Friday, August 22, 2014

Freedom and consciousness

The following seems a logically possible story about how some contingent agent chooses. The agent consciously deliberates between reasons in favor of action A and reasons in favor of action B. The agent then forms a free decision for A—an act of will in favor of A. This free decision then causes two things: it causes the agent to do A and it causes the agent to be aware of having decided in favor of A.

Not only does the above story seem logically possible, but it seems likely to be true in at least some, and perhaps even all, cases of our free choices.
But if the above story is true, then it will also be possible for the causal link between the agent's decision and the agent's awareness of the decision to be severed, say because someone hit the agent on the head right after making the decision and right before the agent was aware of the decision, or because God miraculously suspended the causal linkage. In such a case, however, the agent will still have decided for A, and would have done so freely, but would not have been aware of so deciding.

Thus it is possible to freely decide for A without being aware that one has freely decided for A. This no doubt goes against common intuitions.

I think the main point to challenge in my story is the claim that it is possible that the decision causes the awareness of the decision. Maybe a decision for A has to be the kind of mental state that has awareness of its own nature built right in, so the awareness is simultaneous with and constituted by the decision. I think this is phenomenologically implausible. It seems to me that many times I am only aware of having decided to perform an action when I am already doing the physical movements partly constituting the action. But presumably the movements (at least typically) come after I've made up my mind, after my decision.

It would be a strange thing to have decided but not to have been aware of how one has decided. Perhaps we can imaginatively wrap our minds around this by thinking about cases where an agent remembers deliberating but doesn't remember what decision she came to. Surely that happens to all of us. Of course, in typical such cases, the agent was at some point aware of the outcome of the deliberation. So this isn't going to get our minds around the story completely. But it may help a little.

In the above, I want to distinguish awareness of choice from prediction of choice. It may be that even before one has made a decision, one has a very solid prediction of how one's choice will go. That prediction is not what I am talking about.


Brian Cutter said...

This seems relevant to the Libet experiments, in which conscious awareness of a choice to behave in a certain way is supposed to occur shortly after some neural activity that reliably leads to the relevant behavior. Some think this shows that our "conscious choice" is epiphenomenal w.r.t. the relevant behavior. Given your points here, we might instead say that these experiments only suggest that our consciousness/awareness *of* our choice is epiphenomenal with respect to the behavior at issue; it suggests nothing about the efficacy of our choice, which neither is, nor is simultaneous with, our awareness of it. (I'm pretty sure a number of philosophers have made this point, but it's been years since I've looked at the Libet literature.)

On another note: it seems plausible to me that we frequently make free decisions of which we are unaware, or of which we are only very faintly aware. This seems especially plausible in the case of subtle decisions about "internal" matters, e.g. about what trains of thought we allow ourselves to entertain. We often have some free control about whether we, say, continue to entertain a vindictive or envious or lustful or despairing train of thought, or about whether we give in to mental fatigue while thinking through a philosophy puzzle in the back of our minds, but it seems plausible that we are often unaware (or only barely aware) of our decision whether or not to do so. This is especially plausible in the case where we are simultaneously engaged with, and attending to, other things.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, though I think the most obvious criticism of the Libet experiments is that we would expect that as the deliberation process comes to an end, the probability of eventually choosing one option would increase, though only reaching unity when the decision was made. The Libet experiments are a perfect fit to this hypothesis, even on the assumption that we are always immediately aware of our decisions. So I don't think the Libet experiments tell us anything helpful.

Heath White said...

When I teach free will, students have pretty strong intuitions that a free choice is a conscious choice. I think the reason is that they associate conscious mental events with mental events under rational control, and maybe also with knowing what you're doing.