1. Major Historical Contributions
According to it, modules a shorthand for somewhat encapsulated cognitive systems or processes involved in conscious decisions or intention formation do not produce one's behavior, which instead is produced by modules that do not involve conscious states. I will address this second form of epiphenomenalism, trying to show that it is not a knock-out argument against free will. I will not address the challenge of metaphysical epiphenomenalism instead. Surely, this is a major challenge to free will in purely philosophical-conceptual terms.
According to Kim's exclusion argument Kim, , if our conscious mental states have no causal power, how can they guide our choices and our decisions based on a conscious reflection that answers to reasons? But upon closer inspection, one might maintain that not even the exclusion argument seems to have the final word on mental causation—let alone on free will cf. Giorgi and Lavazza, Since this article focuses in particular on the form of epiphenomenalism which implies that our choices are only consequences of external factors affecting our decision-making processes, it is useful to frame the rise of epiphenomenalism and its arguments both historically and conceptually.
I will then try to show why both the empirical data and the arguments drawn therefrom do not seem sufficient to support the conclusion that our freedom is completely illusory. In order to clarify and address the challenge of epiphenomenalism to free will, I'll now very briefly retrace the history of the scientific research on the mind, from the perspective of the debate on free will. In my understanding, empirical psychology is part of the cognitive sciences another view, for example, might take educational psychology to use empirical methods but not to be subsumable under cognitive sciences , which also include cognitive neuroscience.
I will seek to highlight some core points that have led those who study free will to read the new experimental data as a basis to describe human behavior in terms of non-awareness and substantial automaticity. The premise is that the cognitive science studies conducted in the laboratory did not deal directly and specifically with free will, at least until Libet Libet et al. The basic assumption of classical cognitive sciences, of course, placed special emphasis on cognition, i. This does not mean that classical cognitive sciences—with their representational-computational theory of mind—followed the general framework of intentional or folk psychology.
Rather, they corrected the latter in many respects. Contemporary empirical psychology, which is fully part of the cognitive sciences, has helped to highlight how the so-called cognitive unconscious is not only an evolutively functional mode of action but also reflects an architecture of mind organized in modules with closed and automatic functioning.
This acquisition has been inserted into more general views of the functioning of mind, for example the one elaborated by Fodor , , which alongside modularity also claims there is a central top-down processing that presides over the central functions and, from the perspective that interests us here, over the most relevant choices for the agent. Another relevant strand is that which describes our mental architecture, and its consequent functioning, as fundamentally bipartite Kahneman, One is quick and automatic—automatic precisely in order to be quick—and substantially unconscious.
It allows us to manage environmental situations that require reaction speed according to established behavior patterns and is probably the result of an evolutionary-adaptive path. The other system is slower, fully conscious and the result of a processing that also considers new and more functional behavioral schemes to respond to the environment. The dynamic and embodied models, in the most radical theories, give up the representations considered neither really existent nor useful to postulate from the heuristic points of view Chemero, , canceling the distinction between subject and environment and introducing a single dynamic system Port and van Gelder, In this sense, the brain is considered a dynamic system in which the activity of the different neuronal populations more or less active over time synchronizes on different frequency bands that can operate in parallel or enter into competition.
It is argued that cognitive processes such as attention, preparation and facilitation arise from phase synchronization between different frequency bands or phase-resetting phenomena in some frequency bands based on specific stimuli Caruana and Borghi, For example, this would explain the top-down control of non-hierarchical type: in this case the attentive processes are not explained by a hierarchical structure of upper and lower areas but in terms of local self-organized phenomena. The various oscillatory frequencies give rise to transient states that each have a different response to a stimulus of the same type and intensity.
When, for example, there is a motor behavior, the stimulus is processed differently according to the oscillatory phase of the brain in which it is received. Consider a go signal like a traffic light : according to the phase of the alpha rhythm in which this signal arrives, the beginning of the movement and the reaction times vary.
This indicates that motor behavior must be interpreted within a situation of changing equilibrium that reflects multiple dimensions of the internal situation of the brain immediately preceding it.
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It should be noted that these are intra-individual variations in response that are detectable in an instrumental way and do not determine a significant effect except in particular situations the reaction time at the start of a professional sprinter may vary from race to race by thousandths of a second. In other words, this idea of the brain as a dynamic system—if confirmed—may enrich our knowledge but does not seem to directly affect our concept of free will in a deflationary sense. Rather, it appears to trace brain functioning back to schemes that are more compatible with our idea of free will, like Churchland and Suhler's view of subcortical control see section Dealing With Situationism.
What happens with motor behaviors also happens with sensory stimuli. This sensory input may or may not be perceived, therefore, based on the immediately preceding transient status of a large-scale cortical network. It can be concluded that the external stimulus cannot be considered the only initial condition to evoke an answer: there is always a relationship with, and a reference to, the history of the cerebral state.
Each cerebral state depends on the previous one, which has in turn interacted with external stimuli, in a dynamic chain which, however, seems to show certain consistency and continuity in the eyes of an external observer. This seems to mean that there is not a purely stochastic outcome of internal processes, but a repertoire that is built over time and which is drawn from every time.
