The reading this week was chapter 8 of “Neuroscience, Psychology & Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature,” by Jeeves and Brown. This excerpt deals with religious (specifically, Christian) perspectives on human uniqueness, and how these perspectives might be informed and updated in light of modern scientific developments. We began by discussing the notion of human uniqueness, and how some religious perspectives on human uniqueness compare with more secular perspectives.  As mentioned in the reading, a classical religious perspective on human uniqueness is the idea that humans are made “in the image of god,” and are therefore unique from other species. It was noted that from a secular, biological perspective, humans are certainly unique in a variety of ways – but so is every other species, in one way or another, and therefore humans are not thought to be “special” .  Moral agency is often listed as an example (or sometimes, the example) of a uniquely human attribute, and in the reading, the authors discuss various ways how one might construct a notion of moral agency in light of recent developments in neuroscience, social behavior, and complex dynamical systems.

This led to a discussion of emergence, and in particular the distinction between “weak” emergence and “strong” emergence. Weak emergence is the idea that complex systems can possess higher order emergent properties which are so difficult to describe in terms of the complicated interactions of their constituent parts that in practice it is much easier to model them in terms of a higher level of description. Examples of emergent phenomena given in the reading include human thought (which emerges from the synaptic interactions between large numbers of individual neurons), and the collective behavior of social insect colonies (which can be thought of as emerging from the interactions between many individual insects).

Strong emergence makes a much stronger claim about emergent phenomena, in that it assumes that higher-order phenomena can emerge from complex lower-level processes but are not causally determined by them, and may not be bound by the same fundamental physical laws. Unlike weak emergence, in which the higher order emergent properties of a system are assumed to in principle explainable by the complex low level processes which give rise to them (even if this is not feasible in practice), strong emergence takes the view that the emergent properties of a complex system are fundamentally irreducible and cannot (even in principle) be explained in terms of processes at a lower level of description. It was noted that this type of emergence has a somewhat dualist character (in the sense that emergent properties are treated as somehow fundamentally distinct from the components of the system that give rise to them), and in fact, the authors of the reading discuss the notion of “emergent dualism.” Strong emergence is sometimes invoked to explain phenomena like consciousness, mind, “qualia”, or agency, however these explanations (as well as the very notion of strong emergence) remain controversial. Weak emergence however, is widely accepted and uncontroversial. In the reading, the authors appear to be advocating for a sort of strongly emergent view of human thought and consciousness, and relate this to religious notions of human uniqueness and moral agency.

Finally, toward the end of the class period, in an attempt to sum up the semester, we went around the room discussing our individual beliefs about agency, in light of all that had been discussed throughout the semester. As in the first meeting, and unsurprisingly, there was no consensus regarding whether or not humans possess agency.


Meeting 6.6: Ethics and Choice

The assigned reading for this session was a chapter from Dignity: Its history and meaning by Michael Rosen (2012, p. 19-31).  The reading discussed Kant’s connection between agency and dignity. However, we did not rely heavily on the reading and instead our discussion focused on agency and where, if anywhere, it exists.
We began with a broad, roundtable discussion about agency. We questioned why agency is important and what implications the idea of agency has. What is at stake when thinking about agency?
It became apparent that there was variation in how agency was being defined. If agency is defined as intent, then agency has to be related to relationships. This is because intention implies a relationship with another entity, though not necessarily a living one. These relationships can go down to the atomic level, however, we discussed that atoms may not have agency because they are following a set of rules. This led, briefly, to the idea that our ability to make rules defines our own agency.
The self-defining of rules also allows agency to be tied to morality.  Some felt a conviction that there are choices and some are better than others. We think that we would prefer some consequences over others so we want to participate in bringing those ends around. Value and reason should be involved in whatever actions you choose. Losing the concept of agency makes people lose the ability to make rational choices. Given this, we function as though there is agency even if we do not entirely understand where that agency comes from, or what things may affect our ability to have agency. The idea gives us accountability and responsibility and thus greatly impacts our behavior and our society.
However, there was distinct second opinion on the topic. Some of the group felt that there is no such thing as agency and that it does not matter, so nothing is at stake except perhaps “the truth”. Agency is perhaps the result of not wanting cognitive dissonance. We feel as though we have choices, so it is hard to believe that we do not.  However, with scientific advances, this cognitive dissonance may be disappearing. Agency does not also have any implications for morality or the justice system, we can punish people regardless of if we believe in agency and losing the idea of agency does not threaten culpability.  People of this opinion thought that the discussion of agency was purely academic and had no real meaning in society.
These dichotomous opinions then required a discussion of the shape of the ‘universe’; either bifurcating or determinist.  A bifurcating universe requires that the universe can go one way or another but regardless of what direction it goes, there was an alternative (Figure 1, a). For agency to exist, there must be a bifurcating universe, because if agency requires the ability to have done otherwise (meaning, the universe can go one of two different ways).   A deterministic universe requires a universe that can only go one direction.  However, other possibilities can be imagined giving the appearance of a bifurcating universe. Those who thought agency was not important felt that this was the more realistic universe. The idea of agency is this imagined split in the universe which does not actually exist (Figure 1, b).

