Developments in neuroscience have started fresh debate on that most ancient of philosophical problems, free will. Most crudely, the modern threat to free will – to, that is, the capacity for anyone, at any time, to have truly and independently authored their actions – goes like this: character is subject to the unseen vagaries of brain. The brain is a physical object, made to certain binding specifications different in each case, and open to the injurious effects of violence and disease. Every individual is dictated by the properties of his or her brain. In extreme circumstances – the most famous example is the epically named Phineas P. Gage, the railroad worker in mid-nineteenth century America whose left frontal lobe was largely destroyed by an iron rod driven downwards through his head, emerging out his jaw – manipulation of the brain indisputably changes character. (Gage, who somehow survived the accident, apparently shifted immediately from mild-mannered to loud and uninhibited, ‘no longer Gage’, according to friends.)
Benjamin Libet’s experiments of 1959 are checked in any contemporary discussion of free will. His findings, though contentious, have been widely used as evidence of ‘preconscious cognition’, i.e. of occurrences in the brain that precede, and dictate, ‘thought’. In such situations, ‘It looks as if your brain makes up its mind before you do. You feel, presently, in this live moment, that you are deciding to do something, but you are not; what you are doing is giving an echo, in consciousness, of old activity, behaviour already established. Libet detected a lag in his subjects between visible brain activity and the feeling of thinking. The self, in this system, is something else’s decision.
Libet had his subjects individually look at a manipulated clock face with a moving dot making a full revolution every 2.65 seconds. He asked them to decide to flick their wrist and to note the position of this dot when this decision occurs. He connected each subject’s brain to an ECG recording device and marked the correlation between the time a spike of new brain activity occurred and the time- the fraction of a second- that the subject felt they were making the decision. It takes 50 milliseconds for a visible chain of movement to reach from the motor cortex to the motor nerves ending in the wrist flicking. This is the passage of an electrical message leaving the upper region of the brain, travelling across the rest of the body and causing it, at its terminus, to move. But this arrowing impulse, cutting diagonally across the subject’s body, is only the ending, the performance, of the subject’s decision making. Up to 700 milliseconds – almost a whole second – before this, the ECG picks up ‘a clearly detectable wave of [brain] activity . . . known as the readiness potential‘. This pattern was detected in every participating subject, and in the subjects of the many repeat experiments. Daniel Dennett lays out the problem: ‘When you think you’re deciding, you’re actually just passively watching a sort of delayed internal videotape (the ominous 300-millisecond delay) of the real deciding that happened unconsciously in your brain quite a while before’. Somehow there is an inaccessible churning that filters through into the conscious part of the brain as an apparently spontaneous thought.
The literature of neurology and psychology is filled with examples of patients whose character is changed by less dramatic brain corruptions. Hypergraphia is the condition associated with severe changes to the frontal lobe, in which the patient suddenly undergoes a mania of writing, producing thousands upon thousands of pages. The question of agency and responsibility in cases like these, and in others such as those in which people claim not to have experienced their actions, entering passive or absent states, is becoming more prevalent in the courtroom; the neuroscientist David Eagleman writes and lectures on the issue, believing it to be one of the new century’s major upcoming ethical dilemmas.
The interesting issue – presently theoretical, possibly legal – is in what such instances of ‘diminished’ responsibility due to brain corruption might imply about the behaviour of people generally, people without obvious neurological impairment. In limiting our sympathy to those suffering injury or disease, we may, Eagleman and others ague, be acting negligently: inheritances, both genetic and experiential, shape brain and character in everyone. Most broadly, people rarely choose to be who they are. As Sam Harris has provocatively put it, we should pity the murderer his evil thoughts; he did not choose to have them.
The range of our thinking – among many other things – limits what we are able to do: ‘Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not.’ (Harris 2012). Do we earn our thoughts, then? And if so, what do we earn them with? What stuff starts us? I do not decide what to feel. Deciding what to fee would be a feeling itself, a state; the illogic becomes clear, the endlessly recursive deferral back to something or somewhere ultimately impossible. There is a similar paradox in looking at creation, the non-sense of referring to something ‘before’ the origin point of space and time, and the old problem of an origin-less creator god. The resources of the English language and its grammar are limited when it comes to talking about these things. The problem, it seems, is of beginnings: how could there be a beginning, and how could there not be? When you are born you are gifted to yourself. You are a surprise to yourself. It’s difficult to imagine a transition, a movement into ending, into nothing. If the state is of me being nothing, then I struggle to see how this can be apprehended; surely I cannot stop being what I am? I mean, by the identifying terms of the state, I definitively cannot have any awareness of not being what I was. If I don’t, can’t, feel that I am not, then does that mean that I continue always feeling that I am (even if I’m not)? In this state, where do my experiences come from?
