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March 25, 2007


James Hamilton

I agree with the "muddled philosophy" - but it's more basic than that: psychology as a whole is very bad at defining its terms, whilst assuming that the terms it uses are universally understood and possess stable meanings (Layard on "happiness" is a superb example of where laziness in this respect can lead).

The Free Will in Neuroscience debate will probably come to be seen as an equivalent of the concept of qualia - the result of an unfortunate, premature crossover between neuroscience and philosophy, with both sides thinking that the other is employing the same terms in the same way. Anyway, it just reflects how crude our understanding of the brain still is and how far we have to go. Libet is making some rather large and unsteady assumptions, and pile on top of those the political desires of the writer interpreting Libet for the FT..

I'm not as worried as you are about the therapy-ing of justice - the trend has been in the opposite direction in recent years, and in any case, I don't think the evidence is likely to continue to be there for even the most politically-inspired professional shrink.


In principle, though, retributive punishment is probably sometimes wrong. Some problems -- child molestation, eg -- are probably better treated with drug therapy. And the working assumption is that they are not free to make moral choices.

Matt Munro

I read Libets research in the final year of my psycholgy degree and it blew me away. Maybe it's the neural correlate of the dynamic unconcious ? After all who who "decides" to forget the car keys for a journey you don't really want to make - you or your unconcious ?
I prefer to think now of almost all actions being subconcious (by definition at any instant you can only be aware of a tiny amount of the information being processed by your CNS) with the concious mind occasionally being recruited where quick action is needed and/or a novel situation encountered.
I think the difficulty is that many people imagine they have acess to their own mental processes when in reality they have acess only to the product of those processes.
Marlon Brandos justification for not using the conventional "learn a script and repeat it parrot fashion" approach to acting was to assert, correctly, that in real life (as opposed to films/plays) speakers do not start a sentence knowing how it will end. So who finishes your sentences for you ?
Freewill is an illusion, your subconcious is conditioned, and lets you know the consequences of that conditioning occasionally.

Mick H

This is what gets me: I don't think for a minute that you really believe free will is an illusion. It's just a pose.

You base your argument on the assumption that "you" are only what you're conscious of. Why should that be so? It's very likely, from what we know from Libets etc. and much else besides, that we're not aware of the full process of our decision making. It's a massive leap from that fairly uncontroversial fact to the conclusion that we have no free will.

Matt Munro

I'm not saying we have no free will but that the way it's conceptualised in popular culture is questionable. We are led to believe that our choice of everything, from our partner, to our car, to our Starbucks coffee are examples of empowered individuals making informed choice, when another way of looking at it is that choice is in fact hugely constrained and is really just a conditioning device to increase consumption and pacify the masses.
Do you really believe that choosing a latte over a cappucino is an exercise in freewill - or is it a response to media and peer group expectations which you have subconciously absorbed and acted upon ?
Neither explanation is completely correct, but, in western societies at least, there is a strong bias towards the former explanation which should be approached critically.
Notions of freewill are deeply embedded in our culture, they tap into religious, political, social and economic values and underpin a whole range of social norms, which makes people very scared of the idea that they do not have a 100% control, 100% of the time. I'm not suggesting that we have no choices, but that those choices are far more constrained than many like to believe.
To use a mundane example - I'm about to leave my desk to get a sandwich. I quite fancy a cheese one today. Supposing when I get to the canteen they have sold out and I buy a ham one instead, is that an exercise in freewill or was I always destined to buy a ham sandwich today ?
Either way I will have a ham sandwich so, in terms of my subjective experience, does it matter ?

Mick H

Well OK - but you did say originally that "freewill is an illusion". Certainly there's all sorts of room for debate about how our choices are made, and the extent to which we're subject to pressures we may not be aware of.

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