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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.

The Habits we Keep


Philosopher/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu comes up with a non-mechanistic concept of determinism, closely related to the idea of conditioning, yet implying structures that can be analyzed in terms of history and its effects. He calls it the “habitus”, which is both a thing, but also a thing that acts, something akin to a process. The interesting aspect of this is the way that it employs conceptions of free will. What he argues is that we acquire knowledge in such a way that we weight early knowledge over later knowledge, and then act in such a way so as to maintain our exterior conditions that will preserve the relevance of that early knowledge. This structures both the very way well see the world, (giving us aspect blindness to things/information that might disturb our knowledge bases), and also the way that we materially act upon the world, (therefore the way that the world actually/objectively becomes). It is a large feed-back loop by which the world structures our habitus, our way of seeing, and the habitus works to structure the world. All the while we feel that we are freely choosing (within a delimited range of choices that is not experienced as delimited).

He reads this as a knowledge strategy, as we invest in what we have already invested in, and work to maintain the world that it too brings back the kinds of information that our invested knowledge is good at. Knowledge is both a strategy and a result.

Here is a lengthy quote of the material:

In reality, the dispositions durably inculcated by the possibilities and impossibilities, freedoms and necessities, opportunities and prohibitions inscribed in the objective conditions (which science apprehends through statistical regularities such as the probabilities objectively attached to a group or class) generate dispositions objectively compatible with these conditions and in a sense pre-adapted to their demands. The most improbable practices are therefore excluded, as unthinkable, by a kind of immediate submission to order that inclines agents to make a virtue of necessity, that is, to refuse what is anyway denied and to will the inevitable. The very conditions of production of the habitus, a virtue made of necessity, mean that the anticipations it generates tend to ignore the restriction to which the validity of calculation of probabilities is subordinated, namely that the experimental conditions should not be modified. Unlike scientific estimations, which are corrected after each experiment according to rigorous rules of calculation, the anticipations of the habitus, practical hypothesis based on past experience, give disproportionate weight to early experiences.

The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices more history in accordance with the schemes generated by history. It ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms. This system of dispositions, a present past that tends to perpetuate itself into the future by reactivation in similarly structure practices, an internal law through which the law of external necessities, irreducible to immediate constraints, is constantly exerted is the principle of continuity and regularity which objectivism sees in social practices without being able to account for it; and also of the regulated transformations that cannot be explained either by the extrinsic, instantaneous determinisms of mechanistic sociologism or by the purely internal but equally instantaneous determination of spontaneous subjectivism. As an acquired system of generative schemes, the habitus makes possible the free production of all the thoughts, perceptions and actions inherent in the particular conditions of its production and only those. Through the habitus, the structure of which it is the product governs practice, not along paths of mechanical determinism, but within the constraints and limits initially set on its inventions.

The habitus which, at every moment, structures new experiences in accordance with the structures produced by past experience, which are modified by the new experiences with the limits defined by their power of selection, brings about a unique integration, dominated by the earliest experiences, of the experiences statistically common to members of the same class. Early experiences have particular weight because the habitus tends to ensure its own constancy and its defense against change through the selection it makes within new information by rejecting information capable of calling into question its accumulated information, if exposed to it accidentally or by force, and especially, and especially by avoiding exposure to such information. One only has to think, for example, of homogamy, the paradigm of all the ‘choices’ through which the habitus tends to favour experiences likely to reinforce it (or the empirically confirmed fact that people tend to talk about politics with those who have the same opinions). And once again it is the most paradoxical property of the habitus, the unchosen principle of all ‘choices’, that yields the solution to the paradox of the information needed in order to avoid information. The schemes of perception and apperception of the habitus which are the basis of all the avoidance strategies are largely the product of a non-conscious, unwilled avoidance, whether it results automatically from the conditions of existence (for example, spatial segregation) or has been produced by strategic intention (such as the avoidance of ‘bad company’ or ‘unsuitable books’) originating from adults themselves formed in the same conditions.

–The Logic of Practice (54;61)

What is interesting about this take is that it accounts for both the subjective experience of freedom, but also the objective need to understand the structuring of that freedom. It employs the structural aspects of descriptive determinism which allows us to investigate the causes of our “insights”, as causes, yet it implicates us as the creators of that world, the world which creates us. It is really conditioning with a vengeance. A self-conditioning, through the conditioning of the world. The world tells us what we want to hear because we have worked to make it “say” those things, but it also makes us hear what we want to hear, by structuring our choices and perceptions.