Debunking the Debunkers: Free Will on Appeal.

Not a bad visual metaphor for the credibility of Gholipour’s argument, now that I think of it…

If you read The Atlantic, you may have heard the news: A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked! Libet’s classic eighties experiments, the first neurological spike in the Autonomist’s coffin, has been misinterpreted for decades! Myriad subsequent studies have been founded on a faulty and untested assumption, the whole edifice is a house of cards on a foundation of shifting sand. What’s more, Big Neuro has known about it for years! They just haven’t told you: Free Will is back on the table!

Take that, Determinists.

Three or four times, tops.

You can be damn sure the link has shown up in my in box more than once (although I haven’t been as inundated as some people seem to think). But having read Gholipour’s article— and having gone back and read the 2012 paper he bases it on— I gotta say Not so fast, buddy.

A quick summary for those at the back: during the eighties a dude named Benjamin Libet published research showing that the conscious decision to move one’s finger was always preceded by a nonconscious burst of brain activity (“Reaction Potential”, or RP) starting up to half a second before. The conclusion seemed obvious: the brain was already booting up to move before the conscious self “decided” to move, so that conscious decision was no decision at all. It was more like a memo, delivered after the fact by the guys down in Engineering, which the pointy-haired boss upstairs— a half-second late and a dollar short— took credit for. Something that comes after cannot dictate something that came before.

Therefore, Free Will— or more precisely, Conscious Will—  is an illusion.

In the years since, pretty much every study following in Libet’s footsteps not only conformed his findings but extended them. Soon et al reported lags of 7-10 seconds back in 2008, putting Libet’s measly half-second to shame. PopSci books started appearing with titles like The Illusion of Conscious Will. Carl Zimmer wrote a piece for Discover in which he reported that “a small but growing number of re­searchers are challenging some of the more extreme arguments supporting the primacy of the inner zombie”; suddenly, people who advocated for Free Will were no more than a plucky minority, standing up to Conventional Wisdom.

Until— according to Gholipour— a groundbreaking 2012 study by Schurger et al kicked the legs out from under the whole paradigm.

I’ve read that paper. I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.

It’s not that I find any great fault with the research itself. It actually seems like a pretty solid piece of work. Schurger and his colleagues questioned an assumption implicit in the work of Libet and his successors: that Reaction Potential does, in fact, reflect a deliberate decision prior to awareness. Sure, Schurger et al admitted, RP always precedes movement—  but what if that’s coincidence? What if RPs are firing off all the time, but no one noticed all the ones that weren’t associated with voluntary movement because nobody was looking for them? Libet’s subjects were told to move their finger whenever they wanted, without regard to any external stimulus; suppose initiation of that movement happens whenever the system crosses a particular threshold, and these random RPs boost the signal almost but not quite to that threshold so it takes less to tip it over the edge? Suppose that RPs don’t indicate a formal decision to move, but just a primed state where the decision is more likely to happen because the system’s already been boosted?

They put that supposition to the test. Suffice to say, without getting bogged down in methodological details (again, check the paper if you’re interested), it really paid off. So, cool. Looks like we have to re-evaluate the functional significance of Reaction Potential.

Does it “debunk” arguments against free will? Not even close.

What Schurger et al have done is replace a deterministic precursor with a stochastic one: whereas Libet Classic told us that the finger moved because it was following the directions of a flowchart, Libet Revisited says that it comes down to a dice roll. Decisions based on dice rolls aren’t any “freer” than those based on decision trees; they’re simply less predictable. And in both cases, the activity occurs prior to conscious involvement.

So Gholipour’s hopeful and strident claim holds no water. A classic argument against free will has not been debunked; rather, one example in support of that argument has been misinterpreted.

There’s a more fundamental problem here, though: the whole damn issue has been framed backwards. Free will is always being regarded as the Null Hypothesis; the onus is traditionally on researchers to disprove its existence. That’s not consistent with what we know about how brains work. As far as we know, everything in there is a function of neuroactivity: logic, emotion, perception, all result from the firing of neurons, and that only happens when input strength exceeds action potential. Will and perception do not cause the firing of neurons; they result from it. By definition, everything we are conscious of  has to be preceded by neuronal activity that we are not conscious of. That’s just cause/effect. That’s physics.

