A Prick in a Poke: Penises and the Preconscious Mind

Andrew Buhr pointed me to Jesse Bering’s  article over at scientificamerican.com. It’s an interesting popsci review of sexsomnia (i.e, sex while asleep), and all the awkwardness, legal and otherwise, arising therefrom. The dude in France who anally raped his employee because the employee’s somnambulistic behavior led him to believe the act was consensual; the other dude, right here in Toronto, who got plastered during a croquet party (oh, yeah, we Torontonians know how to par-tay) and later started having sex with an unwilling woman after first putting on a condom:   later acquitted because he had a history of sleep-walking.  And, of course, the poor bastard whose wife actually preferred sex when he was asleep because he was a better lover then.

All very titter-worthy, all right at home here on the ‘crawl thenks to our fondness for questions of neuroautonomy, and all sorted out in favor of the accused because after all, they were asleep at the time. How could they possibly be held responsible for their actions when they weren’t even aware of them? Here in TO we even give murderers a break, just so long as they’re snoring when they commit the act.

Not so fast, I say.

This whole issue of personal culpability has been building up steam in neurological circles at least since Libet’s we-don’t-need-no-steenkin’-free-will experiments of the eighties (the philosophers, of course, have been on that case for somewhat longer). Here’s a thumnail for newbies to the ‘crawl, and for all of you who’d rather not dig through two decades of research results, blog postings, and impassioned rants.  Determinists point to accumulating mountains of evidence that the brain makes its decisions significantly earlier than the conscious self becomes aware of those decisions, and conclude that the conscious decision-making experience is illusory (true, IMO) —  that what we perceive as decision-making is nothing more than the receipt of a memo from other, nonconscious intellects deeper in the same grey matter, telling us of a decision already fading in the rear-view mirror (also true). Some go on to claim that since conscious “decisions” are no such thing, free will does not exist (false). (I mean, true, but falsely derived.) (You know what I mean.)

It all comes down to what qualifies as “I”. A lot of people seem to think that “I” is the conscious self, the little illusory homunculus looking out through the eyes and experiencing qualia. If that’s the case, then yes: Libetian1 experiments demonstrate pretty convincingly that “we” have no free will. But over at the other end of the bleachers, the People’s Front of Judea argue that “I” am more than the conscious subroutine: I am the whole damn brain in all its glory, the thing making the decisions and the thing sending the memo as well as the pointy-haired boss who ultimately receives it and hogs all the credit. A decision is a decision, argues the JPF, regardless of whether it is made consciously or otherwise.

And you know, I have to agree with them. What is the conscious self, after all? A short-term cache; a scratch pad; the little post-it note used to remind you to pick up a dozen eggs on the way home from work. The damn thing is barely big enough to hold a telephone number, for chrissakes; some folks claim that the bandwidth of conscious experience is a measly 20 bits/sec. Do you really want to define your self-model as something so limited? Do you really want to cram the human soul onto a post-it note?

Unless you cling to that untenable view (and given the number of folks who gave up their worldly stakes on Harold Camping’s say-so, it’s certainly possible to believe even stupider things), then the self has to contain the circuits that do make the decisions. And since those decisions are generally made unconsciously anyway, whether the scratch-pad was online or off at any given time doesn’t make a whit of difference.

Which means that, if you believe in free will at all, the whole not-responsible-by-reason-of-unconsciousness is complete and utter bullshit. All those rapists and murderers who did it while snoring in their pajamas are just as culpable as those who explicitly jotted down “put on condom, fuck blonde chick on couch” right next to “one dozen free-range eggs, large”.

Of course, that’s a big if — and (as regular ‘crawl denizens know already) I line up firmly with those who think that a justice system based on the premise of personal culpability makes about as much sense as one based on witchcraft and demonic possession. I simply point out that any system which is based on such a premise is fundamentally hypocritical if it gives a pass to perps who happen to be sleepwalking at the time.

Take it away, noen.


1By which I mean all experiments in the neurology-of-will mode, not just those conducted by the late Benjamin Libet.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday May 24 2011at 07:05 am , filed under neuro, scilitics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

66 Responses to “A Prick in a Poke: Penises and the Preconscious Mind”

  1. It’s an interesting topic, and one where I can see all kinds of scenarios pushing at the edges of where personal responsibility lying (drug-induced, involuntary drug-induced, amnesia, multiple personalities, surgery/accidents, sleep deprivation….).

    While our sense of conscious decision making is pretty much entirely fabricated, I don’t think it’s meaningless. Not only is our sense of self (of being human and existing) dependent upon it, and our culture, but the lies we tell ourselves about what kind of people we are and why we do the things we do are fairly stable within normal limits – we try to behave like ‘ourselves’ and monitor our behaviour in line with that. That mental image of ourselves, while not corresponding to any actual mental object, is about as close as we are going to get to a ‘self’, and if we don’t base our actions and opinions of others on something broadly equating to our sense of identity, well, the whole human thing just falls over and stops working.

    So take that feedback-loop self-image… if it stops working (by being replaced by another, forced into unusual parameters, or not retaining memory), then we can’t really lay ‘blame’ at its door.

    Could you clarify as to what premise a justice system should be based on? Because ‘justice’ is based upon exactly the same lie as ‘self’ and ‘free-will’, I would have thought.

  2. I ran into a suggestion that the legal system should change from a culpability based system to one concerned with repetition. That is, if someone caught performing a undesired act was found via medical tests to be liable to repeat the offense. Said person would be either helped in overcoming the compulsion to perform said act, or locked away.

  3. I ran into a suggestion that the legal system should change from a culpability based system to one concerned with repetition. That is, if someone caught performing a undesired act was found via medical tests to be liable to repeat the offense. Said person would be either helped in overcoming the compulsion to perform said act, or locked away.

    e.g. chemical castration to control homosexual tendencies. see Alan Turing.

