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kvond

An Illusion of Free Will: “I moved my mouth. I talked. What did I say?”

 

 

Ed Young posts on recent experiments in brain stimulation that produced something of the illusion of a freedom of will, or at least the solicitation of the desire to act in a particular way: Electrical stimulation produces feelings of free will (found through Speculative Heresy) The original journal article ,“Movement Intention After Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans”, tells of how stimulation of the Posterior Parietal Cortex in patients produced not only the distinct feeling that they wanted to move parts of their body, but when the stimulation increased also the belief that they actually had completed the action, though they had not. Ed Young provides an excellently concise summation of the findings, and even makes mention of Cartesian Dualism.

The Flying Stone of Free Will

I am not one for feeling that scientific observation usually resolves long-standing philosophical issues which are born of conceptual and terminological circuits, but this does seem to be something of a a check on the Spinoza side of the ledger (perhaps to be added to the several entered by Damasio). As Spinoza saw the issue of the freedom of the will, the sense that we are freely acting was merely the awareness of an appetite to action combined with an ignorance of the causes that determined that appetite, bringing it into being. We, like a hypothetical thinking stone that is flying through the air, only imagine that we are freely acting, while we have been “thrown” by any number of external (and internal) forces.

The core of this position is found in his letter 62/58 to Schaller (October, 1674), which I quote at length because he presents his vision so compactly. It is interesting that some of Spinoza’s most revelatory position passages come from his letters:

I, therefore, pass on to that definition of liberty, which he says is my own; but I know not whence he has taken it. I say that a thing is free, which exists and acts solely by the necessity of its own nature. Thus also God understands Himself and all things freely, because it follows solely from the necessity of His nature, that He should understand all things. You see I do not place freedom in free decision, but in free necessity. However, let us descend to created things, which are all determined by external causes to exist and operate in a given determinate manner. In order that this may be clearly understood, let us conceive a very simple thing. For instance, a stone receives from the impulsion of an external cause, a certain quantity of motion, by virtue of which it continues to move after the impulsion given by the external cause has ceased. The permanence of the stone’s motion is constrained, not necessary, because it must be defined by the impulsion of an external cause. What is true of the stone is true of any individual, however complicated its nature, or varied its functions, inasmuch as every individual thing is necessarily determined by some external cause to exist and operate in a fixed and determinate manner.

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined. Thus an infant believes that it desires milk freely; an angry child thinks he wishes freely for vengeance, a timid child thinks he wishes freely to run away. Again, a drunken man thinks, that from the free decision of his mind he speaks words, which afterwards, when sober, he would like to have left unsaid. So the delirious, the garrulous, and others of the same sort think that they act from the free decision of their mind, not that they are carried away by impulse. As this misconception is innate in all men, it is not easily conquered.

The Moving of Lips

How amenable is this non-dualistic framework to the conditions that Ed Young reports, wherein the motor action was able to be parsed from the mere feeling of intention, so much so that subjects even could be caused to hold the belief that they had not only a volition, but also had acted upon it,

Desmurget, on the other hand, could only ever produce the illusion of movement by focusing on the parietal cortex. And his patients’ descriptions of their experiences made it very clear that they were feeling some sort of internal intention to move, rather than feeling compelled by an external force. Without any prompting from the researchers, they all described their feelings with words such as “will”, “desire” or “wanting to”. One of the patients said, “I felt a desire to lick my lips”, after a low burst of current. With more stimulation, he said “I moved my mouth. I talked. What did I say?”

More than ever we get the sense that Spinoza hit upon something significant when he qualified the ideas we have about the world as really ideas we have of our body being in a certain state or other. And even more so, we get a glimpse into the finesse behind Spinoza’s denial of the freedom of the will, a “freedom” that resided under the veil of our ignorance (all the while still asserting a rigorous ethics). It was no mere abstract imposition of determinism for the sake of determinism. Nothing is more tiresome than the well-worn arguments of the freedom of the will, it seems. But what this study suggests is that if we look at the materiality of our freedoms, the means by which we experience our intentions as free, perhaps another kind of freedom is available, that of knowledge of causes a path of freedom advocated by Spinoza.