Advocates of free will are claiming— based mainly on a subjective feeling of agency that carries no evidentiary weight whatsoever— that effect precedes cause (or that the very least, that they occur simultaneously). Given the violence this does to everything we understand about reality, it seems to me that “No Free Will” should be the Null Hypothesis. The onus should be on the Free Willians to prove otherwise.

If Gholipour is anything to go on, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday September 16 2019at 09:09 am , filed under Uncategorized . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

23 Responses to “Debunking the Debunkers: Free Will on Appeal.”

  1. Should have realized this particular item would be a hot item in your inbox. Sorry to have added to the noise.

    Based on what you wrote in this blog post, I now realize that the literary thing that would be incredibly cool would be your take on a Berserker story (from Fred Saberhagen’s epic space opera). The non-biological war machines, decisions driven by the decay of radioactive elements versus the human bio-machines, who fight against extinction using a different randomizing process in their meat brains.

    regards,
    Do-Ming

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  2. “No Free Will” should be the Null Hypothesis.

    Not sure, because I’m not convinced that we have a theory of mind sufficient to make it the null hypothesis. Though I wouldn’t disagree that the evidence seems to point to the null. However, “seems” is not the same as “does.”

    This is a complicated question that makes the creation of fusion look simple, and we’ve only been waiting for the breakthrough on fusion for the last fifty plus years.

    As for the obvious, “thoughts follow firing of neurons,” the question from meditation studies suggests these are random, and that conscious choice can be made despite the unconscious firing of neurons in the brain.

    Caveat, without a theory of mind it’s hard to define what the evidence means.

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  3. I haven’t yet had time to read the studies mentioned, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a suggestion to “move your finger whenever you feel like it” would result in the system preparing to do just that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the “preparing” would show up as increased RP activity for the particular task.

    Is this something that’s considered and easily dismissed in these papers or others?

    FWIW I always found the whole RP thing kind of dubious when it comes to “proving there’s no free will”.

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  4. Of course, everything we know about the brain also says that the null hypothesis should be that we *lack subjective experiences,* as the experiential element of “consciousness” appears to be causally and behaviorally irrelevant. And yet we do have subjective experiences. John Searle appears to be the only philosopher of mind who gets that the free will and consciousness problems are intertwined (as Ashley Pollard points out above).

    Daniel Dennett pointed out the profound difficulty of interpreting Libet-style experiments in _Consciousness Explained_, one of the five good things in what would otherwise be a serious candidate for the all-time [smartest author] x [worst book] prize.

    And it’s apparently not widely known that the leading theory of “libertarian” (actual) free will acknowledges the determinism of these experiments, seeing free will only in resolution of “conflicts of the will.” Go to Amazon and check out my review of Robert Kane’s _The Significance of Free Will_. (The last time I saw Ted Chiang, the first thing he said to me was that he’d done just that.)

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  5. Thanks for this.

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  6. This strikes me as being exactly the same issue regarding Free Will in a deterministic Newtonian universe, or a probabilistic QM one; either your actions are governed by predictable mechanics, or by unpredictable chance, and either way it’s not you doing the governing.

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  7. Don’t most of free will disputes boil down to specifying the region of spacetime/slice of the computation where relevant decisions are made? I.e. all of the universe for superdeterminist theories, volume of human body (including gut bacteria and whatnot) or various brain sub-processes people identify with (the part imagining having a conscious experience in particular)

    Does it even matter much which parts of the computation happening in the brain are included?

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  8. “We are like a leaf falling in the autumn winds, saying to itself, ‘Now I’ll go this way, now I’ll go that’.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

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  9. Ashley R Pollard: Not sure, because I’m not convinced that we have a theory of mind sufficient to make it the null hypothesis.

    I agree that our Theories of Mind seem to be all over the place, but I don’t think that matters. As long as the model ultimately fits into modern physics (an admitted caveat), it’s gonna have to be consistent with what we know of that physics. That alone justifies nulling the Hyp, IMO.

    As for the obvious, “thoughts follow firing of neurons,” the question from meditation studies suggests these are random, and that conscious choice can be made despite the unconscious firing of neurons in the brain.

    Yeah, thoughts do tend to come and go without a lot of conscious control, for sure. But unless you’re into some kind of dualism, I don’t see how conscious choices can be be made without the unconscious firing of neurons beforehand.

