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Science, Philosophy, and Freedom

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Having but a lowly undergraduate’s degree from a SLAC, I recognize all too often that my knowledge of many philosophical topics is limited in both breadth and depth, even in those topics in which I feel most read. Despite this, I am no stranger to some of the more developed arguments for and against freedom of the will, and I have recently taken an interest in neurophilosophy and neuroscience. As some readers may note, I offered an extended treatment of the Soon et al. study, and elsewhere I have tried to use studies of this type to argue that emergentist and similar agency theories have significant hurdles to overcome if they are to maintain and prove the conclusions they draw regarding the role of conscious deliberation in human action.

Recently over at Flickers of Freedom, a piece from Nature was featured that allowed a rare rebuttal from some in the philosophy community in response to a 2007 study almost identical in scope and findings to the Soon et al. study. There is still a lively and interesting discussion going on in the comment section of that post that is well worth checking out.

 Despite my depressing lack of knowledge in many of these fields, especially the fact that I have not attended graduate school for philosophy, there still seem to be far more vestiges of agency theory left in the community than I would have thought. I am not such a dyed-in-the-wool determinist that I am not open to re-evaluating how we define freedom; on the contrary, I believe we must reconcile what we know from reason and science with how we perceive the world and the behavior of its inhabitants. That being said, some of the approaches offered by titans like Daniel Dennett (expanding our conception of the self to include our biology) do little, as far as I can understand, for solving the key issue posed by studies like Soon, Libet, and the most recent: how does deliberation enter the picture if predictive antecedent brain activity exists, and even once it has entered the picture, how can it play a causal role without being determined?

In my senior thesis I examined Timothy O’Connor’s theory of emergent agent causation, in particular his claim that emergentism eliminated the problem of interaction. By using Jaegwon Kim’s supervenience argument I demonstrated that O’Connor’s particular theory of emergent downward causation (a form of nonreductive physicalism) results in overdetermination. O’Connor also posits that emergent agent causation is a much simpler explanation for the behavior of human beings than complicated physicalist laws, but I call this into question as well. All of this is to say that, before we even begin to discuss deliberation and the participation of consciousness in our actions, agency theorists must recognize, and reconcile, the findings of studies like these with their theories of agency. Though I clearly cannot claim to know the vast body of O’Connor’s cogent and thought-provoking works, in my research I did not find a response from O’Connor to neurostudies like these. It is well-reasoned  (though flawed) monist and physicalist agency theories like these, not dualist approaches (which surely must have fallen far out of vogue by now) that also must reconcile their positions with these studies. The piece in Nature paints too simplistic of a picture of how these studies can be brushed aside if you are not a mind/body dualist, and I sincerely wonder what theories exist that would prompt statements like: “Nowadays, says Mele, the majority of philosophers are comfortable with the idea that people can make rational decisions in a deterministic universe.” Rational, sure – but free?

I look forward to reading more by folks like Kathleen Vohs, Al Mele (thanks, Nick!), and Adina Roskies in an attempt to better understand exactly which determinist elements are being affirmed and what reason they each give for simultaneously not being surprised by such findings and also urging that clearly free will is not threatened by them. I must have missed the memo!

For what it is worth, below are some concession and postulations about the limitation of current neurostudies as well as what ought to be realistically acceptable for philosophers to begin taking neurostudies seriously rather than treating them like elements of an intellectual turf war. Details of the study can be found in my aformentioned post.


Depending on which camp one falls into, the 60% predictability is either impressive or lackluster. Given that, at least in the Soon studies (details can be found here), the choice is between left and right, we automatically expect the probability to hover around 50%, and so a 10% increase is noteworthy, but to some it is not by much.

It ought to go without saying that an increase in the predictive capability of the study would increase the persuasive power of its conclusions regarding free will. But what many often lose sight of is not only the massive gains made by the most recent studies but also the sheer weight of the implications of the concrete facts of the study. For example, in Libet’s studies in the 1980’s there was no way to predict choices – now there is, and such predictions are accurate more than half the time. To reiterate, a computer is connected to an fMRI machine and literally watches and measures human brain activity and uses such activity to predict future actions. I may be on the stodgy side, but given that it was only 25 years ago that we could not predict and we could not map or record rain activity, the technology and the studies have grown by leaps and bounds. Given this, I am confident that as technology improves, so too will the predictive capacity of these studies. The Nature article cited above describes several studies currently in the works or in the stages of publication that seek to mitigate concerns over the role of the subject in the study, timing, scope of measurement, etc. I am particularly excited about the study that seeks to remove the subjective element of the test subject becoming conscious of choice through using a video game set up.

Scope of Claims

I do agree with the spirit of the Nature article and some of the sentiments therein: these studies do not unequivocally disprove the existence of free will as traditionally conceived. Clearly these studies are artificial in nature (as all experiments are) and the nature of choice and subjective human experience as we understand it makes such studies very difficult to parse. For who, except the subject, can tell whether true deliberation took place? Who, if anyone, can say whether the 40% of the time the computer strikes out represents true freedom or a limitation in our technology?

All of this is not to discount the role philosophers have and have not had in this process. Though I do not doubt that some have risen to the occasion and addressed these studies proactively and head-on (or conducted them!) there remains an underlying impression that any engagement is reluctant and occurs only once science has ‘overstepped its bounds’ as it were. We are at a point in our development as a species that science and philosophy can no longer avoid one another. Social contract theory is threatened by evolutionary evidence that our ancestors were always social creatures. Religion and faith are under assault be scientific evidence that many evolutionary triggers explain the mass appeal of religious belief. So, too, is the traditional conception of ourselves as wholly free agents under attack by scientific evidence that our brains do more behind the scenes than we previously thought. The rise in neurophilosophy gives me hope that more and more thinkers are becoming willing to incorporate these findings in their philosophical considerations, though I do wonder about the ‘old-guard.’ Are we witnessing a backlash against science’s role in the intellectual and philosophical world, or do the sentiments in the Nature article represent genuine and appropriate hesitation to read too much into these studies, or to explain away the complicated workings of the human brain? Time will elucidate this question, but I wonder if it will it ever provide an answer.

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  1. March 10, 2012 at 6:13 PM

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