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.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11th, I would like to write this review in memoriam of the lives lost, both in that attack and the subsequent series of ongoing wars fought in the name of religion as well as alleged political freedom. I hope someday our world will better reflect the measured voices of reason over those of the extreme and the depraved, and that tragedies of this scope will cease to be perpetuated by states and individuals alike. I heartily believe the first step in fashioning such a change is to address, head on, the challenge that religious fundamentalism poses to rationality and peaceful human relations.
Birthed from that very same tragedy, the foundational research of J. Anderson Thomson’s Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith sought to answer a fundamental and important question in the wake of this national tragedy: what drives those inclined to suicide terrorism? The resulting research lead to a series of lectures in 2009 that has since been published thanks in part to funding from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The product is a 144-page primer on the scientific underpinning for why we are inclined to believe in the unseen, and how evolutionary mechanisms promote religiosity in the same way evolutionary mechanisms promote our addiction to fast food.
Though the introduction and first chapter might lead the reader to believe that all religious beliefs stand accused, the chapter titles (gems such as Our Daily Bread: Craving a Caretaker), general tone, and outright admission by Thomson reveal the target of this missive to be the Judeo-Christian conception of God. This is slightly curious, given that Islamic extremism launched the basis of the book yet is rarely mentioned outside of the introduction. Each chapter is tight, concisely written and unflinching – chapter 4 is barely three full pages. Yet this very same admirable quality that allows the book to be consumed in an hour is also its downfall; the clear research upon which it is based takes a backseat to readability. More academically inclined readers will likely find themselves combing the Notes section for more on the fascinating studies and articles that are not even footnoted in the main text. A veritable treasure trove, these notes are shamefully secluded in the back of what could have easily been a book two or three times its published length.
That being said, this book is perfect for what it is: an introduction. Its manageable size makes it the perfect gift for dilettantes only tentatively interested in science or faith, and a good doorway for amateur and established philosophers alike who are just entering the fray. And yet for all of the cutting language and unabashed affirmation that religion is all in our heads, Why We Believe in God(s) is no mere tract against the Religious Right. Thomson highlights many non-religious facets of humanity, such as secular ritual, that stem from the very same evolutionary mechanisms as their religious counterparts. Further, Thomson does not deny the usefulness some of these evolutionary by-products (such as the perceived agency mentioned here) may serve even in the modern world. He only establishes for us that regardless of its current role, the genesis of religion lies in our development as a species and not in one revelation or another.
Over at Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende highlights two clips from the film “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward” with one clip partially focusing on Robert Sapolsky and his views on genetic determinism.
Now, I must first offer a fair disclaimer before I begin my discussion of Sapolsky’s remarks in the clip. I have not watched Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, nor have I watched the second Zeitgeist movie. I have, however, watched the original Zeitgeist film and was thoroughly unimpressed. Many, many claims are made, and very, very few sources are cited. Overall, I found it to be an amalgam of conspiracy theories and poorly executed critiques of politics and religion, all with a distinctly New Age flavor. I do not have the interest or the heart to say any more about this set of films, but I strongly urge anyone who has seen the films or is interested in their message to check out Edward Winston’s debunking of the film.
Now, on to Sapolsky and genetic determinism. Loosely defined, genetic determinism as a theory states that the phenotypes of a specific organism are determined by the genes of that organism. These can include behavioral phenotypes as well as physical or structural phenotypes. So, for example, genetic determinism would claim that a behavior of mine, say ‘shyness’, is at least partially determined by my genes. Further, through gene mapping, scientists could hypothetically isolate the ‘shyness’ gene and therefore search for that gene in others. For film buffs, this idea factors heavily into Gattaca, where genes can be sequences and utilized to predict the likelihood of certain medical conditions, etc.
In the clip from Zeitgeist, Sapolsky seems to implicitly condemn determinist worldviews (presumably, based upon his phrasing, because they lead to a sort of indolence or lack of effort to change behavior). He makes the claim that genes contribute to such deterministic outlooks and promote a mindset in some that behavior is genetically predisposed and therefore we should not attempt to correct or change such behavior. In fact, he goes so far as to say that the concept of genetically caused behavior is incredibly dangerous for this very reason.
