Wills, brains and spirits

A piece by Michael Egnor in Evolution News and Views reviews a paper by Benjamin Libet about his work on the neurophysiology of intentional action. Libet’s is the famous work that showed, in an experimental setting, that an unconscious “readiness potential” precedes the conscious act of willing by some 350-400ms, and that in turn precedes action potentials in motor nerves by 200ms.


The work is often used by determinists and misanthropes to deny the existence of free-will, the suggestion being that the mind is simply made conscious of what is already going to happen. But Egnor’s piece points out that Libet’s own conclusion is that his evidence is in favour of free-will, as the original paper confirms. Libet sees voluntary acts in more realistic settings as originating in a range of actions arising from various unconscious impulses, but with the conscious will exercising a veto and, therefore, ultimate control. This he sees as consonant with the concept of “self-control” found in religious and moral traditions.

Noting this experimental affirmation of free-will is worthwhile in itself, but as Michael Egnor has done that work I’d rather look at some other implications of this paper. Libet, I should note, considers will and consciousness to operate entirely at the neurological level – he does not believe in any “ghost in the nachine.” This, of course, is opinion rather than solid deduction, but in any case it doesn’t at all affect the inferences I think may be drawn from his work.

The first thing is that it seems to suggest the will to possess quite a limited freedom, as in Reformed theology, rather than an absolute libertarianism as in some other streams of thought. The unconscious impulses to action are, it would appear, limited in scope, and the voluntary power of veto therefore equally limited, though real.

Secondly, the implications for morality and character aren’t clearcut. Libet, for example, suggests that his findings disconfirm the kind of morality that suggests desires in themselves to be immoral – presumably he has in mind the saying of Jesus that lust or anger are sinful even when not carried into action. Since all these things start as unconscious impulses, he argues, how can the subject be morally responsible for them, especially if his will prevents them becoming actualised?

One could reply, of course, that this is an argument for original sin, guilt being incurred despite the absence of evil will. But that would only really be morally valid if the will were involved in forming the unconscious impulses in the first place. It does seem to me that, in this article at least, Libet fails to accommodate the strong possibility that the conscious-unconscious divide is more than a simple one-way street, with an isolated “free-will” controlling desires that come from some completely separate source – the kind of ghost-in-the-machine thinking he denies in theory.

But our unconscious is as much “us” as our conscious, as indeed is our body. It’s certainly experientially the case that desires (and particularly what we might call evil desires) are not a fixed quantity for every human being. Some people are much more tempted to particular wrongs than others by their temperament. Furthermore it is common experience that practice – either of doing something or refusing to do so – produces habits that, together, make up character. Perhaps the voluntary will is strengthened by constant use to avoid some actions. Or perhaps it feeds back into the unconscious mind and changes what impulses actually arise there in the first place, and how strong they are. In that way, it could be that certain temptations are less prevalent over time – or more, if the opposite process is involved.

Thus there would be quite a complex interaction between conscious choice and unconscious impulses, yet we could be held responsible for even the latter. That too accords with common experience – “I was tempted” is not usually considered a valid excuse for wrongdoing. Neither is “I only stole it through habit.”

But the sheer complexity of this whole business leads me to my main point. It’s clear that what goes on in any of our decision-making is neurologically complex – and therefore complex even if one is a Cartesian dualist who sees mind as immaterial. Somewhere a massive amount of processing of basic and sophisticated unconscious impulses is going on, presenting a presumably filtered (or it would overload any decision-making ability) range of options to consciousness, which then OKs or vetoes each particular action – or neglects to do so, perhaps, if habit is strong enough. At the same time I have suggested there must be a complicated system of feedback from past actions, from outward sanctions, rewards, or admonitions and inward conscience. We are not machines, but beings – but as biological beings, there is a machine-like complexity to all we do.

I suggest that it is absurd to attribute a comparable system to God. The univocal approach of Duns Scotus and his intellectual descendants, the theistic personalists and open theists, says that God’s being is like ours, except in degree. Like us, he deliberates, calculates, and presumably, on the basis of Libet’s work, exercises his will in order to choose between various impulses (which, being unconscious, can be accurately described as “passions”). Richard Dawkins is only following the theistic personalist line of reasoning when he says that God must be even more complex than human beings.

