a secret Zen master. Actually he is touching on a very important point here. I think Wittgenstein, like Nietzsche, had very deep insights into the nature of the self and the will. What exactly is it which is being claimed to be free (from what?).

    I said I wasn’t clear on my position. Nor am I. But I see more plausibility and depth in certain approaches than others.

    Regarding the wind-blown leaves. It’s just a rough analogy, but like many jokes it touches on a truth. Obviously we are not coerced when we make free choices. As Dan K. suggests, ‘free’ is (almost) redundant. It is just there to emphasize that the choice was a choice (and not forced).

    We are complex creatures with a high degree of autonomy. But maybe this is just saying that the winds that blow us this way and that are not simple physical forces but something much more complex, encompassing basic physical, psycho-social and cultural factors, etc..

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  30. Hi Mark, thanks that was useful. I am still considering your latest reply and Dan K’s arguments in the thread, and doing a little side research. I think I may be shifting my position on this topic slightly based on arguments made here, or at least the language I will use when dealing with it. I should have a proper response by tomorrow.

    Before that, I want to briefly discuss some of the things you said.

    Clearly we mean the same concepts, but have used different terms. I have a problem with using language to describe (what I call) libertarian free will as THE philosophical notion. Religious, ok. Metaphysical, mumble mumble ok. But philosophical? I had only known what you call the idiomatic (and I call the basic) form of free will up until reaching college. And that is despite being in religious communities. At college I learned of the libertarian form, in a philosophy class for sure but that was not poised as THE philosophical notion. It was one of many concepts, largely religious, not the first notion (greeks had notions long before) and from all I could see the totally incoherent one. So the only interesting philosophical notions to me were decidedly not the libertarian version.

    I don’t know why we need to use the term ‘free will’ in discussions like this at all: it only causes confusion I think. (Because some are using it more or less in its original philosophico-religious sense and some (e.g. compatibilists) in a stripped-down sense.)

    This is basically what I am mulling over right now. You (and Dan) may be right.

    However I want to point out that many AFWs criticize compatibilists with creating confusion by using a stripped down version. To my mind it is LFWs and AFWs that are causing confusion by using a “suped-up” version, with artificial powers and demands that are incoherent and not relevant at all to anything interesting we might want to say about life, decision making, and responsibility.

    Perhaps the “confusion” each of us sees is based on which notion we were exposed to first and so think is the important or primary notion. But in any case, couldn’t we all end this confusion by stating that at this point LFW is considered a lame duck by most people and not a useful version to continue referencing?

    I would point out that at Wikipedia (yeah yeah I know) they state that a survey of those specializing in philosophy showed 59% were compatibilist.

    From what I know I would say that it is coherent enough within the context in which it was framed but these discussions were/are about an imagined reality which bears little relationship to reality as I see it.

    Frankly, I don’t even see it as coherent within the context it was framed. I dealt with this issue briefly in my essay at Scientia Salon. But I agree that even if it were, that context bears little connection to the world I experience.

    But maybe this is just saying that the winds that blow us this way and that are not simple physical forces but something much more complex, encompassing basic physical, psycho-social and cultural factors, etc..

    Well I am certainly ok with acknowledging this fact. Free Will skeptics like Greg Caruso use this sort of argument, amplifying it to a degree I am not comfortable with. Basically he and others like Pereboom merge this into a factor called “luck” to wipe out free will, of both the libertarian and idiomatic variety. That is they undercut any notion of personal/moral responsibility.

    Here I think is the greater confusion being created in FW debates, and why I chose compatibilism. In striking at Free Will, AFWs and FWSs have both acted to undercut the idiomatic version as well. They may be claiming one version as their “true” target, but the fact that they run from shooting down LFW to discussing how it should impact law and personal feelings (and not cosmic ideas of justice ot predestination) sort of pulls the fig leaf from their claims.They want to affect our ideas of moral responsibility, which is to say eliminate them, largely on the grounds that the world works in a series of cause-effect relationships. Compatiblism is thus a reactive position. As they shift their fire, compatibilism emerges to say no… cause-effect relationships are compatible with moral responsibility and personal identity, necessary even, and not contradictory.

