Determinism 13 – The Psychological Motives for Philosophical Views and Sam Harris’ Free Will

In this great piece of philosophical polemic (it starts with “What is the silliest claim ever made?”), Galen Strawson draws attention to the psychological benefits philosophers might gain from maintaining certain positions, the weaknesses in human rationality that allow or lead them to do so, and the – possibly unintended – political consequences.

Psychologically, he suspects that:

“it can seem exciting to hold views that seem preposterously contrary to common sense – there’s something Oedipally thrilling about it when the father is an old gentleman called Ordinary Opinion. Herbert Feigl adds another psychoanalytic note: ‘Scholars can cathect [or invest] certain ideas so strongly and their outlook becomes so ego involved that they erect elaborate barricades of defences, merely to protect their pet ideas from the blows (or the slower corrosive effects) of criticism.”

I assume that when we ask ourselves the questions whether we have free will, or not; whether we are entirely determined, or not; and what the consequences are if we answer these questions either way, we have to be on our guard against wanting so hard to answer them in a certain way merely in order to fulfil psychological needs that we blind ourselves against weaknesses in our thinking.

On the one hand, you’d expect us to be heavily invested in the idea that we are somehow in charge of our own lives, that our choices and decisions are ours and that we are – poetically speaking – the “captains of our souls.”

On the other hand maintaining a hard determinist position that we are entirely predetermined in our actions, can be exciting and thrilling, in that it probably goes against ordinary opinion. (I say “probably” because it’s reckless to assume that one has a firm grasp on what ordinary opinion is.)

But it also has the psychologically soothing effect of allowing us to believe that none of the things we think have gone wrong in our lives, none of the areas where we feel we have let ourselves down, and none of the extent to which we feel we have failed to live up to our promise, are in a meaningful way down to choices we made. (There is a flipside in that none of our successes would be due to anything particular merit of ours either. But I imagine that most people are happy to buy the ability to forgive themselves for the mountain of their real or perceived failings at the cost of greater modesty about the molehill of their achievements. Either that, or they just manage to supress the flipside.)

Even more than that, being able to preach that message of hard determinism to the masses, gaining excited followers who are keen to reap determinism’ self-exculpatory benefits, must be quite satisfactory in its own right. I imagine that this fuels to some extent the modern popular revival of Stoicism much embraced by bloggers and podcasters.

Looking at one of the more famous books arguing for a deterministic world view, Sam Harris’ “Free Will,” we can see some of the strange effects of really, really wanting to be able to argue that certain things are true.

According to Harris, “the popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.” He claims that both these assumptions are false.

Harris argues for determinism on the general metaphysical basis that nothing happens without causation and the more specific physical and neurophysiological claims that brain processes cause our actions, and that we’re not aware of those processes until the actions are well under way. He quotes in support of his position, among other things, the famous 1980s experiment by Benjamin Libet (which I discussed here – Spoiler alert: Libet didn’t think that his experiments support the notion that we don’t have free will). “One fact now seems indisputable:” Harris claims, “Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do.”

In Harris’ own life, his lack of free will manifests in particular ways. For example, he says:

“I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea—sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind” and switched to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. Why didn’t it arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

In another episode he relates:

“For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no “unreasonable external or internal pressure.” I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self-control. However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me—and why precisely then and to that degree? And why did my interest in martial arts suddenly reemerge after decades of hibernation? I can consciously weigh the effects of certain influences—for instance, I recently read Rory Miller’s excellent book Meditations on Violence. But why did I read this book? I have no idea. And why did I find it compelling? And why was it sufficient to provoke action on my part (if, indeed, it was the proximate cause of my behavior)? And why so much action? I’m now practicing two martial arts and also training with Miller and other self-defense experts. What in hell is going on here? Of course, I could tell a story about why I’m doing what I’m doing—which would amount to my telling you why I think such training is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.—but the actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me.”

“It is perfectly obvious that I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it,” Harris concludes. And, of course, this kind of argument holds not only true for relatively trivial matters such as our choice of morning beverage and hobbies, but also more serious actions someone might take:

If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”?

These examples look odd to me: First of all, it’s difficult to imagine that Harris lacks the capacity for in introspection and reflection to the degree that he claims. Secondly, it is not clear to me why he thinks that the “story about why I’m doing what I’m doing” which amounts to giving good reasons for his actions, could not be the actual explanation for his behaviour, at least some of the time. Surely reflecting on why he thinks something is a good idea and why he enjoys an activity, would at least have potential to reveal something about the explanation for his behaviour, even if he wanted to go on to claim that these weren’t the motivating factors in the first place.

But then, when Harris wants to sell us the benefits of believing that we have no free will, things get even more odd:

Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can – paradoxically – allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

Suddenly now, we can become sensitive to the causes of our thoughts and feelings when before we couldn’t tell why we wanted coffee or decided to spend a lot of time practising martial arts. How can we now realise that our bad mood has been caused by low blood sugar levels, when before we couldn’t even trust ourselves to identify the motivating reasons for how we spent a large chunk of our leisure time? Not only can we identify low blood sugar as the precise cause of our bad mood now, but we can also seemingly decide to counteract it with a bite of food (that is the implication of what Harris says, though he doesn’t explicitly say it). First Harris asks us to completely surrender to the idea that our actions are caused by factors we can’t be conscious of, now he tells us we can choose to take a bite of food, so that we don’t take our bad mood out on others. Not only can we suddenly make choices, but we can steer an entire intelligent course through our lives. Claiming that it is all a quaint paradox, doesn’t make it any less contradictory.

