Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review of Libet and recent research

So let's review the last few posts on Libet and recent research challenging one aspect of his research. He noted a readiness potential that occurred before the conscious awareness to move, and the latter occurred before the movement. And from that research the reductionistic determinists found support for their “hidden ad hoc assumptions,” assumptions that Libet himself did not share. To the contrary, Libet found that the conscious awareness of the movement indeed supported free will, despite the apparent earlier unconscious response.

Now the latest research shows that this precursor to conscious awareness has nothing to do with either the conscious awareness or the movement, and that the consciousness and the movement are virtually simultaneous. This would seem to support or at least suggest the controlled choice indicative of at least some degree of free will. Since it seems every naysayer of free will has used Libet's precursor neural response as evidence of their agenda, and that vestige of supposed proof has gone poof, it will likely prove most interesting and delightfully entertaining to see them gasp and groan and flail and kick in the death throes of their cherished fantasy. I for one will revel in the spectacle.


  1. We really don’t need neurophysiological studies to demolish the notion of free will. It just isn’t coherent. From a physical point of view, every action either has a cause, or occurs randomly. If it has a cause, then the cause determines the action, not free will. If it occurs randomly, then it may not have a deterministic cause, but neither is it the product of free will.

    Even if one doesn’t accept the physical argument—which means, in effect, one is a dualist, and believes that free will operates independently of the physical world--the concept is still incoherent from a psychological point of view. The point of doing anything is to achieve some goal, which means to satisfy some desire. That desire is the motivator of the action.

    Try to imagine yourself with free will. By definition, free will implies choice, because if there isn’t more than one option, there is nothing to be free about. Why then do you choose one action and not another? If you act rationally, then rational considerations are the cause of your action. If you act irrationally, that is, not entirely logically, you are still choosing based on some desires. If you act “spontaneously”, which is to say, not according to any rational considerations or any desires, then like a random physical occurrence, it isn’t a product of free will.

    Rather than spend so much energy trying to defend the existence of free will, people might better ask themselves why they have so much invested in this belief. Therein lies the path to freedom. Not freedom of choice, but freedom from choice.

  2. The way we normally act, certainly in all the most important and critical parts of our life where we would most expect to exercise free will if we had any, is to weigh a large number of factors, and come to a conclusion about which factors are most important. There is no room in this process for free will. The whole point of making a decision is to weigh these factors as carefully as possible, and this means that the decision is determined completely by these factors. If it were not, then the decision would be counter-productive. In evolutionary terms, it would not maximize the possibility of survival.

  3. If I understand you, making a choice of any kind is the cause, and that's what I mean by free will: having some (not complete or total) choice on one's actions. I don't know what you mean by the expression. I could ask you the same question, on why you must defend determinism. Seems adherents are afraid to accept responsibility for their actions.

    I might also add that the above is entirely bodily-based, not dualist. Take Lakoff's work, for example. While he acknowledges the cognitive unconscious, which handles most of our action and behavior, can nonetheless to some degree be trained and redirected. I.e., we have some control over it and can make some choices.

  4. You say you mean by free will "having some (not complete or total) choice." Who is the "I" that "has" this choice? Unless you can identify such an "I", independent of the physical world (this is dualism), these “choices” are completely explained by physical processes. The only “I” that makes sense is something that does not own or “have” these choices, but is these choices, that is, identifies with them as they are made by physical and biological processes. This is not free will in any meaningful sense, it’s just something that is along for the ride.

    It’s not a matter of being afraid to accept responsibility for actions. It’s a matter of not being inconsistent with logic and facts. As I said before, the notion of free will is incoherent. How could any choice be made except by weighing various options, a process that is completely explainable in terms of physical and mental processes? Free will implies that one does not have to act according to weighing various options.

    Lakoff’s work is irrelevant to the discussion of free will. You seem to assume that conscious actions are an exercise in free will. But conscious actions are just as much a matter of physical and biological processes as unconscious ones.

  5. Actually it is you who are irrelevant here. One does not have to identify an "I" independent of the physical world to have decision and choice. Lakoff's work is entirely relevant, since this "I" and its rational choices are indeed embodied in the brain and culture, but are not completely determined by it. Our individuality, and its choices, are obviously constrained by body-brain-culture, but also something novel emerges that cannot be reduced to it. That's the whole point of novel emergence, since the physical parts cannot predict what will emerge. And also the point of neuroplasticity, that we can consciously change not just our choices but our actual physical brains and cultural programming, as neuroscientific studies of meditation and leaning attest. There's an entire field now called decision neuroscience. Perhaps you should check out some of the links and articles I've cited.

    And it is also interesting that you completely sidestepped the latest neuroscientific study that challenged and overturned an aspect of Libet's reseach, research that the determinists have been using to support their agenda since that research came out. I'm not surprised, for there is no good answer to it at this point.

  6. I'd also suggest reading the book The Neurobiology of Free Will, the subject of a recent post. I've also highlighted some of the articles from that book in recent posts. They provide ample empirical evidence of how emergent structures not only exemplify an unexpected novel occurrence but also how they exert top-down causation on the parts. They grant the predecessor constraint but not their complete determinism, and if fact how emergent structures 'determine' and change the parts to some degree.

  7. Emergence is not the same thing as free will. If it were, you could conclude that because a cell emerges from molecules, has novel properties that the molecules don’t have, and exerts downward causation on the molecules, that it has free will. A cell is just a much more complex result of causal processes, and so is an organism.

    Yes, I’m aware that supporters of free have referred to Libet’s work, but as I said before, it’s unnecessary.

    I'm really surprised that anyone with any spiritual experience would be hedging on this issue. One of the first and most important lessons on the spiritual path is that we are asleep, which means we have no free will.

  8. Another tenet of spirituality is that we can indeed wake up and be liberated, to some degree. I will continue this in the "more on Churchland" thread.

  9. See for example this section* on nirvana of the wiki on Buddhism. Granted I have criticisms about some metaphysical (idealist) interpretations of Buddhist liberation but the point is that through conscious effort and learning one can dive into and through the lower programs, thereby re-programming them, to achieve some measure of 'freedom' or liberation from them. THAT is the point of the endeavor, not just accepting all is illusion or samsara.



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