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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.


Why Mind/Body Dualism is Insufficient

Properties and Qualities: paschonta

A way Speaking: I would suggest Paschonta (from the Greek participle of pascho, things suffered, experienced, undergone) rather than Phenomena (from the Greek middle/passive participle of phaino, things appearing).

We can think of the world in this way:

1. There are extentional parts which compose extentional relations which are available as property-descriptions under a physicalist function/structure domain.

2. There are intensional states which are composed by intensional relations (the relationship in communication intrinsic to any body as a system), as an intrinsic relation produces a quality, sensation or experience, of such parts being together.

Extensional Parts = Physicalist description

Intensional States = Phenomenal description (Paschonta)

Intensional relations which made up many essentialist descriptions are nothing more than the triangulating capacities of a body to projectively report upon conditions of the shared world such that it is causally related to it, and these relations resulting in qualities and experiences make little sense outside of this triangulation since they provide the connective tissue between ourselves and the world and others.

To speak of paschonta, things suffered or experienced (instead of phenomena, things being made to appear) is to read the world both causally and bodily. We regularly read the paschonta of others, (and the paschonta of ourselves).

Build a table using directions, measurements, exemplar and you have followed extensional paths. While building the table listen to the report of wood as you strike it, the feel of the joints as they are joined, and you have followed paschonta, the intensional path. The two paths are braided.

The problem with phenomenal descriptions, and why they should be replaced by paschontal descriptions, is that they encourage a representational view of the world, one in which the “picture” of something is imagined to match up with the real thing on occasions of true sentences. Paschonta, rather, are the experiences themselves, as we imagine others to experience them (or our own experiences as we take a reflexive view upon them), such that our relations to others and the world we share makes sense.

Dualists mistake paschonta for things in-themselves (imagining a kind of extensional intensionality), rather than for relations between perceptile bodies, the felt of report.