  4. So it would be ok to commit any crime, as long as you only intended to do it once. Interesting concept 🙂

  5. Oh dear, I made a cutesy fucking icon.

  6. Groovy post. I always find it funny that the drumbeaters for the sainted concept of free will never, ever address the fact that we persistently, irrevocably and without exception act in our self interest. That subjective feeling of indecisiveness? That’s your not having enough information to ascertain what’s in your self interest. Once you’ve got the info needed, you will … act in your self interest.

    Of course, the objection runs, someone might deliberately act against their self interest. Then the situation is either (1) they’ve decided that winning an argument about free will is in their self interest, so the decision is not free, or (2) they’re mentally disturbed, so the point is moot.

    Naturally, there’s always people who are, by environmental or psychological impairment, consistently wrong about what represents their self interest. The world of shit these types have engendered is, sadly, all too evident.

  7. But similarly, if people do things while ‘unconscious’ that they wouldn’t do while ‘conscious’, doesn’t that prove that the ‘consciousness’ is, in practice at least, a little more than an after-the-fact executive-summary of decisions already made by the underlying wiring? Or at least, that you can still take a step back, say, “Okay, conscious decision-making may or may not still be an illusion, but there’s clearly something else _normally_ operating when you’re conscious that _wasn’t_ operating in this case, so we can use that basis and excuse their behavior on the grounds that this part isn’t functioning, and also we can investigate what that is and learn stuff about what it menas to be human?” I mean, if I try to have sex with my boss while asleep, but definitely wouldn’t when I’m awake, there’s something more going on than a mental 20-bit post-it note that’s just constantly saying “don’t grind on this person, pass it on!”

  8. “What is the conscious self, after all? A short-term cache; a scratch pad; the little post-it note you use to remind you to pick up a dozen eggs on the way home from work.”

    I like Grant Morrison’s line: It’s a cursor.

  9. Lodore:
    Selfishness is not evidence that free will does not exist. One could hypothetically choose to be selfish. And in fact, many people are not entirely selfish, but act in stupid, irrational, and self-destructive ways, as well as harming themselves to protect their children, or things that look like their children (small animals, other children, etc.) In fact, people’s actions are often more focused on perpetuating their genome than helping themselves.

    In my opinion the greatest argument that free will does not exist is that the only forces in the universe that cause actions are either deterministic or random, leaving no room for choice. In this context free will is meaningless. If I choose to do something, why did I choose to do it? Well, because I am the kind of person who would make that choice. But why am I that kind of person? Did I choose to be? In that case, we have endless recursion. And if I am that kind of person for any other reason, then I don’t really have a choice, so I have no free will. Introducing the concept of free will only leads to its own negation or an infinite loop which can never be resolved. Therefore, free will is a nonsensical concept.

  10. Peter D:
    So do we give murderers a pass if they were high at the time (and only charge them with, say, drug possesion)?

  11. Sorry, possession.

  12. Not so fast. The function of the conscious mind looks to be: self modelling in an attempt to self control. Slow neurons can’t afford the time it takes to schlep facts all the way across the brain to get a social-rules veto, so the conscious mind has to make do with clues and experience to anticipate trouble and put the brakes on. Thus people become ruder when their conscious attention is split. So to say “the conscious mind is offline” is like saying of a car “the brake isn’t working”. It still goes, but getting it to stop is much harder. And it’s that ability to stop that the law demands you exercise.

  13. Another great topic, Peter.

    I agree that we are still culpable for our actions in states of unconsciousness. The Freudian concept of the mind is probably outdated, but one of the examples used to describe it was an iceberg; the visible part is the very small portion which is on the water’s surface, and the rest , which is much greater, is hidden beneath.

    So, the self we perceive most of the time is only a thin covering for what’s underneath, which is all the hard-wiring of our most basic functions, desires, emotions, all the stuff we’d never consciously admit r even be aware of, etc. It’s the animal we hide under the guise of a persona.

    Kind of scary when you think about what your own brain can be hiding in there.

  14. etranger:
    I believe the law already deals with that issue: we don’t give them a pass because they consciously chose to become high and knew the potential consequences. I’m perfectly comfortable with giving somebody a pass if they were dosed with something without their consent, or accidentally ingested a toxin, and it caused them to murder someone, though, assuming it could be proved (which is always among the biggest difficulties in these cases, it’s hard to distinguish between the guy who kills his wife while sleepwalking and the guy who kills his wife and just claims he was sleepwalking).

  15. Peter D:
    It seems as if you’re arguing that what the hypothetical stoned murderer is being punished for is getting high with the knowledge that it could lead them to commit murder. The murder itself takes place while the murderer is not conscious in a normal way, so by your logic we can’t hold them accountable for that. This means they are only being punished for taking drugs that, as I said, they knew could lead them to commit murder. In this case, why punish them any more severely than anyone else who takes the same drugs, and therefore the same risk of becoming a murderer?

  16. etranger: Same reason we punish a guy more severely when he takes a gun to a crime and winds up accidentally shooting somebody and killing them, than somebody who takes a gun to a crime and doesn’t wind up shooting anybody. Or that we punish somebody who drives recklessly and hits somebody more than a person who drives recklessly or even drunk and manages to get where he’s going safely. Or that we punish somebody who fires off a gun randomly without looking and hit somebody more than we punish somebody who fires off a gun randomly without looking and missed everybody in the area. You rolled the dice, and you lost, or rather, somebody else lost, and so you get punished way more.

    And there’s also the fact that capability to commit murder, and our judgement of responsibility for acts, is rarely a binary, black-and-white, on-off thing. It’s not necessarily true that anybody who takes the same drugs is at the same risk of being a murderer. There’s probably something inside the murderer-on-drugs that is different than the just-write-bad-movies-on-drugs guy. So our punishment of the murderer’s actions do take into account that probable difference. That indefinable something, plus his decision to take the drugs which put him in a state of diminished capacity, plus just plain bad luck of being in the place and time that the murder happens, all come together and we produce an ad-hoc judgement of the amount of responsibility based on it.
    It may not be a perfect system, but I don’t think any other workable one exists.