But there is surely as much absurdity in considering God in any way a system of mental feedback loops as there is in considering him to have a body with physiological mechanisms. Classical theism has always insisted that God is simple (on good philosophical grounds). All his attributes occupy that simplicity, including all his desire and will. God knows himself, and all things, entirely and immediately, and wills just as purely – the idea that he would have unconscious impulses as we do is absurd. And if that is absurd, so is any idea that he would acquire new habits or change in any other way as our minds do – what is there to change in pure spirit? The more one considers the detail, the more one is forced towards the classical view that we can only speak of his attributes as being analogical to ours, never identical. He is perfectly free and his will is the pure expression of his being – what we call our free will is a shadowy analogy, just as what we call our personhood is a pale reflection of the vigour of his.

I’m not disappointed by that – it’s actually rather wonderful to think how a concoction of flesh and blood – and of unconscious impulses and a mysteriously conscious power of veto – can be even analogically God’s image. Amd even more wonderful to consider what God is in comparison.connectome

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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21 Responses to Wills, brains and spirits

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    You wrote: ‘…presenting a presumably filtered (or it would overload any decision-making ability) range of options to consciousness, … ‘

    We often think of forgetfulness as a curse, but I’ve recently been musing about how my finite brain would handle it if I never forgot anything —every detail of every visual image my eyes ever reported to my brain, every sound heard, every conversation and every word read in a book. That would have to be mental overload in the extreme.

    So now I thank God for forgetfulness generally even though I still find it exasperating. But the brain must have a full time job just deciding which bits of the incoming sensory torrents it needs to keep, and triage for the ones that need immediate attention.

    And as you imply, every trivial decision would become a morass of infinite complication that would paralyze our ability to navigate our daily routine.

    • pngarrison says:

      The media have been covering a recently discovered rare class of people who have extreme episodic memory – they remember the salient details of every day in their lives. Only a handful of them have been found. (One is a fairly famous U.S. actress, Marilu Henner.) I found it fascinating that there is one known case of a boy who is a monozygotic twin who has this hyper-memory and his twin brother doesn’t.

      These people don’t test better on laboratory memorization tests than normals do. They don’t remember every detail that they experience, but they remember the salient details that most of us forget in days or weeks. Apparently most of them are happy to have this ability, although they do admit to wishing they could forget the unpleasant things. I’m not sure that that’s any different from the rest of us though. Really unpleasant events tend to burn into everyone’s memories even when we wish we could forget them.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    One of my recently deceased mother’s greatest qualities was her memory. It wasn’t at the level of remembering every detail of every day, but she could (before her dementia set in) remember anecdotes told about the childhood of great-aunts by her grandmother when she was 7 or 8 years old. And I occasionally find log-forgotten details of life when I was an infant bubbling to the surface, sometimes as smells or tastes, or just an overall “feeling” of ambience, apart from visual memories etc.

    So memory can be extraordinarily good, though seldom 100% reliable. Yet Merv’s point is also the case. The limitations of consciousness make excessive memory a burden – and likewise, most of our motor functions are automatic, so that we have only to decide on a final cause (fetching a book, say) and we can more or less ignore all the things we do to achieve it.

    This again relates to our differences from God, especially in that area disparagingly called “micromanagement.” Our main reason for delegating or ignoring details is that we haven’t the capacity to consider everything and stay sane – but what if our consciousness were infinite, and perfect memory therefore no burden? It would be a very different mode of being.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    An interesting link back to the twin studies piece, pngarrison. Memory ability would seem to be a genetic trait if anything is, and quite a major characteristic to be epigenetic.

    There may be a behavioural element, though: my mother was a great one for reminiscing both publically and when alone. Maybe the habit of recalling to memory is a major factor in retaining it. My son has no great interest in the past, and claims to remember very little from his childhood – of course, it could have been unconsciously suppressed because of the trauma of having me as a father.

