The Phenomenology of Error → ¬ ¬ Free Agency

Last night at choir rehearsal our choirmaster casually refuted the notion that Benjamin Libet’s justly famous experiment showing that neural activity manifesting decisions precedes conscious awareness thereof falsifies free agency.

The argument of the reductionists pushing that notion is that, since (as Libet showed) the electrical activity of the cortex that characterizes incipient output of activating signals to motor systems occurs 300 milliseconds (or more) before the subject becomes aware of his decision to move, therefore the conscious awareness does not initiate actions or make decisions, but rather only learns of them ex post facto; that, i.e., our acts are decided unconsciously, or at least preconsciously; so that our conscious awareness is not that of an agent, but rather only of a delusory subject epiphenomenal to the truly real motions of the brain, and without any causal efficacy of its own.

Not so. This, precisely because we cannot know what has been decided except ex post. To see why is easy, on a moment of introspection.

What happened at choir last evening? One of the sopranos erred a bit in sight reading the intonation for the plainsong Introitus we chant at the beginning of the Mass. He stopped us, and after she had volunteered and correctly identified the nature of her error, he first praised her, then paused and asked, “Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not true that you became aware that you were making a mistake only as you had actually started to make it, and not before?” She agreed that it had been so. He smiled and expatiated: “Well, that is indeed interesting. My own experience both as a singer and as an organist is that until I have actually begun making a mistake, I am not aware of the mistake as such. I might indeed be aware of a heightened risk that I shall err, but I am not aware of actually erring until it is too late! That ignorance changes once the enaction of the mistake is begun, and cannot be reversed; at that point, as I am singing or pressing the key, I become aware for the first time that I have – probably – erred. Only then can I take action of some sort to ameliorate the situation. What do we learn from this? We learn that no one intends to make a mistake, other than perhaps as a joke or as an intentional sabotage, or – as I so often do with you – to demonstrate the nature of an error to others, so that they can avoid it (but then, that sort of error is not really an error in the first place, is it?). Rather, we err in ignorance of our incipient error, or due to confusion about what is real, versus what we intend.”

Silence fell upon us as we all reflected upon our own experience as musicians, and realized he was exactly right.

Now, as it happened, and by sheer “coincidence,” I had for several days been thinking about Libet’s experiment vis-à-vis the freedom of the will, and I piped up: “You have just nailed an important truth about all the decisions we make.”

“Really, Kristor? What’s that?”

“We can’t possibly know what we have decided, about anything, or even that we have decided, until after we have decided it.”

He thought for a moment as a yet deeper silence fell in the choir room, and then said, smiling (as is his wont always, more or less, the genial man), “I find that I have decided to remain silent about that!” We all laughed at his doubled joke, as we so often do together.

To a moment’s consideration, it is obviously impossible to know anything about a thing, such as a decision, that has not yet actually happened, and so does not yet exist so as to be known about. Until we actually make a decision – e.g., to move a finger to press a button so as to register our awareness that we have decided so to do – there is no such decision to know about. Thus from the fact that conscious subjects become aware of what they have already decided only after they have decided it, it does not at all follow that they were not the ones who decided.

When we become aware that we have made a decision, we are aware, not that we are making that decision, but rather that we did make it. When we are aware of ourselves, we are aware of our past. This is so even of our awareness of what we are feeling in this very moment of feeling: one can’t feel that one is in the midst of making a mistake until one has already begun to make it. The singer learns of his mistake when he hears what he has sung and realizes that the sound of it did not seem right to the circuits of his brain that process music, that have processed the sound of his mistake in their own past, and then reported on the discrepancy to the cerebral cortex – and, so, to the conscious mind.

In no way then do Libet’s findings demonstrate that the conscious mind is without causal effect. On the contrary, they reveal just what we should have expected to discover, on our natural and innocent supposition that the mind does indeed act with causal effect upon the brain, and so indirectly then upon the electrodes adjacent thereto, before it then becomes aware – by reference, not just to its own immediate past, but (for context and interpretation) to the immediate past of the brain that has registered its past causal effects – of the fact and meaning of its own prior act.

Libet’s experiment does not falsify our free conscious agency. Indeed, his discovery supports the truth of our straightforward phenomenological introspections; and, indeed, of our experience per se.

24 thoughts on “The Phenomenology of Error → ¬ ¬ Free Agency

  1. The pastor ought to look into the agenda of his choirs rehearsals. If hes not careful you will eventually put out a philosophical volume in singable verse!

    Would it be fair to say that, since agency is one of the ways we share in the image of God, that actions taken are spiritual things created *ex nihilo* first and then ripples throughout creation? Maybe I am saying the same thing you said, just differently.