Further, our experiences and beliefs about the factuality of our actions, our very autonomic natures, seem to be fundamentally tied to our experiences of our appetites as such. It is not simply the case that we can ask, “Was that movement freely willed?” but also must ask, “Did we actually do what we thought we wanted to?” Our very desires, if strong enough, are part of the perception of action itself, suggesting that the understanding and appreciation for our actions, or intentions, may spring from an understanding of desire and appetite itself, just as Spinoza thought.

Of course, once we start untangling the weave of free intentions, the consolidation of a pure human “subject” also begins to unspool.

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4 responses to “An Illusion of Free Will: “I moved my mouth. I talked. What did I say?”

  1. anodynelite May 18, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Very interesting. I agree with Spinoza on this and almost always have, since before I’d ever heard of Spinoza. Intuitively, for some reason, I’ve never felt this “freedom” of will that most people take for granted to be theirs. I’ve always been acutely aware of the fact that what “I” am is a serious of impulses that mostly feels like a distinct and coherent whole-unto-itself but in fact isn’t fully distinct even if it persists in cohering.

    (After I was told I had TLE, this intuition made a little more sense–depersonalization, absence seizures with strange auras, difficulty with language, spatial disorientation, very intense moods coming out of nowhere…perhaps the illusion of free-will breaks down just enough for me that I can’t cling to it.)

    Will or intention is not the only sense or feeling about what we are and how we work that’s been all but explained away by neurology, either–there are so many now.

  2. kvond May 19, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I suppose I would resist the idea that neurology “explains” away any particular experience. Neurological descriptions are just that, descriptions. It is never the case that experience “x” is “nothing but” processes “y” (some description). What neurology does, at least in my opinion, is allow us to conceptually re-orient ourselves to our experiences. For instance in this case, our experience of freedom and intention apparently is closely related to our experience of appetite and desire, something that conditions our very perception of what we are “doing” or have done.

    I do certainly agree that “volition” has conceptually overdetermined our sense of what “I” is. Most importantly, neurology insists upon the embodied sense of anything we are, the manner in which any mental or abstract events are always material ones, something Spinoza deposited at the foundation of his approach.

  3. Nicola Masciandaro May 19, 2009 at 10:18 am

    I like the potential comparison here to the flying man and floating statue thought experiments, which I am familiar with through Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Inner Touch. My next project is basically about how the flying man would cry, something the philosophical discourse does not seem to consider. Or maybe that is what the stone does when it realizes, and how does it realize this?, that it is not self-moved.

    But what I like here more specifically (and why I said “thought is a flying stone”) is the way the metaphor of the stone’s motion finds the distinction and gap between will and thought. Among other things this indicates the way in which we/consciousness/whatever appropriate thought as will or self (identify our thinking as self-willed) precisely because of the evidence to the contrary (thought as purely given, out of nowhere, invisibly contingent etc) that thought gives. Unspooling,

    Nicola

  4. kvond May 19, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Nicola: “My next project is basically about how the flying man would cry, something the philosophical discourse does not seem to consider. Or maybe that is what the stone does when it realizes, and how does it realize this?, that it is not self-moved.”

    Kvond: I’m not quite sure that I follow your project, but I do like the sound of it, and look forward to what you make of it. I would say that at least in Spinoza’s vision, it is not just that the stone realizes that it is not self-moved, (in that it is moved by a non-self that is external), but also that in being moved by other things, it is “self” moved, in that the “self” is part of a community of effects. In otherwords, the result is not alienation.

    Nicola: “But what I like here more specifically (and why I said “thought is a flying stone”) is the way the metaphor of the stone’s motion finds the distinction and gap between will and thought. Among other things this indicates the way in which we/consciousness/whatever appropriate thought as will or self…”

    Kvond: I like this very much, that the will appropriates the thought for itself. I think for this reason Spinoza denied, much against Descartes and the entire Idealist tradition afterward, that there was any independent faculty call the “will” or “judgment”. All perception, all thought, is already an affirmation of the body in a particular degree.

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