    Certainly memory seems to be more of a complex, synthetic function than a mere video recording, or else there would be no distinction between what is salient and what is not. What isn’t remembered in an event is often reconstructed from familiar components, which is why someone can be convinced something happened in a certain place when it would be impossible to have done so.

    Incidentally, my twins independently bought exactly the same style of shoes for my mother’s funeral, to the chagrin of one of them. I doubt there’s a gene for low black suede boots with a heel and a single gold buckle by whatever maker it was, but Darwinian mechanisms do seem to have magical powers.

  4. Lou Jost says:

    I am one of those “misanthropes” who doubts the existence of (certain kinds of) free will. There is probably not enough short-term quantum indeterminism in the brain to escape the mostly-determinate consequences of the chemistry and physics of our brains (and even if there were a lot of quantum indeterminism in the brain, this would still not give us free will but just free us from strict determinism). So probably almost everything we do is determined by the physical state of our brains a few minutes beforehand. To think otherwise is to believe in constant little miracles violating laws of physics. (Some concepts of free will avoid this problem by redefining it. )

    I don’t want to argue about it here, but I do want to point out a different class of experiments besides Libet’s. This class of experiments involves electrostimulation of neurons which make a subject do something, like move in a certain way. Here is an example, from a book chapter by Douglas Long. It is not ironclad, as Long explains at the end, but it suggestive:

    ” Dr. José Delgado has described a striking case in which electrical stimulation of a patient’s brain
    ‘produced head turning and slow displacement of the body to either side with a well-oriented and apparently normal sequence, as if the patient were looking for something. This stimulation was repeated six times on two different days with comparable results. The interesting fact was that the patient considered the evoked activity spontaneous and always offered a reasonable explanation for it. When asked ‘What are you doing?’ the answers were, ‘I am looking for my slippers’, ‘I heard a noise’, ‘I am restless’, and ‘I was looking under the bed’. ‘
    From this description the patient appears to be so strongly under the illusion of making the movement voluntarily that he rationalizes it. Delgado adds, however, that it is difficult to ascertain whether this is so or whether ‘an hallucination had been elicited which subsequently induced the patient to move and to explore the surroundings’. So, although the experiment provides a possible illusion of agency, the investigator himself is not absolutely certain that the patient could not have been performing an action.”

    These experiments suggest that our sense of free will and agency may sometimes be completely illusory and purposely generated post-hoc by the brain. If it happens under these circumstances of artificial stimulation, it could be the norm when neurons are stimulated naturally in the course of our “thoughts”.

    I am not familiar enough with the literature to know whether more experiments of this kind have been performed.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:

    The notion of free will has been discussed within various disciplines and I do not want to mention any except for the appeal to quantum mechanics. On the subject of free will, we need to remember that self-identity and human choice are closely linked to this. An appeal to QM indeterminacy in an argument for or against free will is simply absurd. This can easily be shown by serious considerations of this subject, and no-one has any excuse (except for sheer ignorance) for making such claims. A fairly wide treatment of QM is given by W. M. de Muynck W. De Baere, and H. Martens, “Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics, Joint Measurement of Incompatible Observables and Counterfactual Definiteness”, Foundations of Physits, Vol. 24, No. 12, 1994, page 1589.

    This paper requires some familiarity with the relevant maths. An interesting statement is, “there is the proliferation of different interpretations of the quantum formalism. ranging from the purely empiricist interpretation looking upon the formalism as a description of the (cor)relation between macroscopic preparation acts and equally macroscoprcm easurement phenomena,t o a many-worlds interpretation in which the universe is thought to multiply itself into an infinite set of parallel worlds. Such a proliferation of paradigms is characteristic of a Kuhnian crisis in the development of theory, asking for in-depth analysis rather than acquiescence in the status quo.”

