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06/12/2014

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These two pieces offer a nice contrast in how to think about the relevance of neuroscience to free will. Neil offers a wonderful summary of his book, explaining why consciousness is important to free will and responsibility, because it allows us to integrate information (including about our own beliefs, values, etc.) in decision-making so as to make a decision that can be attributed to us. Meanwhile, the neuroscience study follows the Libet tradition of focusing on a literally meaningless 'choice' and then pointing out that because brain activity occurs before we make that 'choice', free will is an illusion (actually the study is not so bad but the media coverage, and the scientists' quotations in them, are silly). If consciousness is important for free will (and it is!), it's not because we need to be conscious of which way we will pick in a task where we are told not to think about how to pick. It's because free will requires that our choices represent our *selves* and consciousness is "where our selves come together." Neil's view reminds us that once we get straight on the relevance of consciousness to freedom and responsibility, neuroscience can be very useful in helping us understand how the brain implements consciousness and when it may fail to do so (e.g., in sleepwalking).

I have to say that I misinterpreted the title of Neil's article and predicted that he was going to say that we could (eventually) get useful information from brain scans about when someone regretted or felt guilty about prior bad acts. If so, we could get some useful information to help us determine if the person was really unconscious (e.g., sleepwalking) when they performed the bad acts, since lack of regret for it provides some evidence they may have done it with awareness of what they were doing, and vice versa--e.g., if the sleepwalking killer's brain showed indications that he felt horrified by what he did, that is some evidence that he did it without conscious control. Right? (These issues remind me a bit of Aristotle's interesting distinction in NE where he says non-voluntary actions due to ignorance count as involuntary--hence, non-responsible--if they are regretted by the agent.)

Another great article by Neil Levy!

As for the other article, it's been featured on several sites already, which is cool.

Here is another cool place it was featured:

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/278049.php

I can't imagine that a lot of the Willusionists are happy to see this news, and they probably won't spend much time considering this study anyway. They've already written off free will, and they're far too excited about the idea that they and everyone else are nothing more than robots, zombies, etc. I honestly feel that some of them wouldn't want free will if it was offered to them on a silver platter.

I'm sure we've been over this before. Neural noise doesn't give us the freedom the folk think it does. Flickerers should denounce the UC Davis study's purported relevance to free will just as strenuously as they do Libet's.

Title added by subeditor, Eddy. There is a little bit of discussion along related lines in a paper by Spence et al. They claimed to use fMRI to show that a woman accused of inducing illness in her child (Munchausen's syndrome by proxy) believed that she had detected, not induced, the illness.

Here's what I take from the random brain fluctuations paper. In Buridan's ass situations, we need a mechanism for breaking ties. It is likely that random fluctuations in readiness potential provides the mechanism. But we already had good reason to believe that, prior to this study (Schurger, Sitt & Dehaene 2012). As Eddy says, these choices are meaningless: that's why a tie-breaking mechanism is causally powerful.

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