Libet & Liberty

Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments showed that people arrive at their decisions preconsciously. Many – although not Libet himself – have taken this result as an indication that we are not free.

It is not.

First, from the fact that we do things first preconsciously it does not at all follow that some altogether other things are doing them – some things, i.e., other than previous or constituent or subsidiary occasions of our own careers as persons. We can do a thing without being conscious of doing it. Indeed, almost all the things we do are done unconsciously. When was the last time you consciously decided to breathe? Does the fact that you’ve kept on breathing unconsciously for the last umpty ump years mean that you could not stop if you decided to do so?

Ex hypothesi, men are free per se, so all our acts are more or less free, whether or not they are conscious.

Second, the conscious mind is not necessarily the only free component of the human being. To think so is to fall prey to the fallacy of the homunculus, and thus to an infinite regress; the sort of error to which students of the embodied mind are especially alive, and particularly averse.

A subroutine of whose operations we are not consciously aware might make a decision and forward it to conscious attention; that does not mean that its decision was not free. Nor does it mean that the decision has not been made by the person conscious of having made it, for the subroutine is after all a subsidiary of that very person.

And third, how for Heaven’s sake could we possibly become conscious of a thing – such as one of our own decisions – that was not yet complete? The consciousness of a decision cannot – metaphysically cannot – occur until the decision has been made and is a fact, thus potentially a factor of awareness. We can’t be conscious of a thing that has not yet happened. Thus the only sorts of decisions of which we might possibly be conscious are those that we have already made.

What we feel then in the moment of decision – the what-it-is-like-to-decide, the quale of becoming – is, not the decision itself (for that decision is a product of the completed moment of decision, and therefore inaccessible from within that moment), but the process or act of deciding. Like the origin of that act, its end, and therefore its character, is for us shrouded in mystery; for we cannot know what it means, or therefore is, until we know what successive occasions in the causal nexus (especially our own) make of it.

To be is to be aware of having decided, and to be then deciding.

4 thoughts on “Libet & Liberty

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2016/07/24) - Social Matter

  2. Hi Kristor

    I agree with you that Libet’s experiments do not disprove freewill. I find your thoughts here intriguing but I would like to gently prod your argument a little because I can’t quite reconcile it the way I would like to.

    If I’ve understood you, the crux of your post is that even non-conscious decisions are free because they are still made by a person (to whom the non-conscious “subroutine” belongs).

    I can’t get around the following two problems though. First; a determinist would argue that those subroutines are simply the effects of prior causes, and those of still more prior causes, etc., extending all the way back to the Big Bang. This is the textbook definition of determinism, which the “subroutines” insight doesn’t seem to address.

    Second; we typically think consciousness is the ‘mechanism’ behind our freedom. You explicitly reject this, so what makes our non-conscious ‘subroutines’ free while other non-conscious processes in the natural world are determined?

    I worry this will ultimately come back to your assertion “Ex hypothesi, men are free”. But of course, just saying we are free doesn’t make it so. And more to the point, if we allow this, how can we take issue with a determinist arguing from the same premise (as they do, in fact, although often implicitly); “Ex hypothesi, humans are physical entities in a physical universe therefore they are determined like all other physical things”?

    • The post was not attempting to show that determinism is false. It was attempting to show that Libet’s experiments do not show that it is true. From the fact that an act is unconscious it does not follow that it is not free. We do often take consciousness to be the basis of our freedom (albeit not the ‘mechanism’ (your scare quotes there are prudent), for machines under the deterministic hypothesis are not free). But this is only a presumption. We don’t know – we *can’t possibly know* – that things of which we ourselves are not conscious are not free. On the contrary: our own experience of what it is like to be a thing that is happening is *the only evidence we can possibly have of what it is like to be such a thing.* Evidentiary caution would therefore urge the *contrary* of the supposition that some things in the world are not free (or conscious, for that matter), as we find ourselves to be. It is the determinist position that is not bolstered by empirical evidence.

      We should not therefore take the unwarranted leap of inferring that while some processes in the world are free, others are not. If anything, we are more warranted in the presumption that all mundane processes are more or less like the mundane processes that are the events of our own conscious lives.

      Determinism is a delicate flower. If any one event in the world is not predetermined, then determinism is just false, and we may stop worrying about it. If there be the slightest jot of indeterminacy anywhere in the world, then determinism is utterly falsified. Historically, determinism as a metaphysical inference took heart from Newtonian physics, which seemed at the time capable in principle of explaining and so in principle predicting physical events without remainder of uncertainty. Well, uncertainty is now basic in physics, and apparently ineradicable. So there’s no longer any basis is physics for the inference to determinism. This is old news, more than a hundred years old. I can’t figure out why the determinists have not yet gotten it.


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