Free Will Roundtable


by Massimo Pigliucci

Recently, I have hosted a roundtable discussion on the science and philosophy of free will (full video here), where the panelists were Hakwan Lau from Columbia University, Alfred Mele from Florida State University, Jesse Prinz, a colleague of mine at the City University of New York, and Adina Roskies from Dartmouth College. The idea was to have a serious discussion about the various concepts of free will, as well as what exactly neuroscience can tell us about them. (I will not address the simplistic take that has predictably been featured on the topic by the usual suspects, among whom are Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne. There are only so many times when I feel like pointing out that someone ought to read the relevant literature before pontificating ex-cathedra.) I should also point the interested reader to a recent article in the New York Times, by Eddy Nahmias who (pace Coyne) actually provides a nuanced and intelligent brief discussion of the topic. For a more in-depth look, check out Roskies’ “How does neuroscience affect our conception of volition?” published last year in the Annual Review of Neuroscience — in my opinion one of the best papers on free will of the last decade.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was quite a bit of agreement among panelists on several contentious points concerning discussions of free will. Here is a partial list:

* Neuroscience cannot actually establish the truth of determinism. At best, that’s an area of competence of physics.

* Libet’s classical experiments have done close to zero to show that we do not make conscious decisions. Indeed, good neurobiological evidence shows that conscious deliberation plays a primary role in some of our decision making processes.

* fMRI data are interesting, but they can only indirectly provide clues to discriminate among different hypotheses concerning human volition (a much better term than the hopelessly marred “free will”).

* Nobody any longer seriously defends a notion of free will that relies on dualism or, a fortiori, even more metaphysically suspect concepts like souls. (Well, okay, some theologians do, but then again, astrologers still defend the idea of cosmic influences on our personality…)

Let’s take a brief look at some of the above claims, starting with the issue of determinism. The best that neuroscience can do is to show that behavior X is neurally correlated with activity in brain structure Y. This has precisely nothing to do with determinism because non-deterministic effects could be present at much more physically fundamental levels than those dealt with by neuroscience and never show up on the neuroscientist’s radar. That’s why determinism is really an issue for physics. And let’s clear the air about oft-repeated claim (most recently by Alex Rosenberg, in an awful book that I’m currently reviewing for The Philosopher Magazine) that physics has shown determinism to be true. Au contraire, mon ami, physics has, once and probably for all, shown determinism to be wrong, via of course quantum mechanics. Before the good reader’s ire leads him straight to the comments section of this post, let me be clear that I know perfectly well that random quantum events do not rescue naive conceptions of free will (because randomness is not at all the same thing as deliberative decision making). But the fact remains that the best of modern physics shows us that determinism is not of this world — you are free (so to speak) to draw your own metaphysical conclusions from that bit of science, as long as you keep in mind that it ain’t neuro-science.

What about Libet’s experiments? You know, the one showing that people make unconscious decisions about when to push a button hundreds of milliseconds (according to more recent evidence, even several seconds) before they become aware of having made the decision? I always thought this was a strange way to attack either free will or consciousness, and my panelists readily agreed. First off, Libet-type experiments are conducted by telling subjects to push a button when “they feel the urge rising.” This is hardly the sort of deliberative reflection we associate with human volition, so it’s not testing anything like “free will.” Second, it would be truly surprising if a lot of decisions were not actually made by our unconscious. Indeed, we know this is the case, for instance for all automated tasks (driving a car, hitting a baseball), and we know why: conscious reflection would be too slow in most of those cases, sometimes potentially costing us our lives. Third, it is simply bizarre to think of my unconscious decisions as “not really mine.” Whose are they, then? “I” am not just the conscious processing of information and awareness of that processing, “I” am also my distributed cognition at all levels of my nervous system, including unconscious processing of information. If you disagree, this means that most of the times you are not actually driving your car, your inner zombie is (did he also decide where to go?).