    We live in a world of imperfect information and so we muddle through as best we can. If we somehow had a magic device that was capable of analyzing somebody and saying, “Okay, this person, if he takes this drug, will probably commit murder on it”, and it was unimpeachably accurate all the time, I’d have no problem with punishing somebody severely merely for taking the drug knowing the results it would have, and not punishing at all somebody who didn’t get that result, but we don’t.

  17. I realize I lost the opportunity to refer to it as ‘a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, judgey-wudgey stuff’. Alas.

  18. Peter D:
    I agree with you in some ways, but I am still not sure it is right to punish someone more than another person who initially broke the law in the same way but did not have as bad luck. By that logic, you could argue that everyone chooses to go to sleep, but only some people have the bad luck or “indefinable something” to rape someone while they are asleep, and that this validates punishing even people who rape someone in their sleep.

    But maybe I’m expecting too much when I ask that a human system of justice be both rational and self-consistent.

  19. What if the conscious self is the only one to have a theory of mind? Yeah, I know some animal experiments suggest theories of mind held by non-humans, so let us say: the only one to have a theory of the conscious mind, hence the only one to have a conception of consent.

  20. “What is the conscious self, after all? A short-term cache; a scratch pad; the little post-it note you use to remind you to pick up a dozen eggs on the way home from work.”

    Drawing a potentially unwarranted parallel here: Is consciousness, then, what’s in our short-term / working memory at any moment – or is it at least dependent on it?

    Then it seems we’d have varying degrees of consciousness depending on our brains’ capacity for juggling several things at once. Or building on what Julian said, depending on how distracted we happen to be.


  21. Gah, seems like I am semi-unconscious when it comes to closing blockquotes today. (Sorry.) But at least it doesn’t seem to mess up anything following it.

  22. etranger: I think you are expecting too much with humans, particularly with imperfect information. With some kind of soul-reading machine, for example, we could imagine a society where everybody is judged solely on the intent of their actions, without regard for the consequences – a man who saved a busload of nuns just because he thought it would impress his girlfriend would be looked down upon exactly as much as a man who stole a car for the same reason, and a man who killed loads of children because he thought he was saving them from evil demons as a misguided hero, and a doctor who spent his life working on a tailored virus to cure cancer and accidentally let out a plague that wiped out 99% of the population would be honored by the survivors. Or we could take the approach that intent doesn’t matter, consequences don’t matter, only actual actions taken… but then you get bogged down in weird details too… is shooting a gun the action? Shooting the gun while somebody is in the line of fire? Shooting the gun to kill somebody certainly isn’t, because intentions don’t matter. Is shooting a gun to kill a terrorist the same action, and therefore as punishable as, shooting a gun to kill your husband (assuming he’s not a terrorist)? I don’t know, these worlds seem to be far stranger and more irrational to me.

    Also, I don’t think I’d agree everybody chooses to sleep. Everybody has to sleep. Not everybody has to use drugs (there is, of course, the borderline case of addiction, which is a thorny issue, if someone was addicted to a drug that caused them to commit crimes, the addiction is not necessarily their fault, and if the drug diminished their capacity, the crimes aren’t either, so we’re punishing them basically for that first hit of drug and having the bad luck to be particularly addictive).

    Still, let’s say we had somebody who was a sleep murderer. He can’t really stop sleeping, short of some SF solution. But at least once he knows he’s a sleep murderer, it’s his responsibility to take responsibility while he’s awake and take precautions to keep himself from killing in his sleep. The proverbial responsible werewolf who chains himself up on nights of the full moon. If the chain snapped and the werewolf got out and killed somebody, I’d be inclined to forgive the person more than I would the werewolf who, every month, picks up a prostitute, smothers her with BBQ sauce, and hires her to spend the whole night, when he’s due to change.

    I think it’s fair to establish as a general rule that people have the responsibility to take whatever reasonable steps they can to protect other people from their own diminished capacity, and when they induce a state of diminished capacity deliberately, they’re assuming the risk of judgement and punishments for such actions.

  23. I line up firmly with those who think that a justice system based on the premise of personal culpability makes about as much sense as one based on witchcraft and demonic possession. I simply point out that any system which is based on such a premise is fundamentally hypocritical if it gives a pass to perps who happen to be sleepwalking at the time.

    No extenuating circumstances, blood for blood, God will know his own?

    Seriously, though, I would like to try the Thor Thunderbolt method. Whenever someone murders, steals, etc, the justice system pays back society in an equal measure, at random, nearby. By lottery. So, go ahead and kill that annoying neighbor, but know that it means someone you know will be selected for two in the hat. I’m being serious here.

    Think what a game-changer that will be.

    I elect Peter to run it. He has stats experience and he’s grumpy, believes in fair play, and is probably not bribe-able. Here’s your thunderbolt, Thor, start pitchin’.

  24. Peter Watts wrote, as part of a quite worthy diatribe:

    What is the conscious self, after all? A short-term cache; a scratch pad; the little post-it note you use to remind you to pick up a dozen eggs on the way home from work. The damn thing is barely big enough to hold a telephone number, for chrissakes; some folks claim that the bandwidth of conscious experience is a measly 20 bits/sec. Do you really want to define your self-model as something so limited? Do you really want to cram the human soul onto a post-it note?

    Um, no. But let’s ask a parallel question, if we may. I like to think that I’m a good driver, and generally speaking, my insurance company and my driving record agree. (This wasn’t always the case, but in recent years, age inspires tameness.) So, I know we’ve all probably been over this before, “who exactly is driving my car?” As in, me myself and I, the consciousness that has decided to run out to the store for some milk and eggs, or is the good driver a rather complex subroutine which ought to be a damned good one, as the entire organism is trusting to it for a safe delivery and return. Or is it some sort of intergrade? As in, the “conscious” mind picks the destination, and the “driving subroutine” handles all of the double-clutching and decelerating lane changes?

