Tag Archives: agency

Agency and intention

Nautilus has a post (here) by Matthew Hutson that is a very interesting review of the connection between our perception of time and of causation. If we believe that two events are causally related we perceive less time between them than a clock would register; and if we believe the events are not causally connected, time is increased between them. And on the other side of the coin. If we perceive a shorter time between two events, we are more likely to believe they are causally connected; and if the time is longer between them, it is harder for us to believe they are causally related. This effect is called intentional binding. The article describes the important experiments that underpin this concept.

But intentional binding is part of a larger concept. How is our sense of agency created and why? To learn how to do things in this world, we have to know what we set in motion and what was caused by something other then ourselves. Our memory of an event has to be marked as caused by us if it is, in order to be useful in future situations. As our memory of an event is based on our consciousness of it, our consciousness must reflect whether we caused the outcome. So the question becomes – how do our brains make the call to mark an event as our agency. If the actual ‘causing’ was a conscious process, there would be no need for a procedure to establish whether we were the agents of the action. However there is a procedure.

I wrote about this previously (here) in looking at Chapter 1 of ‘The New Unconscious’, ‘Who is the Controller of Controlled Processes?’. What needs to happen for us to feel that we have willed an action? We have to believe that thoughts which reach our consciousness have caused our actions. Three things are needed for us to make a causal connection between the thoughts and the actions:

  1. priority

The thought has to reach consciousness before the action if it is going to appear a cause. Actually it must occur quite closely, within about 30 sec., before the action. Wegner and Wheatley investigated the principle with fake thoughts fed through earphones and fake actions gently forced by equipment, to give people the feeling that their thought caused their action.

  1. consistency

The thought has to be about the action in order for it to appear to be the cause. Wegner, Sparrow and Winerman used a mirror so that a subject saw the hands of another person standing behind them instead of their own. If the thoughts fed to the subject through earphones matched the hand movements then the subject experienced willing the movements. If the earphones gave no ‘thoughts’ or contradictory ones, there was no feeling of will.

  1. exclusivity

The thought must be the only apparent source of a cause for the action. If another cause that seems more believable is available it will be used. The feeling of will can disappear when the subject is in a trance and feels controlled by another agent such as a spirit.

Also previously (here) I discussed a report in Science, “Movement Intention after Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans”, by M. Desnurget and others, with the following summary:

Parietal and premotor cortex regions are serious contenders for bringing motor intentions and motor responses into awareness. We used electrical stimulation in seven patients undergoing awake brain surgery. Stimulating the right inferior parietal regions triggered a strong intention and desire to move the contralateral hand, arm, or foot, whereas stimulating the left inferior parietal region provoked the intention to move the lips and to talk. When stimulation intensity was increased in parietal areas, participants believed they had really performed these movements, although no electromyographic activity was detected. Stimulation of the premotor region triggered overt mouth and contralateral limb movements. Yet, patients firmly denied that they had moved. Conscious intention and motor awareness thus arise from increased parietal activity before movement execution.”

The feeling of agency is not something that we can change even if we believe it is not true. Here is Rodolfo Llinas describing an experiment that he conducted on himself that I discussed previously (here). It was in a video interview of Rodolfo Llinas (video). There are many interesting ideas in this hour long discussion. The part I am quoting from the transcript is Llinas’ self-experimentation on the subject of free-will.