Figure 1: a) A bifurcating universe where the universe can go one of multiple ways, and b) a deterministic universe where only one way, the solid black line, is possible but other options can be imagined, the hash marked line.

The primary disagreement appeared to be based on physical stochasticity. Those who felt the universe was (philosophically) deterministic were mostly concerned with sub-atomic (physical) stochasticity being the only force that could alter the course of the universe. Given this, the universe might branch as a result of contingent events, but never branch by intention. Distinguishing between those two became an abstract philosophy of physics question, with no practical import.  Everything was still driven sub-atomically.  The atoms show physical stochasticity, which is not the same age agency; agency then must not exist.
There was some talk about the levels of agency existing as:

  1. Forecasting: The ability to see that there may be choices in the future (before the choice happens).   This can happen in a determined universe, but these choices are just imagined).
  2. Steering, which may include making choices and taking action.
  3. Directing consequences, which are the implications of the steering (generally by using forecasting and steering).

However, this discussion was not completed because there was not a consensus on the bifurcating universe idea. The main problem is that we cannot tell if forecasting is looking at real or imagined choices.
The session ended before we were able to come to an agreement with which to proceed forward with. The idea of a bifurcating universe appears to make sense on a human level, however if we include the entire universe it is not as clear.
–    Sarah B

This week’s guest speaker was Andrew Norton from the Classics department.

Andrew opened with a pre-Socratic fragment from Pindar’s Threnedes,written at the end of the 6th century/beginning of the 5th century:


“When the body (σομα/soma) yields to all-powerful death

The soul (eidolon/ειδολον) of the (τοι) life’s time/lifetime (aion/αιων) is the only thing that remains.”


The eidolon is like a soul — other synonyms are “shade” (skia), “shadow”, “ghost”, or the “image” of a person. Because the eidolon was given to us by the gods, it is both prescient and immortal. It is located within, and associated with the breath. The eidolon is different than the psyche but associated with it: The psyche is the life-force of a person, and it leaves the body upon death. When the psyche travels to its resting place in the underworld, it becomes the non-conscious eidolon. While we are alive, the psyche is what animates us, and when it is inactive, the eidolon is what is left. So, when the eidolon is asleep, the limbs of a person are said to be awake or animate. When the eidolon is awake, the limbs are asleep, and it is at this time that the eidolon can communicate with the body in the form of dreams. This communication is usually about future decisions (krisis), pleasures, or challenges.


The Greeks associated various parts of the body with functions of the mind or spiritual functions with two major camps, divided over whether choice and essence were to be found in the head or the heart.


For Plato, the logos or intellect was in the head; the thymos (virtue/masculinity/energy) was in the chest; and the epithymeticon, seat of irascibility and appetite was in the stomach.  The neck and diaphragm were considered important dividing lines.


This differs from Aristotle, who also had three aspects of the soul: the Rational, the Motive (animal or sentient*), and the Nutritive (vegetable).  He placed all three in the heart, considering the brain primarily a cooling device for the blood.


[*We use Aristotle’s sentience: “the ability to feel” rather than “ability to perceive self” here.]


Thomas Aquinas believed the life-force was located throughout the body. He subscribed to a Platonic distinction between the imperfect world perceived by the senses and processed in the common sense (part of the physical creation) and the perfect realm of ideas perceived through the intellect (part of the spiritual creation).  With Aristotle, he would have said that both required a soul, but the former was present in all animals, while the latter, related to will, conscience, and immortality, was unique to humans, being in the “image and likeness of God.”


Descartes combined common sense, intellect, and will into one concept: “mind”, located totally outside the physical realm in a separate, mental reality.