    Someone probably ought to chime in at this point with the line from “Repo Man”, where the shop pothead declares “too much driving makes you stupid”. But maybe it does. Maybe I’m a hot-shit driver and otherwise I’m astonishingly inarticulate and incapable of balancing a checkbook.

    The thing is: if we’re not going to place guilt on someone who experiences “sexsomnia”, for their nightime peccadilloes, should we be assigning guilt to the conscious mind that is picking the destination, but otherwise proxying off the driving skills, if they accidentally collide with another vehicle? I suppose that an argument could be put forth that if it’s appropriate to assign questions of guilt only to the oversight-consciousness, rather than the full system of all of the integrated subsystems, then one couldn’t charge any subsystem. Thus, as I have a good and capable unconscious subsystem for driving cars, I couldn’t be charged for a car wreck, but a new driver could be, because they’re still learning to drive and haven’t yet internalized (or “subsystemized”) driving. Thus, their errors are conscious errors and thus seen as culpable under law. Whereas my errors aren’t conscious, I just have a defective subsystem. (so to speak, in this moot court.)

    Since that line of argument comes across as total crap to probably most reasonable people, who then can we put on trial when the conscious mind isn’t to blame as such, but rather a defective subsystem? I suppose that legally/ethically it would sort out in the same way as we see regarding driving permits for persons with seizure disorders. They’re often allowed to drive, so long as they remember to take their Dilantin. Yet the legal ramifications of some of that seems to be, that if someone winds up in court because they had a seizure while driving and killed someone, what they’re actually being tried for — in the case of dealing with the conscious mind — is less for their failure to drive right, but rather for a failure to medicate. And that would be the conscious mind’s decision, some might say?

    I guess it’s a sort of shift-the-blame game. But is the law and legal community following this discussion, not necessarily on this blog (of course) but in their annals and proceedings? Peter has given us a limited overview but he’s coming from the biology perspective. Does anyone with a legal background have any ideas they’d like to share? Probably there’s a very good story lurking in this subject.

  25. There was a similar conversation on Reddit (of all things) recently: “If a person cannot be held responsible when they consent to having sex while drunk, how come they are held liable when they decide to drive while drunk?”


    The best comment:

    Right now, we think of it as girls’ responsibility to protect themselves from rape: don’t get tanked! don’t leave your drink unattended! don’t let your friends leave you at the bar! etc. This is the “stay off the streets, drunk drivers might be out there!” safety model. But someday, a generation or so from now, it might be something different. It might be: “Friends don’t let friends have sex with drunk people.” Or, to put it slightly differently: our kids might take it for granted that you need active, sober consent from someone before you bone them.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the laws that make sex while incapacitated a crime.

  26. Lodore, on May 24th, 2011 at 11:51 AM, Said, in-part:

    Groovy post. I always find it funny that the drumbeaters for the sainted concept of free will never, ever address the fact that we persistently, irrevocably and without exception act in our self interest. That subjective feeling of indecisiveness? That’s your not having enough information to ascertain what’s in your self interest. Once you’ve got the info needed, you will … act in your self interest. [ …]

    Ah… I guess you haven’t been reading about the last decade or so of Nature with all of the really groundbreaking article showing that even among species generally considered to not be overwhelmingly social, Altruism seems to read its head (so to speak) all over the place.

    Sure, this is drifting away from the topic at hand, but that happens here a lot. So, just to toss a monkey wrench into the threads of discussion, let’s take this on the one hand to your argument of self-interest, and on the other hand to arguments of Altruism, which is a sort of effect of self-interest not related to the individual, but more related to the species or to the community (or both as the case may be).

    Let’s say I’m an average citizen of this or that country, and I see someone planting a bomb. However, I am also incredibly stoned on immense amounts of highly fragrant marijuana, of which I am in large possession. I have a choice to slink away and hide, pretending I haven’t seen a thing. Another choice, I can call it in to the appropriate authorities. Alternatively, I can slink away and call it in anonymously, and hope that the responders can figure it out from my doped-up description without me being there to point to the location, as in “dude it’s like um there mister policeman sir”. Is it in my self-interest to stick around and point it out? For one, aside from being in possession of contraband and stinking of it, the bomb could go off while I’m there. Not calling it in is the most self-interested thing I could do… but if everyone else does that all of the time, nobody calls in the bomb that kills me because nobody was called in to disarm the device or to tell me to run away. So it’s in my self interest to do for others what I need them to do for me; if we all act the same way, there’s benefit to everyone at all times. Are these the sort of calculations that we make unconsciously? Evidently, we do it constantly, and even marmosets seem to do it.

    Sorry to drift the topic, but I had to challenge the notion that everything is self-interest… or at least I had to challenge the notion that it’s self-interest to the individual. It might be self-interest to the group/species/community, but frequently enough it sacrifices the individual to the group. Seriously, there’s some great Game Theory research out there intersecting with Altruism research.

    Now, back to the question of whether it’s okay to do crime while you’re asleep, but not while you’re awake.

  27. Lodor,

    People don’t always act out of self-interest. The evidence ranges from outliers (recipients of the military US Medal of Honor, most often awarded posthumously), to the game-theoretic (prisoner’s dilemma), to, I believe, the poly-sci, eg. why do so many poor people vote Republican in US elections.

    If neurochemistry rules all, and I’m not arguing against it, it seems arbitrarily weird. Not all of this stuff can be ascribed to ‘heat of the moment’ effects, where any single individual may do any damned thing. The poly-sci example, for instance, seems an example of adopting perversity as a life-style.

  28. Peter,

    Do you mean People’s Front of Judea or Judean People’s Front? They really don’t like being confused with one another.


  29. Sleepfucking. I saw this episode of Law & Order SVU. Seriously.

    Anyway. I think it’s time to reframe our concepts of consciousness. Sleep itself is referred to as a “continuum of consciousness,” and I think that term might be helpful in thinking about how larger human consciousness works. This is also at the root of Jung’s thinking about the mind (and body) as a totality. Unconscious – subconscious – preconscious – conscious can probably not be realistically examined as wholly autonomous processes of mind. The human organism is too interdependent to allow such a simple division.