    Admittedly, since no one really knows what consciousness even is, the whole cause/effect argument falls back on everything we know about everything else, and then assuming consciousness follows the same rules.

    Mika: I wouldn’t be surprised if a suggestion to “move your finger whenever you feel like it” would result in the system preparing to do just that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the “preparing” would show up as increased RP activity for the particular task.

    Is this something that’s considered and easily dismissed in these papers or others?

    Not quite sure what you mean. As far as I can tell you’re just agreeing with Libet et al— they also assumed that RP reflected preparation for movement (the significant finding being that said preparation started before the mover made the conscious decision to do that). It’s that assumption that Schurger and his buddies take to task in 2012.

    There have been criticisms over the years of the method L et al used to establish when the conscious “decision” was “made”, but subsequent studies addressed those and vindicated Libet.

    Eric M. Van: Of course, everything we know about the brain also says that the null hypothesis should be that we *lack subjective experiences,* as the experiential element of “consciousness” appears to be causally and behaviorally irrelevant. And yet we do have subjective experiences.

    Absolutely. It’s the most weird-ass mystery in biology, and I’m open to the possibility that it might break physics as we understand it (and Metzinger makes a decent case that we’ll never understand it— not on a gut level, anyway, the way we “get” Newtonian physics— because of the whole global/local perspective thing. But again, everything else we understand about biology, and the world at large, suggests that cause/effect is real at classical scales. And we don’t know enough to say that conscious contradicts physics, only that current physics misses something essential to consciousness. I don’t think that’s enough to dismiss physical models as the Null.

    Note that I’m not making any absolute statements here about how it’s ultimately going to shake out. H0 is never meant to be inviolable, it’s just the default starting point that has to be disproved. I don’t see any argument for a better starting point.

    John Searle appears to be the only philosopher of mind who gets that the free will and consciousness problems are intertwined

    Well, also Penrose. Say what you will about the woo of Orch OR, but I suspect he’s right when he says we’re going to have to come up with a whole new physics to crack this puppy.

    And it’s apparently not widely known that the leading theory of “libertarian” (actual) free will acknowledges the determinism of these experiments, seeing free will only in resolution of “conflicts of the will.” Go to Amazon and check out my review of Robert Kane’s _The Significance of Free Will_.

    Fuck. Another book on the to-read pile.

    Although that resolution of conflicts of the will riff is very reminiscent or Morsella’s PRISM model, which is a favorite of mine.

    (anonymous): Don’t most of free will disputes boil down to specifying the region of spacetime/slice of the computation where relevant decisions are made?

    I don’t know if “most” do, but there’s certainly a range. You’ve got your panpsychics, who claim that everything is conscious; you’ve got one guy at least who says everything is consciousness, that matter itself is only a bounded manifestation of fragments of universal Thought.

    We just don’t know.

    Jesus Olmo:
    “We are like a leaf falling in the autumn winds, saying to itself, ‘Now I’ll go this way, now I’ll go that’.”– Ludwig Wittgenstein

    Nice.

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  10. Thanks for posting about this. I definitely fall into the Deterministic camp, but always try to be open to documented scientific reinterpretations.

    That, and now I want to form a band called The Free Willians.

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  11. I’m sure you’re right, we’re a deterministic system and consciousness and free will are an illusion. But of course, an illusion is defined as “something that exists only in the mind” so we’re back at square one.

    https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/10/15/the-chamber-of-guf/

    This post may be of interest, discusses the idea that basically, all thoughts and impulses are potentially “there” waiting their chance at the wheel, this makes sense to me from my introspection & meditation – in a sense you’ve already decided what colour to pick or what finger to move even before the question is put to you. Red and middle finger are lurking there waiting for any hint that it’s their time to shine.

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  12. The research hasn’t proven that the unconscious mind lacks free will; merely that it makes a (possibly free) decision first and relays that decision to the conscious mind second. Also, how does the idea that what we hear inside our head as “thoughts” lags other brain activity imply a lack of free will? It might simply imply late reporting of the decision making process. As a thinking being, I’m happy to have basic motions handled by an unconscious process – I have more important things to think about!

