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I dunno - this seems to me equal and opposite bullshit. Gottlieb suggests that the neuroscience of free will might be flawed because of some (extremely controversial) claims about *other kinds* of neuroscience. The specificity of fMRI is relatively low and inappropriate statistical methods might have been used in analysing work in social and cognitive neuroscience. How is this relevant to work on the readiness potential using EEG? This is kick up some dust time.

Plus he cites Tallis positively, which is always a sign of a lack of critical faculties.

Yeah, if you are going to go after the neuro willusionists, talk about Mele not Tallis (or Gazzaniga, who suggests free will is an illusion because we don't have souls but we can still have responsibility--a strange sort of semi-compatibilism). And the limitations of fMRI are real, but most of the willusionists don't make their points with fMRI data. They don't really need to, since they don't really need *specific* evidence to make their point, which typically is: neuroscience shows we don't have souls (note that it doesn't do that with Libet results or fMRI data), and FW requires souls, so it shows we don't have FW. Or consciousness can't be naturalized, FW requires consciousness, so the naturalism demonstrated (?) by neuroscience rules out FW. Or neuroscience shows the brain makes us act before we are conscious of wanting to act, so we don't have FW. Data may be relevant for that sort of argument, but the data doesn't support it.

Anyway, Neal, you clearly got Neil's and my expectations up, and we all know how it is when we go see a movie that gets (overly) good reviews ...

We’ll prove that FW exists.

To accomplish that, we’ll show that new forces emerge at the human thought level (i.e., at the neuro-pattern level), and those forces influence the electro-chemical activity within a brain.

Here’s one way we could prove that:

We’ll develop an experiment that shows how one thought/pattern in a physical brain influences another thought/pattern at the *pattern* level. By showing that our thoughts interact at the neuro-pattern level, we’ll prove that new forces emerge at the pattern level, and the interaction between thoughts isn’t controlled strictly by the electro-chemical (EC) level. Isn’t it fair to say that a thought exists at the pattern level, and therefore if one thought is capable of affecting another thought, some interaction must happen at the *pattern* level? By proving that new forces are an emergent property of our thoughts, we’ll take a big step towards proving that FW exists.

Yes, there’s a short delay from the time when you form a conclusion to when you’re conscious of it. There’s also a short delay from the time you touch something to when you’re conscious of it. Both your finger and the processes in your brain are part of “you”. Humans need to realize that our consciousness isn’t what “drives” our FW; instead, we’re simply conscious *of* our free will.

FW is compatible with determinism. Your thoughts exert new emergent forces that are part of what determines the path of reality. The forces exerted by your thoughts are in a different field than the EC forces that cause your thoughts to emerge, and since forces in different fields don’t add directly with one another, the EC forces don’t determine your thoughts.

Sorry, Neil and Eddy: I didn't mean to oversell the article. I don't know much about the neuroscience myself, so when I said I thought it was a reasonable article, I wasn't trying to say that it was right, or that it cited the right people. I just meant that it seemed to be asking the right sorts of questions: whether we're even looking in the "right place", whether flicks of the wrist are the sorts of actions to be testing, and in general whether context and human understanding might matter more, or at least as much as, empirical data.


That's exactly what I don't understand about all those recent articles claiming that neuroscience shows free will is illusion. They seem to making the point that neuroscience shows that we're meat machines, biological entities, or whatever, and don't have non-physical souls. Did we need neuroscience to tell us that? Didn't these scientists already know that? What does neuroscience add? It would be one thing if the claim was that there's no connection between deliberation processes and actions but that's never the claim. So I honestly have no clue what role neuroscience is supposed to play--especially for hard-core biologists and psychologist who are already naturalists and are writing the articles.

The original Greene and Cohen article thought neuroscience might play a rhetorical role, for people who are committed to dualism--that's fine But these articles seem to claim that it's adding something substantive to the case which I don't get at all.

Oh and for the love of God stop using the term 'willusionism.'

