Re: A question of will

From: Philip Jonkers (
Date: Thu 17 Oct 2002 - 21:06:28 GMT

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    Thanks for sharing this with us Wade, this is thought-provoking material indeed. The position is this paper seems to be that our conscious mind is more of a spectator of our actions initiated by motivational feelings than a director orchestrating our actions. This is not a too crazy point of view if you are willing to accept that the bulk of our actions has an emotive basis (feelings, intuition). Even intelligent action based on
    (careful) reasoning is highly sponsored by emotion. A slogan that springs to mind is: human consciousness, the emotional robotic spectator. Just brainstorming...


    ----- Original Message ----- From: "Wade Smith" <> To: <> Sent: Wednesday, October 16, 2002 8:54 AM Subject: Fwd: A question of will

    > A question of will
    > The issue of free will has perplexed theologians and philosophers for
    > centuries - now neuroscience enters the age-old debate
    > By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff, 10/15/2002
    > Try this: At a moment of your choosing, flick your right wrist. A bit
    > later, whenever you feel like it, flick that wrist again.
    > Most likely, you'd swear that you, the conscious you, chose to initiate
    > that action, that the flickings of your wrist were manifestations of
    > your will.
    > But there is powerful evidence from brain research that you would be
    > wrong. That, in fact, the signal that launched your wrist motion went
    > out before you consciously decided to flick.
    > ''But, but, but,'' you'd probably like to argue, ''but it doesn't feel
    > that way!''
    > With that protest, you would be joining a great debate among
    > neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists that is a modern-day
    > version of the age-old wrangling over free will.
    > The traditional conundrum went: ''How can God be all-knowing and
    > all-powerful and yet humans still have free will?'' And later: ''How can
    > everything be governed by the determinist forces of physics and biology
    > and society, and yet humans still have free will?''
    > Those questions still concern many, but the new neuro-flavored debate
    > over free will goes more like this: Is the feeling of will an illusion,
    > a wily trick of the brain, an after-the-fact construct? Is much of our
    > volition based on automatic, unconscious processes rather than conscious
    > ones?
    > When Daniel M. Wegner, a Harvard psychology professor and author of a
    > new book, ''The Illusion of Conscious Will,'' gives talks about his
    > work, audience members sometimes tell him that if people are not seen as
    > the authors of their actions, it means anarchy, the end of civilization.
    > And worse. Some theologies, they tell him, hold that if there is no free
    > will, believers cannot earn a ticket to heaven for their virtue.
    > In reality, neuroscience is not generally tackling the sweeping
    > philosophical issue of free will, but something much narrower, said
    > Chris Frith, a neuroscientist at University College London.
    > ''There has been much recent work addressing the question of how it is
    > that we experience having free will, i.e., why and when we feel that we
    > are in control of our actions,'' he wrote in an e-mail.
    > That is not to say that neuroscience will never enter the philosophical
    > fray.
    > It could even be that, once the physiological basis of will becomes
    > better understood, ''You'll get a more mature, larger view of what's
    > going on and the question of free will might vanish,'' speculated V. S.
    > Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the
    > University of California at San Diego. No one argues about ''vital
    > spirits'' now that we know about DNA, he noted.
    > Meanwhile, the debate is still on, and near its center is an 86-year-old
    > University of California professor emeritus of physiology, Benjamin
    > Libet.
    > His seminal experiments on brain timing and will came out back in the
    > mid-1980s, and the results are still reverberating loudly today.
    > Just this summer, the journal Consciousness and Cognition put out a
    > special issue on ''Timing relations between brain and world'' that
    > prominently featured Libet's work. And, at a conference, titled ''The
    > Self: from Soul to Brain,'' held by the New York Academy of Sciences
    > last month, ''Libet'' rolled off more tongues than Descartes or Kant or
    > Hume or the other philosophers whose names usually come up when the
    > subject is will.
    > What Libet did was to measure electrical changes in people's brains as
    > they flicked their wrists. And what he found was that a subject's
    > ''readiness potential'' - the brain signal that precedes voluntary
    > actions - showed up about one-third of a second before the subject felt
    > the conscious urge to act.