    The last thing I want to do is listen to my brain going “OK, I agreed to participate in an experiment, and the guy running the experiment wants me to move a finger at random intervals. So how do I manage this? Let’s see, if I move the finger at long intervals, the experimenter won’t get much data, so let’s assume a maximum interval of ten seconds. That means:

    $MAX_INTERVAL = 10
    DO
    INTERVAL = RAND(MAX_INTERVAL)
    WHILE I < INTERVAL
    I = I+1
    PAUSE 1
    LOOP
    LIFT FINGER
    IF FINGER SUCCESSFULLY LIFTS
    THEN ECHO "LIFTING FINGER NOW"
    ENDIF
    LOOP

    "Yeah, that will work. Let's test it and report back to the conscious mind that we've solved the problem… What do you mean we don't have free will? I did exactly what the conscious mind wanted me to!"

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  13. Troutwaxer: The research hasn’t proven that the unconscious mind lacks free will; merely that it makes a (possibly free) decision first and relays that decision to the conscious mind second.

    Which is kinda why I stuck the qualifier “or more precisely, Conscious Will” into the post. The popsci people frequently make that mistake.

    Also, how does the idea that what we hear inside our head as “thoughts” lags other brain activity imply a lack of free will?

    It doesn’t. It’s the basic reactivity of neurons, the fact that they don’t fire except in response to some stimulus (which ultimately tracks back to something external to the organism) that implies lack of free will. Consciousness and autonomy are different things, and are often confused.

    (By people, I mean. I don’t mean that conscious and autonomy both go around feeling confused all the time.)

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  14. If this is the human rand(), maybe it gives us a way to mess with the perception of causality. We could have a setup where you end up thinking “moving my finger causes the light to have already turned on.”

    I think causality is the main reason people have this behaviour of talking about free will. To infer causality, we need to perform actions and observe the outcomes, knowing that those actions have no cause except for a source of randomness only we have access to. Once we know causality, we can think things like “had I not done that”, and have the power to optimize the world according to a utility function and moral culpability and all sorts of useful things.

    For this purpose, rand() could be some truly random quantum thing, or it could just as well be pseudo-random, a complex function of external inputs (where it’s implausible there is some exact copy of that function elsewhere that is the true cause, if that makes sense). No weird physics needed, fairly easy to implement in a computer.

    (See Judea Pearl’s “Causality”)

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  15. Sorry, I know this is unrelated to the main topic, but “Mission Critical” edited by Jonathan Strahan, featuring a Peter Watts short story, is only $0.99 on US Kindle today. Thought this crowd would be interested 🙂

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  16. Peter Watts,

    The conclusion I’m drawing is that deep conclusions are being drawn from a relatively unsophisticated experiment and that this has been poorly studied and poorly understood. If you want to study free will, you first need to figure out what kind of behavior demonstrates free will, then you need to figure out how to both test for free will and test for it’s lack. If you know of anyone who’s done that, please provide a link.

    The “basic reactivity of neurons” doesn’t cut it. If I’m bored – that is, my neurons aren’t being stimulated, I’d certainly go find something to do…

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  17. Troutwaxer:
    Peter Watts,
    The conclusion I’m drawing is that deep conclusions are being drawn from a relatively unsophisticated experiment and that this has been poorly studied and poorly understood.

    Libet’s experiment was pretty basic. But there’ve been three decades worth of follow-up studies, increasingly sophisticated, and they all bear out those initial results.

    If you want to study free will, you first need to figure out what kind of behavior demonstrates free will, then you need to figure out how to both test for free will and test for it’s lack.

    As a first cut, I’d say: look for neurons firing spontaneously, not in response to input voltages and not following whatever pattern might result from random quantum fluctuations. Probably best to start small, with a neuron culture in a petri dish. Far as I know, no one’s done it.

    The “basic reactivity of neurons” doesn’t cut it. If I’m bored – that is, my neurons aren’t being stimulated, I’d certainly go find something to do…

    All due respect, that’s a pretty bogus interpretation of “basic reactivity of neurons”. If your neurons aren’t being stimulated, you ain’t bored; you’re dead. Sleeping brains, even comatose brains show electrical activity; neurons obviously stimulate each other, internally, in loops and cycles (dreaming, for example; it’s a form of conscious experience, but it uses internally-generated data as visual input rather than getting the stuff from the optic nerve). Ultimately, though, the stimulus has to originate from outside the system, or all the loops just cycle to extinction. Something external has to keep priming the pump.