Neal--thanks for the link. The article is reasonable to the extent that it doesn't take neuroscience as refutation of FW concerns, and that is a nice contrast to some other work that has come forward from those quarters.

But I want to say as well that I think it is clear that what science has said in the last 100+ years has had a huge impact on FW discussion. I don't mean the impact of QT primarily--though that certainly has had an effect in chipping away at the tenability of universal determinism. I mean the fact that the recognition of a biological basis for OCD, perception studies, the modularity the brain, etc. have shown increasingly that causal forms of explanation intrude into the general picture of who we are, and supplies some increase for the credence of the belief that we are just natural beings in a natural world where (QT aside) causality reigns. Accordingly, (e.g.) dualist accounts of FW that place its explanatory domain apart from the natural world seem (at least to me) outdated and at best quaint. And, I'd argue--as I have suggested elsewhere--the effect has been a retreat on the part of libertarians in trying to embrace non-causal accounts of FW. Agent-causation has been one side-stepping strategy; event-causation that relies in some way on QT (that salvages control against seeming irreducible mere possibility) is another. The very fact that Ginet and van Inwagen pushed the CA so hard is (as I see it) a frontal assault on the governance of law over human affairs, and I see as a reaction to that increasingly plausible train of argument. (So you want determinism? Look at what you must give up and despair!)

I'm not sympathetic to biological "pooh-poohing" of FW as much of the Libet, et al tradition holds, and Neil is certainly the Flickerer at the forefront of all that, but I think that it should be inarguable that the state of FW discussion today is in part--and maybe a large part--a function of the product of the march of science. And in various ways I expect that influence must continue, positively and negatively, since no metaphysical discussion can afford to ignore it.


Could be that neuroscience is particularly telling when it comes to debunking the folk view of the immaterial, non-mechanistic role of consciousness in behavior control. Whatever it is, consciousness on a naturalistic view likely doesn't transcend determinism and algorithmic mechanism, and neuroscience highlights this likelihood. When people are told that neurons do it all, they are forced to consider the possibility that they themselves are deterministic mechanisms, even though conscious capacities continue to contribute to control (no by-passing). Being organic choice-making machines isn't how they (or at least many of them) are used to thinking about themselves, so it's a bit of a shock. So Tallis rides in to reassure: pay no attention to those nasty neuroscientists!

In case anyone is interested, my next book will be on consciousness - from a neuroscientific perspective - and moral responsibility. Any flickerers interested in commenting on the ms, get in touch.

Well if anyone is interest, I have a new book coming out on free will and consciousness that argues that recent developments in the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences do in fact present a problem for free will—and not just because we are meat machines or lack souls. The book focuses on traditional problems with libertarianism and compatibilism along with recent empirical developments. I argue that the strong and pervasive belief in free will, which I consider an illusion, can be accounted for through a careful analysis of our phenomenology and a proper theoretical understanding of consciousness. Indeed, the primary goal of the book is to argue that our subjective feeling of freedom, as reflected in the first-person phenomenology of agentive experience, is an illusion created by certain aspects of our consciousness. After arguing against both libertarian and compatibilist conceptions of free will in the first half of the book, I then proceed to give a novel account of just how the illusion is created in the second half. I present my illusionist account using one leading theory of consciousness—the higher-order thought (or HOT) theory of consciousness. I maintain that by combining the theoretical framework of the HOT theory with empirical findings in the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences, we can come to see that the illusion of free will is created by the particular way our higher-order thoughts make us conscious of our mental states and how our sense of self is constructed within consciousness. If anyone is interested, here is a link (sorry for the shameless self-promotion!):

I don't think neuroscience will ever reach the point where it will be able to demonstrate a complete, mechanistic working of the brain. Nevertheless, it will probably develop to the point where what it does show is strongly suggestive of this point. It's not like scientists and some philosophers really need this extra illustration, but it might help, as Tamler says, in adding meat to the bones. fMRI in particular seems to have a kind of 'seeing is believing' quality that the folk are probably going to need to accept something so counter-intuitive (though this is not to suggest social practices will change in any radical way either).

