Sunday, January 27, 2013

Damasio on free will

Given the reference to his work in the last post, here is an excerpt from this interview, his response to the specific issue of Libet's work and what it tells us about free will. This relates to what Churchland said about the past and future and the self being just as real as external reality. Apparently he develops these ideas in his book Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

"Well, it doesn’t because in fact most of the notions that we associate with deliberation and decisions that are important for one’s life are not taken the same way that we move this finger or we pick up the glass.  When we think about important decisions in one’s life, when we think about, for example, what we’re going to do with ourselves in terms of one’s career or what we’re going to... you know, how our relationship is going to be, whom we’re going to get married to or live with, those decisions are not taken on the fly.  Those decisions are, in fact, deliberated. And I love the word deliberated; it’s a word that has sort of disappeared from the vocabulary of decision making studies. But that is exactly what you’re doing.  Sometimes you deliberate for minutes or hours or weeks or months and you do it not in the moment of execution of the action.  You do it offline.  You take yourself away from the moment and you put yourself in a space that in fact competes with what you’re doing in the moment.  One thing that I like to point out is that if you are deliberating, even about something as simple as what you’re going to do this afternoon.  For a moment you say, “How am I going to plan this? I need to talk to three different people and I have only certain number or hours. How am I going to organize this?”  You don’t do that at the same time that you drive and drink glasses of water and other such.  You take yourself away from the perceptual moment and in fact you do that in such a way that others looking at you will get the impression that you are distracted and when somebody says that you are distracted you’re not paying attention.  It means you’re not paying attention to me.  What you’re paying attention is to what you’re going to do. And it’s a very interesting theory because what that does is also give you an incredible inkling as to how and where these processes are going on in the brain, because it immediately serves notice that there is a competition going on between what is in the perceptual brain."


  1. <<"Does free will necessarily have to be, first of all, a fully conscious action?" I mean if you’re thirsty and you get a glass of water you don’t necessarily have full, subjective linguistic consciousness of getting a glass of water, right, so but also I think you might want to refine this notion of the degree to which a finding like that does not tell us that we have no free will.>>

    That says it all there. If routine behavior that we can all observe every day in our lives demonstrates that we don’t act freely, let’s “refine” our definition of free will. That’s exactly what Churchland is doing as well, with her “self-control”. As I said before, I have no real quarrel with Churchland, but let’s be clear that she’s in effect giving up the defense of free will in anything remotely resembling the traditional understanding of it. As are Dennett, Gazzaniga, etc.

    This maneuver is somewhat reminiscent of what Dennett tried to do with consciousness before: he claimed that he had “explained” consciousness, when most scientists and I think philosophers would argue that he avoided the heart of the issue, the hard question of qualia or ineffability. In much the same manner, Churchland et al. are “explaining” free will by avoiding the heart of the issue, which is causal independence. Unlike the case with Dennett and consciousness, all of these thinkers (including Dennett, when he discusses free will) are at least admitting this. But then it’s easier to do in this instance, because while free will can be dismissed as an illusion, one can’t do this with consciousness. IOW, there has to be some explanation for consciousness, because it really exists, whereas there does not have to be an explanation for free will, because it does not necessarily exist.

  2. And I made clear in other post comments that I am not defining free will by any "traditional understanding" of "causal independence." The reason I'm bringing in Churchland and Damasio is to show how I too am defining it in terms of "self-control."


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