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Is Free Will Possible?

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Is Free Will Possible
(if all thinking is, in fact, unconscious)?
A Dichotomy?
Will Theories
Free Will Exists
No Free Will Exists
Role of Consciousness
If all thinking is unconscious (per
Jackendoff) or decisions are made
unconsciously (per Wegner and Libet), is
there any role for consciousness?
Jackendoff, Wegner and Libet all provide
some role for consciousness in their
Libet and the Role of
Libet’s Proposed “Veto Power”
• Decisions become conscious approximately 200 ms before
the movements are made. Only 50 ms are needed for the
activation of the nerves to result in a movement.
• Thus, Libet proposes that in the 150 ms after a decision to
act becomes conscious and before a motor command is
sent, the “consciousness function” may be able to veto the
• Libet proposes that this veto power represents our only
chance for free will, which he calls “free won’t”. We can
decide not to carry out our urges.
• Libet insists that this veto power must be indeterministic.
• Others, who do not deny the possibility of a “veto power”
point out that the veto power itself could also be preceded
by unconscious processes.
• According to Libet, however, only indeterministic conscious
decisions (i.e. decisions to veto actions) can be free acts.
“The role of conscious 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 of 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.”
(Libet 1999)
Wegner and the role of
Consciousness is like a ship’s compass.
The compass points the direction that the ship is heading.
The compass does not lead the ship. The compass only
responds to the direction taken by the ship.
But the compass is not epiphenomenal.
The ship’s captain needs to observe the compass to make
decisions on how to steer the ship.
In Wegner’s view, consciousness allows us to know what
we’re doing (like the compass tells the pilot where the
ship is going).
“perhaps we have conscious will because it helps us
appreciate and remember what we are doing … [the
feeling of conscious will] tells us where we are and
prompts us to feel the emotions appropriate to the
morality of the actions we find ourselves doing” (Wegner
Consciousness of a particular decision cannot affect that
decision. It comes too late. However, it informs us of our
decisions. Thus, it can indirectly affect our future actions.
Jackendoff and the Role of
Consciousness is a forum for attention.
When thoughts are subject to attention, they are available
for further processing (by the unconscious inner core).
When thoughts are conscious, they become available for
reflection and introspection.
Reflection and introspection are unconscious, but are
operated on thoughts, ideas and images that have
become conscious.
E.g. Thinking about hitting Sam:
thought to hit Sam made unconsciously пѓ image of thought “I will hit Sam” becomes conscious пѓ conscious image of thought considered by unconscious processes пѓ unconscious reasoning generates thought that it is bad to hit пѓ вЂњit is bad to hit” (i.e. phonetic image of thought) becomes conscious пѓ conscious image of thought introspected by unconscious processes пѓ unconscious reasoning generates decision not to hit Sam пѓ вЂњI won’t hit Sam” becomes conscious
unconscious processing of conscious image
Consciousness does not do anything. It is a passive forum
(cf. screen) on which images are presented and available
for introspection. (But: Cartesian theatre fallacy.)
Consciousness is necessary for free will because
consciousness is necessary for attention and
we can only make free decisions on the basis of
what we can pay attention to.
Free will is conducted unconsciously, but requires
consciousness to be involved in the process.
Is Free Will Possible?
Traditionally, the debate is about whether free will is possible if
determinism is true.
All of our thoughts and actions are ultimately determined by the laws of
the universe. Every physical event is determined by prior events and
physical states. There are no random or miraculous causes.
If you knew all the physical states of all the matter in the universe at
time t (e.g. the big bang), you could theoretically predict all
subsequent events, including every thought and every action of
every person who ever lives.
Is this a threat to free will?
Cause Theories
Question: does indeterminism help?
Free Will Theories
Compatibilism: Free will is compatible with determinism.
Free will can exist even if all our actions are ultimately
determined by the laws of physics.
Incompatibilism: Free will is not compatible with
determinism. If the universe is deterministic, free will is
Libertarianism: We do have free will. Therefore (?),
the universe is not deterministic.
Hard determinism: The universe is deterministic (or, if it
is indeterministic, indeterminism does not allow for free
will either), and there is no free will.
Hard determinism
Cause Theories
Will Theories
Free Will Exists
No Free Will Exists
Is free will compatible with thinking
being unconscious?
Both compatibilists and incompatibilists might maintain that
free will, if it exists, must be wielded consciously (i.e.
only decisions made consciously can be free).
If so, Jackendoff, Wegner and Libet’s theories threaten the
possibility of free will.
If these theories are true, free will is impossible.
But is it?
Our question now: is it possible for free will to exist if our
decisions are made unconsciously?
Possible conclusions
Let’s assume that all thinking is unconscious. Is free
will then possible? There are four principal positions
to take:
Position One
All decisions are determined by our unconscious
minds. Even a decision to veto an action would be
initiated unconsciously before it becomes
conscious. Free will requires conscious control of
decisions. Therefore, there is no free will. This is a
form of hard determinism.
Position Two
All decisions are initiated by our unconscious
minds, but we have veto power. The veto power is
conscious, not determined by prior unconscious
activities of the brain, and is indeterministic. The
initiation of actions is not free but the final approval
to act is free. We have “free won’t”. This is Libet’s
stance. This is a form of indeterminism.
Position Three
We become conscious of a decision before
following through with it, and thus are able to
veto the decision after reflection. However, the
decision to veto an action is also preceded by
unconscious processes and is deterministically
generated. In other words, reflection upon what
has become conscious is an important part of
the process of a free action, but neither the
decision nor the veto is consciously generated.
Because we (our minds as a whole, including
both conscious and unconscious functions) have
a chance to reflect on our decisions (or urges),
the decision is free. This is a form of
Position Four
Decisions to veto actions, like all decisions, are
unconsciously generated and deterministic. There
may or may not be time to consciously reflect on a
decision before following through with it. However,
decisions made by our unconscious minds are
normally consistent with our conscious desires and
long-term goals. As long as our decisions to act
become conscious, and are consistent with our
conscious desires and conscious long-term goals,
our actions are free. Actions are unfree when we
have no conscious awareness of the decisions or the
reasons for the decisions. Libet’s experiments are
therefore no threat to free will. This is also a form of
Find your own questions, answers
and positions, in Cognitive Science
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