    These authors consider a range of experimental procedures and try to show that both measurements and experiments at a quantum level have a profound impact on our comprehension of the quantum world. The ‘trick’ played by those who wish to sound authoritative and knowledgeable, is to decide that the term ‘quantum indeterminacy’ has a meaning similar to QM itself, atoms, electrons, molecules, photons, and so on, and in this way make it appear as if they are discussing a property they have detected in molecules, neural circuits, and indeed in evolution itself. I regard this as both dishonest and ignorant. From the paper, “….. Yet, when looking at processes in the sub-quantum domain on individual quantum phenomena, this self-evident-looking reproducibility property should be approached with some care, i.e., one should not exclude a priori the possibility that in these not completely controllable domains of experience RH is no longer valid. One reason for this is on account of sound scientific scepticism, while another one is more physical and derives from our experience that the world as a whole is actually not reproducible …..”

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    It seems to me that the Delgado experiments provide no particular indication that what happens normally is in any way “illusory” (whatever that would mean – one would have to accept a genuine consciousness being fooled by the illusion because you can’t fool a mirage).

    If we employ the very limited information coming from the Libet work, and his own interpretation, then actions are being offered to consciousness by the unconscious – which is still part of the natural system. If, then, one were stimulating some complex informative pathway experimentally (one that was linked to a voluntary feedback loop, perhaps), it would be entirely natural to assume that action as arising from oneself rather than externally. It’s equivalent to assuming some action taken by your firm of trusted employees was legitimate (and therefore seeking to explain it as such) rather than by computer hackers.

    My question would be whether the mind could eventually learn to distinguish the “feel” of external stimulation from ordinary internal impulses.

    In the end it is still a pretty misanthropic viewpoi9nt, though, as you’re positively encouraging me to dismiss any argument you make in these posts as an inevitable result of your brain state – probably due to the heat and humidity out there or some other mundane factors. Whether I prefer your approach to QM or GD’s then depends not on choices reached on the rational arguments but on whether I prefer his brain state or yours – which preference in turn depends on mine, which happens to be infallible because it’s a brisk, cold morning here in Devon and I’ve just woken up after a dream about large insects eating my house.

    Any belief that has to be jettisoned as soon as one gets up into the daily world is pretty useless – and you will make many decisions today, as if they had alternatives. Or if you don’t, you will devalue not only those around you, but yourself.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Jon, I wasn’t arguing about the existence of consciousness but about our sense of agency. And my point was not that the Delgado experiment addresses what happens normally. It does appear to show that at least some of our experience of agency is illusory, though, and since there is little difference between a set of artificially stimulated neurons and naturally stimulated ones, this could be normal procedure for our consciousness.

      And no, the validity of my thoughts has nothing to do with their origin, whether I freely chose them out of thin air or whether they are deterministically based on a lifetime of experience and examination.

      Neither does it cheapen us as persons to know how we work instead of making up stories about the process. Granted we are a long way from really knowing this.

      Your argument is similar in spirit to those who deny naturalistic evolution not for empirical reasons but because they think it cheapens us.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Lou, if your view of free-will is that it means making choices out of thin air rather than being based on a lifetime of experience and examination then we’re agreed there is no free-will. Libertarian free-will in that sense is a johnny-come-lately in Christian theology.

    But your self-examination, presumably, is determined too, rather than being in any way a choice to self-examine. There would be little point in urging others to the virtues of self-examination – though the urging would be determnied too, I guess.

    It seems, still, to be a rather difficult philosophy to maintain consistently: if one of us tells the other to read a book or paper that will radically change their life, and it becomes obvious we didn’t, one either has to conclude that the other had no choice, or that one can determine a different outcome by further pleading or threatening – all the while knowing that ones own deliberation over which course to take is a mere epiphenomenon. I’ll wager that day by day you work with the epiphenomenon and totally ignore the “helpful truth” except when blogging (deterministically) demands bringing it to mind.

    And although you say consciousness is real, I guess you would say that, whereas a good number of eliminative materialists claim to have seen through that particular illusion. Some even claim that the reason most others don’t see through it is that they don’t want to believe it. By which they presumably mean that the experience and examination of most others happens to be different from theirs, wanting being an illusion and all… but that’s back to my first point, about who is suffering the illusion in an illusory consciousness.

    Your last point, comparing the dehumanising effect of denying genuine will with those who consider evolution demeaning, I considered and rejected. But I would, wouldn’t I?