I actually think that's the more interesting question: if we did away with free will, what would change, what would not and why? And if nothing would, is there any practical point investigating the matter? I know Greene and Cohen are optimistic, but I think it would probably take some anti-democratic, draconian measures to remove, say, retributivism as a justification for punishment.

(Context: I'm a grad student trying to figure out a career...)


If a neuroscientist believes that all of his thoughts are predetermined by the four fundamental forces of physics in a bottom-up manner, wouldn’t he also need to believe that one thought in his mind cannot affect, influence, or interact with another thought in his mind? It seems to me that he’d need to believe that all of his logic originates in a pre-programmed manner from the four fundamental forces of physics, and there is no interaction at the “pattern level” of neurological activity.


Your worries seem to be traditional worries over determinism. If that’s all that neuroscience reveals than I agree with Tamler and others that it’s not telling us anything new or interesting. That said, I do think recent research in the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences tells us interesting and challenging things about free will. As someone who comes at the problem of free will from the prospective of mind and consciousness, I am particularly interested in what recent empirical work tells us about consciousness, human agency, action initiation and control, introspection, our ability to know the true causes that move us, etc. Perhaps one of the problems is that when people talk about “empirical” threats to free will they ultimately end up talking about only one specific area of concern—usually Libet’s findings. In my book, however, I have a whole chapter on work in social psychology on automaticity and the adaptive unconscious (e.g., Bargh, Wilson, and others). I think that if you combine the work in neuroscience and the work in social psychology a really interesting story begins to emerge. These findings reveal that the higher mental processes that have traditionally served as quintessential examples of free will—-such as goal pursuits, evaluation and judgment, reasoning and problem solving, interpersonal behavior, action initiation and control, etc.—-can and often do occur in the absence of conscious choice or guidance. They also reveal just how “wide open” our internal psychological processes are to the influence of external stimuli and events in our immediate environment, without knowledge or awareness of such influence. This has an impact on reasons accounts and the reasons we give for why we do what we do. I think these findings are interesting, and not just because they are a problem for libertarianism. I think they also present real problems for many forms of compatibilism.

In all fairness, though, I have to admit that I am mainly concerned with the phenomenology of freedom. Although I think free will is an illusion (for both philosophical and empirical reasons), I’m more interesting in accounting for our subjective feeling of freedom. Determinists have long argued that free will is an illusion but there are surprisingly few accounts in the literature of how the illusion arises—with notable exceptions being Wegner, Strawson, and one or two others. My hope is that my book adds something to that discussion. I argue that my combining a theoretical and empirical approach, the phenomenology of freedom can be accounted for and explained away. In particular, I argue that by combining the theoretical framework of the HOT theory with empirical findings in the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences, we can come to see that the illusion of free will is created by the particular way our higher-order thoughts make us conscious of our mental states and how our sense of self is constructed within consciousness. I cannot go into the details of my account here but perhaps in the future I can present some of it to the rest of the flicker community to see what you think. (BTW, how does one become a contributor?)


Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your book sounds interesting and I look forward to reading it.

The simple question that I posed in my previous comment remains unanswered; do you believe that one thought in your mind can affect, influence, or interact with another thought in your mind? Yes or no. If your answer is yes, than you cannot believe that the four fundamental forces of physics are the only factors controlling your thoughts, unless you’re willing to believe in a contradiction.

I agree with you that I'm looking at a super-fundamental aspect of the FW problem. I believe that it’s *the* fundamental problem that we face when proving that FW exists. We must show that new forces emerge at the thought/pattern level, or we'll *never* prove that FW exists. Until we show that, the neuroscientist’s views will continue to lead us.

I believe there’s a new concept that will be the next stepping stone in proving that FW exists, and it’s called "living forces".