    That having been said, the idea of conscious decision lies at the heart of Western jurisprudence. What the basic difference between murder and involuntary manslaughter? Premeditation. The decision to kill and the planning of the killing that takes place in the conscious fore-brain mind regardless of whether or not other parts of the consciousness complex actually made the decision. The current state of neuroscience and psychology allows for no other criteria. We have only the vaguest notions about human consciousness really works, really. My lizard brain decides to kill or rape several times a day, but is restrained by other, later parts. Biology? Id-Ego-Superego psychology? Probably both, but who the hell knows?

    The legal system may well be a bunch of dren (3 points for IDing the pop-culture reference), but our current state of knowledge both objective and subjective, prohibits any more nuanced structure.

  30. @ etranger, Thomas & Greg:

    When I say people act in their self interest, I’m emphatically not saying that they act selfishly–or exclusively selfishly, anyway. You can define your self interest any way you like: it might be not getting caught with a bag of dope; equally, it might be to be one of the virtuous when the rapture comes. This doesn’t mean your perceived self interest coincides with your actual self interest (however that may be defined). You can always be mistaken.

    My point is that once you have a goal set defined and which is genuinely held, you will always act in a way to actualise the goals in question. Why those goals in particular? Perhaps because of your education and social milieu–or perhaps you’re just wired that way. Whatever the reason, you certainly don’t freely choose them in a Cartesian vacuum,

  31. @Lodore: Okay, I think we understand you now. Usually we’d use the phrase “self-interest” to be understood to mean “benefit of the individual”. Probably “goal set” is the better usage. For example, a suicide bomber is definitely not acting in their own self-interest when they march into a cafe or police-station and detonate. Even if they had a terminal disease and had no possible good outcome, still a suicide bombing cuts short all remaining time. But if there is a goal-set internalized, for example jihad or merely anti-occupation sentiment, sure, that goal-set-interest will be considered to have been exercised. You could think of it as a limited set of altruism, probably. However their altruism is probably closer to esprit-de-corps than anything else. Even if they had every reason to live, but sacrifice themselves for their cause, that is definitely actualizing their internal goal-set, however entirely outside of their own self-interest.

    Yet is this what’s happening in “sexsomnia”? More or less, the mind would be deciding on some level, that if it can’t motivate towards a goal-set while fully conscious, it will simply wait and use somnambulism? If that’s so, why isn’t it really quite common for people to do crime while asleep?

  32. “Do you really want to define your self-model as something so limited? Do you really want to cram the human soul onto a post-it note?”

    Dude, what’s so wrong about post-its to rank it as low as the capabilities of our petty brains? For one post it’s don’t get Alzheimer’s.

  33. Breadnbutter: “Dude, what’s so wrong about post-its to rank it as low as the capabilities of our petty brains? For one post it’s don’t get Alzheimer’s.”

    Amen. I’d rather have a post-it than an Etch-a-Sketch anyday.

  34. @Lodore

    “When I say people act in their self interest”…”You can define your self interest any way you like”

    WTF? Argument defense FAIL. You don’t even see it, do you?

    Original bit I was responding to was, “Groovy post. I always find it funny that the drumbeaters for the sainted concept of free will never, ever address the fact that we persistently, irrevocably and without exception act in our self interest.”

    Which is, “persistently, irrevocably and without exception”, and more importantly *demonstrably* incorrect, high levels of perceived grooviness, funnyness, and your general arrogance not withstanding. Your up side is that you’ll probably have a great career in politics. You can do the hand-wavy dissembling thing.

  35. You can have a justice system that doesn’t care about the perp’s state of mind. IIRC, Nietzsche identified at least half a dozen possible different reasons for punishing criminals.

    If the intent of punishment is to deter others from committing the same crime, or just to provide revenge / satisfaction for the victim, then it doesn’t matter whether it was planned, spontaneous, or sleep-walking.

  36. @ Greg: Wow, I really hope you didn’t piss yourself in your undergraduate glee at imagining you’d won an argument. Because that, y’know, would be embarrassing. Read what I said again, and Thomas’s paraphrase of it in his last comment above, if what I said isn’t clear. And just to say it once more, with feeling:

    You have a goal set. This goal set derives from whatever innate or external influences have been brought to bear on you. However, you are co-extensive with the goal set; you never act other than to maximise the achievement of these goals. To see this, imagine a counterfactual scenario–that of someone who consistently acts against the achievement of the goals they espouse. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that they don’t actually espouse these goals. So, given an a goal set based on dispositions and experiences over which we have no control, and a behaviour pattern that consistently pursues this goal set, there is no room for the notion of ‘free will’ in the sense of a non-determined choice.

    @Thomas: Fair point re the sexsomnia example. However, I’d reply that the desire for sexual gratification is something that most people would agree we all uncontroversially share. By the same token, so too is the desire for social conformity (starting to sound like Freud now). In sexsomnia, it may well be that the part of the brain responsible for social/moral regulation–the temporoparietal junction or what have you–is offline. In such a scenario, the the competition between two competing goal sets is resolved in favour of one.

  37. The truly sad thing about this pointless discussion is that no one has yet picked up the croquet angle. Free will vs determinism is too abstract — there is too much of the general and not enough of the specific. Drunken croquet with passed-out sex afterwards is the perfect for-instance by which to bench mark the various semantic constructs being bandied about.

    To paraphrase http://www.vintagegriffin.com/index.php/vintagegriffinblog/comments/how_to_throw_a_vintage_croquet_party/

    > All week long I will be involved with preparations for a vintage SF croquet party
    > we’re having on Sunday. Why croquet? Well, other than the fact that this was a
    > classic pastime of many Victorians, Edwardians and pulp-fiction authors
    > through the ’20s and ’30s, croquet is a terrific party activity, and a perfect
    > setting for an all-star panel to discuss the themes of free-will and
    > predetermination in speculative literature

    > Our star-studed SF croquet party/panel will aim to infuse the spirit of vintage
    > fun into our time together, and make sure all the guests are comfortable
    > regardless of how much they know of croquet, Victorian manners,
    > Edwardian fashions, or recent advances in neurosociology and sociogenetics.