And then when he talks about the criminal justice system and moral responsibility, things continue to be a little bit self-contradictory. He wants to sell us the benefits of giving up our notion of free will, whilst persuading us that we can still keep hold of our ideas about moral responsibility and our custom of imprisoning people for crimes.

Some of the things he says about this are:

“What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm.”

“Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.”

“Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.”

Now, those making moral judgements about others, and the criminal justice system, somehow have access to personality, personal history, patterns of activity, and confessed motives. They can make judgements based on expressed intentions, beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.. But, according to Harris, we don’t even have access to our own intentions.

And why didn’t it occur to us earlier to look at our past actions, beliefs, desires and so on, when we were looking to work out why we suddenly found ourselves doing martial arts in our free time, or when we tried to work out why we’re drinking tea on some mornings, and coffee on others? Granted, sometimes others find it easier to analyse our patterns of activities than we do ourselves. But Harris is claiming that we have no insight into our inner life, while others can somehow systematically use their insight into us to judge us morally, or take what we say about our motives to be reliable enough to decide whether society should be protected from us.


Determinism 12 – Can Schopenhauer Set You (A Little Bit) Free?

One of the most haunting bits of writing among the philosophical texts on free will and determinism, are these paragraphs from Schopenhauer:

Let’s imagine a person, who, standing in the street, says to himself: It is 6pm. The day’s work is done. I can now go for a walk, or I can go to the club, I can climb the tower to see the sunset, I can also go to the theatre, I can go to visit this friend, or also that other friend, yes, I can walk out of the gate into the wide world and never return. All of that is solely up to me, I have full freedom to do any of it, however I’ll do none of that now. Instead, I shall, equally voluntarily, go home to my wife.

That is as if water were to say: I can make high waves (yes! in the sea when there’s a storm), I can rush downhill (yes! in the bed of a stream), I can throw myself downwards frothing and bubbling (yes! in a waterfall), I can shoot up into the air (yes! in a fountain), finally, I can boil up completely and disappear (yes, at 80º heat), however I will do none of these things, but will stay voluntarily still and clear in the reflecting pond.

As the water can do any of those things only when the determining causes come into effect for one or the other; in the same way, that person can do, what he thinks he can do, no differently, than under the same condition.

I say it’s haunting because we are always that person standing in the street imagining that we could choose to do any number of things. And yet, when we reflect, we can’t see that we can escape causality. Schopenhauer tells us that human beings are prone to assert that we can do as we will. He reminds us that this is purely a statement about physical freedom, not about freedom of the will. In his formula: we can do as we will, but we can’t will as we will. We can execute our decision or choice to act in a certain way, but we can’t choose which way that decision goes in the first place. The content of our will is at any time given by motives, facts about ourselves (our character, thoughts, feelings, what we perceive) and facts about the world (the way other things are).

While the image of the person in the street much-quoted and famous, we are less frequently reminded that Schopenhauer goes back to his person in the street a couple of pages later:

If we return to that example of the person deliberating at six o’clock  and imagine that he now notices that I’m standing behind him philosophising about him and denying his freedom to all of those potential actions; so it could easily happen that he, in order to prove me wrong, might execute one of them: then, however, my very denial and its effect on his contrary spirit would have been the necessary motive to that action. However, that motive could only ever move him to one or the other of the easier actions mentioned above, for example to go to the theatre; but never to wander out into the wide world: for that the motive would be too weak.

This is interesting. We can imagine the man on the street having this kind of conversation with Schopenhauer.

“You said yourself that I acted differently because I spotted you and wanted to prove you wrong.”

“Differently, yes, but not more freely. Having bumped into me and reacted to our meeting is exactly how you would expect a mechanism of determinism to work. And I’m not flattering myself that it’s personal to me. Any encounter can be such a mechanism of determinism in that it can change your motives and make you act in certain ways.”

“Agreed, and in future I wouldn’t need you to stand behind me in the street, observing me, commenting on my deliberations in that way. It will suffice for me in future deliberations to adopt the motive to prove that I have freedom of will and disprove determinism, to have the same effect. If I do that, the whole course of my life will be different from the way it would otherwise have been, had I not adopted that motive.”

“That is true. But again, that is exactly how the mechanisms of determinism work. Encounters with influential others, relationships, engagement with powerful concepts: of course they shape the way our lives go. They determine how they go. There’s something I always find slightly amusing about that, by the way, in that it doesn’t even matter if someone is conforming to someone else’s expectations or rebelling against them. The rebel does them the honour of allowing himself to be determined to the same degree as the conformist – the conformist in one direction, the rebel in the other.”

“That may be true, but in my encounter with you, I was not so much looking to follow you or rebel against you personally, and we didn’t engage with just any concept. It is the engagement with the concept of freedom of the will specifically which had the effect of changing my course of action.”

“Yes, you wanted to prove your freedom of the will, and so you changed your plan. But you didn’t prove your freedom, you just allowed yourself to be determined by a different and stronger motive. I assume your motives for going home to your wife were about spending time with your loved one, but also your comfort and routine. Now you’ve chosen to do something else, because the motive of proving your freedom was stronger. But, you know, you can never prove yourself to be free by allowing yourself to be determined by a motive.”

“Yes, you guessed that to disprove you I would go to the theatre instead. You thought that my new motive – to prove you wrong – would not be strong enough for me to walk away from my life as I know it.”

“Exactly so, and I was right, wasn’t I?”

“Yes, but doesn’t it strike you as meaningful that I didn’t just give myself up to complete randomness?”

“In what way meaningful?”

“Well, the most obvious way to prove our freedom of the will might have been to do something completely extreme and random. But then we would have fallen into the old trap of refuting determinism by gaining only an unattractive notion of freedom of the will that would entail chaos and randomness. That wouldn’t be a freedom of the will worth having.”