Regards, James Laird

I think that gregg is following the wrong path,yes wilson and bargh show us that we don´t know (sometimes)why we act or show that the body can make movements without conscious awareness,but that does not mean that we don´t have conscious control of motor movements (or thoughts),maybe our sense of FW sometimes if illusory but that doesn´t means that is ALWAYS illusory

Alexis, I would say three things. (1) First, I would point out that I said "These findings reveal that the higher mental processes that have traditionally served as quintessential examples of free will—-such as goal pursuits, evaluation and judgment, reasoning and problem solving, interpersonal behavior, action initiation and control, etc.—-can and often do occur in the absence of conscious choice or guidance." I said nothing about conscious causation being completely illusory. (2) You seems to be focusing exclusively on "conscious control of motor movements (or thoughts)" whereas the work of Bargh, Wilson and others have much more to say about goal pursuits, evaluation and judgment, reasoning and problem solving, interpersonal behavior, stereotype activation, unconscious appraisal, introspection, etc. These things are prima facie important to many compatibilist accounts of free will. (3) You seem to agree with me on the key point I was trying to make--i.e., that empirical research in the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences is not irrelevant to the free will debate. We may disagree on how to interpret the findings, or what the finds reveal, but the findings are (and should be) of concern to those interested in free will. I agree that how much conscious control we retain is an empirical issue. Hence, if consciousness matters at all to the issue of free will we should be concerned with empirical work.

James, I see no reason why someone cannot believe in mental causation and determinism. If mental states are just physical states (or supervient on or emergent from psychical states) I see no issue here. You may, however, be presupposing some kind of radical emergentism. There we disagree.

so gregg i don´t completely understand your point.FW is an illusion because "we couldn´t have do otherwise" (determinism) or is an illusion because "the unconscious overrides the conscious at least in motor movements and thoughts" please clarify that,i think you are discussing different things, where´s the argument against FW, in Philosophy or in neuro-psychology?

Gregg, we’re on common ground – we both believe that mental causation is true.

Can we also agree that a “thought” is a complex pattern of neurological activity that exists in a distributed manner within the three-space of a physical brain? If so, and if two different thoughts can interact at the thought/pattern level (i.e., mental causation), then can’t we agree that there must be new forces exerted at the thought/pattern level?

Here’s an analogy: When two waves run into one another on the surface of the ocean, there’s interaction. A person may observe that event and believe that the forces at the “wave level” interact thereby causing all of the individual droplets of water comprising the waves to move (i.e., there is downward causation). An equivalent way to analyze that event would be to begin from the molecular level and analyze from the bottom-up by adding all of the zillions of small force vectors together. That would be an upward-causation analysis and you’d end up with a mirror image of the downward causation analysis. In other words, the truth is there wasn’t actually any downward causation, and the motion of the water was controlled 100% by the four fundamental forces of physics (4FFOP).

Here’s where I’m going with this… Human thoughts are different than ocean waves. If a person believes their thoughts simply interact like ocean waves, they must also believe that their logic originates *totally* from the electro-chemical level (just as the control of the ocean waves originates totally from the 4FFOP level), and that any apparent interaction between their thoughts at the thought level is an illusion. In summary, if we believe that mental causation is true, then we must also believe that new forces emerge at the thought/pattern level.

Alexis, why does it have to be either/or? That feels like a false dichotomy to me. Why is it unacceptable to push philosophical AND empirical arguments against free will? Yes, I’m an incompatibilist that thinks libertarian freedom is an impossibility. I also think the empirical stuff adds fuel to the fire since it raises important questions about the role and function of consciousness.

James, I’m not sure what “new forces” means. I’m also not sure what concept of emergence you have in mind. If my memory serves me correctly, Robert van Gulick had an article in 2001 that discerned ten different varieties of the concept of emergence. Most are unproblematic for my purposes.

i don´t have problems with the "philosophical arguments against FW" but i don´t understand where´s the empirical evidence against free will, the neuroscience arguments are flawed many times the psychological treat i don´t think that argues correctly against free will, and i don´t know if you argue against FW based in Physics,so what´s the empirical evidence against FW that you are supporting?


Thanks for kicking off this discussion!

Also, I thought it was appropriate for you to use the title, "At Last", since you and Etta James are two of my very favorite Riverside people!!!

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