Archive for October, 2012

This week’s reading was an article by Baumeister et al., entitled “Do conscious thoughts cause behavior?” In this article, the authors review a number of psychological studies which collectively suggest that conscious thought is causally involved in producing behavior. This is in contrast to an alternative view, which suggests that conscious choice is an epiphenomenon with no causal power or utility, and that the experience of conscious choice is a post-hoc phenomenon that occurs after a choice has already been made via unconscious neural processes. Proponents of this second view often point to a set experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet as evidence. In these experiments, brain activity that correlated with a decision to act was measurable prior to the times when subjects reported making a conscious choice to act.  In contrast, Baumeister looks at several examples that seem to indicate a role for conscious thought in initiating, preventing or modifying behavior. Examples include (but are not limited to) mentally rehearsing and simulating actions, planning, reflecting on past actions, counterfactual reasoning, and overriding automatic behaviors. The conclusion ultimately reached by the authors is that conscious thinking can in fact influence behavior in a variety of ways, many of which are beneficial, with the caveat that unconscious factors also influence behavior and interact with conscious decision-making,

After briefly summarizing the article, we began to outline different possibilities for the role that conscious thought might play in affecting behavior in the form of diagrams drawn on the board. These initial diagrams were subsequently debated, modified and refined over the course of the discussion, so I mention here a rough outline of two pictures that emerged, in the context of the reading.

In one scenario, unconscious neural processes lead to both the experience of conscious choice and behavior, but the experience of conscious choice has no influence over behavior. In this scenario conscious thought and choice are epiphenomena, like the steam whistle analogy presented in the article. This is the view that Baumeister et al. are attempting to counter in his article, by providing examples of ways in which conscious thought does actually influence behavior.

In a second picture (which is more in line with the view set forth in the reading), both conscious thought and unconscious neural processes can, either independently or in concert, produce behavior. This view in particular was refined and debated over the course of the discussion in light of various pieces of evidence. For example, there is abundant evidence suggesting both that conscious thought can influence unconscious neural processing (via learning, conditioning, synaptic plasticity, etc.), and that unconscious neural processing can influence conscious thought and choice, via priming or related mechanisms. Consequently these interactions were added to the picture. It was also pointed out that if one accepts a dualistic theory of mind, an additional possibility arises that the influence of conscious thought over unconscious neural processing might be non-physical. Additional factors were included as well, one being the influence of genes and environment over neural processing (which the group found uncontroversial), as well as the (much more controversial) possible role of agency in conscious thought. Finally, we noted that ultimately all of the factors that produce behavior, whether conscious or not, must be filtered through unconscious neural processes simply by virtue of the fact that instructions from the brain must flow through the motor cortex and peripheral nervous system in order to produce a behavior.

Toward the end of the class we began discussing whether consciousness itself was a necessary component of the mental activities we associate with conscious thought, or if in principle all the functions of conscious thought listed in the article could be performed just as well by a being with no internal experience. This led to a discussion on “philosophical zombies” or p-zombies, which are hypothetical beings that are identical to humans in every way except in that they have no consciousness or subjective internal experience. We also touched on an argument against the existence of p-zombies on evolutionary grounds, which says simply that since consciousness is metabolically expensive, it is likely that either it is adaptive in some way, or that it is an unavoidable consequence of some other brain process that is adaptive.

-David Lyttle

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(edited and re-posted 12 Oct 2012)

We read two articles: “Mistaking randomness for free will” by Jeffrey Ebert and Daniel Wegner, and  “Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will” by Shaun Nichols. Shaun Nichols of the UA Philosophy department joined us this week, and we discussed his article and also definitions of determinism, indeterminism, and stochasticity.


Ebert and Wegner describe key press experiments in which subjects were asked to describe whether they felt they could have acted otherwise, and experiments where subjects were asked whether an alien actor could have acted otherwise. The studies found that subjects identified randomness of action as agency of action, and speculated that non-predictability could be a criterion for us in attributing agency.


Nichols’ article explores the problem of free will through experimental philosophy, focusing on the psychological aspects of the problem. People’s perceptions and intuitions about agency are highly variable, depending on the level of abstraction of the question, with abstract questions about the universe in general or other universes generating incompatibilist responses, and questions about specific situations or about our specific universe generating compatibilist responses. Experimental philosophy explores the metaphysics of agency: why people have these beliefs about their actions, and asks whether these reasons are sound or not.



According to Mill and others, most people think that they have agency, believing they “could have done otherwise”, but think ‘hypothetically acting otherwise’ relates to a difference in the antecedent conditions; i.e. the traffic light was green instead of red, my favorite food was broccoli, etc. rather than actual agency.


However, most people’s intuitions track indeterminist agency/free will. The Libertarian explanation for this is that a theory of agency appeals to us because it captures the way we experience our actions. These experiences lead to our beliefs about our agency. Up to the point of the decision, all events in the past are the same, and they feel the same, so there is no difference in antecedents. At the precipice of the decision, as we are about to decide, we have the experience that we have the option to choose differently. This tracks surveys in which people are asked to explain why determinism is false. The responders cite experience as supporting indeterminism (responders also cite religious teachings as telling them that indeterminism is true).


There are several problems with appealing to our beliefs and experiences as justification for indeterminism:

– Our experiences themselves could be informed by determinism.

– We could have learned an indeterminist perspective from so early of an age that it seems true to interpret our experiences as supporting this view.

– Raw experience as a counterfactual “I could have done otherwise” is not really possible. We have experiences, like toothaches, that are primary: they are not second-order ideas and analysis. Counterfactuals are a second-order analysis of primary experiences.


According to Spinoza, we believe in indeterminist free will because we are ignorant of the actual causes of our actions. Since we perceive a causal gap, we fill in the gap with free will.


Glimcher (2005): if all inputs of a system are known, and the same inputs produce different outputs, it is reasonable to assume the system is indeterminate.

William of Ockham made a similar argument:

(1)  Factors that are introspectively accessible don’t determine my choice,

(2)  I have introspective access to all the factors that influence my choice.

(3)  Ergo, my choice isn’t determined.


Nichols has conducted some pilot studies attacking (2) of Ockham’s argument showing people that they don’t really have introspective access, to their perceptions or their decisions. When these people are presented with the results of the study, they are less likely to agree with indeterminism.


While Nichols presented (2) as a common belief, none of the forum members felt it was a reasonable assumption.  Psychology (e.g., Baumeister), economics (e.g., Kahneman, Thaler), and neuroscience all demonstrate hidden factors.


Having complete introspective access is controversial because of the “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” phenomenon: If I am extremely hungry, I go to the store and have the option of purchasing a frozen pizza or some broccoli and rice. I go for the pizza, thinking it seems like a good choice. However, when I get home, I would have rather chosen the broccoli and rice. It is only after I’m at home do I realize that it was because I was so hungry that the pizza seemed like a good idea.


During our discussion, Shaun also brought another perspective on some of the concepts we interact with regularly in this forum.


There was some discussion about the meaning of several terms.  Shaun identified what we have been calling “philosophical determinism” and “philosophical indeterminism” with “non-agency” and “agency”, respectively, but wasn’t entirely comfortable with the use of “determinism.”


From the whiteboard:

Philosophical determinism with physical determinism is classical hard determinism, (including fatalism)

Philosophical determinism with physical indeterminism is either stochasticity (moderate) or skepticism (hard) (Nichols calls these both “hard indeterminism” positions)

Philosophical indeterminism with physical determinism is classic compatibilism

Philosophical indeterminism with physical indeterminism is an expansion of compatibilism (moderate) or classical free will/classic libertarianism (hard)

-Sarah Williams

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