“True. Because there is no such freedom of the will available.”

“Nonetheless, I revised my plan under the motive of proving my freedom. In allowing you to add that motive to the set of motives motivating us, our lives changed.”

“But not in a way that proves that you have freedom of the will.”

“You say so, but I already feel a bit freer by having chosen to go to the theatre. I called my wife, by the way, and and also the two friends you mentioned and persuaded them to come too.”

“Yes, yes, they must have thought you very spontaneous, less predictable than they thought you were, less prone to sticking to your daily routine, more adventurous I grant you, but no less determined.”

“Ah, but that’s the point. I think a little bit less determined…”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe there was something in what you said… When you said ‘no less determined,’ it made me think that maybe it is a question of degree, not just a binary issue between freedom of the will and determinism.

In deliberating about our courses of action, we obviously consider a finite number of options and have a finite number of motives acting upon us. As you said, we won’t just wander out into the wide world and leave all our commitments and relationships behind on the slightest provocation. But where it would be reasonable and justifiable to do either of a number of things, say to go to the theatre or to go home, an added reason to do something other than go home (say if we were asked to prove that we can revise our plan) could suddenly make us go the other way. Maybe when we’re challenged to think again, when we’re given an additional reason to consider, when in the light of that reason we think again and we revise our course of action, maybe we should say that this increased our freedom a little bit.

You are fond of saying that we can ‘do what we will, but not will what we will.’ But in the first instance maybe we don’t even always do what we consciously will. Maybe sometimes we act habitually without thinking, almost as if on auto-pilot. So if we actually do what we will, rather than just do what we always do, that is an important increase in freedom, though I guess you would say only of physical freedom, not freedom of the will.

And let’s say that you’re right in claiming that we can’t ‘will what we will.’ You would argue that this is because motives that are given act on our character that is given, resulting in action that is given. But you caused me to reconsider what I should do with my evening. You added a motive into the situation (the motive to prove you wrong about freedom of the will) and it changed my course of action. You’ll say that it was already in my character to want to prove you wrong, so nothing new happened there. But maybe that openness to consider another motive, maybe the willingness to engage with your reasoning, maybe the possibility of considering new reasons, after my decision to go home had already been made, maybe they open up a little bit of space that we should call a greater freedom of the will.

Anyway, it’s time for me to go. The play is about to begin. Do you want to join us?”

“Erm, no thanks. I think I’ll just go home.”


Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation (2) – Doing More Than You Know You Can

As mentioned in the previous post, supererogation means going above and beyond. In moral philosophy it is often applied to acts that are good and praiseworthy, but not required. So anyone not doing these acts could not be criticised from a moral point of view. But when people do them, we are nonetheless pleased and think they deserve special merit.

[Previously, I discussed how it relates to the principle from moral philosophy that “ought implies can.” I wrote about the fact that the unequal distribution of what people can do, means there is also an unequal distribution of what they ought to do. This opens up some space for a discussion about whether some supererogation stems from that unequal distribution.]

In fact the principle that “ought implies can” relates to supererogation in another way as well: It is not always clearcut and obvious in advance what someone can. Two people with similar abilities may therefore take different actions, based not so much on a different assessment of what they can do, but based on differing ideas about what to do when they are not entirely sure whether they can or can’t do it. One person may take on the relevant ought on the basis that he possibly can, another may not, on the basis that maybe he cannot.

I recently read Michael Lewis’ fascinating book The Undoing Project about psychology professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who founded the field of behaviourist economics. It contains this episode:

“By late 1956, Amos was not merely a platoon commander but a recipient of one of the Israeli army’s highest awards for bravery. During a training exercise in front of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, one of his soldiers was assigned to clear a barbed wire fence with a bangalore torpedo. From the moment he pulled the string to activate the fuse, the solider had twenty seconds to run for cover. The soldier pushed the torpedo under the fence, yanked the string, fainted, and collapsed on top of the explosive. Amos’s commanding officer shouted for everyone to stay put—and leave the unconscious soldier to die. Amos ignored him and sprinted from behind the wall that served as cover for his unit, grabbed the soldier, picked him up, hauled him ten yards, tossed him on the ground, and threw himself on top of him. The shrapnel from the explosion remained in Amos for the rest of his life. The Israeli army did not bestow honors for bravery lightly. As he handed Amos his award, Moshe Dayan, who had watched the entire episode, said, “You did a very stupid and brave thing and you won’t get away with it again.” Occasionally, people who watched Amos in action sensed that he was more afraid of being thought unmanly than he was actually brave. “He was always very gung ho,” recalled Uri Shamir. “I thought it was maybe compensation for being thin and weak and pale.” At some point it didn’t matter: He compelled himself to be brave until bravery became a habit.”

Clearly, Tversky was able to pull off this feat (even though taking some shrapnel in the process). Equally clearly, no one knew for sure in advance that it could be done. In fact, people must have thought that it couldn’t. The commanding officer would not have given the order to stay put if he had thought that it was possible to rescue the collapsed soldier. The act in question, was called, even after its successful conclusion, “stupid” and “gung ho.” It was also praised as “brave” and given the highest award for bravery. If it had been only foolish and suicidal, it could not have been called brave. But if it had been just brave and good, it could not have been called stupid.

What is in play, perhaps, is Tversky’s perhaps unusual decision that he ought to rescue the soldier, even though he couldn’t be sure that he could.

This example also sheds some light on the vagueness of the principle “ought implies can.” It is not entirely clear, for example, what constitutes “can.” Most people would probably not think that doing something while losing one’s life, would constitute the kind of “can” that would be implied by an “ought.” What about doing something that carried the risk of losing one’s life? Or doing something that meant having shrapnel in one’s body for life?