    • Lou Jost says:

      A quick question for clarification: Do you think that your thoughts at a given moment are not completely determined by the physical state of your body and its surroundings just prior to those thoughts?

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Yes I do think they are not… but I would believe them to be congruent. In other words, just as the information in this post as you receive it is entirely present in the physical media by which you receive it, but is not determined by it but by me.

        There is no ghost in the post, but there is a mind that cannot be reduced to the physical media. It is not possible for the information herein to be communicated except via a physical medium – but in itself it is immaterial.

        The mind is probably not an exact parallel to that, but in general terms it is a form usually and primarily expressed in physical terms – not in a Cartesian “ghost in the machine” sense, but it the sense of an Aristotelian hyelmorphic dualism.

        The Christian concept of spirit complicates that, but does not alter the general principle… I do not have a soul – I am a soul consisting of body and mind that belong together.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Thanks for the answer, Jon. I’m not sure what is the causal role of thoughts, in this view. Do you think the current physical state of your body is completely determined by the immediately-prior physical state of your body and its surroundings?

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


            In the end I have to reply that since nobody knows what mind is and how it works, I’m not likely to be the first to settle it. On the other hand, one can extrapolate from ones experience and self-examination … no, I mean that subjective experience, as Nagel showed, is the only real insight we have into subjectivity, to which the scraps of scientific findings are an adjunct.

            My non-detailed answer, then, is the conviction that information – in this case the content of thought – is always and essentially more than the determination of physical states, though expressed in such states. And that information is the final arbiter of belief, will and action: it is not an epiphenomenon, any more than the ideas in a book are an epiphenomenon to the physical text.

            When I studied social psychology in the 70s that would have been considered heresy – the paradigm was that inheritance and environment were behaviour – there wasn’t anything else. It was as if the question of human choice had been thoroughly settled back then – but alas, it was just an ideological and metaphysical commitment (probably going back to Marxism, in them days).

            I’m assured by sociologist friends that that situation has changed, and that the reality of human decision is now assumed in social psychology. Such is progress.

            • Lou Jost says:

              Jon, that helps a bit. I don’t expect either of us to find the definitive explanation of consciousness. But your answer sidesteps my second question. In your view, do you reject physical determinism as it applies to the physical realm (leaving out QM for the moment)?

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I’m going for a new nest, Lou, to save us getting squeezed.

    Do I reject physical determinism? Yes, ultimately, because I believe the universe to be a system open to God. I believe in the God who institutes reliable, but not strait-jacketed, secondary causes for all kinds of good reasons (including our good).

    However, that’s not a fundamental article of my faith, since it’s entirely theoretical, like determinism itself: unless you are Laplace’s demon, the fact that, under experimental conditions, you can find the universe’s statistical physical laws panning out accurately can only be worked into a worldview by an inference of uniformity, which is a faith-commitment.

    So, leaving the original issue of “mind” out of it, one cannot be sure that the laws will not vary in miniscule but significant ways in real complex situations, or that God doesn’t vary them (since they are his anyway), or that he doesn’t influence chaotic systems (or more especially, those on the edge of chaos, of which the universe seems to have more than you’d expect). That’s before you get to the category of miracle, which seems to imply the actual suspension or bypassing of the usual secondary causes.

    But suppose reality were physically deterministic in the Laplacian Deistic sense, so that indeed it was panning out in a rigidly physically determined way according to the laws and initial conditions God set up? It might be aesthetically or theologically upsetting to some people, but since we’re never going to have exact knowledge of the system, it’s no big deal until you come to choice and accountability.

    In practice, physical determinism seems in general to belong back in the 18th century, and all but a tiny minority of people act as if choice and responsibility are real – and therefore physical determinism with regard to rational people, not.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Some short comments on the science:
      Uniformity is a justified inference, not taken on faith. We can see billions of years into the past, and the laws operating then are the same as those operating now. Granted, this is not proof that the laws will never change, but it is stronger evidence than we have about almost anything else.

      Most physical laws (like conservation of momentum or energy) are consequences of fundamental symmetries and would be hard to vary slightly.

      I agree with your comment that in practice, the debate about determinism is not very relevant except when it comes to accountability and free will.

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