“…I understand that free will does not exist; I understand that it is the only rational way to relate to each other, this is to assume that it does, although we deeply know that it doesn’t. Now the question you may ask me is how do you know? And the answer is, well, I did an actually lovely experiment on myself. It was extraordinary really. There is an instrument used in neurology called a magnetic stimulator…its an instrument that has a coil that you put next to the top of the head and you pass a current such that a big magnetic field is generated that activates the brain directly, without necessary to open the thing. So if you get one of these coils and you put it on top of the head, you can generate a movement. You put it in the back, you see a light, so you can stimulate different parts of the brain and have a feeling of what happens when you activate the brain directly without, in quotes, you doing it. This of course is a strange way of talking but that’s how we talk. So I decide to put it on the top of the head where I consider to be the motor cortex and stimulate it and find a good spot where my foot on the right side would move inwards. It was *pop* no problem. And we did it several time and I tell my colleague, I know anatomy, I know physiology, I can tell you I’m cheating. Put the stimulus and then I move, I feel it, I’m moving it. And he said well, you know, there’s no way to really know. I said, I’ll tell you how I know. I feel it, but stimulate and I’ll move the foot outwards. I am now going to do that, so I stimulate and the foot moves inwards again. So I said but I changed my mind. Do it again. So I do it half a dozen times… (it always moved inward)…So I said, oh my god, I can’t tell the difference between the activity from the outside and what I consider to be a voluntary movement. If I know that it is going to happen, then I think I did it, because I now understand this free will stuff and this volition stuff. Volition is what’s happening somewhere else in the brain, I know about and therefore I decide that I did it…In other words, free will is knowing what you are going to do. That’s all.”

The Edge Question 5

This post, the fifth in this series, covers two other areas where there were several similar responses to the Edge Question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? (here) The first area is around concepts of self, free will and agency and the second is around the separation of man from other animals.


There has recently been a fair amount of discussion on how science should treat free will: deny its possibility or change its definition. My personal opinion is that both free will and determinism (but not just one) should be declared to be flawed – both wrong (not both right or one right). This is not the general approach to the question.


Hood objects to the self which he sees used as a stand-in for complex mechanisms and that impedes understanding those mechanisms.


Bruce Hood (Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol; Author, The Self-Illusion) “It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self as the idea is neither scientific nor is this the first time that the concept has been dismissed for lacking empirical support. The self did not have to be discovered as it is the default assumption that most of us experience, so it was not really revealed by methods of scientific enquiry. Challenging the notion of a self is also not new….Yet, the self, like a conceptual zombie, refuses to die. It crops up again and again in recent theories of decision-making as an entity with free will that can be depleted. It re-appears as an interpreter in cognitive neuroscience as capable on integrating parallel streams of information arising from separable neural substrates. Even if these appearances of the self are understood to be convenient ways of discussing the emergent output of multiple parallel processes, students of the mind continue to implicitly endorse that there is a decision-maker, an experiencer, a point of origin….We know that the self is constructed because it can be so easily deconstructed through damage, disease and drugs. It must be an emergent property of a parallel system processing input, output and internal representations. It is an illusion because it feels so real, but that experience is not what it seems. The same is true for free will. Although we can experience the mental anguish of making a decision, our free will cannot be some kind of King Solomon in our mind weighing up the pros and cons as this would present the problem of logical infinite regress …How notable that we do this (use ‘self’ as a convenience) all so easily when talking about humans but as soon as we apply the same approach to animals, one gets accused of anthropomorphism! By abandoning the free willing self, we are forced to re-examine the factors that are really behind our thoughts and behavior and the way they interact, balance, over-ride and cancel out. Only then we will begin to make progress in understanding how we really operate.”


Coyne objects to Free Will, plain and simple.


Jerry Coyne (Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago; Author, Why Evolution Is True) “Among virtually all scientists, dualism is dead….Our choices, therefore, must also obey those laws (laws of physics). This puts paid to the traditional idea of dualistic or “libertarian” free will: that our lives comprise a series of decisions in which we could have chosen otherwise. We know now that we can never do otherwise…In short, the traditional notion of free will—defined by Anthony Cashmore as “a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature”—is dead on arrival….recent experiments support the idea that our “decisions” often precede our consciousness of having made them. Increasingly sophisticated studies using brain scanning show that those scans can often predict the choices one will make several seconds before the subject is conscious of having chosen! Indeed, our feeling of “making a choice” may itself be a post hoc confabulation, perhaps an evolved one. When pressed, nearly all scientists and most philosophers admit this. Determinism and materialism, they agree, win the day. But they’re remarkably quiet about it. …they’d rather invent new “compatibilist” versions of free will: versions that comport with determinism….In the end, there’s nothing “free” about compatibilist free will. It’s a semantic game in which choice becomes an illusion: something that isn’t what it seems….reminds me of the (probably apocryphal) statement of the Bishop of Worcester’s wife when she heard about Darwin’s theory: “My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known. What puzzles me is why compatibilists spend so much time trying to harmonize determinism with a historically non-deterministic concept instead of tackling the harder but more important task of selling the public on the scientific notions of materialism, naturalism, and their consequence: the mind is produced by the brain. These consequences of “incompatibilism” mean a complete rethinking of how we punish and reward people.” Coyne does not think this rethink would be a bad thing.