None of the other soldiers could be criticised for obeying their commanding officers instruction. And yet, had everyone acted on it, a life would have been lost unnecessarily. The difference between Tversky and his fellow soldiers was unlikely to be that Tversky was the only one who had the ability to rescue the collapsed soldier. It’s more likely that he was more prepared to think “I ought to do this,” without knowing whether he would be able to do so unscathed. Or that he was more prepared to take on the risk of damage to himself in shouldering an “ought.”

[Let’s leave aside for now the fact that it was Tversky’s life work to show that human beings are ill equipped to make rational assessments of costs and benefits to ourselves. And let’s leave aside also the separate debate in ethics about how many thoughts one ought to have in this kind of situation.]

Supererogatory acts are not necessarily reliant on physical ability alone. They may, for example, also include finding forgiveness for someone who has wronged us grievously. In that case too, forgiveness may be a process that someone enters into without knowing whether they can do it. They may not know whether ultimately they will truly be able not only to say that they have forgiven, but also feel it for themselves. Or they may not be sure in advance that forgiving wouldn’t mean trading off too much of their own personality or what is important to them. Nonetheless, some people might set off on the journey of forgiveness under those circumstances. Others may not. The latter shouldn’t come in for criticism. The former are making a supererogatory effort.

Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation -Going Beyond the Call of Duty

“Supererogation” has long been one of my favourite words and concepts. (In saying that, I’m not claiming to live up to it much…) It stems from the Latin words “super” meaning “over” or “above” and “erogare” meaning to “expend / pay out.” So it’s about expending above what might be expected, also known as going beyond the call of duty, or going the extra mile.

In ethics, the concept describes ways of acting that are morally good and praiseworthy, but acts that are not necessarily required. Supererogatory acts are those that are good and such that we definitely would want people to perform them, but at the same time such that we couldn’t criticise people for not performing them. Heroic acts spring to mind, like running into a burning building to rescue others. Or saintly acts such as giving up all and any comforts in order to devote oneself to caring for the poorest, sickest people.

Some people, let’s call the supererogation enthusiasts, see the concept of supererogation as a good criterion for whether a given moral theory looks plausible. Any reasonable conception of morality, they argue, should allow a place for supererogatory acts. If a theory has no such place, say because it too stringently requires human beings to do whatever achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people, in such a way that for every good act there might have been an other better act, and even for the best possible act a human being could have done, it was just what he should have done, then that is a reason to be suspicious of that theory. We would want there to be a category of good acts, or ways of acting, that deserve special merit, rather than just a shrug and the acknowledgement that “he just did what he had to.”

Others, let’s call the supererogation deniers, argue exactly the opposite: That there is no place for supererogation in any plausible moral theory. In the history of theological uses of the concept, supererogatory acts, such as making large donations to a church, were initially seen as being able to wipe out sin for the supererogatory agent and those around him or her. Against that, a view was taken that human beings were so flawed, so unable to live up to the expectations and requirements of God, that there was no possibility of supererogation. In that view of the world, whatever anyone managed to do, would fall short of what was required. Human beings are so dependent on God’s mercy and grace, that there is no point in talking about going above and beyond.

The denial of supererogation doesn’t need to make any theological assumptions about the relationship between person and God. It could simply be argued, for example, that human beings are such weak and stupid animals, so incapable of ensuring their own flourishing or supporting that of others, that our societies are so unhealthy and corrupt and the world such a sub-optimal, inhospitable and degraded environment, that even incredible, super-human acts could not do good at the level required. In such a context, it might then be unrealistic and unhelpful to acknowledge and applaud a category of specially good acts. It would be better simply to require of each and every agent to do his or her utmost. There would almost be a duty to go beyond the call of duty.

“Ought Implies Can”

There is a principle in ethics that “ought implies can.” It is often taken as axiomatic without further argument. To some extent hat makes sense. It would be strange for a moral theory to require something from someone who is unable to do that. I think the principle “ought implies can” sheds an interesting light on the possibility of supererogation.

First of all “ought implies can” creates an inequality in terms of what can be required from individuals. Some people can achieve more than others and therefore ought to try harder than others. Say person A is a strong swimmer while person B is physically weak and has never learned to swim. They stand at the seashore and suddenly spot someone out there in the sea frantically waving his arms and shouting for help. The weather has suddenly turned stormy and the waves are high in the strong wind. Let’s say in this scenario there happens to be no alternative means of rescuing the drowning man, than for person A or person B to jump in and rescue him themselves: no coastguard to be alerted, no rescue boats or helicopters, and no other devices at all. Person A could very likely rescue the drowning man without any great detriment to herself, but person B would equally likely fall victim to the elements before getting to the drowning man. “Ought implies can” means that the requirement to jump in and rescue the drowning man falls asymmetrically on A and B. While A could be criticised if she didn’t make the attempt to rescue the drowning man, B could probably escape criticism even if he didn’t make the attempt.

Supererogation enthusiasts and deniers may place a different emphasis on the analysis of the situation but may find they’re not as far apart as it originally seemed.

“Person A just did what was required of her,” says a supererogation denier.

“But because of her superior skills, so much more could be required of her, and the drowning man got rescued. Now isn’t that worth celebrating?” replies the supererogation enthusiast.

“It’s worth celebrating perhaps that the outcome was a happy one and that person A had this great ability to swim and rescue drowning people. But if she hadn’t made the attempt, she would have been open to severe criticism, so she really just did what could have been expected,” responds the supererogation denier.

