Free Will / Free Won’t

Talk originally presented on 13 January 2012.

This page provides ‘contents page’ summary and links to pages containing the actual content. Footnotes for those other pages (e.g. [ABC]) appear at the bottom of this page.



Part I: A Physicalist Account of Free Will

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The Problem of Free Will
  • 3. Daniel Wegner’s ‘Conscious Will’
  • 4. Empirical Will and Phenomenal Will

Part II: Free Won’t

  • 5. Free Will = Free + Will
  • 6. Benjamin Libet’s Half-Second
  • 7. Free Won’t
  • 8. Good and Bad Homunculi
  • 9. Rodney Brooks’s Subsumption Architecture
  • 10. Stanley Milgram on the Subway
  • 11. Afterword: An Alternative Feedback Model (to follow)
  • 12. Afterword: McGilchrist’s Master and Emissary (to follow)

Part III: Freedom

  • 13. The Unavoidable Daniel Dennett
  • 14. Quantifying Freedom
  • 15. Freedom and Cryptography
  • 16. Freedom and Time

Part IV: Alief, Belief and C-lief

  • 17. Tamar Gendler’s concept of ‘Alief’
  • 18. Marvin Minsky’s ‘B-brain’
  • 19. C-lief: Free-Won’tifying Ourselves
  • 20. An Alternative ‘Conscious Will’

Part V: Conclusions

  • 21. A Physicalist Approach
  • 22. Will and Freedom are Separate
  • 23. Conscious Will is not an Illusion
  • 24. We have Freedom
  • 25. Time is an important factor in our freedom
  • 26. Where Next?: Morality
  • 27. Where Next?: Freedom
  • 28. Further Reading

Notes for Part I (A Physicalist Account of Free Will)

[AUT] Unless an action is easily deemed ‘unintentional’ (incidental, or accidental). For example, a leaf falling off a tree.

[CRI] Criticisms of Wegner’s ‘The Illusion of Conscious Will’ include:

[DEM] It has been proven that Laplace’s Demon cannot exist within the universe.

[DUA] A poor alternative is to think you are a determinist but, as a result of confused thinking, unconsciously allow dualist notions creep back in. Daniel Dennett and others assert this is how many are compatibilists.

[DOW] Dowsing rods: Small involuntary movements get amplified/accentuated, causing the rod to move, because of the particular way of holding the rods. There is no prior intention to move the rod (for those not trying to deceive) hence no feeling that it is the dowser that causes the action.

[EMO] a learnt emotion?

[FC1] Originated in Australia 1977.

[FC2] The messages only ever used vocabulary known to the facilitators.

[FC3] take these reports in good faith; the facilitators often consciously helped in completing words

[FC4] It was then highly distressing for parents to then accept that the messages had not originated from their children.

[HAN] Clever Hans: von Osten, the owner, was not aware of giving visual clues to Hans to stop counting. von Osten attributed the intention (and intelligence) to the horse.

[HYP] Hypnosis. Memory confabulations. The person under hypnosis has memory of performing the action and the memory of the emotion of it being willed and so must have had an intention. Afterwards, they will therefore  confabulation often ridiculous explanations of why they performed the actions.

[IAW] See here for a longer description on Wegner’s Intention/Action/Will interplay.

[OUI] Ouija boards: Small involuntary movements get amplified/accentuated, causing the rod to move, because of the particular arrangement of the planchette held my many. There is no prior intention to move the planchette across the board(for those not trying to deceive) hence there is no feeling that it is the participant that causes the action, therefore we attribute the intention elsewhere – to spirits.

[OVV] See here for an overview of the book.

[PET] The redefinition of Free Will must be within reasonable limits. Solutions such as ‘Free Will exists in a deterministic universe – that’s the name of my pet rabbit’ are not acceptable!

[PHY] there are differences between these 3 terms but this is not really of concern to non-philosophers. After all, there are at least as many isms as there are philosophers.

[SVY]  82% of philosophers lean towards non-sceptical realism. Regarding free will: 59% compatibilist; 14% libertarian; 12% no free will. Therefore at least 71% are determinists.

Notes on Part II: ‘Free Won’t’

[BAL] ‘He went ballistic’: For a reflex action that is ballistic, there is no freedom to cancel. Compare this with the long time window of premeditated actions.

[BRA] Note: ‘affect’, not ‘cause’.

[BUT] Using the EMG removes any time delay from the finger moving to contact being made by the electrical switch.

[COP] Raymond Coppinger (Hampshire College, Amherst MA):

[DEN] e.g. discussed by Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland

[HAY] In Germany. Libet’s own work followed on from Kornhuber and Deecke’s work in Germany in 1964.

[HOF] e.g. Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Vilayanur Ramachandran

[KIM] Kim’s article on Libet: “Libet trades free will for free won’t”.

[LIB] Libet’s early explanations of the ‘wrong’ ordering of mental and physical events involved a ‘backwards referral in time’.