    Unless you were joking. In which case, maybe work on delivery…

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  18. Peter Watts: As a first cut, I’d say: look for neurons firing spontaneously, not in response to input voltages and not following whatever pattern might result from random quantum fluctuations. Probably best to start small, with a neuron culture in a petri dish. Far as I know, no one’s done it.

    That strikes me as a cool idea, although defining which patterns do not “result from random quantum fluctuations” might be problematic. If we could agree on what constituted non-random, spontaneous firing, and then observed it, I guess we’d be one step closer to beginning the hunt for a physics able to describe consciousness.

    Off topic, but my condolences on Minion’s passing. That was a beautiful eulogy for what sounds like a really interesting personality.

    We have a cat you can have, btw – it’s the only way he’ll get a kind eulogy.

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  19. My favorite commentary on this is by Rob Kurzban in his book “Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind”:

    So, when you’re going to move your hand, there are a number of modules involved, and some module has to make the initial decision in this cascade. It seems to me that there are really only two possibilities. One possibility is that the very first computation in the very first module that starts the string is one of the operations that’s conscious. In this case, the conscious experience of the decision and the brain activity will be at the same time. The only other possibility is that in the long string of operations that occur, from the initiation of the decision to move the wrist to the eventual movement of the wrist, some operation other than the very first one is associated with consciousness. Some module tells Bobby’s arm to reach for some ammunition for the food fight; shortly thereafter Bobby experiences the feeling of choosing to reach for chocolate pudding.

    First of all, let’s be clear. One way it can’t possibly turn out is that brain activity occurs only after the decision to move the wrist. Whatever is making a decision to move the wrist, it’s a module of some sort, and for certain it’s part of the brain. You can’t have a module in the brain that isn’t, well, part of the brain. A module has to have some physical existence. If it didn’t, it would be, in the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s famous term, a “ghost in the machine.”

    As you can probably guess, Libet and his colleagues found that brain activity preceded subjects’ reports of their wish to move their wrist. In 1999, Libet talked about these findings, saying “In the traditional view of conscious will and free will, one would expect conscious will to appear before, or at the onset, of RP”. But how could “conscious will” appear before anything happened in the brain? Whatever “conscious will” is—and I agree that this is a difficult issue—we all agree that it must be physical, something that happens in your brain. The decision to move the wrist can’t be made, initially, by a nonphysical […] entity.

    Similar studies, using more advanced technology—fMRI rather than EEG—have shown similar effects. A recent headline in Wired magazine, discussing a study similar to Libet’s, read: “Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them.” Why is this news? The only way brain scanners would not be able to see the initiation of a decision before the subject can report the awareness of “making” it would be, again, if it just happened to be true that the very first little module that initiates the long string of processes necessary for decision making just happened to be one of the very small number that was associated with conscious awareness. In this case, the brain activity and the sense of deciding would be simultaneous. But there’s just no scenario in which the sense of deciding comes before brain activity. It just can’t happen that way because all deciding just is brain activity.

    Once you start thinking of the brain as made up of all these different modules, and consciousness as nothing special, then headlines like this are surprising only insofar as it’s surprising that people aren’t thinking about the brain correctly yet.

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  20. Free will is reserved for the very few that are enlightened, saints or whatever you want to call it. And with good reason. For instance, if I had free will, there would not be enough people left to continue this discussion.

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  21. What Schurger et al have done is replace a deterministic precursor with a stochastic one: whereas Libet Classic told us that the finger moved because it was following the directions of a flowchart, Libet Revisited says that it comes down to a dice roll. Decisions based on dice rolls aren’t any “freer” than those based on decision trees; they’re simply less predictable. And in both cases, the activity occurs prior to conscious involvement.

    The thing is, by sheer coincidence, for the cold dead Universe out there there’s really no difference between these decisions either, wether it be the long philosophical work of mind or good old coin toss feat. Anton Chigurh. And so’s no Free Will, apparently.

    Then in the decision-making process, even though you eventually realize that all of your choices do exist in your head before you make a decision towards one of them, the choice is still here, and only one choice can be introduced eventually (at least in vicinity of the same problem). So’s Free Will at it’s finest.

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