Conscious Will and Cognitive Science

So my Philosophy teacher informed us all in class yesterday that cognitive science has shown that the sequence in the brain, as far as can be observed, when we will to raise our arms and then our arms do rise, is rather the opposite of what we might have expected. First, the synapses which signal the arm to move are active, and then only afterwards, as though a psychological coping mechanism, does that part of the brain which has to do with intention and will light up. This means that we only suppose that we ‘will’ to raise our arm, and then it rises, and implies that actually the causal chain starts in the brain with movement without intention, then movement in the arm, then finally we ‘will’ to raise our arm. As we were discussing Malebranche’s occasionalism and speaking about determinism and mechanism in general, it was obviously a relevant tangent.

The teacher said that he was just fine with it, and that it implied determinism, but that most people are disappointed when they first hear about it.

I, on the other hand, am delighted. This is a fantastic argument for mind-brain dualism. I take it that everyone knows that when they say “I will raise my arm in 3 seconds” and in 3 seconds my arm rises, my willing it must be that which begins the causal chain. In Theological terms, as a being with a rational soul we act as causal ‘first-movers’. In other words, if the theologians are not right about the mind-brain dualism (or soul-body dualism) then cognitive science, it would seem, has settled the case for determinism. This, it seems to me, can only be bad news for an empiricist.

I take it as properly basic that we have free will, since we experience it immediately and understand ourselves and our inter-action with the world with which we are presented, in those terms. Even the determinist cannot help but at least ‘pretend’, as though adopting a comforting myth, that he is free to do that which he wills to do. Indeed, even the staunchest determinist, if woken suddenly in the night, will without thinking about it act on the assumption that she has free will.

This argument may even have implications for the epistemological arguments among Medieval philosophers (such as between Bonaventure and Aquinas) about the powers of the soul. I think it clearly vindicates (though doesn’t prove) Bonaventure’s model over that of Aquinas. Funny how, though I don’t advocate any kind of naturalized epistemology, I it that take science is always able to bring something to bear on philosophy, and is able to provide arguments (inconclusive, but good) for or against that which has long tormented the best philosophers.

That is all for today.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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10 Responses to Conscious Will and Cognitive Science

  1. Mary-Jane says:

    Do you have the reference for the actual article this is based on? I’m curious as to which parts of the brain they consider those “which have to do with intention and will.” How would they know that if those areas were never activated prior to an action?

  2. I do not, but I should ask for it. I think I’ll send him an email and get back to you.

  3. I asked him today, and he got back to me saying that he was skeptical that science really has done much to ‘solve’ anything with this evidence. He is a determinist, or at least comfortable with that position, but not for reasons of current scientific evidence. Anyways, he said he wasn’t sure he could recall the exact study, but he directed me to a book off the top of his head called “The illusion of conscious will” which I have linked to here: http://www.amazon.com/Illusion-Conscious-Will-Bradford-Books/dp/0262232227

    He said that there was something more recent he had read in the New York Times or something, but he couldn’t recall it in detail.

    • Mary-Jane says:

      That’s too bad. I do wish people would get their science straight – or at least know where it comes from – before citing it in support of a theory.

      I checked out the book – looks interesting. Although, much as it pains me to say it (being a pretty empirical-minded person in a lot of ways), I’m not sure how much cognitive science actually has to say about this topic. Naturally, cognitive scientists will explain all their findings in terms of physical causes, because that’s the only practically useful way to do science – avoiding recourse to the metaphysical unless absolutely necessary. But the fact that they do so is not really proof of determinism, it just means they’re working within the framework they’ve set up for themselves. There’s a kind of circularity to the whole thing.

      It’s hard to imagine what an “empirical proof” either for or against conscious will, and divorced from any biasing starting assumptions, would look like. If you think of one, let me know and I’ll run the experiment :P.

      • Yes, though I have one small correction to submit. I think that science is already doing metaphysics, or at least that most scientists are, and they are simply proceeding with the assumptions of metaphysical naturalism or something similar. What scientists don’t want to do, it seems, is overturn the principle of methodological naturalism in looking for an answer which accords better with a supernatural ontology. It is important to remember, though, that meta-physics is often misunderstood to mean “after physics” because Aristotle’s Metaphysics was composed as a second volume of Physics “after” the first “Physics”. Metaphysics, properly construed, just IS physics (though not only ‘physics’ as we intend the word today). So the question has to be what metaphysical system undergirds science. Historically it is something like robust monotheism which allows justification for such assumptions as induction. However, in the modern period this has been replaced with a (naive) Empiricism and a presumed ontology of metaphysical naturalism. Empiricism, though, can only really be about models of the world, and which models fit the data so as to yield the greatest simplicity, explanatory scope, explanatory power, etc.