The supererogation enthusiast then has at least one further point to make: Let’s assume that person A’s ability to rescue the drowning man was down to more than just inborn physical ability. Let’s say she trained her swimming abilities a lot and spent some time doing a course in rescue swimming. Let’s say she did that while person B was playing video games and eating pizzas. Couldn’t the supererogation enthusiast point out that person A never had a duty to lead that lifestyle and person B can’t be criticised on moral grounds for choosing his way of life? She wouldn’t have been in the situation where she could rescue someone from drowning, and therefore ought to have done so, if she hadn’t set out on a certain path, that of honing her abilities long ago. Wouldn’t the acts of supererogation have started with the lifestyle chosen and the skills developed, rather than just with the act of jumping into the water to rescue someone?

The supererogation sceptic could try one counter to that. He could refuse to accept that person B cannot be criticised on moral grounds. Or at least he could say that narrow moral grounds aren’t the only consideration here, and that broader ethical issues arise. He could say that we could call B’s lifestyle lazy, self-indulgent and selfish and that this are precisely words of criticism. He could also say that we would call A’s lifestyle industrious, committed to self-improvement and altruism.

But at the same time, person A could have trained in rescue swimming, a non-moral skill, all her life, but never got into a situation where she could perform the morally valuable task of rescuing someone. It would be merely bad luck that she never had the opportunity to perform that good act. In the same way as it is bad luck for agent B to be stuck in a situation where rescue swimming abilities would have carried moral weight, rather than video-gaming skills. And at the same time person A could have been quite useless in a situation where a different kind of skill might have been required, say rock climbing, in which we assume she had no ability. No human could possibly train to be able to perform excellently in every situation, he or she could get into. That would take us to the realm of superheroes. Nonetheless, the situations where someone happens to be able to perform morally excellently due to work they have done to prepare themselves, are those where supererogatory action is relevant. (Of course, some people train themselves and seek out such situations, e. g. by choosing careers where they might be first responders in critical situations.)

The other way in which “ought implies can” creates a space for supererogation comes from the fact that it is not always clear-cut what a person can achieve. This might only become clear in the attempt. The opportunity for supererogation would then arise from where someone takes an optimistic view of what he or she can, and is therefore taking on a higher burden of what he or she ought. But I’ll write about that in the next post.



Some Philosophical Aspects of New Year’s Resolutions

There is a lot of advice on making and keeping New Year’s resolutions. A lot of it is conflicting. Some say resolutions made at the turn of the year could work, some say they’re doomed to fail. Some say we should aim for small changes in our lives, one at a time, others that we should aim for ambitious all-encompassing change. Some say we should tell other people about our resolutions, others say we should keep them to ourselves and work on them quietly. Some say we shouldn’t even bother making resolutions, others argue we should make them more frequently, suggesting, for example, that we look about every four months at what we want to change and what our targets might be. Do philosophers have anything to say on New Year’s resolutions?

Plato and the State of the Mind

Plato argues that the self or the mind is like a city state. The mind has three parts: a) reason, b) passion / motivation and c) appetite / desire. These are equivalent to three parts of a city state: a) rulers, b) soldiers and c) labourers. And as in the city state, order needs to be established by creating the right kind of hierarchy between the three parts. Self-control or self-mastery, the sorts of things one might need in order to implement a New Year’s resolution is given when the passionate or motivating part of the mind is only in the service of reason, not in the service of appetites or trying to do its own thing. Reason needs to rule, passion / motivation needs to help it implement its policies and jointly they need to lord it over the appetites and desires. If that correct hierarchy is established and if each part of the mind does its own work and doesn’t develop ideas above its station, then the person whose mind is thus structured will live a self-controlled and good life.

Conclusion: the only resolution worth making is to ensure the mind is correctly structured. The way this happens is through education and practice. We shouldn’t expect suddenly to be able to do the things we haven’t been able to do, just by making a resolution. Rather we will have to spend time on getting the mind into the right shape. Being clear about our reasons for wanting to keep a resolution, the strength of our motivation and the desires that might conflict with them will also help.

The Stoics and Things Worth Focussing On

The Stoics teach us not to worry about things outside of our control and to focus only on the things internal to us that we can control. In the former category are things like good health / ill health; good looks / ugliness; life / death; riches / poverty; power / powerlessness; being liked / not being liked; and so on. In the latter category is only whether we have virtuous character. Having a resolution to make more money, or to lose weight, or to have more friends would therefore be pointless, if they are not properly thought through. It makes more sense to think about what virtues we would need for a chance at them. We should then aim to develop the virtues of industriousness and frugality instead of making a million dollars; self-control and maybe a certain abstemiousness instead of losing weight, and so on.

Conclusion: the only resolutions worth making are about developing the virtues as only our character is under our control. Any specific targets regarding the outcomes we want to achieve might be blown off course by things outside of our control. Work on our attitudes and habits should be the focus.

Derek Parfit and Future Selves

Derek Parfitt, who was called the most influential philosopher of our times, died in 2017. One of his biggest contributions in philosophy was on questions surrounding personal identity and the self. He argued that personal identity was a question of certain physical and psychological continuities, but that there was no special further ingredient. His views were sometimes likened to Buddhist views that there is no stable self over time. He talks about past and future selves who have separate interests to the current self. Resolutions then would be attempts of a current self to impose certain ways of behaving on future selves, in order to achieve certain things for an even further future self. To aim to do so is perfectly reasonable for the current self. But future selves will look from their perspective as to whether the resolution made by a (now) past self is still one that they have reason to honour.

Conclusion: Not keeping a resolution may not be simply a question of weakness of will but may be a legitimate evaluation of the interests of the current self compared to those of the past self.