    I envision some variant of the monty python’s “salad days”


    Just replace the tennis with croquet, the ultra-violence with drunken, meandering discussions about free will and moral culpability. Phase 2 (budgetary constraints permitting) could be an aftermath of a select panel of SF luminaries sexually molesting the stuporous attendees. If this doesn’t appeal to you: FINE!. Feel free (and remember, it’s only a feeling) to stay and home and continue the mental masturbation.

  38. If that’s so, why isn’t it really quite common for people to do crime while asleep?

    One reason might be…

    I don’t remember the anatomy, but part of the brain that regulates sleep sends signals to disable movement. People with damage in this, act out their dreams. I remember from a class hearing about a guy who was acting out a dream about boxing.

  39. Speaking of dreaming, all this talk about consciousness and freewill bubbled up in to a dream fragment where I was holding some guy coping with the sadness of not having free will by taking a pill that would restore the belief of having consciousness and freewill.

  40. Hmm, just a thought here, regarding the self-interest/goal set theory. And this is, of course, a simplistic assumption A then conclusion B thing.

    If it’s innate (brain chemistry/genetics), wouldn’t that logically lead to newborn examination and extermination as being “morally” required? As in, this newborn has a 40% possibility of murder, they live. This newborn has a 62% possibility of murder, they are terminated.

    If it’s external (environment/training), wouldn’t that lead to the moral requirement for specified conditions? As in, parents will do this and this and this exactly, or be punished. Or taken a step further, children must grow up in strictly regulated camps to produce “moral” adults.

    And if it’s both, a combination of those. Say for example, those with greater than 50% possibility of murder are confined to a sort of prison for the entirety of their lives to protect the rest of the populace. Or they are terminated and the rest are still required to go through camps.

    Effectively I’m curious, if there is no self-determination/free will, what line of reasoning would someone be able to have against such programs? Or is it that those who agree with that perception would find such a system acceptable/advocate for it?

    (I’m also ignoring the more obvious concerns such as “who determines morality”, “genetic diversity”, “instinct to protect our young” etc, to focus the question on consciousness, if we could =)

  41. Peter, what’s your opinion on the theory that only less important tasks, like choosing which coffee brand to buy, are delegated to this unconscious decision-maker because it’s an energy saving mechanism of the brain? Is it likely to be disproved in our lifetime or is there hope it might come close to reality?

  42. I have always had a problem with the defence that “I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing”. This implies that a drunk person is not conscious, which is a complete fallacy. I have been drunk on one or two occasions (OK, maybe more than that), and at no time was I unaware of what I was doing. My feeling is that you get to see what a person is truly like when you see them drunk. Hence, the happy drunk, the sad drunk, the angry drunk, etc.

    You might as well use the defence that the devil made you do it.

  43. If it’s innate (brain chemistry/genetics), wouldn’t that logically lead to newborn examination and extermination as being “morally” required? [etc.]

    all of this I ponder in terms also of non-human intelligence. If you meet an alien entity, do you “give it more permission” than you do to a member of your own species? What is “morally” required?

    In the Rifters books, I can have a thought experiment where humans like his Rifters could be thought of as an alien civilization. Instead of exterminating them, or confining them, maybe you can reach detente?

    sorry for a mild tangent. it is just that I thought maybe shifting the point of view outside of human gives some insight, but maybe not.

    (I think the thought experiment is risky in way, since considering other people as inhuman leads to people to commit crimes against them rather than treat them as aliens to negotiate treaties with)

  44. Claiming that we can enumerate the “goals” of an organism is prima facia silliness.

    We can observe the behavior of other animals and make a guess based on what they do, but that ‘s about it. We can’t even state with authority our own goals, because it implies that our goals can all be found and articulated verbally. Really? Anyone catch that recent article in Science about priming?

    Finally, do we want to use an argument that everyone always acts in their own self-interest to help prove there is no free will?

    I’m not sure we do. I think it might be a weak starting point, because the whole idea implies that a person is the actor, separate from his environment, who acts upon his evironment under the direction of his internal goals. It makes man the center of the universe, the one free element, the very formulation implies Free Will structurally from the start.

    Otoh, if there is no free will, it is because the actor is just another component of the system, like a gear in a watch. He cannot act independently because he is part of the whole- if we were arguing for Free Will, we might want to assume stuff about how everyone acts selfishly, because it implies you could have chosen to behave unselfishly. That there was a choice for you to make?

    TheEchoInside: The best part about pre-emptively murdering individuals projected to grow to be murderers is that it is fool-proof – any babies we murder today are 100% guaranteed never to murder anyone else.

  45. Sheila: Are you thinking of the Yudkowsky Babyeaters/Superhappy aliens scenario?

    And do you give them the benefit of the doubt as to what is a reasonable moral system?

  46. Are you thinking of the Yudkowsky Babyeaters/Superhappy aliens scenario?

    No, I will have to look it up.

  47. This one? http://lesswrong.com/lw/y5/the_babyeating_aliens_18/

    I think I read it and now I have to go refresh my brains.

  48. My brain needed a long hot shower after I read it.

  49. @ Hljóðlegur: I don’t think anyone suggested that we need to know the goals of an organism to make claims about free-will, so while your point is doubtless correct, I’m less convinced of its salience. What’s important, I think, is just to be aware that all organisms have goals–and this, indeed, is precisely what defines life for Stuart Kauffman, among others.

    Equally, I’m not certain about your point concerning the relative transparency of our goals to ourselves. Either our goals are transparent to us, and the argument remains on the terms defined. Or, our goals are not transparent to us, in which case free will doesn’t obtain in any case.

    OK, I’ll stop now …

  50. @Lodore: I’ll follow the Kauffman link, but do you take my basic concern here?