    In my head I imagined like a puppet and the puppet master is our invisible souls and so if our spiritual essence decides to act, that spiritual decision would naturally precede temporal effects. Maybe its more like flying a drone—someone has to pull the lever before the drone moves.

    Thank you for this!

    • You are welcome, Scoot; glad you liked it.

      I have often thought that choir is a pretty comprehensive analog and model – and Way – of the spiritual life; which is only to say, of life, period full stop. That’s why all monks are into it, more or less. I think that’s also why so many competent people sing in choirs for no pay. I bet I could indeed write a book about what the mystical novice can learn from proper performance of liturgical music. There are a thousand lessons in it. But then I suppose the same is true of any discipline tightly constrained by the concrete reality of things (as distinct from the constraints only of internal ideological coherence). Certainly, this was so of my experience as a whitewater boatman, and as a woodsman.

      I like the metaphor of the drone and its pilot. One difference is that the human body is a hierarchy of agents that do not like the drone behave entirely like a system of mechanisms, but rather themselves often introduce new forms and factors to the operations of the organism, and so to the inputs of the “pilot.” They are more like wild horses pulling a chariot than drones!

      Every creaturely occasion has its rise first from God, and so ex nihilo – which is to say, ex nihilo quod Deo nonest. So all events in time have their ontological roots in eternity; also their trunks, branches and leaves, their flowers and fruits and seeds. This is why Plato says in Timaeus that time is a moving image of eternity.

  2. Every rider will tell you that his horse often knows his intention before he does. The horse senses changes in the rider’s posture before the rider is aware of them.

    The error, stemming from Descartes, is that decision-making is an internal mental process, a sort of internal soliloquy that precedes action. In reality we have reflexive (unmediated, non-observational) awareness of our actions, posture, movements and intentions.

    Miss Anscombe gives an illustration of this in her famous debate with C S Lewis: “You might ask me: ‘why did you half-turn towards the door?’ and I explain that I thought I saw a friend coming in, and then realized it was someone else. This may be the explanation although I did not at the time say to myself ‘Hello! There’s so-and-so; I’ll go and speak to him; oh no, it’s someone else.’ So when I give the explanation it is not by way of observing two events and the causal relation between them.”

    “The telephone rang and I answered it” tells us nothing about what I may or may not have thought (in the sense of “said to myself”) – if anything.

    • I have it on reliable authority that one of the first things told to girls (and presumably boys) starting in equestrian sports is that one must first look in the direction in which one desires to point the horse. Other may have better information.

      • “[O]ne must first look in the direction in which one desires to point the horse.”

        Sound advice, though actually the first step is to ensure one is over the horse’s centre of gravity and a light contact with the reins (not a half-halt) and then lower leg back. A well-schooled horse will not move otherwise.

        Over the years, a lot of local youngsters have come to learn to ride on my horses and help out in the stables in return. Watching a novice rider on a dressage horse is a cause of wonderment to me. Given how sensitive the horse is to the slightest change in the rider’s posture, how do they filter out the white noise surrounding the novice’s attempts at an aid?

  3. Also of interest is Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” It is worth noting that the instantaneous, seemingly unconscious decisions may be related to previously thought out decisions, even a lifetime’s worth of such decisions. It is rather the mean of the word “habit,” or at least “habit of mind,” isn’t it?

    As to choir as a spiritual discipline, I like the idea. One has to work with difficult people to achieve something useful not only for one’s own worship but that of others. However, I have known so many members of choral groups who seemed dramatically unimproved in character even by years of participation that I think there must be some other necessary, activating piece.

    Please discover this for us so that the world may be accordingly improved.

    • As to Kahneman, yes. We certainly make many decisions unconsciously, thanks to training and memory. We tend to be conscious of decisions only when the automatic routines we had already established somehow fail to cope with a situation adequately. Libet’s experiment was arranged so as to avoid invocation of habitual and thus unconscious decisions, instead focusing only on a conscious decision unlike any others we normally encounter.

      As to making choir spiritually efficacious, it seems to me that the key is humility. It is much harder than one would think to attain a perfect unison, let alone a perfect chord (not to mention polyphonic and polyrhythmic integration (and none of those even touch the hem of integral interpretation)). Unison is so hard to attain that most choirs don’t even try. If they are going to succeed at it, every chorister must do his best to blend into the sound of his section, so that his voice cannot be told from theirs. The attainment of perfect unison is an occasion of astounding aesthetic delectation. The sound seems to come from one’s bones.

