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Julian
I've been meaning to start this topic for a while now, since I first read this blog

It's inspired by the death of Benjamin Libet, who invented an experiment investigating free will, and whether or not we do it.

From the article
QUOTE
In this experiment he wanted to find the cause of our spontaneous, deliberate actions. <snip> ...philosophers and scientists for hundreds of years have argued that the brain does not need a magical conscious self to start actions off, and free will must be an illusion. <snip>...Libet actually found a way to test it.

He asked subjects in the laboratory to hold out their arm and, whenever they felt like it and of their own free will, to flex their wrist. He then measured three things - the time at which the movement began, the time at which the "readiness potential" in the brain began <snip> and then, most tricky of all, the time at which the subject made the decision to move.

This really is tricky because there is, by definition, no physical activity in the brain or anywhere else that corresponds to this. He was trying to measure something purely mental - the free decision, or thought, of wanting to act. Finding a way to do this is probably why the experiment became so famous. What he did was this. He had a spot revolving on a screen, like a clock face, and he asked the subjects to call out where the spot was at the exact moment that they decided to act. In other words, they were, after the fact, making a judgement about where the spot was at the time, and that could be used to accurately time the decision to act.

And his results <snip> were quite consistent and have since been repeated <snip>. The brain activity comes first, then the decision to act, and then finally the action itself. Not only does the decision to act happen after the brain is already getting ready to set off the action, but it comes nearly half a second later. It looks as though our conscious decision to act cannot, however strongly it feels that way, be the cause of our actions.

Oh dear! Free will seems to be disproved. But <snip> Libet himself did further experiments that seemed to show that we may not be able to start actions consciously, but we can veto them once they have begun - saving at least some role for free will.


Fascinating stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. The article goes on to mention that Libet, far from seeing his experiment as evidence that we are just post-rationalising biological machines, thought that there was some kind of disconnected, non-biological consciousness that might even survive death - but that's straying onto religious debate which is not what we do here on ad.gif

So...

Is free will the active choice to do things (and Libet's experimental results are bunk)?

Is it the outward result of a conscious filter that we apply to our unconscious motivations, congruent with Libet's experiment?

Is it an illusion (also largely congruent with Libet's experiment)?


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Julian
Ok, maybe it isn't all that fascinating, sinc enobody has replied, so I'll post my own thoughts to bump the topic and maybe get things started.

Is free will the active choice to do things (and Libet's experimental results are bunk)?

No.

Is it the outward result of a conscious filter that we apply to our unconscious motivations, congruent with Libet's experiment?

Is it an illusion (also largely congruent with Libet's experiment)?

I think it's most likely a combination of these two. I would like to believe that it is the outward result of a conscious filter - i.e. that we mostly express free will by deciding NOT to do the things our subconscious suggests that we do. But even that is more often driven by our social conditioning (upbringing, culture, etc.) than by any conscious process of rationality.

This position explains most human behaviour - including capitalism, marketing etc. We are vulnerable to unconscious suggestion; indeed, the very concept of impulse purchases is driven by the idea that marketers want us to buy on unconscious impulse then justify our decision to ourselves afterwards, if at all (how many times hae you got something home, or eaten something, and then wondered "why did I buy/do that??") because our unconscious is very easy for them to manipulate.

Our conscious minds are much harder to sell to, because - when we are applying a process of reasoning to a decision that we have not already made, we do weigh facts objectively.

We all see this, and occasionally grumble about it, here on ad.gif. In any given debate topic, we might have a predetermined view, or we might have an open mind. Where we have a predetermined view, we'll tend to defend it no matter what anybody else says, where someone else on the other side does exactly the same. Only someone with an open mind is likely to change it, at least during the course of the debate, and most of the topics debated here are polarising and so unlikely to attract anyone with no opinion either way (the very process of debate implies that on it's own - why would anyone join a debate only to say "I don't know"?)

I add that "during the course of the debate" advisedly, because I find that I often argue my original position till blue in the face, but after a few days, weeks or months - after my subconscious has absorbed what was being argued by the "other side" - my opinions change. I have to say I can't remember ever changing an opinion I had during the course of a debate either here on ad.gif or anywhere else.
akalae
Is free will the active choice to do things (and Libet's experimental results are bunk)?

Well, that's an interesting theorem. By what exact definition does one quantify free will? If we choose a course of action due to our interpretation of given stimuli, how can you immediately rule that this is an example of subconscious manipulation? I mean, in the end, isn't all choice, free or otherwise, a result of given stimuli? Where does determinism end, and free thought begin?