    Damn, this was supposed to be the short one…

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  31. “However, it is possible they are trying to leave the door open to a semi-AFW position that the brain decides (something “you” have no control over), and all you can do is cancel incoming commands.”
    “Even if we reach a point where a movement must begin (the message has been sent to muscle fibers), we still maintain some intentional control over how it will end. As damaging as that is for AFW claims that “we” don’t control our basic muscle movements, consider how devastating it is for larger time-scale “life” decisions, where discussions of intent and free will matter the most.” Dwayne Holmes May16 Post

    So, from my reading of the above, UNINTENTIONAL ACTION is Unconscious Brain Activity that “a non-you” makes, whereas, INTENTIONAL ACTION is Conscious Brain Activity that “a you” makes,
    UNINTENTIONAL: common synonyms- non-deliberate, non-purposeful, involuntary, un-willed, thoughtless.
    INTENTIONAL: common synonyms- deliberate, purposeful, voluntary, willed, thoughtful.

    The subtext I perceive is:-
    1. our purely physical unconscious decisions are totally devoid of moral perspectives and control.
    2. our reasoned and/or moral behaviour is only possible using thoughtful conscious brain activity, Hence some degree of free will must be upheld so that we may consider ourselves to be moral actors.

    UBA and CAB both require mental alertness and both can be adversely affected by tiredness, intoxicants, drugs, youth, senility, brain damage. The difference I see is that UBA is quicker (and sometimes is essential) and it consumes less mental energy than CBA. But the UBA process is analogous in that the brain has received sensory input requiring some action, comparison is made between the current problem and similar past experience held in one’s memory and, importantly, this memory will include one’s moral opinions, various alternatives are assessed, a decision on appropriate action is taken and is then performed. Where time is not of the essence and/or no appropriate , straightforward solution is assessed the process of UBA may be upgraded and the more complex and rigorous process of CBA can be employed and further knowledge/advice sought from external sources but this will require still further expenditure of time and mental energy.

    “Basically, AFWs argue your brain made you do it, while compatibilists would say your brain enabled you to do it.” dbholmes May19 4.02pm.
    But this particular AFW would argue that “you” (your “mind”?) and “your brain” are the same physical thing, so more correctly is to say “AFW’s argue that “you” made “you” do it while compatibilists would say “you” enabled “you” to do it.” In both cases the action was caused by “your brain/you”. At the time this “you” was entirely an “effect” of prior determining causes, and therefore “your brain/you” could not have done otherwise: nevertheless this (perhaps less extreme) AFW sees “you” as the necessary cause for its occurrence and undeniably the responsible agent for both the action and its effects.

    It was Charles Darwin who chose, (in the manner of assessment I outline above), to write “The Origin of Species”: he had the attributes and abilities necessary to do it. Given said attributes and abilities and though he had misgivings about possible subsequent effects, he was destined to do so. Yet even the choice of the actual text was determined by his literary skill. That he was the author was an inevitable incident in a constant stream of cause and effect. If he had been brain damaged early in life then that specific act of authorship would have been prevented. In my view, that he was “made” to write it, in no way detracts from his unique claim to world-wide reputedly _ nor his outstanding value as the human being responsible for its tremendous and continuing effects.

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  32. David Ottlinger:

    I don’t really see the point of your comment, for the redundancy account of free will. To say that John robbed the bank is to say that John robbed the bank of his own free will. If John had done so at gunpoint or if John suffered from a rare disorder, into which he would enter into bank-busting fugue states, to simply say John robbed the bank would be wildly inadequate and incomplete.

    All that I am saying is that “free” doesn’t indicate some extra characteristic, beyond that already captured in the notion of acting.

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  33. Thanks for the essay DB.