      Attainment of a perfectly tuned fifth feels like levitating; one’s head opens up on top, and a column of invisible light pours upward. It’s really something. And the purity of tone required for such things means that for each chorister, the sound issuing from his head is as close to a pure Platonic form as can be found on Earth. The beauty of that is numinous.

      Unfortunately, most singers gauge whether they are in tune and in time on the basis of how they sound versus how everyone else is sounding. That only works when singers are *not* blending into their sectional sound!

      Monks, too, can go on for decades without spiritual improvement. Spiritual improvement is even harder than unison …

  4. Apart from your objection, there seems to be a fundamental difficulty with Libet’s experiment; or at least with the conclusions drawn from it. According to the article, the subject was told to carry out a small, simple motor activity – pressing a button, for example – within a certain time frame. The subject was asked to note the position of a dot tracing a circular path against a scale on an oscilloscope, when he “was first aware of the wish or urge to act.”

    That is, the subject is told to, say, press a button, but not just yet, but within a certain time interval (which the discussions I’ve seen do not bother mentioning.) At the start of the time period, then the subject must put from his conscious mind the thought of pressing the button, but must not forget his prior decision to press the button within period X. Nor must he forget, immediately upon feeling the “wish or urge, to note the scale mark on the oscilloscope. The period between scale marks for the dot being traced on the oscilloscope was 43 milliseconds.

    If the subject is new to the procedure and the apparatus, there’s going to be quite a mental buzz involved in set-up and execution. If this is taken into account, the subject might be given sufficient practice to at least begin to render the actions more or less automatic; that is, to make as much as possible of the process unconscious.

    This is a central characteristic of all of our activity, both mental and physical. Every motor and every intellectual skill on which we, at the beginning, had to expend such – often exhausting – focus becomes primarily automatic; and that of necessity. It is the only way we can function with any degree of capability.

    In sum, the subject has made a decision. “I will soon press the button, but before I do, I will note the time. In the meantime, I will put this from mind, until it spontaneously returns.” Let’s say that the subject is Prof. Cocks, who practices meditation, and so is more than usually adept at stilling the mind. So he does. The oscilloscope spins away, the time period expires, and Prof. Cocks has not pressed the button! “Why didn’t you press the button?” demands the ghost of Benjamin Libet. “I put the pressing of the button from mind,” replies Prof. Cocks, calmly.

    • It is quite conceivable that the increase in readiness potential that was detected in the motor cortex prior to the first conscious awareness of intent to act was a manifestation, not of the fact of a decision, but of the fact of increasing anxiety about when to decide; that, i.e., the electrodes were detecting increases in the *readiness* to decide, and not an actual decision. To suggest that this might be the case is to suggest only that the readiness potential is the readiness *potential,* and does not signify *action.*

      What is more, because the decision and the subject’s subsequent awareness thereof must both precede a report of the decision – must precede the pressing of the button and the notice of the dot on the oscilloscope – Libet’s finding shows only that what must be the case is indeed the case.

  5. Basically there are errors of interpretation and assumed causality implicit in looking at things this way, as well as category and description issues. The notion that the brain and neurological processes tied to it decide everything ‘a human does’ is probably flawed even from an extreme reductionist viewpoint (other organs are almost certainly involved). The speed of ‘information transfer’ for example is based on a bunch of chemical/ electrical transmission calculations that fail to explain the kind of ‘time dilation’ millions of people have experienced during extreme accidents and the likes of that. I’m not pulling this out of a hat, the best explanation of that so far boils down to ‘awareness registering imminent danger and releasing an enormous dose of adrenaline and other goodies’ – after breaking the ‘self-established laws’ a statement like that is case closed apparently?

    Either time itself becomes ‘locally flexible’ under extreme circumstances or the presumed limits of the body do the same thing. Recently some research came out suggesting human brains do a form of quantum computing most of the time, rather than a binary type. Not a surprise to me, but it must suck for many neuro/biologists that thought they had it all figured out with fairly simple models based on backwards information/ category theory. It may look appealing to evolutionary tradionalists as they can finally give form to their perennial ghost of ‘selective pressure’, but they will quickly find out that they dont understand what quantum means, because none of us do, exactly.

    With all that said, the premise of Libet seems to refer directly to ‘twitch decisions’ that rule out ‘conscious reaction’. It’s probably debatable where the distinction between those lies, the moment the scope of that consideration broadens too far all bets are off. And yes, the whole discussion about ‘neuroscience of free will’ is coming at the subject from a deeply misinformed vantage point, if not one philosophically useless.