I should clarify that I believe genetic determinism does NOT claim the absolute causal role in determination of behavior. There are clearly many environmental factors at play in the forming of behaviors, and the presence of a gene does not de facto result in the occurrence of certain behavior often associated with that gene. That being said, Sapolsky’s claim that genetic determinism is “sheer nonsense” borders on the unbelievable. For, aren’t there individuals who have a demonstrably lower threshold for addiction? As I said, I do not believe that genetic determinism means that anyone with a gene that often results in alcohol addiction is doomed to be an addict regardless of what they do. Clearly behaviors can be modified. However, genetic determinism does not only refer to behavioral phenotypes - it refers to morphological phenotypes as well. This means that my genes encode to a degree my height, my general build, eye color, etc. Clearly some morphological phenotypes can be influenced through environmental means, i.e. prenatal vitamins, exercises, etc. Further, should reductionism prove to be true, then if my genes are at least partially responsible for the manner in which my neural pathways form and react to dopamine levels, etc. This would mean that my genes DO play a role that is not changeable. For, I cannot ever grow taller than my genotypic “blueprint” would allow. That is to say, there is most likely a range in which, depending on nutrition and other environmental factors, I could fall.
Ultimately, our genes do appear to play a determinative role in our behavior as well as our physiology. While I agree with Sapolsky that they do not represent insurmountable roadblocks, I disagree with his sentiment that genetic determinism is itself a ridiculous concept.
The Philosopher’s Carnival #124 is up over at Philosophy@Utah State, with their leading question being “whether neuroscience explain mentality?” I am proud to report that my post “Libet Revisited: Reduction and Prediction in Neuroscience” over at the Florida Student Philosophy Blog was featured in this latest edition! I am very glad my post was selected and included in this round of the Carnival, and I hope to be able to submit more posts in the future.
Please check out the other featured Carnival posts at Philosophy@Utah State, as well as posts from my fellow contributors over at the FSPB. I know we all put a lot of hard work into our posts, so feedback is always welcome!
Special thanks to Chris Martucci over at What Blag? for bringing this article to my attention. According to a recent press release, scientists have created artificial synapse circuits that could one day be utilized to create neuron-like connections in technology applicable to biotech or Artificial Intelligence. One promising application is the creation of prosthetic brains or brain segments, which could be used to help those with severe disabilities or brain injuries.
Of equal interest is the possibility that in the next century or so (depending on the rate of these sorts of advances) we might finally be in a position to answer whether emergentist claims regarding complexity thresholds for the emergence of consciousness or causal powers are legitimate or not. Should we create prosthetic or synthetic brains that approach, equal, or dwarf our own biological brains and they remain nothing more than a mechanical shell awaiting input, we shall still be left without an answer as to the nature of life itself and how it comes into existence.
**Note: The content of this post has been edited and expanded since the original posting. Additionally, a version of this post can be found here at UNFSPB.**
In “Agent Causation” Timothy O’Connor makes a passing assertion that there are many unresolved questions for materialist agency as he posits it, and that many of these questions are empirical in nature and can only be resolved with “extensive advancements within neurobiological science.”  Two particularly salient questions are (1) “Precisely to what extent is an ordinary human’s behavior directly regulated by the agent himself, and to what extent is it controlled by microdeterministic processes?” And (2) whether microdeterministic processes can be predicted or not. While O’Connor may believe that advances in neuroscience will reinforce rather than call into question his theory, this is not the case. Stretching from the 1980s to a recent study in 2008, neuroscience has demonstrated that predictive brain activity can be seen to occur prior to a test subject’s consciousness of making a decision. From Libet to present, these studies provide damaging replies to the questions which O’Connor’s theory leaves unanswered.
In 1985, Benjamin Libet crafted an experiment to measure what he deemed “unconscious readiness potential” (RP) and a test subject’s experience of having an intention or volition toward a specific, repetitive movement at chosen intervals. Libet measures Readiness Potential as voltage levels in the brain. Paling in comparison to today’s standards of FMRI machines and 3 dimensional mapping, Readiness Potential simply indicated an increase, decrease, or maintenance of brain activity as measured by changes in voltage. The original test was set up where brain activity was monitored as the subject performed the task, which allowed Libet to measure the interval between the beginning of brain activity, the claim of conscious feelings of volition, and the action being performed. The tests demonstrated a marked and measurable increase in brain activity prior to the subject reporting becoming conscious of deciding to flex his or her wrist. On average, 200ms elapsed between the subject becoming aware of willing the action and that action taking place. However, a change in the subject’s RP occurred 550ms prior to the actual flexing of the wrist. This meant that, on average, 350ms elapsed between increased RP in the motor cortex and the subject becoming aware of willing the action. In effect, measurable brain activity was occurring prior to the subject’s consciousness. Libet’s reading of these results was that, should it be the case that we choose to act out of consciousness, there would not be a 350ms period of activity prior to the subject becoming aware of the intention to act. This would seemingly point to the conclusion that brain activity prior to consciousness, not conscious decision-making, was the cause of a subject’s action. At the very least, it would seem that such antecedent brain activity must be explained.