Bernard Williams and the Things that Propel us into the Future

Bernard Williams took the view that “an individual person has a set of desires, concerns or, as I shall call them, projects, which help to constitute a character”; these “ground projects [provide] the motive force which propels him into the future, and gives him a reason for living.” For Williams this was a strong argument to critique ethical theories that demanded of people that they should abandon their desires, concerns, commitments, relationships or projects when universal ethical considerations required it. For Williams, our “projects” were not co-incidental fancies, but the very things that are central to being who we are and that make our ives worth living. New Years Resolutions could then be seen as an exercise to audit where we are with our “projects,” what is really important to us, what are our reasons for living and to re-focus our attention on those “projects.”

Conclusion: New Year’s Resolutions could be far more than an unrealistic exercise in setting targets for oneself. They could be a useful audit of what really matters to us and a re-focussing of attention.


Heraclitus’ Journey Into the Soul

In a previous post I argued that Western philosophy is related to contemplative practices and traditions. I now want to look at traces of this relationship in the early history of Western philosophy, starting with Heraclitus. We have only fragments of his philosophy. And yet we have enough to trace a number of his trains of thought. There is much in the fragments – not just his most famous view that all is flux – that would be in line with the insights of many a contemplative tradition and practice:

Everything is one:

“Not having listened to me but to the principle (the logos) it is wise to agree that all is one.”


“On those who step into the same rivers ever different waters are flowing.”

“It is impossible to step into the same river. It scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs.”

Distrust of the senses and a desire to find the truth behind sense perception:

“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have barbaric souls.”

“The true nature of things tends to hide itself.”

Non-duality / Unity in opposites:

“The divine is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger. But it takes different appearances like fire which, when mixed with incense, is named according to the savour of each.”

“The way up is also the way down.”

“Sea: water most pure and most tainted, drinkable and wholesome for fish, but undrinkable and poisonous for people.”


“But the general run of people are as unaware of their action while awake as they are of what they do while asleep.”

“The universe for those who are awake is single and common, while in sleep each person turns aside into a private universe.”

There are also hints in Heraclitus’ fragments regarding his method for achieving insights. One fragment simply says:

I searched for myself.

In itself it may not amount to much. But the work described here is an intentional effort. The verb that Heraclitus uses for “searching”, is one he also uses in a different fragment where he says that those digging or mining for gold find a  lot of earth and not much else. So the journey inside oneself is not casual introspection but it is about digging deep to find valuable nuggets. And there are other hints that Heraclitus believed that a systematic inward focus is central to the philosophical enterprise. Elsewhere he says:

It is possible for all human beings to know themselves and to think reasonably.

And then there this further exploration of this theme in a fragment that says:

The limits of the soul you will not find walking, even if you wander down every road. Such a deep principle (logos) it contains.

This explains the point of Heraclitus’ inward journey. The soul itself contains the logos, the principle, or correct account which according to Heraclitus explains the truth about everything.

Elsewhere in Heraclitus’ fragments we see examples of why the inward search is necessary and how the soul contains the principle that also explains everything. By looking inward we can see how we reflect the way things are in the wider universe:

And the one and same: living and dead, awake and sleeping, young and old. For this is changing into that, and that changing back into this again.

That is to say within ourselves we can experience the non-dualism and the one-ness that Heraclitus also sees in the external world.

And there is a further physical reason, why the journey into the soul can teach us truths about the universe. Heraclitus believes that fire is an important element in the universe. He says that the universe is an eternal fire. Elsewhere he says that thunderbolt rules the universe. (An ancient commentator took thunderbolt to be the same as the universal fire though ancient Greeks would also have associated the thunderbolt with Zeus.)

Heraclitus also thought the soul had attributes of fire. But only if it was maintained in such a way to be dry and hot. Moisture and water, he thought, were the death of the soul. There are also fragments that suggest that the soul maintained its fieriness through righteous conduct. In other words the ability to find the fire that reflects the matter of the universe and to find the logos of the soul which is the same as the wider principle, the right account of everything, depends on the righteous conduct of the searcher. That also explains the fragment that says eyes and ears are bad witnesses for the people with barbaric souls. (The word barbaric doesn’t necessarily imply badly behaved, it may merely be a reference to speaking in an unintelligible language.) The corrupted soul simply doesn’t reflect things right, giving a scrambled account of what people see.

So one of the earliest philosophers in Western philosophy has a method of journeying into the soul to explore wider truths. There he finds one-ness in seeming dualism. In the soul he also finds the guiding principle of everything, the logos. This leads to an ethical argument about maintaining the soul in a fit state so that it properly reflects the truth about things.

And from there all flows.

Determinism 11 – Ethics as a Means of Living with Determinism

[This post is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first one in the series is here. The most recent one is “Is it Better to Believe That we Have Free Will.”]

Thomas Nagel, one of the greatest living philosophers, approaches the subject of free will with humility. He writes:

“I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it, and therefore cannot offer any view with even moderate confidence; but my present opinion is that nothing that might be seen as a solution has yet been described. This is not a case where there are several possible candidate solutions and we don’t know which is correct. It is a case where nothing believable has (to my knowledge) been proposed by anyone in the extensive public discussion of the subject.”

He ends his contribution to the discussion of the subject – 28 pages of tightly argued complex philosophical writing – with the remark, “As I have said, it seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has been said on this subject.”

The problem, as Nagel frames it, is one of perspective:

“In acting we occupy the internal perspective, and we can occupy it sympathetically with regard to the actions of others. But when we move away from our individual point of view, and consider our own actions and those of others simply as part of the course of events in a world that contains us among other creatures and things, it begins to look as if we never really contribute anything.