    As i write that i realize i forgot earlier ‘talks’ we had and your unrelenting drive to adress topics like this. Your earlier post in this thread about branching and horses pulling the proverbial cart touches so many things that have crossed my path, sound similar to parts of the Veda’s at the same time as Stephen Wolfram’s company research to put that in perspective.

    Anyway, if you want to write that book Kris, give yourself a break 😉

    • By definition, science investigates facts. It *cannot* investigate acts themselves, but rather only their factual effects. And it cannot investigate the effects of acts until they are over and done with – until, that is, they have generated some facts – so that they are *no longer actively present.* Thus science is incorrigibly blind, empirically, to what it is like to act, to live; to be, that is to say, a spirit. It can see only the sequelae of spiritual acts.

      This is not a defect of science. But it is a limitation. Every sort of discourse has a few.

      • “By definition, science investigates facts…”

        More precisely, science investigates the common, measurable qualities of facts.

        Ever since Galileo taught us that that “The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics,” we have all rejected Aristotle in favour of Pythagoras.

        Scientific “laws” are differential equations, describing the constant relationship between variables that are quantifiable (typically, mass, distance, time &c) and so can be expressed as numbers. That is why these equations can be used to generate predictions. It goes without saying that the relationship between the variables is functional, not causal.

      • Indeed. F does not *cause* ma. F *just is* ma. The functional relations of the variables enable us to translate them into different terms (e.g., mathematical ↔ physical ↔ chemical ↔ biological). But the relations remain themselves throughout all such translations, and – so far as the maths alone can tell us (for (to the atheist – which is to say, to the alogist) the maths refer to nothing prior to themselves) – at last incomprehensible. This, taking comprehensibility as we normally do in quotidian life, as the act of grasping competently what gave rise to what, and how that happened, and why. The maths tell us of all that only what we ought to look for, and expect; nothing more.

        Another way to put the same point: the equations tell us the order of what happens. They cannot tell us why it happens, or indeed even how.

  6. Kristor

    “the act of grasping competently what gave rise to what, and how that happened, and why. ”

    Quite small children have no difficulty in using and (presumably) understanding words like scrape, push, carry, eat, burn, knock over, squash, hurt. They understand a word like “making” (noises, paper boats).

    It seems to me obvious that it is from examining words like these and how they are used in the language that we arrive at how such highly abstract ideas as “causality” are formed.

    Now, the scientist understands as well as the child what “He pushed me” means. To fit the event into his world-picture, he will go on to ask, “How many newtons?” in other words, a number.

    Compare hearing a tune and writing it down and the information that the symbols that make up the score will convey to someone who has not heard it. (Pythagoras, one recalls, was interested in harmonics)

    • The score, like the equations, lies wholly mute and inert on the page until some mind interprets its symbols in terms of experience (of just that many newtons, of just that frequency). So doing, that mind translates the symbols into the acts they denote and so propose (even if these acts are only of and in the imagination (as when a musician reads a score and hears the music in his mind only, without either singing or playing it)).

      An interesting corollary: apprehension is not passive, but active. It is a grasping of affective data, and not a mere sufferance thereof. This is why Whitehead calls feeling “prehension:” grasping. But then, Whitehead – with Aristotle – takes being to be essentially active. Determinism per contra presupposes that events are entirely passive; that they are *nothing but* the integration of causal inputs from their pasts. That integration of causal inputs in a subsequent occasion is a mystery; determinists treat that process of integration as a black box, without noticing they have done so (the philosophy of mind has noticed, named and worried about its version of the difficulty: the binding problem). This is the case even when they are able to characterize by formulae the relations in a physical system of inputs to outputs: the mathematical function on the page neither brings forth its output, nor tells us how that output is achieved in the actual world when an input is supplied to it by and in some mind (whether only imaginatively, or as expressed by that mind in some experimental setup, or in some computer program running (NB: a function running in an experimental setup or on a computer is doing so *only* as an echo of its prior operation in some designing mind – just as a score is played on a piano by a musician only as an artifact of a prior series of his purely intellectual acts)).

      To become is to decide actively which of the proposals presented to our consideration by the events of our past are most like what it is now best to do. Whether or not we do so consciously, we decide how we feel about what has happened, mutatis mutandis; so we then move accordingly. Thus it is that, e.g., we can decide to disregard a pain, or attend to it.

  7. The words themselves imply the conclusions reached. A decision is reached not before it is made because decision rests upon a moment in time, that of conclusion and I can certainly be aware that I am coming to a decision and then the moment I have made it. I can also be aware, as I am singing and even before the note is uttered, that I’m (about to be) mistakenly flat or sharp or out of time or nasal — and even before the note is uttered.