        Strictly speaking, “empirical proof” is an oxymoron.

  4. unklee says:

    I’m not much of a philosopher (or anything else for that matter), but I have read about such experiments and conclusions also. And I agree, if correct, they strengthen the case for dualism. But also:

    1. Wilder Penfield did some experiments that seemed to show the opposite result – that the will was definitely separate from the brain. If I remember rightly, he was able to stimulate a part of the brain that causes us to move our hand. Then he told subjects to try to avoid moving their hand, and then stimulated the brain so that they moved the hand anyway, and they were able to distinguish this from when he asked them to move their hand voluntarily, and say “You made me do it that time”. THis is old research now, so may have been superseded, but it is interesting.

    2. A while back a read a number of books from our local library by neuroscientists, and while they all discussed the neuroscience in terms that lead to deterministic conclusions, none of them really addressed the issue, and all of them wrote as if we really have free will, using terms like “should”, “ought” etc. I found this a curiously blinkered approach. It really does seem as if we cannot operate as a human race without believing in free choice and moral responsibility.

  5. Very interesting. I notice that the research you cite actually comes from the same book as the professor directed me to. As an additional thought for reflection, doesn’t it seem like even if the evidence went the other way it could be construed as supporting Dualism. I wonder then whether Dualism is just so properly basic as an assumption that no empirical evidence in principle could undermine it. That push the question back to this: what would be the best empirical evidence that Free Will doesn’t exist? I suppose this might qualify as the best empirical evidence, and the question simply becomes whether the evidence should ever compel a rational person to accept determinism (or some other model) over a model involving Free Will. I think the answer must be “no”.

  6. unklee says:

    In the end, I believe in free will because it feels like I experience it, and many important things in life don’t make sense unless we have free will. The pronouncements of neuroscientists can be dismissed as reductionist.

    So why do so many neuroscientists believe in determinism?

    One answer is that they trust the results of their science, reductionist though it be, over their experience of life. Though, as John Polkinghorne says: “there is an implausibility in those who seek to reduce parts of such [i.e. human] experience to the status of epiphenomenal, an implausibility repeatedly exemplified by our inability outside our studies to live other than as people endowed with free agency and reason.” i.e. what they write in their books and how they live may be two different things.

    But surely the correct answer (for them) should be “because my brain was pre-determined to think it is pre-determined” Or is that a misunderstanding?

  7. No, not at all. In fact I think that determinism actually makes ‘rational beliefs’ per se impossible, since all beliefs are simply caused by the constant conjunction of bodies rather than rational intuition coupled with experience. I will address this in an upcoming post on Free Will over the month of December, but for now, I recommend reading this little blurb from… hmmm.. I see that it’s been taken down from the website it was previously on. No matter, I have the book right here, I’ll just copy it out.

    If thought is laryngeal motion, how should any one think more truly than the wind blows? All movements of bodies are equally necessary, but they cannot be discriminated as true and false. It seems as nonsensical to call a movement true as a flavour purple or a sound avaricious. But what is obvious when thought is said to be a certain bodily movement seems equally to follow from its being the effect of one. Thought called knowledge and thought called error are both necessary results of states of brain. These states are necessary results of other bodily states. All the bodily states are equally real, and so are the different thoughts; but by what right can I hold that my thought is knowledge of what is real in bodies? For to hold so is but another thought, an effect of real bodily movements like the rest…. These arguments, however, of mine, if the principles of scientific [naturalism] … are to stand unchallenged, are themselves no more than happenings in a mind, results of bodily movements; that you or I think them sound, or think them unsound, is but another such happening; that we think them no more than another such happening is itself but yet another such. And it may be said of any ground on which we may attempt to stand as true, Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum. [It flows and will flow swirling on forever].

    Originally from H.W.B. Joseph in “some problems in ethics”, but I quoted it from another source:
    “Handbook of Catholic Apologetics” By Peter J. Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, p.72

  8. Matt says:

    Now I just read your article but skipped some of the comments so I hope that I am not repeating what anyone has already said.

    I myself am an aspiring theologian, but I also have a strong science background. I took all the science classes that I could in high school and my bachelor’s degree is in biology. For a long time, when I got interested in theology, one thing that held me back from putting my faith (back) in Catholicism was the doctrine of free will. It was a big roadblock to me for a long time. I have certainly heard of the experiment that your philosophy professor referenced in class. I have also heard of a number of others that seem to pose a problem for free one. One, for example, I learned in a psychology class when we were talking about hypnotism. As an experiment, a psychologist trained people to, at the sound of a ringing telephone, to pick up an umbrella. I forgot exactly how he did this, but nevertheless, when the telephone rang, his subjects went and picked up an umbrella. When asked why they picked up the umbrella, the subjects all came up, almost without hesitation, with explanations. “It looked like it was going to rain.” Or, “I thought that this was poorly placed and might fall over, so I was repositioning it.” This experiment, the experiment you cited above (which suggests that free will is an illusion) and the overall scientific worldview that I was unconsciously adopting as a science student, lead me to reject that we have any real freedom. I found this view depressing. It left no room for ethics or love etc..etc… I wanted to believe in free will, but I didn’t see how it was possible. (Of course, you can imagine, as I wanted to become an ethicist, it was rather difficult for me to keep reading ethicists and moral theologians who so easily assumed free will.)