Neuroscientists have suggested that there is no one seat of consciousness, will, or identity.  This concept offends against the Cartesian (and arguably Kantian and Thomist) notions that there is one seat of the self.  It may not be inconsistent, however, with older models of humanity like Plato’s, that separate out our different impulses and see them as possibly competing as we make choices.


We spent the remainder of the session talking about how these concepts lined up with our ideas about intelligence, consciousness, and will presented two semesters ago (see meetings 4.1 and 4.8).


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

(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

14 Sep 2012


This week’s reading was an excerpt from Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” In his book, Kahneman describes two distinct modes of cognition: fast cognition, which is rapid, automatic and involuntary, and slow cognition, which is effortful, operates on slower timescales and involves reasoning and conscious decision making. These fast and slow cognitive subsystems are often referred to as System 1 and System 2, respectively.
We  began with a discussion of how theories of human choice-making have changed over time. Much of traditional economic theory is based upon rational choice theory, which assumes that humans make rational decisions in order to optimize their self-interest. However, beginning in the 1960s and 70s, researchers in the emerging field of behavioral economics began conducting psychological studies to investigate how people actually make economic decisions, and found that much of human decision making is in fact, not rational. These ideas have received a great deal of attention in recent years with the publication of several popular books. The observation that humans do not make decisions in a completely rational way has important implications, particularly in that it calls into question the results of classical economic theory, which assumes that humans are rational actors.
Our focus then moved to a more detailed discussion of the notions of fast (System 1) and slow (System 2) cognition, and how these ideas relate to the broader questions of agency and will. We began by discussing system 1. System 1 cognition uses automatic heuristics for monitoring and reacting to the environment. It operates on fast timescales, and does not require voluntary control or conscious effort. Examples of tasks primarily involving system 1 include recognizing emotion in a facial expression, orienting to a sudden loud noise, driving on an empty road, walking at a comfortable pace, or recoiling from an unpleasant or painful stimuli. A question was brought up as to whether system 1 was philosophically deterministic, i.e. whether agency could play a role in the functioning of system 1. While we typically think of system 1 as operating automatically and outside of our conscious control (and lacking agency), a potential complication is that system 2 (which we associate with more “free will-like” behaviors) can alter the functioning of system 1 through training. The related, and more difficult question of whether agency requires conscious awareness was also brought up.
In contrast to system 1, slow (system 2) cognition thinking is characterized by conscious, deliberate activity which requires mental effort. Examples of tasks requiring system cognition include complex arithmetic, long term planning of actions, and paying attention to a single speaker in a crowded and noisy environment, walking at a faster pace than normal, or monitoring the appropriateness of one’s behavior in an unfamiliar social context. In various circumstances, system 2 can effectively “override” system 1 when necessary, allowing for conscious control of actions that are typically automatic. For example, breathing typically occurs automatically and without conscious effort, but can be brought under conscious control. Similarly, experienced drivers will drive a car primarily using system 1, unless a challenging or unexpected traffic situation arises, at which point system 2 is engaged.  Interestingly, in humans, the level of mental effort required for a task was found to correlate with amount pupil dilation. Consequently pupil dilation has be used as an externally measurable indicator of the level of conscious mental effort required for a task.
An important aspect of system 2 thinking is that it is costly, both metabolically and in terms of allocating attention. First, the set of stimuli to which we can consciously attend is intrinsically limited, implying that attention is a finite resource. This can be demonstrated in the classic “invisible gorilla” experiment, in which subjects watch a video of two basketball teams, one wearing black shirts and the other white shirts, passing basketballs. Halfway through the video, someone in a gorilla costume walks through the scene. When given the task of counting the number of passes made by the white team (a difficult, attention-demanding, system 2 task), roughly half the subjects fail to notice the gorilla. In addition to attentional costs, there is evidence that conscious mental effort is metabolically costly, and that performing cognitively demanding tasks can degrade one’s self-control and performance on subsequent tasks simply as a result of low blood sugar, a phenomenon known as “ego depletion”. One example of this mentioned in the reading was a study of a group of judges showing that the proportion of parole requests which were approved spikes shortly after lunch and then decreases as a function of the time since the judge’s most recent meal. The implication is that hungry or “ego depleted” judges tended to give less careful consideration to the cases, and defaulted to simply denying the parole requests.
This observation that System 2 is both metabolically costly and slow allows one to concoct possible evolutionary explanations for why it may be useful for some animals to possess the capacities for both fast, system 1 thinking and slow, system 2 thinking. System 1 cognition sacrifices adaptability and accuracy in unfamiliar contexts for speed and metabolic efficiency, whereas System 2 cognition sacrifices speed (in some cases) and metabolic resources. Thus one can imagine that in stable, familiar, and predictable contexts, system 1 may be preferred, while system 2 provides a way of dealing with unexpected events or unfamiliar and unpredictable environments. One should note that both slow and fast modes of cognition can involve the use of heuristics. This becomes apparent when considering a number of logical fallacies and cognitive biases that are commonly observed when people are presented with certain decision-making tasks.