My reasoning is thus; we will always act according to given stimuli. However, (and this is important) depending on certain factors, we will all act differently. A man who grew up in harlem, for example, will be less willing to jump into a gunfight to save a child, because he knows what bullets do to human flesh. A naive suburbanite, on the other hand, might leap, and get himself killed. Now, each of these men, will have acted according to a combination of the given situation, and their own experiences. And that is free choice. The ability to take a situation, and weigh it against our experiences, and values, and act. The scientific aspect of it, is largely inutile, since from the start, choice has always been more of an aspect of philosophy than anything else.
Paladin Elspeth
QUOTE
And his results <snip> were quite consistent and have since been repeated <snip>. The brain activity comes first, then the decision to act, and then finally the action itself. Not only does the decision to act happen after the brain is already getting ready to set off the action, but it comes nearly half a second later. It looks as though our conscious decision to act cannot, however strongly it feels that way, be the cause of our actions.

Oh dear! Free will seems to be disproved. But <snip> Libet himself did further experiments that seemed to show that we may not be able to start actions consciously, but we can veto them once they have begun - saving at least some role for free will.

I fail to see that because the brain is already engaged for some finite time before the action takes place, that the action is not free will.

Consider if you will: the examiner tells the test subject (or "asks") to hold an arm out and at some point "flip the bird." The test subject looks at the examiner and, based on what s/he has learned in life is polite behavior, tells the examiner "no." While the behavior was first informed by past experience and the test subject was influenced by it matters less than the decision to disregard said past teaching/experience or to validate it by the consequent behavior. It is still a decision.

Or, the test subject can comply with the examiner's request/directive.

The fact that we consider our past actions regarding whether we should or shouldn't have done them and decide which course to take in the future is indicative of free will.

Of course, we are ruled by our concepts of right and wrong, what is going to advance or injure our cause in fitting into this society, etc. But, unless someone is threatening us with something that concerns us so much that it overrides our decision-making, we do things (or neglect to do things) of our own free will, regardless of the fact that our brains inform us of inculcated values, past experiences, etc.
AuthorMusician
QUOTE
Libet's experiments suggest unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, therefore, little room remains for the operations of free will. If the brain has already taken steps to initiate an action before we are aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated.


Oh really? So I guess my brain built up electrical charges before I decided to study guitar seriously in 1976? Yah, who would know. I don't run around with electrodes on my head and some guy in a lab coat following and shouting, "Would you please slow down?" Heh, screw you -- no free will, remember? What's it worth to yah?

What Libet discovered is what every guitarist already knows. Your fingers learn a lot of things so you don't have to think about them. The fingers learn chords, scales, melodies, picking patterns, keys, modulation, tempo, rhythm and a boatload of other things that come together into what we call a tune. Some people are born with these abilities, and we call that talent. Most of us have a little bit of talent, so the rest comes from steady practice, or in the vernacular, hard work.

But this is simply suspending free will to make things more efficient, which is an act of free will in the first place -- deciding to suspend it. This is a very simple example of exercising free will.

A greater exercise in free will is whether to believe something or not when the evidence isn't all there. For example, I believe Paris exists in France, although I've never been there. I believe the sun will rise in a couple of hours, although that event has not yet occurred. Contrasting with this is skepticism. I don't have much to go on as far as what Paris is like, so to get the full experience, I'd have to go there. What will I experience? Danged if I know. I could speculated, but that's just guessing so I doubt the truth of the speculation. I am skeptical about speculation because, well, I chose to be that way. Also, every time the sun comes up I feel good. Cool, we haven't completely screwed things up on this planet, and the amount of free will exercises behind that feeling is so broad and deep that I don't have enough time in one life span to go into it.

But as far as pushing buttons or down on strings against a fretboard, or plucking those strings just so, yeah, that's automagical thinking, like breathing or pumping blood or blinking eyes, all of which can be controlled through free will. Yogis do it all the time.

Heh, I don't think about doing a C chord followed by an F and then a G. Nope, I think about a chord progression in a certain key, and if I move those chord forms up or down X number of frets, I've just modulated to another key. I bet the old noggin is firing off like the dickens during this time, but my free will determines:

A) What tune is this?

cool.gif Should I smile at that girl?

C) How much is this gig worth anyway?

D) Maybe I should hang out afterward.

A guy could get lucky -- and oh boy, that opens up another bunch of possibilities.

Anyway, consciousness is way more complex than pressing buttons. Free will has a lot to do with it. If free will is an illusion, then I'll have to point out that the whole shebang is an illusion, according to those Yogi folks. But hey, when you think about it, we only know reality through the senses. Of course it's an illusion, by the definition of illusion, sort of like how this post is an illusion. I guess it's just electronics and pixels, not really anything at all.

So we're back down to only having doubt. We doubt, therefore we are.

Yeah, but that won't get a guy laid. I'll guarantee you that.
Victoria Silverwolf
Is free will the active choice to do things (and Libet's experimental results are bunk)?

If we accept Libet's experiments (and I see no reason not to do so), we must come to the conclusion that free will is, instead, the active choice not to do things.