Accepting incompatibilism also dissolves the notion of moral responsibility….by rejecting moral responsibility, we are free to judge actions not by some dictate, divine or otherwise, but by their consequences: what is good or bad for society. Finally, rejecting free will means rejecting the fundamental tenets of the many religions that depend on freely choosing a god or a savior. The fears motivating some compatibilists—that a version of free will must be maintained lest society collapse—won’t be realized. The illusion of agency is so powerful that even strong incompatibilists like myself will always act as if we had choices, even though we know that we don’t. We have no choice in this matter. But we can at least ponder why evolution might have bequeathed us such a powerful illusion.”


I cannot go this far with Coyne, for I think that determinism is also flawed as well as free will. Our brains make decisions and the decisions we make, we own, because they in large part depend on our values, ideas, motivations and so on. They are our decisions. We are responsible for those decisions and for maintaining our own values, ideas etc. Children, mentally ill people and those with little intelligence may not be responsible for doing good maintenance of their attitudes and habits but most of us are responsible for who we are.


Metzinger is concerned with eliminating, or perhaps clarifying, the idea of cognitive agency.


Thomas Metzinger (Philosophisches Seminar, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Author, The Ego Tunnel) “Western culture, traditional philosophy of mind and even cognitive neuroscience have been deeply influenced by the Myth of Cognitive Agency. It is the myth of the Cartesian Ego, the active thinker of thoughts, the epistemic subject that acts—mentally, rationally, in a goal-directed manner—and that always has the capacity to terminate or suspend its own cognitive processing at will. It is the theory that conscious thought is a personal-level process, something that by necessity has to be ascribed to you, the person as a whole. This theory has now been empirically refuted. As it now turns out, most of our conscious thoughts are actually the product of subpersonal processes, like breathing or the peristaltic movements in our gastrointestinal tract. The Myth of Cognitive Agency says that we are mentally autonomous beings. We can now see that this is an old, but self-complacent fairy tale. It is time to put it to rest….The sudden loss of inner autonomy (mind wandering)—which all of us experience many hundred times every day—seems to be based on a cyclically recurring process in the brain. The ebb and flow of autonomy and meta-awareness might well be a kind of attentional see-sawing between our inner and outer worlds, caused by a constant competition between the brain networks underlying spontaneous subpersonal thinking and goal-oriented cognition….There are also periods of “mind blanking”, and these episodes may often not be remembered and also frequently escape detection by external observers. In addition, there is clearly complex, but uncontrollable cognitive phenomenology during sleep….A conservative estimate would therefore be that for much more than half of our life-time, we are not cognitive agents in the true sense of the word. This still excludes periods of illness, intoxication, or insomnia, in which people suffer from dysfunctional forms of cognitive control….I think that one global function of Mind Wandering may be “autobiographical self-model maintenance”. Mind Wandering creates an adaptive form of self-deception, namely, an illusion of personal identity across time. It helps to maintain a fictional “self” that then lays the foundation for important achievements like reward prediction or delay discounting. As a philosopher, my conceptual point is that only if an organism simulates itself as being one and the same across time will it be able to represent reward events or the achievement of goals as a fulfillment of its own goals, as happening to the same entity. I like to call this the “Principle of Virtual Identity Formation”: Many higher forms of intelligence and adaptive behavior, including risk management, moral cognition and cooperative social behavior, functionally presuppose a self-model that portrays the organism as a single entity that endures over time. Because we are really only cognitive systems, complex processes without any precise identity criteria, the formation of an (illusory) identity across time can only be achieved on a virtual level, for example through the creation of an automatic narrative. This could be the more fundamental and overarching computational goal of mind wandering, and one it may share with dreaming. If I am right, the default mode of the autobiographical self-modeling constructs a domain-general functional platform enabling long-term motivation and future planning…. the ability to act autonomously implies not only reasons, arguments and rationality. Much more fundamentally it refers to the capacity to wilfully inhibit, suspend, or terminate our own actions—bodily, socially, or mentally. The breakdown of this ability is what we call Mind Wandering. It is not an inner action at all, but a form of unintentional behavior, an involuntary form of mental activity.”