Sam Harris’s Free Will is unusual in seeing every person innocent of the act of their creation. It’s such a sweeping generosity, towards everyone, it feels remarkable. Rather than formulating a list of the determining factors composing a person and all his mental apparatus, Harris approaches personhood from the other side, evoking the weirdness-in-plain-sight of just the feeling of being yourself. Nothing can be more assumed than this – being there. Your own voice present to yourself. But these are still things with an element of strangeness. How often are we surprised by the voice we have, the thoughts we have? I don’t think I’ve ever felt real self-surprise. I’ve been surprised by things I’ve done, I’ve been ashamed, alienated, driven far away, but even then I’m all I’m left with, I’ll have to return to myself, I’ll have to not anymore be surprised by what I’ve done. So I begin by immediately getting used to it – this thing that I am doing or have just done, accommodating it. Even in the strangest moments, times when I am definitively acting in a way that I would not recognise, or would not like to recognise, as myself, I am still on my side, I am still with myself, I am having to carry on. When I have a thought, I’m not listening, and I’m not speaking, but it’s a voice. It’s the old thing, the bed at the end of the day, the tarmac driveway returned to a million times. Sometimes I will panic at walking, or waiting, and not having a voice. I will fill it with redundant worrying at the lack of voice – this thing like a faint pencil scribble – and then overwrite it with the surety of mundane commentary on self-evident things, an anchoring list of itemised chores.
I don’t think I work by telling myself to do things; it doesn’t feel like that. Equally I am not passively watching what the skin does. None of us can be made separate like that. Today I was swimming in the estuary directly below my fourth floor window unsure of how far to go. The water was temperate, the day screaming hot. There was a float in the water 300m out. I wondered should I swim towards that, and I didn’t know, so I continued swimming towards that. I don’t know about currents, tides – sometimes in my room, even with the windows closed, I will hear a forceful recurrent thrashing, each thrash coming exactly one second after the previous, and this will last for several seconds, and then the water will be calmer. I have not noted the times of these turbulences, so that I could link them up, and maybe compare them to charts of the moon. I don’t know about currents, tides, the water is usually quite calm, and today it was very calm, and I suppose I had maybe thought something about the landward inevitability of tides, that, if I got stuck or too tired I would get carried back in. Even only halfway out towards the float, I could feel the tide going the other way, although I didn’t say this to myself, I didn’t speak. When I stopped, tread the water, I saw the water slipping by me away from the land, and when I stopped moving my limbs, lay to be buoyant – I had become surprised by how tired I was – I was carried the other way, further to the sea. It was strange to feel the exertion of movement and then see, by the horizontal markings, that I was not getting anywhere. But I moved slowly in, very tired. I wanted, even during it, to be covering it up for myself; the naivety, the weakness, the mis-steps – to not have to be listening to the experience. Other features: attempting, during it, long-scope angles demonstrating the lavishness of the water and the insignificance of my being in it, tiny, colourless; a friendliness towards the lack of sound anywhere but from the water – as if this were an empty scene, and thus a place where nothing good or bad could happen.
I don’t tell myself to do everything that I do, obviously. (I got back in.) Imagine this was necessary; it doesn’t work. In the time alone required to monitor and adjust our breathing, our temperature controls, our heart-rate, our blood-flow, our digestion – the things that live us – we would fail, and expire. If everything we did came under the control of our consciousness – even for just several seconds – then our experience of the world would be of a hectoring and failed inwardness, hurtling expired messages, a chaos of alarms, all through a now rotting visceral topography of marshy tubular asphyxiation and wet, shuddering banks of neuron, as the crumbling global structure becomes arrested inside itself.
A lot of what we do is automatic and reflexive – we don’t need to think about it. It has to be, to live. If we did have to think about everything we did, we would never get anywhere (literally; walking is one of our largely automatic processes). It is amazing the way we glide from a seating or standing position into walk, often with no clear border, no obvious separation of pre-and in-walk. And we move as a carriage, rarely under any verbal direction, adjusting our breathing, putting our feet out alternately, keeping our head up enough that we anticipate possible collisions. On a busy street, the almost wholly contact-free flow of a walking crowd is an amazingly dextrous feat.
