Tag Archives: freewill

Fighting Libet’s experiment

A post in Science of Us in Feb, by Christian Jarrett, reviews the Libet experiment and recent attempts to overturn the implications of it. (http://nymag/scienceofus/2016/02/a-neuroscience-finding-on-free-will.html ) I find the struggle to reverse Libet’s finding to be the result of a mistaken way of viewing thought. An enormous amount of effort has gone into failed attempts to show this experiment was flawed over the last 30 years. Why are the implications so hard for people to accept?

Here is the first bit of Jarrett’s article (underlining is mine).

Back in the 1980s, the American scientist Benjamin Libet made a surprising discovery that appeared to rock the foundations of what it means to be human. He recorded people’s brain waves as they made spontaneous finger movements while looking at a clock, with the participants telling researchers the time at which they decided to waggle their fingers. Libet’s revolutionary finding was that the timing of these conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity (known technically as “the readiness potential”).

The implication was that the decision to move was made nonconsciously, and that the subjective feeling of having made this decision is tagged on afterward. In other words, the results implied that free will as we know it is an illusion — after all, how can our conscious decisions be truly free if they come after the brain has already started preparing for them?

For years, various research teams have tried to pick holes in Libet’s original research. It’s been pointed out, for example, that it’s pretty tricky for people to accurately report the time that they made their conscious decision. But, until recently, the broad implications of the finding have weathered these criticisms, at least in the eyes of many hard-nosed neuroscientists, and over the last decade or so his basic result has been replicated and built upon with ever more advanced methods such as fMRI and the direct recording of neuronal activity using implanted electrodes.

These studies all point in the same, troubling direction: We don’t really have free will. In fact, until recently, many neuroscientists would have said any decision you made was not truly free but actually determined by neural processes outside of your conscious control.

That is the stumbling block: ‘neural processes outside of conscious control’. That is what some scientists are fighting so hard not to lose. The whole notion of what free will is rests on how we view who we are, what our consciousness is, and how control works.

When we think of who we are, we cannot separate self from non-self within our bodies. We are not really divided at the neck, or between the upper and lower parts of the brain, or between different ‘minds’ co-existing in one skull. This idea of two separate minds, that was inherited from Freud and others, has not been demonstrated to be true. It has not been shown that we have two distinct thinking minds that are somehow separate. Thinking appears to be a complex, widespread but interconnected and unified affair. Whether a particular thought process becomes conscious or remains non-conscious does not depend on the basic process of thought.

There is every reason to reject the notion of a separate conscious mind that thinks in a ‘conscious’ manner to produce conscious thoughts. We are aware of thoughts (some thoughts) but we are not aware of the mechanisms that produced the thoughts. We do not metaphorically hear the gears of thought production grinding. We are simply not aware of how thought happens. Consciousness is a form of awareness and probably not much more. There is awareness of some things that go on in the brain but not of all things or even the bulk of things.

So why are some thoughts made conscious while others aren’t? A good guess is that consciousness gives a remembered experience, an episodic memory, or at least the material for such memories. With memories of our actions, it would be important information to remember whether the action was our doing or just happened to us, whether it was accidental or intended, whether it was a choice or coerced, carefully planned or an automatic habit and so on. These pieces of information are important to save and so would be incorporated into conscious events. We need that information to learn from experience. Just because the feeling of having an intent, an urge and then an execution of an action is there in our conscious awareness does not mean that they were a form of conscious control. They are there as important parts of the event that consciousness is recording.

We can still control our actions, and we still can be aware of controlling our actions, but that does not mean that our awareness is producing the control that we are aware of. Consciousness does not produce the tree that I am aware of – it just produces the awareness. And you are just you, and not your awareness of you. There is reality and there are models of reality; there is territory and there are maps of the territory; there is an original and there are copies of the original. There is you and there is your awareness of you. You make decisions (with neural activity) but your awareness of a decisions is not the same as making it.

I personally find it a little difficult to understand why this idea of a conscious mind as opposed to a conscious awareness is so strong and indestructible an idea to most people. I cannot remember exactly how or when (it was a gradual process) but some time in my late teens, over 50 years ago, my consciousness became a flickering imperfect movie screen and not a thinking mind. So “determined by neural processes outside of conscious control” is obvious because there is no such thing as conscious control and what is more, it is a comforting rather than alarming viewpoint.

I am assuming that the current experiments with showing ‘free won’t’ will not turn out to be any more robust than the attempts to show free will. We shall see.

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.”

 

 

Bonn model of volition

In a recent paper, Bonn (citation below) puts forward a model of freewill. Although I wish that we could simply stop using the words freewill and determinism, Bonn’s type of treatment is the next best thing.

 

First he redefines freewill. (This is the part that bothers my sensitivities. By denying conscious freewill but not some other kind of freewill, communication gets difficult and often misleading.)