From the inside, when we act, alternative possibilities seem to lie open before us: to turn right or left, to order this dish or that, to vote for one candidate or the other – and one of the possibilities is made actual by what we do. The same applies to our internal consideration of the actions of others. But from an external perspective, things look different. That perspective takes in not only the circumstances of action as they present themselves to the agent, but also the conditions and influences lying behind the action, including the complete nature of the agent himself. While we cannot fully occupy this perspective towards ourselves while acting, it seems possible that many of the alternatives that appear to lie open when viewed from an internal perspective would seem closed from this outer point of view, if we could take it up. And even if some of them are left open, given a complete specification of the condition of the agent and the circumstances of action, it is not clear how this would leave anything further for the agent to contribute to the outcome – anything that he could contribute as source, rather than merely as the scene of the outcome – the person whose act it is.”

As Nagel sees it our problem concerning free will is a “bafflement of our feelings and attitudes – a loss of confidence, conviction or equilibrium.” The problem is that when we take an external view of our actions, we clearly see that our actions are events in a natural order caused by any number of factors outside of our control. Thus we get the “feeling that agents are helpless and not responsible.” And we can’t find ways of making sense of our internal view where we act autonomously. Neither can we get rid of our felt sense of autonomy in action. “We are apparently condemned to want something impossible,” says Nagel.

So if we can’t have the autonomy that we crave, the next best thing, according to Nagel, is to be able to reconcile our internal view with the external perspective. “This does not meet the central problem of free will,” according to Nagel. “But it does reduce the degree to which the objective self must think of itself as an impotent spectator, and to that extent it confers a kind of freedom.” So what we must do, is to learn to act from an objective standpoint as well as to view ourselves from an objective standpoint. Nagel adds, that, since we can’t act in light of everything about ourselves, the best we can do is to try to live in a way that wouldn’t have to be revised in light of anything more that could be known about us.

Nagel proposes an ascent towards this greater reconciliation of internal and external views along four steps:

1.) Self-awareness

“We might try, first, to develop as complete an objective view of ourselves as we can, and include it in the basis of our actions, wherever it is relevant. This would mean consistently looking over our own shoulders at what we are doing and why (though often it will be a mere formality). But this objective self-surveillance will inevitably be incomplete, since some knower must remain behind the lens if anything is to be known.”

This seems like a burdensome procedure, as well as one that might undermine confidence in action and make it hesitant. But this self-surveillance could potentially become a practice that runs in our mind quite routinely. The examples Nagel gives of things we might catch through the look over our shoulder are influences over our actions that we would resist if we became aware of them: prejudice, irrationality and narrow-mindedness. We can avoid acting under their influence by increasing our self-awareness.

Self-awareness, though, can never progress so far towards objectivity that it wouldn’t include a blind spot.

2.) Practical rationality – stepping outside of impulses and desires

Nagel refers to “ordinary practical rationality” as “roughly analogous to the process of forming a coherent set of beliefs out of one’s pre-reflective personal impressions. This involves […] actual endorsement of some motives, suppression or revision of others, and adoption of still others, from a standpoint outside that within which primary impulses, appetites, and aversions arise. When these conflict we can step outside and choose among them.”

3.) Prudential rationality – stepping outside of the present moment

An important subset of practical rationality, is prudence, where we don’t just step outside ourselves to arbitrate between a number of our motives for action, but we step outside of the present moment to consider future considerations that may have a bearing on our actions. (So this is where I judge the present desire to eat the second piece of cake against the future consideration of feeling like I’ve eaten too much.) Nagel warns against over-using the ability to do this: “The dominance of a timeless view of one’s life may be objectively unwise. And compulsiveness or neurotic avoidance based on repressed desires can easily be disguised as rational self-control.”

“But in its normal form,” he concludes, “prudence increases one’s freedom by increasing one’s control over the operation of first-order motives through a kind of objective will.”

4.) Morality – stepping outside oneself

The next step goes even further than just accepting considerations from outside the present, to accepting considerations from outside one’s life:  “More external than the standpoint of temporal neutrality is the standpoint from which one sees oneself as just an individual among others.” This step leads to the formation of impersonal values, and the modification of conduct and motivation in accordance with them.

The Paradox – Morality as Freedom

There is a paradox here: Nagel started us off on this ascent with a promise that it would get us to a more comfortable place with regard to our problem with freedom of the will. But we end the journey under the yoke of moral and ethical considerations. Nagel is fully aware of this paradox: “there is an internal connection between ethics and freedom: subjection to morality expresses the hope of autonomy, even though it is a hope that cannot be realised in its original form. We cannot act on the world from outside, but we can in a sense act from both inside and outside our particular position in it. Ethics increases the range of what it is about ourselves that we can will – extending it from our actions to the motives and character traits and dispositions from which they arise.”


Determinism 10 – Is It Better To Believe That We Have Free Will?

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

What then about the suggestion that it is better for people to believe that they have free will, even if we don’t know whether they do or don’t?

One such argument stems from studies that show that people might act in morally better ways if they believe that they are making the choices, and worse if they are made to believe that they don’t. In order to instil in people a greater scepticism about free will, researchers give them a passage from Francis Crick’s (the co-discoverer of DNA) book “The Astonishing Hypothesis” which says:

“‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons… although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.”

Or they ask them to think about sentences such as: “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion”, or “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules”.

Another group of participants is given other ideas to ponder that are meant to be more conducive of re-inforcing beliefs in free will: “I have feelings of regret when I make bad decisions because I know that ultimately I am responsible for my actions,” or they are given texts that have nothing to do with free will.

The studies then contain a further element that looks at what happens with people who have been prompted in various ways with regard to free will.

