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September 26, 2007


Mark Vernon

Nigel -

I was recently in correspondence with Chris Frith, author of Making up the Mind, about the Libet experiments, following an article he had in New Scientist. I'd pointed out that Libet had withdrawn his results when he realised that people could veto the apparently 'not free willed' bending of a finger, in the wittily name 'free won't'. Frith got back saying that this conscious veto is also preceded by brain activity, so the problem for free will remains. However, what it also opens up is the possibility that our unconscious decisions can be trained, as it were - so that when it comes to moral actions the conscious and unconscious might work together, as it were, to produce actions that are good. To quote Frith: 'In other words consciousness allows us to modify the mental context in which our decisions occur.' Moreover, the unconscious and conscious aspects of action might converge in terms of what they cause, making their different mental status less significant in terms of their implications for free will.

Frith also pointed out that the Libet experiments operate in very constrained conditions. For example, you may or may not display much free will as your finger bends, not least since your whole reason for being there has already been decided: to bend it! But you do show free will in actually taking part to start with. He admitted: 'We are restricted in what sorts of experiments we can do.'

In relation to Nietzsche, I think it is easy to make the mistake of jumping from his surely correct observation, with which Freud concurs, that there is a whole lot more to free will than simple conscious decision-making (something that philosophers and theologians since the Reformation have realised - the Reformation being the moment in history when free will became a really crucial issue, eternal salvation resting on your free decision) to an 'absolutist' epiphenomenal position that free will is in fact entirely illusory and determined. There is surely a reason this seems counterintuitive: determinism is as simplistic as those who say free will is entirely transparent.

virtual philosopher

Thanks for this, Mark.

Nietzsche and Freud are surely right that we should be less confident than we usually are that our actions are a direct causal result of acts of will. Whether they can move from some to all so swiftly is a tougher one. I agree that determinism feels counterintuitive. I would have liked Leiter to have engaged with the practical consequences of subscrbing to Nietzsche's views - does that mean that my apparent intention (act of will) to write this reply to you had no effect whatsoever on my actually writing it? Hard to stomach. But interesting though.

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