    The problem with using words like “goals” or “self-interest” is that they contain the idea that the organism is the actor, the decider, a lone piece that is making a decision we can tease apart from the overall action. They imply Free Will already. A goal is the end result of seeing possible future paths and selecting from among them. We don’t want that, right? If we assume no Free Will?

    I don’t know how we’d get around that, though. We are boxed in as soon as we humanize the part of the system and give it “goals.” Without Free Will, events simply occur as a result of previous events, because there can’t be goal formation unless you can see an attainable or avoidable behavior.

    It’s like Peter’s interesting-bio-facts story about the spider who approaches his mate with a bribe of a wrapped up bug to keep her busy so she won’t eat him during mating. He explains this as the spider planning to have sex, but not get killed. All this implies intent, and goal formation on the part of our spider. The spider has to have Free Will and the ability to imagine himself avoiding being eaten, in order to think to bring a bug or at least what looks like a bug to his romantic encounter.

    You see my problem with the spider idea, even if you don’t agree? If the spider has no Free Will, it seems to me that he either makes a bug gift or he doesn’t and he either gets eaten, or he doesn’t, but no “decision” was made. If we assume a goal, ie, “sex but no death,” we have to assume the spider is making a decision.

  51. Czech Republic regularily releases castrated pedophiles. The castration is voluntary, the alternative is life in prison.

    Even one serial killer (Jiri Straka, killed three or four women in spring of ’85) has been released. His castration was involuntary and courtesy of prison guards, they had to take off his balls due to possibility of gangrene I believe.

    He married a woman he met at a psychiatric clinic, and is so far trying to stay inconspicuous.

  52. http://www.torontosun.com/2011/05/27/top-court-rules-against-advanced-consent

    Now that’s what I’m talking about!

    keywords: erotic asphyxiation, dildos, anal penetration, appeal court reversals

    And to think: from this and a few other data points, we were able to construct a complete theory of volition. Glorious!

  53. Do I sense sarcasm? 🙂

  54. Which means that, if you believe in free will at all, the whole not-responsible-by-reason-of-unconsciousness is complete and utter bullshit. All those rapists and murderers who did it while snoring in their pajamas are just as culpable as those who explicitly jotted down “put on condom, fuck blonde chick on couch” right next to “one dozen free-range eggs, large

    I’m fairly convinced in time, when it’s possible to induce sleepwalking in people, it’ll be found there are significant differences in behavior between sleepwalkers and those who are awake.

    As to free will.. it’s a virtual thing. Doesn’t really matter for LE. All that matters is whether you can lock up people who offend, or prevent the crime in the first place.

    And I can guarantee if you make tailgating an offense that demands public whipping followed by a swim in the local sewage treatment facility, people will drive nicer, whether they have free will or not.

  55. Hljóðlegur makes some very interesting points there. Also I have some trouble with this concept of goals – say I do have a set of goals, and I invariably act to further one of them. Some of my goals will inevitably be in conflict with each other, life being a complex thing, so what will happen when two of my goals tug my action in opposite directions? Are we claiming that my final ‘decision’ will somehow be calculated through a complex algorithm of which goal is stronger within me, or am I, faced with two goals which I hold dear to approximately the same degree, making some sort of choice there to bend one way or the other? Also the setting of these goals is a process I can’t see through to its fundamental basics. Is it even determinable whether all of them have somehow organically grown from my very genetic makeup and personality core – and are thus set in stone – or do I have the power to assess some of them and through some learning process in life decide to realign them?

    I don’t know if this is relevant, but it’s a thing I remember from my childhood – my handwriting was painfully messy when I first learned to write. It remained messy for a few years. Then around the age of nine, I sat down one day and decided to completely change my writing. I looked at how my friends wrote different letters and picked the ones I liked, and I put together a new handwriting, which was a heck of a lot prettier than the old scribbly mess. What made me do this? Did I have a choice? Was it inevitable for me to reinvent my handwriting? I don’t remember anyone giving me a hard time about it, I don’t even remember myself minding it much until that one day.

  56. @Hljóðlegur
    Esteemed Icelander: that’s a yes regarding the sarcasm

    Peter’s root post regarding volition and jurisprudence reeks of sophistry
    Delightful and thought provoking maybe, but not terribly convincing

    The legal notions of intent and mental competence are tools for the legal system. To do away with these notions on the basis of some experiments and an evolving scientific paradigm that may (or may not) deepen our understanding of human behaviour would be a step backward. The existence of complicated cases and tricky situations does not invalidate the basic usefulness and desirability of these legal principles. Let’s not bring back the Hammurabi code… PLEASE!

    Likewise the discussion of freewill vs determinism are meaningless word games. Your spider construct above is a lovely illustration of this very fact. Free will resonates with dearly held political beliefs. Determinism suggests reductionism which recalls the scientific method and this we also like very much. And so we get these scholastic-type arguments. When we grow tired of this particular topic we can switch to a debate on the validity of objective reality versus subjective experience — another keeper!

    But now my words have become boring, even more boring than usual. The abstract is too slippery. Dildos, sexual asphyxiation, a Supreme court ruling: that’s the good stuff.
    Also croquet
    But that may be asking for too much

  57. Wonderful but…the question should be turned upside down!
    The conscious mind as ‘post-it-note’ ‘action-inhibitor’ needs to be examined as it relates to acts of self-defense, not acts we all agree are “wrong.”
    To have a chance at self-defense one almost certainly has to turn off the conscious mind, because it will freeze you or lead you down the path of being nice to the person who is trying to kill you. The first casualty of a violent encounter is identity, ones sense of self will be damaged whether or not you are able to turn off the conscious mind and act. Identity is a very fragile thing which requires constant maintenance (and food).
    As it turns out, we can be trained to turn off the conscious mind; however, each type of violence is so profoundly different such training requires a lot of pre-meditation, even pre-preclution!–meaning thinking about what you will say to the police when they get there.
    The notion that we can nudge our legal systems in the direction of ‘how things actually are’ is a great one. Strangely societies like Japan which are not concerned with social equality do a much better job of punishing bad actions as a ‘self-control problem’ rather than a moral one.
    As to why we punish drug-users less than drug-users-who-kill-someone? that would be to limit the social need for revenge. It has little to do with a difference in intent because that wouldn’t be logically consistent.
    more thoughts On intent: http://northstarmartialarts.com/blog1/?p=279
    more thoughts On conscious will http://northstarmartialarts.com/blog1/?p=1468

  58. @Hljóðlegur

    That’s actually part of why I’m curious if anyone who believes in, “we are just the sum of our parts” has some reasoning that would prevent such systems from arising.