Apparently, those who have been primed to become sceptical about free will are more likely to cheat in maths tests and less likely to help others than those who have been primed to believe in free will or who have had no prompts.

In one study, participants were asked, after reading Crick, to help prepare food for a taste test. Having become less inclined to believe in free will, they turned out to be more inclined to add chilli sauce to a meal for a stranger of whom they knew that he or she has indicated on a questionnaire that he or she doesn’t like hot foods!

Nonetheless I’m not sure that we should conclude that a belief in free will makes you morally better, or that a belief in determinism makes you worse.

The problem is that these people were primed to think in particular ways about free will and responsibility. And the studies did not look at other elements of the belief system that these people had in place. The passage from Crick quoted above for example doesn’t just aim to erode a belief in free will, it also wants to reduce our feelings and our sense of self to illusions based on purely material foundations. The sentences replace the world of human experience to the movement of molecules. They leave little place for the thought that human actions could be predetermined but still lead to responsibility. This is not the only way in which a lack of belief in free will can be construed.

The sentence quoted above that is used to prime people to believe in free will on the other hand is strong on “regrets” over “bad choices” and “responsibility.” In other words, it has a strong moral background built into it. I would say it is more about instilling a view of morality than one about free will.

Leaving to one side the problem about what kind of determinism and free will people are led to consider, the studies don’t look at (or don’t tell us) what the participants believed in addition to the stuff they were primed to. Someone who believes that his life is predetermined within a cold, vast, ultimately meaning- and purposeless universe is likely to act differently from someone who believes that her life is predetermined by a benign divinity who steers creation towards eternal bliss.

The fact that these people feel they can cheat more, be less helpful to others, or make food less palatable for strangers, should potentially lead us more to worry about the background morality of study participants – perhaps unleashed more if they are primed not to take their responsibility too seriously – than their beliefs in free will or determinism.

Determinism 9 – The Real Oedipus Complex: Moral Responsibility Without Free Will

[This post is a part of a series on determinism. The previous one is here. The first one of the series is here.]

If Dr. Freud hadn’t named his particular complex after him, Oedipus might have become famous for the way he exemplified the relationship of human beings with their predetermined lives rather than just for that matter of killing his father and marrying his mother.

For Oedipus the force of determinism is expressed by oracles. Even at the time of his birth, his father Laius receives the prophecy that he will die by the hands of the newborn son. And it is precisely because Laius aims to avoid that fate by having the baby killed that a course of events is set in train that leads to the fulfilment of that prophecy. The baby isn’t killed but abandoned in the mountains and adopted by a couple. He kills his father in a chance meeting, not knowing who he is, in an early example of road rage. And, of course, as presaged, he marries his mother, Jocasta, not knowing that she is his mother either. In the course of events he also becomes king of Thebes. The abandoned baby, Oedipus, grows up and goes through life like a human wrecking ball, or an avalanche wreaking havoc. The people of Thebes are suffering from the plague visited upon the city in punishment for the terrible deeds its king has committed. Jocasta ends up hanging herself and Oedipus, when it all comes to lights, puts his lights out, gouging out his eyes in self-punishment.

It is only then that Oedipus accepts his further oracle that he would die in a place consecrated to the Furies, and finally be a blessing, not a curse, to the land where his life ends.

One of the many points about the myth of Oedipus has been made by the Czech writer Milan Kundera. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes:

“The story of Oedipus is well known: Abandoned as an infant, he was taken to King Polybos, who raised him. One day when he was grown into a youth, he came upon a dignitary riding along a mountain path. A quarrel arose, and Oedipus killed the dignitary. Later he became the husband of Queen Jocasta and ruler of Thebes. Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother. In the meantime, fate visited a plague on his subjects and tortured them with great pestilence. When Oedipus realised that he himself was the cause of their suffering, he put out his own eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later, it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts wree therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortune (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hand of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe? (…)

But (…) whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool? (…)

Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realised what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by ‘not knowing,’ he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.”

The case Kundera makes is that a lack of knowledge concerning one’s actions does not absolve you from responsibility for them. The same case though can also be made about the freedom with which one chooses to perform one’s actions.

If anyone could have argued that he was not free to choose his actions, it was Oedipus. After all, his misdeeds – killing his father and marrying his mother – were predicted by a powerful oracle at birth. And despite actions taken to avoid them, they come to pass. But Oedipus recognises that it is he who has carried out the crimes, even if it was all predetermined and presaged.

Why did Oedipus feel that he needed to take responsibility for his actions even though they were foretold before he knew anything and all steps were taken to avoid them? The point is that it was still he, Oedipus as a person, who had done these acts and so they would be with him until atoned. As the king of Thebes he was in danger of continuing to bring the wrath of the Gods onto innocent citizens due to the person he had become. As the king of Thebes, he felt responsible for the welfare of his subjects. Oedipus’ strict self-punishment leads him to be redeemed, averts the plague from Thebes. Ultimately, having taken responsibility and accepted his predetermined fate, he is sought out as a person who could bring blessing to the land.

We have to make do without oracles, seers and divine punishments. Nonetheless, the things we do are strongly associated with us as individuals. If we harm others by acting on faulty reasons, we are the ones who hadn’t developed sufficient rationality to see the better reasons. We can be criticised for that and it can be hoped that we can correct and better ourselves. Taking responsibility for our actions, owning them, even if they were determined by factors outside ourselves, could be a first step to that kind of improvement and development of greater insight.

We stay responsible for the actions we take, even if we can point to factors that have caused us to take them. We took the actions that had that effect and by doing so set in train an other series of cause and effect. Being the cause of something just gives us responsibility for the impacts. There doesn’t need to be a further concept of moral responsibility that comes from having freely chosen to do it.


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.