A Physicalist Account of Free Will

This is the first part of the talk ‘Free Will / Free Won’t’. Notes in the text in the form [ABC] can be found by following the above link.


1. The Problem of Free Will

The summary for this talk stated:

‘Most people will assert that they have Free Will yet most contemporary philosophers and neuroscientists, when pressed for an opinion, will suggest it is just an illusion.’

As a way of introducing some basic terminology, let us ask: what do philosophers actually think?

  1. Most modern neuroscientists / philosophers are realists [SVY]:

Realism is more commonly called materialism nowadays. Physicalism is another term. I am using the physicalism term throughout this talk because of its association with science (physics) and it avoids the everyday connotations of realistic or materialistic [PHY]. Physicalism is the belief that everything is matter (or rather, can potentially be described by physics). In contrast to this is idealism (‘everything is mind’) and dualism (‘there is both mind & matter’).

2. Most modern neuroscientists / philosophers are determinists [SVY]:

The universe runs like clockwork, without exceptions to the laws of physics! What will happen follows on from what is the case now. There is only 1 possible future state from the current state. The famous French mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace noted (1814) that if someone knew the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe then they would be able to completely predict all future events. Such a being has subsequently become known as ‘Laplace’s demon’ [DEM].

Determinism seemingly leaves us with no choice and, from that, seemingly no responsibility. Hence problem of free will arises. The problem can be avoided by being a Libertarianism (‘we have free will and therefore determinism is false’) or  an idealists or dualists, where mind can exist free from the mechanistic restrictions of matter.

3. Most modern neuroscientists / philosophers are compatibilists [SVY]:

Compatibilism is the belief that we have free will despite determinism.

Of course, one way of being a compatibilist is to assert that free will exists by definition, since it feels like it does, but then accept that we may need to refine or even redefine the rather vague understanding of what free will actually is [PET][DUA].

2. Experience versus Science

Take an analogy with sound – and the supposedly profound philosophical question of, ‘if a tree falls in a deserted forest, does it make a sound?’ The experiential (idealist) interpretation of the question would yield the answer ‘no’. But the scientific (physicalist) interpretation would yield the answer ‘yes’ since the word ‘sound’ involves the concept of the movement of molecules, regardless of the presence or otherwise of an observer.

Now, we have an experiential concept of free will. But what would a physicalist interpretation of free will look like? It is highly likely to be something very different from the experience of free will just as the experience of sound is very different to the scientific explanation of it.

3. Daniel Wegner’s Conscious Will

I will get straight to the point in providing a scientific account of free will by introducing Daniel Wegner. Wegner is a professor of psychology at Harvard and his book ‘The Illusion of Conscious Will’ (2002) is very well regarded by other academics [OVV].

In one sentence: ‘Conscious Will’ (as he calls it) is a feeling.

It is an emotion [EMO] that we experience when an intention is immediately followed by action. The memory of emotion is distinct from the memory of the intention or the memory of action, and Wegner elaborates on his claim with an elegantly simple claim: if we have only 2 out of those 3 (i.e. intention/action/will) then we will create (confabulate) a memory of the third [IAW]. Justification for this theory stems from what happens in non-normal situations.

I will provide a personal example. Many years ago at Primary school, the tradition was to take games into class on last day of term. On one such occasion, someone took in their Scalectrix. I had never played before and the first time I touched the controls, I was playing against someone else. After a quick ‘ready, steady, go!’ I gradually pressed the trigger and saw the car accelerate smoothly, until, my finger fully pressing the trigger, it whizzed around the track. Although I had never played Scalectrix before, the finger movement correlated perfectly with car speed. This all seemed rather easy. At this point I noticed (a) the other car wasn’t moving, and (b) the other player was watching my car. It was then I had the awful realisation that I wasn’t driving the car I thought I was! Nobody had told me which car was mine, and I thought I would be able to tell. I could – eventually! My intention to cause the car to move coupled with subsequently observing the action of the car moving gave me the feeling of driving the car – even though  I wasn’t.

Wegner provides examples the other way around (so-called ‘action projection’) – where actions caused by us are attributed elsewhere. These include the use of Ouija boards [OUI] and dowsing rods [DOW], hypnosis [HYP]and the case of ‘Clever Hans’, the counting horse [HAN].

But I will only provide here a rather tragic one of Wegner’s: that of ‘facilitated communication’. The case arose with children with severe autism or cerebral palsy with severe motor control problems who were therefore unable to talk or communicate in another other form. It was found [FC1] that if an able-bodied person –the so-called ‘facilitator’ – held the hand of the child to provide steadiness, to stabilise movements, it would allow the patient to then type out a message on a keyboard. The children were suddenly able to communicate for the first time –a highly emotional revelation for their parents. But this phenomenon was subsequently investigated and all the evidence points to the facilitators effectively using the children as the planchette of a Ouija board [OUI], unaware that it is themselves causing the movement (the so-called ‘ideomotor effect’) [FC2]. The facilitators themselves didn’t feel that they were writing the messages themselves [FC3] and so attributed the writing of the messages to the child [FC4]. This ‘loss of will’ arose not just because there was absence of intention to act but because of an positive inclination to attribute action elsewhere (‘action projection’).

Wegner posits a purpose to this emotion of conscious will: authorship of action. We generally attribute authorship of actions to agents (I ‘author-ize’) [AUT]. One of those authors (agents) is ourselves. Hence ‘Conscious Will’ is personal authorship – it is a special case. If I attribute authorship to me, I can do something about it, if I want it to stop.

4. Empirical Will and Phenomenal Will

I am guessing that you did not find the above a satisfactory account of Free Will.

Wegner has been criticized for there not being any causal connection from the conscious feeling and any action. Consciousness therefore appears to be an epiphenomena. But it is difficult to see how a physicalist account could involve causation from a feeling. The best it can do is to show a connection from ‘that which causes the feeling’ to an action, assuming that which causes the feeling’ can be sufficiently well isolated and then correlated to the experience.

Wegner himself distinguishes between ‘empirical will’, the will that causes action, and ‘phenomenal will’, the reported experience of will. His account of ‘Conscious Will’ applies to the latter only. However, a satisfactory account of Free Will should include some explanation of how actions are caused. With Wegner, there is no account of how we choose between options – of how an intention arises in the first place. There is just an account of how it is felt once intention is there.

I will have more to say on ‘Conscious Will’ and ‘empirical will’ later on.

[This is the end of Part I. Follow the link at the top of this blog entry for the next part.]

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2 Responses to A Physicalist Account of Free Will

  1. Pingback: Idealism physicalism | See0800

  2. Pingback: My Brain Made Me Do It | Headbirths

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