    Based after watching the video link I found that a number of Peter Hackers essays are available online. I think I agree with Dank that we care better off dropping the free will language and noting special circumstances when relevant.

    I have read a couple of Hackers papers so far including this one on modern missunderstandings in consciousness studies:
    http://info.sjc.ox.ac.uk/scr/hacker/docs/ConsciousnessAChallenge.pdf

    He argues questions like ‘what is like to be bat’ are incoherent and provides a few arguments. I think I agree with the overall argument but the following part of his argument feels wrong to me:

    ‘(1) Experiences are not in general individuated by reference to what it feels like to have them but by
    reference to what they are experiences of. Most experiences have no qualitative character whatsoever– they are qualitatively neutral.’

    He gives some examples like seeing the buttons on someones shirt. It seems to me that any experience has to have some kind of quality associated with although on a continuum it may be very bland. I believe in another paper he speaks of facts in a sense floating free from experience. I am influenced by arguments for some continuity between feeling and thought such as those put forth by Johnson & Lakoff (including ‘metaphors we live by’ and other later works as well) which I find more convincing

    Anyone with a strong view want to chime in here and educate me with some support of Hackers view.

    Thanks for the links, I think I can learn a lot from reading reading those freely available papers of Hacker.

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  34. dbholmes

    You suggest it’s just a matter of how we happen to be introduced to these ideas but my main claims are about the history and use of a particular term and in that sense they are objective claims.

    With regard to the present situation, Merriam-Webster has two distinct meanings for the term ‘free will’:

    1:  voluntary choice or decision. “I do this of my own free will.”

    2:  freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.

    Needless to say, a philosophical dictionary would expand def. 2. But I would say this is the standard (or at least original) definition of free will. (Whereas you would say, no, that is LFW). Further, I would maintain that maintaining a basic distinction between ordinary (idiomatic) usage and the philosophical meaning of the term (as the dictionary does) is useful.

    You say you grew up in religious communities but didn’t know about ‘libertarian free will’ until you studied philosophy. This doesn’t surprise me. It’s a philosophical idea after all, albeit one developed in a theological context to support a particular religious point of view.

    As I pointed out, there are and always have been competing views on human freedom amongst Christians. I would say that many Christian thinkers (like Augustine, Calvinists, Jansenists, Karl Barth) have a more plausible view of human psychology than many other Christian thinkers as well as many philosophers – those who go with something like the original religio-philosophical notion (like Kant and neo-Kantians or existentialists).

    … However I want to point out that many AFWs criticize compatibilists with creating confusion by using a stripped down version.

    And they are right to do so!

    To my mind it is LFWs and AFWs that are causing confusion by using a “suped-up” version, with artificial powers and demands that are incoherent and not relevant at all to anything interesting we might want to say about life, decision making, and responsibility.

    What you are calling a “suped-up” version is the original version. (It is also what I was taught as a child in Religious Knowledge (in effect basic theology) classes.) I agree with the bit after “… incoherent …”.

    Perhaps the “confusion” each of us sees is based on which notion we were exposed to first and so think is the important or primary notion.

    This may be part of it. But see above.

    I think I can see the motives of the various sides for making the moves they do: as you suggest yourself, it’s often more about politics or moral concerns than about trying to understand the scope and nature of human autonomy or individual freedom.

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  35. Hi Moguy, well I wouldn’t argue that non-conscious brain activity lacks moral perspective or control. AFWs might, and likely would, but that is not my position. The essay relates specifically to evidence traditionally used by AFWs to deny (in toto) conscious control of human actions. They have tried to hang their hat repeatedly on the existence of RPs. Many studies have already called that idea into question, as of this study the hook is gone.

    I have no problem with a two track (fast-slow) mechanism for processing decisions, in the manner you describe. Indeed, there seems to be evidence for this.

    But this particular AFW would argue that “you” (your “mind”?) and “your brain” are the same physical thing, so more correctly is to say “AFW’s argue that “you” made “you” do it while compatibilists would say “you” enabled “you” to do it.”

