Determinism 5 – The Split Second of Freedom?

[This is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first post is here.]

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet performed some experiments relating to the free will. He sat people down in front of a kind of clock face with a dot moving around it very fast. They could stop the dot with a flick of the wrist. Libet asked them to note where the dot was when they formed the intention to move their wrist in order to make the dot stop. He also measured via an electrode on their head when the “specific electrical change in the brain (the ‘readiness potential’)” that “precedes freely voluntary acts” occurred.

He found that the electrical change in the brain occurs more than half a second before the action is taken. And that the human subject becomes aware of the intention to act 350-400 milliseconds after the electrical change but still around 200 milliseconds before the action is taken.

This research was pounced on by those arguing that we have no free will. How can we be said to choose freely to act when the evidence for the action about to be taken is there before we are even consciously aware of it?

But Libet himself wasn’t quite as categorical about his findings. He clearly took the view that we should assume that we have free will. He suggested that his experiment showed that free will might consist in being able to veto actions that the brain proposes to undertake. In the 200 or so milliseconds between our awareness of our intention to act and the action itself, we can stop ourselves from acting. He says that sometimes the electrode showed a readiness potential in some of his experimental subjects and they became aware of an intention to act but didn’t ultimately take the required action to stop the dot moving. His conclusion is:

“The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiatives for voluntary actions as ‘bubbling up’ in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiatives may go forward to an action or which ones to veto and abort, with no act appearing.”

The  ethical conclusion Libet reaches is that guilt and the attribution of moral wrong-doing should relate only to actions taken, not to thoughts about actions. Specifically, he rejects the kind of doctrine expressed in the Sermon of the Mount:

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”’ (Matthew, 5.27–8).”

But those who see Libet’s experiments as proof of the absence of free will, have to force themselves to overlook the fact that Libet quotes – at the end of his article published in a scientific journal – the author Isaac Bashevis Singer who said:

“The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself life is worthwhile living.”

But it doesn’t end there. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach discusses the Libet experiment and quotes with approval another Tara (Bennett-Goleman) who calls the milli-seconds between our awareness of an intention forming and the physical movement to implement it, the “magical quarter-second.” Tara Brach concludes that:

“By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we are able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. If our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button. The basic mindfulness tools for working with compulsive thinking are “coming back” and “being here.”

It’s time to disentangle some thoughts. Here’s what I think:

  1. Libet’s experiment is interesting but it doesn’t necessarily show any of the things he or others claimed. It could simply be a case of brain-hand-eye co-ordination takes certain amounts of time. Also, if we believe that we have free will, as Libet does, then how can we tell that the electrical charge in the brain isn’t just something we generate when we exercise our free will?
  2. The ability to say no to things that bubble up in the brain an unconvincing and unsatisfying version of free will. Surely we would want the ability to choose positively what actions to take, rather than just a power of veto.
  3. I don’t think Libet’s moral conclusions would follow from his interpretation of free will as a power of veto. In a later blog I’ll aim to argue for moral responsibility even for predetermined, not just for freely willed actions.
  4. Even if Libet’s and Bennett-Goleman’s magic quarter-second doesn’t follow from the experiments, there is clearly the possibility of a reflective space before any action. I think making use of it, and practising the ability to extend it, can make our actions better, even if not necessarily freer. This is again something I’ll want to discuss in a future blog.

 

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Useful Concepts – #8 – Just Going for It

The first thing to be aware of is the so-called “paradox of choice.” This provides the background for some useful concepts for making decisions. The paradox is that we expect more choice to be better for us and to make us happier but it doesn’t. Psychologists have found that once we have too much choice, say 24 flavours of jam or types of breakfast cereal rather than 4, we become less able to choose, more worried about the consequences of our choice, more likely to be stressed out about making the choice, potentially even anxious about whether we’ll regret it, and eventually less happy with our choice in retrospect.

Of course there are strategies and techniques for dealing with the problem of too much choice. For example, there’s the distinction between optimising and satisficing. Optimising is a strategy whereby you keep considering further options until you’ve convinced yourself that you have the best one. Satisficing is a decision-making approach whereby you set yourself some criteria that have to be fulfilled, and as soon as you find an option that fulfils them, you go for it. So, if you’re dining out and choosing a main course from a menu, you might set yourself the criteria green, vegetarian and rich in carbs and as soon as you arrive at the spaghetti al pesto, you look no further.

Beyond the strategies and techniques, there are useful insights from the philosophy of practical reason. This looks at what it means to have reasons for action or to act on reasons. When I read certain philosophers on this subject, I can’t help having the image in my head that we are like characters in one of those video game where you walk through an environment and jump to avoid a hole in the ground, duck to avoid flying objects, or swerve to collect objects for bonus points. In those games, if you fail to take the right action, you may lose a life. If you take it skilfully, you get bonus points or reach the next level. Much like real life then.