If consciousness- the long sensation of taking-in the world and yet standing separate from it- had arrived suddenly, fully-formed, and immediately began narrating or intervening in everything the individual did, we would be stuck motionless from the barrage of competing voices. The small actions of life’s quiet episodes- most of our time: sitting at a desk, say, and scratching, periodically resting your forehead against your non-writing hand – are not alien to us and yet they do not come from us in the sense of a consciously issued command. I am happy with it, this familiar flow that lives me. These small actions, insignificant, are like a cast of insects animating the surface of my body. I can intervene if I need to, I can throw the book down, I can walk out all the doors instantly. (But of course I don’t, which is maybe the pressing point.) I am exactly co-terminus with what I am doing, though most of the time it is not ‘me’ that does it. In these humdrum routine periods I am softly experiencing a variety of small actions falling from me. I suppose I have broadly chosen these largely anonymous local behaviours – I would not have myself singing, for instance, however quietly- but, in the sense of the order and live timing of their appearances, they really have nothing to do with me.
Dennett believes there’s nothing alarming in the results of Libet’s experiment, nothing to worry about. It’s all you, conscious or unconscious; casting out or alienating the parts of us we don’t witness is petty chauvinism. And there are problems with the sensitivity of the experiment, limitations in its ability to map action at different parts of the brain. Registering where the dot is on the clock-face takes time – light travels, images are absorbed - and the time we see on the clock face is not necessarily the time in which we decided to flick our wrist, though those things may seem to be happening more or less simultaneity. These are subtle actions, and when we are dealing with such tiny units of measurements – milliseconds – the results are open to misreading and distortion.
The identity of the self can, according to the commentator, range from the conscious narrator-experiencer only, to the whole sum of brain-body interaction. But if the conscious self really was able somehow to command even the smallest of local behaviours, and did, would that indisputably grant the individual free will? The individual is choosing everything he does – what could be freer than that? (Obviously I am ignoring ever-present political, economic and social pressures.) Harris’s startling contention is that not even in this scenario would there be free will; the motivating authority, the self, the magical will-er, must remain self-strange and limited by the vagaries of creation, the happenstance of experience.
Nevertheless a world in which people have complete self-authority (i.e. live fully by conscious command and experience transparently their whole somatic and psychological existence) would silence much of the current debate. ‘Compatibalism’ is the belief that free will is present even in a mind ruled by the subconscious. As Harris archly puts it, ‘Compatibalism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppets is free as long as he loves his strings.’ Daniel Dennett draws the self – the domain of I – as a large figure incorporating ‘unconscious neurophysiology’ as well as conscious experience. In this sense ‘you’ cannot be in conflict with your subconscious – you are the conflict, ‘you’ are everything that occurs within your bodily site. Nothing internal, then, is foreign to the self, regardless of how it might feel to the conscious agent.
Dennett’s argument is about time, and about the too narrow specificity of what we consider our real selves. We are not, he says, a travelling awareness hovering moment-by-moment above distant auto-impulses. We are the impulses, the overloading, accumulative receipt and re-receipt of sensory information, the weaving of specific intra-verbalised considerations and an unfelt streaming blankness. An alarmist, determinist reading of Libet’s experiment ‘depends on taking seriously the idea you are restricted to the materials you can get access to from a particular subregion of the brain’. We do not, Dennett believes, move forward like traditional narrative, smoothly processing the world one piece at a time, our awareness steadily rising from unconscious impressions and creating mind, before sinking back into gloopy unconsciousness. Our experience of the word is rather of a radical temporal order, a long cloud of beginnings. We revise our perception of the environment constantly, thus changing our thoughts, our actions, our perceptions again, even our memory of our perceptions. A decision to flick one’s wrist is not a case of A directing B, one discrete thing definitively and instantly causing an event. Our experience of deciding to do something feels instantaneous but in reality takes time as our sense organs, our memory and our thinking interact: ‘You are not out of the loop; you are the loop. You are that large. You are not an extensionless point. What you do and what you are incorporates all these things that happen and is not something separate from them.’
Dennett’s project over the last thirty years at least has been to put forward as full an account of consciousness as possible. Unsurprisingly, he has little time for mind-body dualism – the idea associated with Descartes that the mind and the body are separate entities, with the mind independent of the bodily limitations it lords over. Dennett coins the term ‘Cartesian theatre’ to describe this common-sense understanding of the mind: the space where we watch the world’s performance, and stage our own productions. In the ‘Cartesian theatre’, a single identity resides, watching and directing; the passing action of this identity is the traceable moment of experience: consciousness.