Now to the much talked about fMRI data. Let’s set aside the well acknowledged (by neuroscientists) fact that this is still a very blunt instrument, that it doesn’t really measure brain activity (only oxygen consumption by brain cells, used as a proxy for brain activity), and that it is still next to impossible to carry out the scans in real time (those beautiful pictures of brains “doing” this or that are actually sophisticated statistical composites of various individuals) and in realistic situations. At the moment, all that an fMRI scan can establish is that there is a correlation between activity X and oxygen consumption by brain area Y. That’s it. While this is much better than we could do until a few years ago, and while Lau at the roundtable cautiously explained how this sort of information may help us discriminate among some functional hypotheses, it is a far cry from the sort of claims that are made these days on the basis of fMRI research.

To begin with, of course, just remember the old mantra: correlation is not causation. Correlations may be spurious or the result of a third, as yet unmeasured process, that is affecting both correlates. Moreover, even if we could establish causality, this would constitute only a very partial explanation for whatever it is that is going on. Take, for instance, the much talked about fMRI of people immersed in deep prayer. They do show that certain areas of the brain are preferentially involved in that activity. But then again, how could it be otherwise? Everything we think or do has to pass through some sort of neural signal after all. What the fMRI cannot tell us is whether, say, the mental state induced by deep prayer (or meditation) indicates a reduced proprioception (which would explain in entirely materialistic terms the sense of expanded consciousness and detachment from one’s own body that sometimes accompany the experience), or the fact that subjects are actually accessing a non-material realm, just as they claim they are, based on their phenomenological experience. Indeed, it isn’t even clear what sort of evidence could discriminate between the two “hypotheses” (just for the record, yes, I do think the second possibility doesn’t have a prayer — ah! — of being true).

Finally, from the bulleted list above, if no serious philosopher or neuroscientist defends a notion of free will that relies on dualism of any sort, what kind of notion is then being defended? As Roskies puts it in her paper linked above, we are really talking about human volition, of which there are several types, each likely to end up requiring its own neural machinery, and carrying its own philosophical implications. Her list includes (apologies for the extended quotations, but she really did put it pretty darn well):

* Volition as initiation. “The will is thought to be critical in endogenously generated or self-initiated actions, as opposed to exogenously triggered actions, like reflexes or simple stimulus-response associations.” This is the sort of thing that Libet-type experiments address, and as we have seen, this type of volition is likely to be unconscious.

* Volition as intention. “Intentions are representational states that bridge the gap between deliberation and action. Arguably, intentions can be conscious or unconscious. Moreover, there may be different types of intention involved in different levels of planning for action.”

* Volition as decision making. “In one prevalent view, the paradigmatic exercise of the will lies in our ability to choose what course of action to take, rather than to initiate or represent future action. Many philosophers have located freedom of the will in the ability to choose freely [note: this doesn’t mean “a-causally”] which intentions to form. Decision often precedes intention and initiation.”

* Volition as executive control. “The control aspect of volition is the notion that higher-order cortical regions can influence the execution of action by lower regions. This may take several forms. For example, one conception is that volition involves the conscious selection of action.”

* Volition as feeling. “The experience of willing is an aspect of a multifaceted volitional capacity. … There are at least two phenomenological aspects of agency: the awareness of an intention or urge to act that we identify as prior to the action, and the post hoc feeling that an action taken was one’s own.” This is probably the sort of volition that the Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and Alex Rosenbergs of the world think of when they say that free will is an illusion. Incidentally, they don’t seem to have a clue as to why nature would endow us with such an illusion.

I hope the above is enough to whet your appetite. Go check the video (reach for a beer before you start, it lasts one and a half hours), and especially some of the papers and books written by our panelists.

p.s.: Thanks to Michael De Dora for organizing the panel discussion, and to the Center for Inquiry for editing and posting the video.

Piece originally published at Rationally Speaking | Creative Commons Licence