 

“... psychologists tend to operationalize free will by relating it to self-report which requires a form of self-reflective conscious awareness. The implicit condition is that one must be able to report upon all the processes leading up to a decision or behavior in order for it to be “free,” and conversely, if my brain generates an idea or initiates an action without my conscious awareness it is somehow not “me” doing the thinking or acting. The conception of freedom argued for here, on the other hand, merely requires that thoughts and resulting actions be novel and internally generated, that they result from a combination of experiences and characteristics which is unique to the individual. Unconscious, or implicit, processes are, in this view, essential components of how an individual processes information: Regardless of whether a particular process can be observed and narrated by the conscious, self-aware part of the brain, it can still make unique and important contributions toward thought and action, and thus, to the independence of the individual. The arguments here, thus, specifically reject the simplistic notion that free will requires complete conscious awareness of the processes involved.

 

He make clear that he believes that internal processes belong to the individual whether they are conscious or unconscious, with no exclusively conscious “me”.

 

Then he begins to describe a model of how volition may work with our memory being an important part of this model.

 

Our memory is known to be inaccurate and many feel this is a fault (kludge if you like). “the lack of factual accuracy in our recollections may instead be the signature of a system that evolved, not to store accurate representations of the past, but instead, to provide a means of flexibly imagining the future, as well as conceiving of other hypothetical scenarios. Surviving in the real world does not depend upon accurate recall of every past detail as much as an ability to predict future contingencies. A system that can integrate details of multiple past events and is more sensitive to broad patterns and associations rather than accurately representing minutia would be well suited to this purpose. ..Growing evidence points to a core network of brain regions involved in remembering the past and imagining the future, as well as other forms of mental simulation… remembering the past and predicting the future incorporate memory systems in the medial temporal lobes, the lateral parietal lobes and the hippocampal formation, in addition to areas in the medial frontal lobes which are involved in perspective taking and theory of mind, or understanding others’ mental states. It seems that many forms of self-projection; imagining the past and future, navigation (imagining the self in different physical locations) and theory of mind (taking the perspective of other people) depend on this same core network of memory-related brain areas …When the brain is not occupied with processing external stimuli, activity reverts to this area where stored impressions are consolidated and reorganized. The default network seems to facilitate the internal experience of scenarios and perspectives that transcend simple recall, and it seems to do so automatically through making connections between, or recombining, elements of multiple memory traces. ”

 

This system is very personal to each of us – our history, values, habits, emotions all make the plans and goals that result from this memory system unique to us.

 

Bonn describes two motor systems. “The first motor control system runs from the sensory cortices to the primary motor region via the premotor area. Activity in these areas relates to stimulus-driven, or reflexive, responses to sensory input as well as to habitual behaviors such as grasping, eating, and walking which are performed largely unconsciously . The second motor system involves multiple regions, including the cingulate, frontal cortices, and basal ganglia, which connect to the primary motor cortex via the pre- supplementary and supplementary motor areas. Behaviors that require planning and goal maintenance engage some or all of this system. Processes mediated by pre-supplementary motor area (preSMA) connections generally allow for the flexible, online integration of goal states, decisions, and action priorities with feedback from the environment…The preSMA, along with the frontopolar cortex and the rostral cingulate, is active in tasks requiring decisions between multiple options…The frontopolar cortex is also involved in maintaining goal states such as suppressing responses to immediate environmental demands and, along with the anterior cingulate (ACC), is seemingly involved in the production of goal-directed action sequences. The ACC, through the preSMA, also seems capable of selecting and initiating action in the absence of external prompts, as well as monitoring and adjusting those actions in response to feedback. All told, there are extensive findings indicating that the preSMA is involved in interfacing multiple goal and decision-related subsystems with the primary motor cortex.” There seems little doubt that we have the ability to control our actions. The supplementary and pre-supplementary motor areas can internally guide choice and selectively inhibit action in a ‘volition-like way. We have control.

 

Bonn puts together the memory and the motor abilities in his model.

 

To this point we have established two important concepts. First, processing in the default network allows humans to create novel combinations of information. Information stored in memory is broken down to elemental form and connections made between elements during times of reduced sensory input. This allows for patterns and relationships among multiple impressions to be extracted and for the flexible generation of counterfactual simulations. Second, faculties exist for internally maintained goals to exert flexible control over behavior. Humans can replace automatic, reflexive behaviors with internally guided, goal-directed action. ”

 

The task related network and the default network have been pictured as mutually exclusive, not working at the same time, but recent work shows that they interface and engage together in planning.

 

Here is a diagram of the model:

bonndiagram

Here is the paper’s abstract:

 

This paper examines the concept of free will, or independent action, in light of recent research in psychology and neuroscience. Reviewing findings in memory, prospection, and mental simulation, as well as the neurological mechanisms underlying behavioral control, planning, and integration, it is suggested in accord with previous arguments (e.g., Wegner, 2003; Harris, 2012) that a folk conception of free will as entirely conscious control over behavior should be rejected. However, it is argued that, when taken together, these findings can also support an alternative conception of free will. The constructive nature of memory and an integrative “default network” provide the means for novel and

 

creative combinations of information, such as the imagining of counterfactual scenarios and alternative courses of action. Considering recent findings of extensive functional connections between these systems and those that subsume motor control and goal maintenance, it is argued that individuals have the capability of producing novel ideas and translating them into actionable goals. Although most of these processes take place beneath conscious awareness, it is argued that they are unique to the individual and thus, can be considered a form of independent control over behavior, or free will.

ResearchBlogging.org

Bonn GB (2013). Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 24367349

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