[MRI] : Made possible by the improvements in the temporal resolution of MRI over recent years.

[PHY] Some less-specific indicators in favour of physicalism:

  • The astounding success of the production of the whole body of scientific knowledge!
  • Historically: Accidental physical damage to brain leads to change of behaviour. The classic example here is the change of behaviour of Phineas Gage after an explosion blew a metal bar clean through his brain.
  • More recently: brain scanning technology, allowing correlation between thoughts and brain location.
  • Additionally: Deliberate physical intervention e.g transcranial magnetic stimulation.

[REA] The so-called ‘readiness potential’.

[ROO] iRobot Roomba.

[SUB] So-called because each higher layer subsumes the behaviour of all lower layers.

[TEN] For some actions, there is no time for guided action. Dennett notes the speed of reactions required to return serve in tennis against professionals like Greg Rusedski. The best that higher levels can do is ‘pre-arm’ so that the physically-learnt ‘reflex’ behaviour is allowed to take its course of action, unhindered by higher levels.

[WEG] In contrast to Daniel Wegner’s account of ‘Conscious Will’ – see Part I of the talk.

Notes on Part III: ‘Freedom’

[CON]: Unlike ‘Consciousness Explained’ that others have dubbed ‘Consciousness Explained Away’!

[ENV] and the immediate environment as well, but this can be ignored for now. [QUA]

[HAG]: ‘Neuroscience, free-will and determinism: I’m just a machine’

[KEL]: Kelvin:  “I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of Science, whatever the matter may be.”

[KER]: called Kerckhoff’s principle.

[QUA] A fumbling first attempt to define freedom as a function of the agent, its environment and time is presented in the blog entry ‘Quantifying Freedom, Part 1’

[SOP] It is relatively easily to find large prime numbers and very easy to multiply them together. But it is very difficult to go the other way and split (‘factorize’) the result into the original 2 prime numbers.

Notes on Part IV: ‘Alief, Belief and C-lief’

[EOM]: See ‘The Extension of Mind’ talk

[KER]: See Bill Kerr’s blog and site for more commentary on Minsky and B-brains.

[SUR]: See James Surowiecki’s ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ for how a society of minds needs to work for intelligence to be increased, rather than decreased.

[WEG] See Part I of this talk.

Notes on Part V: ‘Conclusions’

[BRE]: See this Bjoern Brembs paper on free will in fruit flies. Three quotes from this paper:

  • ‘…adaptive value of internal organization consists of being unpredictable for competitors, prey or predators.’
  • ‘…ability of … brains … to choose among different behavioural options even in the absence of differences in the environment.’
  • ‘behavioural variability is generated within the brain rather than as a by-product of a complex noisy input-output system.’

[BRI]: Hans Briegel’s ‘projective simulation’ method is to provide software agents with a degree of freedom.  The agent simulates situations that are similar, but not identical to, events that it has encountered before. There are rules according to which these ‘projections’ can be generated by the robot, so they’re not arbitrary. There can exist non-biological agents that can make free decisions, thus having ‘free will’ but without the ‘sense of agency’ that humans experience.

[CHA]: The ‘butterfly effect’: whether or not there is a particular butterfly beating its wings in Brazil can affect whether there is a tornado a few days later over Texas. Note I use the word affect rather than cause.

[EPI]: Epistemology: the study of the nature of knowledge. Ontology: the study of nature of reality.

[FRI]:See this and this on Karl Friston’s ‘free energy’ hypothesis that the brain is actively predicting what input it will receive, rather than just passively processing information as it arrives. By doing so it uses less energy when its predictions are correct, and increases activity in order to process information when the unexpected happens.

[GER]: A distinctly German, theoretical physics and biophysics theme seems to be emerging here!

[HAG]: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. See the interview with Patrick Haggard ‘I’m just a Machine’

[HEI]: Martin Heisenberg is the son of Werner Heisenberg.

[INS]: I think I would be described as a ‘methodological instrumentalist’, although the term has been now been hijacked by economists. To me, physicalism is an epistemological stance, not an absolute statement of fact about the world. The Earth doesn’t really go around the Sun; we’re not really made of atoms. These scientific ‘truths’ are just the best ‘models’ we have to account for the phenomena we experience. I wish to counteract both the dogma of anti-science and the arrogance of many scientists.

[OTH]: The talk also draws on information in previous blog postings, notably:

  •  Quantifying Freedom, Part 1
  •  Wegner’s Illusion: An Overview
  •  Wegner’s Illusion: Intention, Action, Will
  •  Alva Noe against Hubel and Wiesel
  •  Pseudo-Closed-Loop-Feedback for Sensorimotor Control

[VOH]: Experimental work by Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler

[WAL]: Greg Walton and Carol Dweck: Willpower: It’s in your Head.html

[WEG]: I am using Wegner’s terminology here.

8 Responses to Free Will / Free Won’t

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