    First of all, what you just said appears to put you in a minority among AFWs, or at least publishing/publicly known AFWs. So no it is not more correct to say what you said. It would only be correct to say what you said “for some AFWs”…

    Second, you, your mind, and your brain are arguably three separate things. When using language loosely I am fine with this, but in serious discussions related to philosophy and/or science distinctions are useful. I would recommend you watch the video Dan K linked to above as well as reading more by Hacker (the second speaker in the video). Yes, your mind and you would not exist without your brain, but to equate all three can become conceptually problematic.

    At the time this “you” was entirely an “effect” of prior determining causes, and therefore “your brain/you” could not have done otherwise: nevertheless this (perhaps less extreme) AFW sees “you” as the necessary cause for its occurrence and undeniably the responsible agent for both the action and its effects.

    I think you might want to reevaluate your identity as an AFW. The entire premise of most AFWs and FWSs are that we lack moral responsibility because we are “merely” an “effect” of prior determining causes. Read Caruso and Pereboom in particular.

    For myself, as a compatibilist, I certainly see you as a necessary causal agent. The idea you are an “effect” seems strained, or forced. Yes you find yourself at a nexus of prior events, and what has shaped you as an individual. You can then take that on board while considering what to do next. Does that actually leave you without a choice?

    In my view, that he was “made” to write it, in no way detracts from his unique claim to world-wide reputedly _ nor his outstanding value as the human being responsible for its tremendous and continuing effects.

    How does that not detract from his accomplishment? Even your evaluating him highly is thus only a epiphenomenal rider of circumstance which I should arguably pay no attention to. You are just saying so because of chance.

    The best we are left to say of anyone is “that lucky bastard” or “that unlucky bastard”.

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  36. Hi Seth, Thanks! I’m also a bit skeptical about the claim you cited. While I recommend Hacker, I’m definitely not saying he’s right about everything. I am trying to get my way through enough of his work, to write an essay detailing some differences I have with him (and presumably his co-author who is a neuroscientist).

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  37. Hi all (especially Mark and Dan K), in discussions on free will I have long maintained my status as a (reactive) compatibilist.

    But… the point has been raised that there is no use in discussing free will at all. Given what I said in my essay at Scientia Salon this idea aligns with my general feelings on the topic*, though now there is even more substance to make that case. Our options seem limited to debating an incoherent (or coherent in isolation) concept of free will that is pretty easy to dismiss, given that it arose from esoteric religious concerns long ago, or the “practical” idiomatic concept that seems to be (mostly) redundant.

    In light of this, the most relevant reply to anyone bringing up free will as a topic is to ask, “What is it you really want to know?” For the most part it seems people want to understand if and how they are responsible for their actions, their identity, their character. Did “I” really do it, or can I pass the buck to someone or something else? And what are we to do about the actions of others?

    That can be broken down without having to invoke free will, allowing us to discuss impediments or constraints on how we perform actions. Asking which items are relevant and to what extent depending on specific context. Perhaps treating subjects this way will reveal how outlandish the current claims of AFWs are when using neuroscience (“the activity of healthy, functional neurons in the brain constitute direct impediments to humans making personal decisions and taking action”).

    Then again, my guess is they will continue to hold their position, with some simply stepping back out of the brain, to concentrate on larger social and historical forces. And so I will likely remain a compatibilist (cause-effect relations do not inherently undermine the concepts of personal decision making or action), just on many more subjects.

    Does this look about right?

    *Note: In general, I have felt debates about metaphysical free were pointless since unanimous agreement “we don’t” would be just as useful as agreeing “we did”. We’d still be locked into the decision cycle with a feeling as if we were facing a choice. And in fact we would still have to do the choosing. History won’t choose for us in any practical sense (no matter the hype). We will still have to do history’s dirty work. It can be fun to consider from time to time, like a koan, or the concept of infinity, but there will be no conclusions reached and no effect even if it were figured out.

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