    There were two major discoveries for me. The first came from a conversation with my cousin, who was majoring in chemistry at the time and so had a similar worldview to me, about a philosophy course that she decided to sign up for. She was troubled because her philosophy professor gave an argument for determinism that seemed convincing to her. Her boyfriend at the time, an atheist, was trying to convince her of free will, and she wasn’t buying it. So she said, “If a person acts in an unpredictable fashion, then his decision-making process is simply random. If his actions are perfectly predictable, then his decision-making process is simply a reflex. If his actions are mostly predictable but sometimes unpredictable, then his decision-making process is a reflex with some randomness thrown in.” Initially, this sounded convincing to me. But then I realized something. This reason already based on the assumption that free will can’t exist! In fact, it actually says nothing about free will at all. Of course, if a being had mostly predictable actions but was sometimes unpredictable, one possibility is that his decision-making process is reflexive with an element of randomness, but is that the only possibility? When scientists do an experiment, what do they do? They propose a hypothesis and predict experimental results accordingly. So, if we are reasonable beings with free will, then what should we observe? We should observe creatures who rationally act for ends and we should mostly be able to predict their actions because we know that they will act for ends which they perceive to be good. To act otherwise would be ludicrous. However, sometimes, our predictions will not work, because the subject will see reality at least slightly differently from us. So what should we see? We should see a person whose actions are mostly, but not entirely, predictable. And that, that is exactly what we find.

    This helped, but there was still a problem. In order for my above-mentioned though experiment to work, I had to deny the scientific, naturalistic understanding of nature. For human freedom to be truly free, there must be an “unnatural” or “supernatural” and also immaterial aspect of the human person. Every choice we make must be an interaction between the supernatural and the natural. Wow. How does that work? Well, I haven’t quite figured it out yet. Aquinas and Aristotle have helped some. I am more ready to agree with their understanding of the soul then I used to be. I used to find Plato and Descartes much more convincing. (whose postion, by the way, is usually referred to as “dualism” which is why I think you should avoid calling it that) I have recently come up with two analogies that to try to explain the relationship between the soul and the body, the mind and the brain.

    The first is from the theory of evolution. I once say John Paul II define a scientific theory as a “metascientific elaboration…” I thought, “Is a theory ‘metascientific’ in the same way that the soul is ‘metaphysical’?” In that sense, physical observations are to theories and the body is to the soul. So, here’s how it works:

    Darwin’s observations:
    1) Species have a capacity of over-reproduce
    2) Progeny vary in their traits
    3) Those progeny which are better suited to their environment are more likely to survive to reproduce

    Conclusion:
    This means that traits which enable their bearers to be more suited to their environment will accumulate in the population, thus changing the population’s overall structure.

    So, evolution takes place in the world. Species interact and change over time. The sum total of the events is evolution, which cannot be reduced to its physical components.

    This analogy to the body and the soul has a number of problems. The most obvious of which is that the soul is supposed to be the “form” of the body. It is supposed to be something given to the body by God. Evolution, however, is something that arises from physical circumstances. It does not intervene or interact with them, it merely results from them.

    Then I came up with what seems to me to be a better analogy. Software and hardware. A computer is composed of both software and hardware. If you build a computer and assemble all of its components, it will not function. It has to be programmed. This program is not something that exists physically (though, of course, you can identify physical elements such as patterns of electronic currents which correspond with the program) and yet it works through the physical hardware of the computer. If there is a software bug, the hardware will not do its job. Likewise, if the hardware is messed up, the software can’t do its job. So, if I smash my hard drive, it would be the same as smashing a persons cerebral cortex. If I smash the RAM chip, it would be the same as smashing a person’s frontal lobe. The software depends on the hardware for its expression and its expression is shaped by the hardware. This made me more ready to accept things like genetic determination of personality traits and yet still believe in human freedom.

    Anyway, I’d be thrilled if anyone who had the patience to keep up with my long rant could manage to critique or improve upon my understanding of the mind-body problem and the free will-nature problem. Although C.S. Lewis does not explain much *how* this works, he gives a very good defense of why it is necessary that all human insights, choices, and moral judgments must be manifestations of the supernatural in the natural realm.

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