    > The result was so surprising that it still had the power to elicit an
    > exclamation point from him in a 1999 paper: ''The initiation of the
    > freely voluntary act appears to begin in the brain unconsciously, well
    > before the person consciously knows he wants to act!''
    > Libet's experiments continue to be criticized from every which angle. At
    > the New York conference, for example, Tufts philosopher Daniel C.
    > Dennett argued that it could be that the experience of will simply
    > enters our consciousness with a delay, and thus only seems to follow the
    > initiation of the action.
    > But, though controversial, the Libet experiments still stand and have
    > been replicated. And they have been joined by a growing body of research
    > that indicates, at the very least, that the feeling of will is fallible.
    > Among that research is the following experiment by Dr. Alvaro
    > Pascual-Leone, director of the Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation
    > at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
    > A subject, he said, would be repeatedly prompted to choose to move
    > either his right or his left hand. Normally, right-handed people would
    > move their right hands about 60 percent of the time.
    > Then the experimenters would use magnetic stimulation in certain parts
    > of the brain just at the moment when the subject was prompted to make
    > the choice. They found that the magnets, which influence electrical
    > activity in the brain, had an enormous effect: On average, subjects
    > whose brains were stimulated on their right-hand side started choosing
    > their left hands 80 percent of the time.
    > And, in the spookiest aspect of the experiment, the subjects still felt
    > as if they were choosing freely.
    > ''What is clear is that our brain has the interpretive capacity to call
    > free will things that weren't,'' he said.
    > Wegner's book discusses a variety of other mistakes of will. Among them
    > is the ''alien-hand'' syndrome, in which brain damage leaves people with
    > the sense that their hand no longer belongs to them, and that it is
    > acting - say, unbuttoning their shirt - out of their control.
    > Another recent book, ''The Volitional Brain: Toward a Neuroscience of
    > Free Will,'' includes a psychiatrist's description of a German patient
    > who felt compelled to stand at the window all day, willing the sun
    > across the sky.
    > Wegner argues that ''the feeling of will is our mind's way of estimating
    > what it thinks it did.'' And that, he said, ''is not necessarily a
    > perfect estimate.'' It is ''a kind of accounting system rather than a
    > direct read-out of how the causal process is working.''
    > In Libet's interpretation, free will could still exist as a kind of veto
    > power, in the fractions of a second between the time you unconsciously
    > initiate an action and the time you actually carry it out.
    > For example, he said in a telephone interview, ''The guy who killed the
    > mayor of San Francisco, he was obviously deliberating in advance, but
    > then when he gets to the mayor, there's still the process of, does he
    > now pull the trigger? That's the final act now. That is initiated
    > unconsciously, but he's still aware a couple of hundred milliseconds
    > before he does it and he could control it, but he doesn't.''
    > ''That is where the free will is,'' Libet said.
    > Such veto power is not enough for many people, however. ''I want more
    > free will than that,'' Dennett complained at the conference.
    > He may not get it, but he will almost surely get more data about it.
    > Some neuroscientists are using new brain imaging technology to try to
    > pinpoint what happens in the brain when a person wills something. With
    > its help, and further work being done on patients with abnormal
    > volition, more progress appears likely.
    > ''I think,'' Frith wrote, that ''in the next few years we will have
    > quite a good understanding of the brain mechanisms that underlie our
    > feeling of being in control of our actions.'' But that, he hastened to
    > add, ''does not in any way eliminate free will.''
    > Further comfort comes from Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the Center
    > for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College.
    > There is no need, he said, ''for depressing nihilistic views that we're
    > all robots walking around on someone else's agenda. It's the agenda we
    > build through experience, and the system is making choices.''
    > And just because some processes in the brain are automatic does not mean
    > they all are, he said. ''My take,'' Gazzaniga said, ''is that brains are
    > automatic and people are free.''
    > Carey Goldberg may be reached at G
    > This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 10/15/2002.
    > Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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