    I’ve actually asked it a few times during the course of philosophy classes when the subject has come up and never got an answer that went beyond, “that’ll never happen anyway.”

    If everything is in effect, completely predetermined by nature/nurture then it seems like the concept of individual freedoms most of the developed world holds in high regard becomes meaningless. As soon as you had a system that could work out rates of probability to whatever degree might be acceptable, with that assumption of human nature, what logic would prevent you from using it?


    That story was a really interesting read. The first ending was brutal in the greatest of ways.

  59. In the “:no free will” experiments, it looks like the experimental subjects are asked to make a decision at random, i.e., a decision made for absolutely no reason whatsoever. (I think they decided to study that based on the school of thought that holds that actions by people who have an real reason for acting, e.g., private-sector employment, are not truly free but the actions of performance artists who live on NEA grants to come up with pointless art are free.) All they have shown is that pointless decisions are not made by free will. (Maybe artists don’t have free will.) Pointless decisions are made by looking at the brain’s random-number generator and that takes seven seconds.

    The brain’s random-number generator has other faults. If you tell people to pick numbers at random, the results will have non-zero correlations instead of being truly random. The results aren’t even pseudorandom.

  60. Hi there Peter!

    Well, as far as my opinion goes, there are two separate questions here

    1) Is there any reason to assume that whatever entity/system/process is responsible for state of being conscious is “Me”, that is, my “real” self, and the second question of
    2) what, if anything, that does for concept of “culpability”

    As for the first question, I must humbly disagree with you. Yes, there are reasons to believe that this weird thing is somewhat more than a scratch pad, more like a processor cache containing some very interesting code which allows us to look up and integrate various complex data from different areas of our expertise, thus building more sophisticated model of our surroundings. Like a database engine of some weird sort.

    I base this on the very cases of “unconscious people doing meaningful things” that you quote, namely, the fact that all of them were doing something they, in the “fully self-aware” state, would have never done. And it seems that more often than not, “unconsciously operating” people do stuff that gets them into helluva trouble, which is very interesting.

    Basically, conscious person goes something like “Desire to kill Mr.A rising. However, killing A will cause cop attention, cops=pain. Thus must suppress desire to kill A ASAP, avoid killing Mr.A!” while unconscious person just grabs the gun and shoots a nice tidy hole in Mr.A’s skull.

    Of course, it is entirely possible that betentacled space aliens have a way of implementing a vastly expanded and optimized version of that general functionality without having to deal with the crufty mess that is “conscious self” 🙂
    However, given that so far we have found no tentacular aliens whatsoever, we’ll have to study the subjects currently available (all of whom seem 😉 to implement that “long term planning and modelling functionality” via conscious self )

    As to the second question, I agree with you

    See, in my humble opinion, for culpability, it doesn’t really matter what conscious self “is” and what it supposedly “does”. What is it allegedly “made of” is also quite irrelevant – “conscious self” can be produced from distilled angel urine, and culpability would still be a huge load of crock.

    Whether this “self” thingie is deterministic or “merely” probabilistic also does not matter.

    As long as “conscious self” is either deterministically or probabilistically derived from environment, experience and genetics, a person has as much “moral culpability” for his/her actions as a Spirit the Martian Rover (which, by the way, is unlikely to be completely deterministic system)

    So, any halfway-rational penitentiary system would focus not on “avenging” perceived “wrongdoing” and being “tough”, but on ensuring that further crime is prevented (both as far as the apprehended criminal and his free antisocial peers are concerned) and trying to make the criminal become a contributing member of society.

    Kinda like that.

  61. Completely unrelated to you blog post, but it looks like Big Ben might actually be out there: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=whats-flinging-comets-out-of-the-oo-11-05-31

  62. #Logan

    See, this is why we need to stop dicking around and get back into space exploration ASAP. There’s way too much cool and/or weird stuff going on out there to stay stuck in our own back yard.

    I mean c’mon, Rorshack isn’t gonna find itself, it has no Self! 😀

  63. Damnit, I meant Rorschach. Rorshack sounds like the world’s angriest electronics store.

  64. @01
    Exactly. The number of people whom I would love to see impaled on on spikes around my nation’s capital is in the dozens. At least.

    However, I don’t have a cloak of invisibility, nor am I bulletproof. If I were, things’d be different, in a very interesting and rather gruesome way.

    So I have to watch the scum of the earth get rich and gloat all over us through crony capitalism or outright legalised fraud.

    One day.. one day, we’ll make it fucking personal.

  65. @Logan/Bastien

    There seem to be more “lonely planets” hanging around:


  66. Which means that, if you believe in free will at all, the whole not-responsible-by-reason-of-unconsciousness is complete and utter bullshit. All those rapists and murderers who did it while snoring in their pajamas are just as culpable as those who explicitly jotted down “put on condom, fuck blonde chick on couch” right next to “one dozen free-range eggs, large”.

    To sum it up. This is fucking bullshit. I am sort of friends with a highly intelligent sadistic psychopath, and the guy has never killed anyone I know of, never been to jail even for a case of assault. He’s like fifty.

    He says he constantly has murder fantasies. Several times each hour, but knows better than to kill someone. Annoying pets are a different matter though.

    So, yeah, I can see how this guy would be very dangerous if you took away that small part of his mind that doesn’t want him going to jail.

    To sum it up, people are people, and they should only be held culpable for what they do while in full possession of all their capabilites.