Meeting 6.1 What’s at Stake?

31 Aug 2012


This was the inaugural meeting of the Fall 2012 semester. This semester we will be diving into a topic that has been tangentially addressed in many previous discussions, but has not had much direct focus: free will.

If you are new to this blog, let me (Sarah Bengston) first direct you to the syllabus and the glossary. In the glossary you will find a useful collection of working definitions for terms we often hear used during the discussions. For this semester’s discussion, the following terms are likely the most important, so I will highlight them here:

Physical Determinism: The future state of the system can be predicted without error from the present state of the system.
(Physical) Stochasticity: We can predict a range of outcomes and their probabilities but cannot specify exactly what will happen.
Philosophical Determinism: Human choices are sufficiently explained by circumstances. These may be initial conditions (e.g., neurological or genetic determinism) or external factors (e.g., fatalism or providence).
Agency: a word for “the ability to have done otherwise,” choice with philosophical non-determinism built in

Terms defined specifically for this semester are:

Free Will:  agency without constraint (though there was some debate about this).

Mind vs. Brain: The brain is the physical structure in our skull, while the mind is more of a Cartesian type entity.

For more definitions about relevant topics, take a quick trip over to Lucas’s blog post about “determinism.”

A substantial proportion of the first hour was spent clarifying and defining these terms.

To begin the discussion of the readings, we asked who thought there was agency and who thought there was no agency. While there was a pretty equal split, of those who thought there was agency the majority thought that is constrained.

The discussion then focused primarily on the Harris reading. There was, again, a split of opinions. Some felt that there were contradictory aspects to the text. For example, Harris promotes the idea that our actions are all predetermined for us at the level of our neurologic framework, yet we should strive to overcome this and act morally. How can we overcome a predetermined action?

It was also noted that certain aspects of neurobiology are ignored. For example, with conditioning, such as with impulse control, this can become an internalized process and actually change how our brains respond to stimuli. In this way conscious processes can shape our neural framework and change our behavior even under the framework of no agency that Harris presents.  However, it was pointed out that perhaps it was not the response to an impulse but the impulse itself that showed limited agency.

Consciousness and self awareness:

“We are just watching what happens based on our predetermined choices.”- A suggested summation of Harris’ argument.

How does our consciousness impact our agency? Are we able to have agency because we are conscious?

While there was some confusion between self awareness and consciousness, it was generally agreed upon that consciousness was simply knowledge that you are a different entity than others.

The two main points of Harris’ argument are:

1)    Conscious choice is an illusion and the result of unconscious processes, and thus there is no unconscious agency.

2)    Unconscious processes have no agency, so again, there is no unconscious agency.

Despite this, some felt that there was unconscious agency and while choices may not be consciously apparently the ability to have done something else was present.  See Lucas’ argument presented in the previous post for a fuller commentary.

It was brought up that the level of our neurobiology seemed an arbitrary level at which to put the control of our behavior. After all, the synapses of our brain are a byproduct of chemical changes, which are a byproduct of electron changes. If there is no agency, at what level of analysis should we be looking at behavior? Some discussion about agency in the light of physics was discussed, however a longer discussion was promised for next week. With this in mind, I will reserve a summation of that discussion for the next meeting.

From a behavioral ecology standpoint, it was pointed out that the idea of limited or no agency can sometimes be called limited behavioral plasticity. It was suggested that behaving sub-optimally could be evidence for agency, as evolution would have selected for individuals who always behaved in a predictable, optimal way. However, behavior can be limited through multiple mechanisms in an individual allowing sub-optimal behavior to persist, even in the face of evolution.  This supports the idea of constrained agency.

One proposed summary suggested:

Fatalism = no preference

Determinism = no agency

Nihilism = no meaning

Though we were quickly running out of time, it was proposed that you can have any combination of these concepts though preference without agency presented difficulties. Given two alternatives, a mechanism can use heuristics to pick one, but is this the same as preference or value for one over the other?  How is the ability to imagine a non-existent alternative related to concepts of preference?