Link

QUOTE
. . . he found, for example, that when a volunteer was instructed to move a finger, the brain unconsciously initiated the movement even before the volunteer was aware that the finger had begun moving.

To many philosophers this seemed to indicate that "free will" might not exist in humans at all, but Dr. Libet disagreed. When his experiments showed that if his subjects were told not to move a finger, or to stop moving it, their conscious will would maintain complete control - "could veto it and block performance of the act," as he described it.


(Bold added for emphasis)

Free will exists. On a neurophysiological level, it does not operate in exactly the way we always experience it. This is very interesting, but hardly earthshattering.

Is it the outward result of a conscious filter that we apply to our unconscious motivations, congruent with Libet's experiment?

Sure. Why not? The evidence seems to suggest so, and it makes sense.

Is it an illusion (also largely congruent with Libet's experiment)?

No. It may be true that the mechanism of free will, as we experience it, is illusory; but free will itself is very real. It's well known, for example, that our eyes "really" see the world upside down, but that our brains perceive it as right side up. This does not mean that vision does not exist! It simply means that the mechanism of vision is not exactly the same as our perception of it.

You cannot choose not to have free will.
KivrotHaTaavah
Julian:

By way of temporarily suspending my self-imposed exile, from Sir John Maddox's piece in the December 1999 edition of Scientific American, under the heading, "Catalogue Of Ignorance":

"The catalogue of our ignorance must also include the understanding of the human brain, which is incomplete in one conspicuous way: nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free. What consciousness consists of (or how it should be defined) is equally a puzzle. Despite the marvelous successes of neuroscience in the past century (not to mention the disputed relevance of artificial intelligence), we seem as far from understanding cognitive process as we were a century ago."

The other problem here is that readiness potential is being read as intention to act when it may mean nothing more than getting read to act just in case we have to act [or so report some nuerons in my brain]. With his free will in veto position [as it were], I'm surprised that Libet didn't see that concern. The other problem here is that we are talking about wrist movement and things like that. So it's not like any of the test subjects was of a tortured mind and so maybe it is simply a case of our consciousness not bothering to remind itself of the reality that before it actually decided to act, it had prepared itself for action just in case [or maybe for some as yet undetermined reason, we don't like mental torture and so the perception is always that our choice was firmly made at a specific moment in time]. As someone else put the matter:

"Although the subject's decision to move occurred too early for it to have been initiated by conscious thought, there was still - just - a window of opportunity in which conscious awareness might conceivably veto the move. This window lasts, on Libet's account, no more than about 100 milliseconds. Experimental proof is difficult. Libet has conducted experiments in which the subjects were asked to form an intention to move and then veto it at the last moment: apparently an RP appeared and then dissipated, but the weirdness of the mental gymnastics required of the subject seem to leave an element of doubt about the process. Is it possible to decide to move at a random moment while simultaneously holding on to the belief that you will not, in fact, execute the movement?
***
There are several avenues of attack against Libet's other conclusions, of course. Is the RP really a signal that a decision has been made? If I make a decision about my insurance policy, does an RP appear, or is it just wrist movements that cause RPs? The circumstances of both Libet's experiments and the earlier ones by Kornhuber and Deecke are rather strange: they require the subject to get into a frame of mind where they are ready to make a decision any moment. Might not the RP merely signal a quickening of attention, rather than a moment of decision?"

Or might it mean, as I wrote, that we are getting ready to act, just in case. And maybe once the decision is made, well, for wrist movement, why bother yourself contemplating on the matters of the considerations involved and just how long it took to make the decision, and so the perception is related back to when one first got ready to act, I mean, you are firm man of decision, are you not? Libet was probably not an athlete, since if he had been or was, then he would know that all athletes have a game plan going in and we leave it, the majority of the time, for the unconscious mind to perform the actual act within the initially set parameters. Well, maybe he was a baseball player, a pitcher, since there's more time to contemplate on pitch and location of pitch, but not so with basketball, tennis, hockey and some others, and no, I don't recall any perception at the moment that I had decided to put the puck in the right upper corner of the net, but I had decided the night before that if the pass was coming from the right and I was stationed to the left, that I would go right, as the goalie would be sliding over to his right and so the shot would be going back against his grain, but no doubt, we had some readiness potential the literal moment before arms moved to direct the stick to put the puck in the upper right corner. Oh, and the goal dance, well, that too was preplanned, though it too evoked some readiness potential a literal moment beforehand.

With that being said, time for me to go back into self-imposed exile.

Edited to add: Going back to my first point, what occasion for free will was there? Didn't all concerned expect to move their body at some point in time? And so the readiness potential is hardly surprising, i.e., the brain/mind knew that it was going to act even before the decision of when to act was made and so the body revved up for action before that decision was made.
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