Let’s accept then that as rational animals we just are responsive to certain features of the world we live in which are reasons for action. They are not in any way magical entities. Having a bottle of water available when we are thirsty could be a reason to drink it.  Seeing someone who looks lost or distressed may be a reason to help them. Wanting to improve our health and fitness may be a reason to go to a gym.

But here’s a minor difficulty: our environment is a bit more complex than that of a video game. That’s partly because there is no reason to believe that the world is designed in such a way that in any given situation there is just one reason available to us that is the right one for us to act on. There may be many reasons available to us and some of them may be reasons for actions that are mutually exclusive.

So, say for example, that in the past I promised to visit a friend on a given day. That is a reason to make a visit. But – assume I’m also a tennis obsessive – at the same time suddenly and surprisingly someone gives me a ticket to see the Wimbledon finals. Now I have a reason to do that. So now I have a dilemma. Some people might say that the reason provided by a promise I made trumps the prospect of the relatively selfish pleasure of watching a game of tennis. (But you could imagine that my visit could be easily re-arranged, that my friend had alternative things to do and is quite happy not to be visited, that the tennis was going to be the last public appearance of a great player…) And the dilemma could just as easily be between two strong moral reasons for doing something.

These dilemmas caused by competing reasons can be large, serious and to some extent painful. But they can also be positive. Once or twice people have come to me and said things like: “I need advice. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been offered a new job, but then my current job is also getting really interesting and there may be an opportunity for promotion here…” The first thing to understand is that these are not desperate, overwhelming situations in which it is necessarily the case that one choice is right and the other wrong. When seen in perspective a positive dilemma is actually a relatively pleasant situation to be in. It is a mistake to think that just because we are asked to choose between alternatives, one must be right and the other wrong. Or just because we have several options, they can be ranked in order of goodness and one is clearly the best. The strength of the reasons available to act upon may not even be measurable by the same yardstick. Again, there just is no reason to assume that the world is organised for us in such a simple way.

So maybe what we need is some useful concepts to help us with the fact that reasons for action can pull us in different directions at the same time. Here are some of them.

1. Just doing something: This is a favourite of mine. Once we understand that the world is not organised in a way that guarantees that there is always a right choice and only ever exactly one, and once we have acquired a feel for what it’s like to be in such a situation, it is easier to just do something. In philosophical literature this is sometimes inelegantly described as “plumping” for a choice. This is definitely valid for times where we run out of further criteria or reasons to choose one way over another. (It may be more advisable for relatively trivial choices.)

2. Paying attention to the ‘remainder’ and dealing with it: There may be situations in which we have to make a choice, or take an action, from which we just don’t emerge particularly well. (The situation of being double-booked and having to cancel one commitment springs to mind.) Again, where someone is caught in a dilemma, the existence of a choice between several options doesn’t guarantee that one of them is the right action. In those situations it might help to understand that there is a “remainder” to deal with. That is to say an expectation that regret is felt and expressed, an apology, some kind of restitution or compensation made willingly.

3. Character – the kind of person I am or want to be: In her book On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse provides a very serious example of a dilemma:

“Suppose (just for the sake of an example) that whether to ask the doctors to continue to prolong one’s unconscious mother’s life by extraordinary means for another year, or to discontinue treatment now, would be an irresolvable dilemma in some cases.”

She then considers two very different people in that situation:

One might be a doctor herself, someone who had always striven to think of the human body as a living, and hence mortal, thing, not as a machine to be tinkered with; she knows that, if her mother were her patient, she would advise the discontinuation of treatment. The other might be someone who worked with apparently hopeless cases of mental disability, someone who said of herself ‘I never give up hope; I couldn’t do the job if I let myself.’ Faced with some such decision as the one outlined, it seems that each might act differently, each believing, correctly, that she had a (…) reason for favouring the action she elected to take.

And while the situation involved and the possible outcomes just are such that it may look wrong to say the both took the right action, as Hursthouse remarks, it is plausible to describe them as having acted well –

courageously, responsibly, thoughtfully, conscientiously, honestly, wisely – and not just describe them merely as having done what was permissible, which any cowardly, irresponsible, thoughtless, heedless, self-deceiving fool could just as well have done in the circumstances.

So my biography, my standards, my ideals, things that have always been important to me are valid pointers to which competing reasons I should act on. (I always thought that mottos inscribed on coats of arms may function in that kind of way.) This could also help in more trivial and positive situations than the one described by Hursthouse. Choosing from a menu for example, I could say to myself “I like being adventurous, so I will order something I’ve never had that looks a bit unusual.” Or I could say “I know what’s good and what I like, so why shouldn’t I have the same I had last time. After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

As someone said, choices when repeated over time become habits, habits over time become character. And character can in turn become a guide to the choices we should make.