In ferociously brilliant work – Consciousness Explained (1991) is the best encapsulation – Dennett dismantles this image. He offers instead a ‘multiple drafts’ model, a subtle theory drawing on evolutionary models to posit consciousness as a phenomenon emerging from the constantly overlapping sense-reports of the world, fed back into the nervous system. Of course, sense-reports that were able to self-report – think? – would be evolutionarily advantageous; these emerged via natural selection, working in a positive feedback-loop with the burgeoning communication systems of early humans to eventually produce a sort of proto-consciousness. So called mind-reading- the talent to empathise and second-guess, interpret others’ behaviour – would offer survival advantages, and a sure way of becoming better at understanding others is to understand yourself. (The psychologist Nicholas Humphrey first proposed this evolutionary theory.) Around a million years ago an auto-catylitic process began, in which empathy, communication, social bonds and self-awareness fed off each other, and consciousness – the experience of mind – emerged in human beings.
Most of our existence – regardless of how big or small we consider our self – is an automatic flowing of the body. It’s an almost wholly involuntary intelligence that causes us to wake each morning, eat, work, rest ourselves at the end of the day. The melatonin in our blood stream perceives the difference between night and day and directs us as we live a rhythmic daily routine, eating and sleeping at regular times, encouraging us to form and repeat cyclical behaviour patterns. This repetition, which can seem almost to happen by itself, is not limited to the purely functional or basic things we do. It is maybe not uncommon to feel that ‘we’ are drifting in a greater mindlessness. To sense larger periods of repetition in our lives, automata states, the same mistakes, the blank passing of many years.
In sport, athletes aim to reach maximal levels of readied mindlessness; when, in the midst of the game, they just happen to do the right thing. Competitors have even expressed feelings of guilt after particularly strong performances, embarrassed, almost, at receiving acclaim for behaviour they do not feel ownership of. Intensive preparatory coaching primes them for contained periods of release, times when they don’t have to think. It can be uncanny, at the time, watching yourself make the right decisions, flowing correctly, succeeding without being aware of directing anything. The experience is pleasurable, this ease of success, although it is difficult to shake the feeling of counterfeit production.
The same sentiment can be applied to much of what people do generally. It is an illusion that we can exist separately and prior to our actions. Being aware on a field of making decisions is unnecessary; you are causing distractions, and probably not playing well. Among the implications of Libet’s experiment is that there is no qualitative difference between moments when you have the feeling of making decisions and moments whey you don’t; the former is illusory and technically after the event, a staged display of autonomy, helpful for the development of character. The latter is bare, bald; and what is it that is aware of having not been autonomous and sentient? How do we feel when we sense that we are not there?
Endurance-based activities such as mountaineering and long-distance running are partly aimed at ‘getting beyond yourself’, a physical shattering of the regular thinking voice. This escapism, blasting away at the felt interior life, is like an appeal for blank, for the ease of not thinking that you are thinking. For a reversion to a pre-conscious state, a time before ‘non-obliviousness . . . to the causal links that emerged when people began to talk about what they were up to.’
It is a worthwhile exercise to spend some moments watching yourself being yourself, especially when you are active: exercising, working in a busy environment. To watch the flow of hands and feet, the rhythmic grasping of objects, timed bodily interventions full of their own knowledge. Brain circuitry is automatically receiving streams of sensory information and instantaneously sending electrical information coursing out into the wider body-parts, without any controlling central authority. When you try aiming your attention on this, you feel inexpert, superfluous, decadent. A spectator. The exchange of input and output, of information received and actions initiated, is so quick we have little insight other than wry, almost spooked retrospective commentary. You can catch yourself, issue and follow slow, loud commands: get up; walk; close the door; prepare food. Procrastination – ‘wanting’ to do something but actually doing something else, evident to anyone with a wifi connection, who can surely recall those moments of reluctant, apparently alien hand movements that check a communications update ‘one more time’ – is a common instance of the disconnect between our conscious will and our actions.
The tendency to see life as a project for which you are always in training, always nearly ready, is trite cliché. And yet it persists. How should we really live? How do we live in a manner that is not preparatory, that is optimally present? You don’t have to think to experience, you don’t have to feel yourself making decisions to belong in what you do. But in my severest moments I am overwhelmed by the feeling of misapprehension; the certainty that I have understood and thus appreciated nothing. I don’t know enough of the time how rare it is that there is anything. I don’t live like that, knowingly fleeting, knowingly somehow here day by day.
Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves (London: Penguin, 2003)
Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012)