As usual, Metzinger is one of the most understandable and convincing and useful philosophers around.


Now a change of subject. There were four replies that attacked the idea of a great difference between humans and other animals: Pepperberg, humaniqueness; Baron-Cohen, Radical Behaviorism; Das, Anthropocentricity; Jeffery, Animal Mindlessness. In other posts I have dealt with this problem until I am afraid of boring readers – here I just give a few quotes to give the flavor of the responses. This human-centered attitude really must be retired as quickly as possible.


Irene Pepperberg (Research Associate & Lecturer, Harvard; Adjunct Associate Professor, Brandeis; Author, Alex & Me) “Clearly I don’t contest data that show that humans are unique in many ways, and I certainly favor studying the similarities and differences across species, but think it is time to retire the notion that human uniqueness is a pinnacle of some sort, denied in any shape, way, or form to other creatures.”


Simon Baron-Cohen (Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The Science of Evil) “Every student of psychology is taught that Radical Behaviorism was displaced by the cognitive revolution, because it was deeply flawed scientifically. Yet it is still practiced in animal behavior modification, and even in some areas of contemporary human clinical psychology. Here I argue that the continued application of Radical Behaviorism should be retired not just on scientific but also on ethical grounds….Given these scientific arguments, you’d have thought Radical Behaviorism would have been retired long ago, and yet it continues to be the basis of ‘behavior modification’ programs, in which a trainer aims to shape another person’s or an animal’s behavior, rewarding them for producing surface behavior whilst ignoring their underlying evolved neurocognitive make-up.” This is disrespectful to intelligent animals including humans.


Satyajit Das (Expert, Financial Derivatives and Risk; Author, Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk) “The human mind has evolved a specific physical structure and bio-chemistry that shapes thought processes. The human cognitive system determines our reasoning and therefore our knowledge. Language, logic, mathematics, abstract thought, cultural beliefs, history and memories create a specific human frame of reference, which may restrict what we can know or understand…Transcending anthropocentricity may allow new frames of reference expanding the boundary of human knowledge. It may allow human beings to think more clearly, consider different perspectives and encourage possibilities outside the normal range of experience and thought. It may also allow a greater understanding of our existential place within nature and in the order of things.


Kate Jeffery (Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience, Head, Dept. of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, University College, London) “We humans have had a tough time coping with our unremarkable place in the grand scheme of things. First Copernicus trashed our belief that we live at the centre of the universe, followed shortly thereafter by Herschel and co. who suggested that our sun was not at the centre of it either; then Darwin came along and showed that according to our biological heritage, we are just another animal. But we have clung on for dear life to one remaining belief about our specialness; that we, and we alone, have conscious minds. It is time to retire, or indeed euthanize and cremate, this anthropocentric pomposity….Behaviorism arose from the argument of parsimony (Occam’s razor)—why postulate mental states in animals when their behavior can be explained in simpler ways? The success of Behaviorism arose in part from the fact that the kinds of behaviors studied back then could, indeed, be explained by operation of mindless, automatic processes….When we look into the animal brain we see the same things we see in our own brains. Of course we do, because we are just animals after all. It is time to admit yet again that we are not all that special. If we have minds, creatures with brains very like ours probably do too.”