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  10. Waitwaitwait. Why does Libet or the choirmaster even assume free agency requires conscious decision-making? Why would subconscious decision making not be an act of free agency? In my circles it is a given that we usually rationalize whatever we wanted to do anyway, and the cortex type rational thinking exists mostly for communication.

    Which is not even to say it is impossible to make truly conscious and rational decisions. But in this case the internal debate in the conscious happens before the decision. Arguments pro and co. Then when it is done the result goes into the subconscious, which comes back with a decision.

    BTW book recommendation: Descartes’ Error. People who have damaged the emotional part of the brain are fully rational in the sense they can do math. They pass every test. But they cannot make decisions in practice because they do longer know what is more important than something else, so they discuss a five minute task at work for an hour and get fired. The importance, relative priority of things is decided emotionally.

    • The importance, relative priority of things is decided emotionally.

      Hume, who liked to épater le bourgeois famously (and provocatively) declared that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (A Treatise on Human Nature II 3)

      He insists that “Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses [sic] means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it.” (ibid)

      Miss Anscombe makes the same point: “It is not judgment as such that sets us in motion; but our judgment on how to get or do something we want.” (Modern Moral Philosophy 1958)

      They could both have appealed to the venerable authority of Aristotle: Λόγοσ ούδέν κινεί – Reason moves nothing.

      • Aye: the equations are moot, and mute, and bootless, except as set afire.

        As my spiritual director remarked to me this morning, “Theology and philosophy are useless against the demons. The demons understand theology and philosophy better than we ever shall.”

    • Dividualist, you are correct that free agency does not require consciousness. It’s just that, phenomenologically, the only decisions we are ever conscious of making are the sort that engage our conscious attention, so that if Libet can show that such decisions are not free, he shows that the only sort of decision we can – by definition – know that we make, or indeed that we can know anything about, are not free.

      Now, from the fact that conscious decisions were not free, it would not follow that no decision is free. Still, most people would feel pretty confident in that invalid inference. And that would buttress the rhetorical case of the determinists.

      • “It’s just that, phenomenologically, the only decisions we are ever conscious of making are the sort that engage our conscious attention.”

        Is that true? Surely, we can have our attention drawn to them after they have occurred and we can give an account of them.

        In her famous debate with C S Lewis, Miss Anscmbe pointed out that “‘Reasons’ and ‘motives’ are what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.”

        She gave an good example of decision-making: “You might ask me: ‘Why did you half-turn towards the door?’ and I explain that I thought I saw a friend coming in, and then realized it was someone else. This may be the explanation although I did not at the time say to myself ‘Hello! There’s so-and-so; I’ll go and speak to him; oh no, it’s someone else.’ So when I give the explanation it is not by way of observing two events and the causal relation between them.”

        She adds that “’Causes,’ in the scientific sense in which this word is used when we speak of causal laws, is to be explained in terms of observed regularities: but the declaration of one’s reasons or motives is not founded on observation of regularities.”

        Consider, “Why are you drumming your fingers like that?” The answer “No reason,” still indicates an intentional action; “Was I? I didn’t realise” suggests an unintentional one.

        Sometimes, of course, we do offer a causal explanation for our actions:

        “Why did you spill your coffee like that?

        “I thought I saw a face at the window and it startled me.”

      • It’s just that, phenomenologically, the only decisions we are ever conscious of making are the sort that engage our conscious attention.

        Is that true? Surely, we can have our attention drawn to them after they have occurred and we can give an account of them.

        Yes, it’s true. My conscious attention to a decision I have already preconsciously made, and (as is so with almost all our decisions) had not yet consciously noticed, is engaged when, having noticed it consciously yourself, you ask me to give an account of it. But the same is true of a situation wherein I wonder why I did what I did (e.g. (speaking of the phenomenology of error), at choir the other day I called Phoebe by the name Andrea, and then, deeply confused at the sources of my act just done, I asked myself aloud, “Why on Earth did I call Phoebe Andrea?” (everyone laughed, charitably to be sure (including Phoebe, who is the soul of hilarity)); how much of humor derives from such obscure perplexities about ourselves?)).

        Why did I do what I just did? What is the sense of it, the reason, the ratio? I revert again and again to Chou en Lai’s sapient response to the question of a journalistic interlocutor, about the historical significance of the French Revolution: “Too early to tell.”

        As the OP points out, it is ontologically impossible to ware a thing – such as a decision we make – until it has completed its process of coming to be just what it is. One *cannot* ware a thing that does not yet fully exist. Thus Libet’s result is exactly what we should have expected.

        From that result, it simply does not follow either that we are not the ones making decisions, or that those decisions are not free.


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