In relation to embodied cognition, an interesting aspect is that of affordances, namely the dynamic relationships that are established between an agent and a perceived object, i. According to classical cognitive science, in a similar situation, first the brain selects the action to be performed and then plans how to do it in its motor details. Cisek's hypothesis based on experiments says instead that the brain processes several potential actions in parallel.
These action plans compete with each other to be realized, trying to inhibit one another in a subpersonal process that does not involve higher circuits nor the subject's awareness. In the end, albeit very quickly, various factors channeled to the prefrontal cortex lead to a decision in favor of a single action plan. In relation to affordances are there real automatisms, as some pioneering studies in the area of embodied cognition seemed to show Ellis and Tucker, ?
For example, on the basis of motor compatibility it seems that we are better and quicker at categorizing small objects if we have to press a small key and categorizing large objects if we have to press a large key, however we can consciously strive to improve our performances. But research in this field does not allow us to generalize these results. We are not driven by automatic processes related to unconscious body cognition, and the activation of affordances is modulated by goals and objectives through a top-down processing performed by the higher cognitive areas Caruana and Borghi, Differences in categorization-performance with respect to congruence small-small, big-big exist and are a point in favor of embodied cognition, but they are not such as to question free will in areas that are relevant to the present discussion.
This is because these phenomena only concern a part, though important, of our cognitive functioning, but not its totality. On the other hand, there are experiments in which priming effects behaviors triggered by clues or environmental elements, of which we are not aware at all or at least as causes of our behavior or frail control effects seem to take over even in real life situations, restricting the scope of free will.
For example, take a study that is often cited as an exemplary case of unconscious influence of the context on human behavior, which however encountered strong problems of replication see section Dealing With Situationism.
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A group of American university students have been recruited for an unspecified psychological study. They were given a set of words with which to compose meaningful sentences, including numerous terms that, both in general and in American culture in particular, are related to stereotypes about the elderly, such as wrinkles, gray, Florida. Instead, a control group was given words containing neutral expressions with respect to age, such as thirsty, clean, private.
At the end of the test, a monitoring system was set up in the corridor leading from the hall to the elevator: young people who had read and used the words connected to old age were walking more slowly compared to those who had read and used words unrelated to the later phase of life Bargh et al. One may slow down one's pace because one's feet are sore or because one is trying to casually meet the cute person one saw come out of class the other day; however, it is bizarre to learn that one can walk slowly because one has just dealt with the words wrinkles and Florida.
Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that our mind or our brain often, but not necessarily always, works and makes decisions by itself, without our conscious deliberation in the sense of full awareness of a choice Wilson, As said above, epiphenomenalism claims that seemingly causally relevant conscious processes, such as intention formation or decisions, do not play any active causal role in the production of the correspondent action.
Two influential strands of research that go in this direction are those inaugurated, respectively, by Libet and by Wegner. As known, Benjamin Libet's experiments have been a huge contribution to the epiphenomenal idea of free will Libet et al.
According to those who interpret them in a deflationary sense about free will, such experiments indicate that participants do not take conscious decisions, but decide unconsciously and only become aware of their decision when the action has already begun at the level of the nervous system. The possibility of generalizing these findings, which however have been replicated with different results Saigle et al. The premise is that if an action does not come from a conscious decision-making process, it cannot be free.
The soundness of Libet's experiments can be challenged in many different ways Lavazza and De Caro, ; Mele, , chapter 2. First of all there is a controversial interpretation of the moment in which the decision is taken to perform the action relevant in experiments like Libet's the flexion of the wrist, the pressure of a button.
Does it happen when one agrees to participate in the experiment, or when the series of repetitions begins? Or does it happen exactly when it is detected by electroencephalography and electromyography? Some clues might suggest that the proximal decision actually occurs after the moment estimated in the experiments, bringing it close to the moment of its conscious perception Mele, , chapter 2.
One can also think that the non-conscious brain activity that is thought to cause the decisions is actually only a portion of the conscious process that leads to intention or decision, or even a precondition of neuronal activation to make the decision cf. Tortosa-Molina and Davis, Recently, a series of experiments has radically questioned whether the readiness potential measured in Libet's experiments coincides with the causal input of decision making.
Schurger et al. From the point of view of motivations, then, the choice of the moment in which to flex the wrist does not seem to have much relevance. It is an indifferent choice for the subject, to which she does not pay attention and for which she does not follow a line of reasoning and can, therefore, be taken almost automatically.
Things are very different when it comes to important existential choices, which require a lot of thinking along with the utmost attention and awareness. In fact, if the choice is taken consciously on the basis of a reason and our action follows from it, we can feel free even if at the cerebral level there is a small gap of consciousness between the decision making and the awareness of the action's beginning Mele, , p.
This type of criticism can also be partly applied to experiments that have followed and refined Libet's ones see Fried et al. In particular, Soon et al. Once again, these were not salient choices for the individuals nor can they be generalized to apply to all kinds of decisions, but in this case the research was designed to eliminate some of the confounding factors present in Libet's experiments.
On the other hand, a series of empirical psychology studies seem to support the idea that well-considered conscious decisions have a documentable effectiveness. Gollwitzer has developed a strand of research around implementation intentions, meaning the intentions of doing something in a specific place and time or in a specific situation.
Some of the best-known examples concern the commitment to perform a breast self-examination in the next month. In another experiment, two groups of people who had just recovered from addiction to psychotropic substances had to write their resume to find a job. The first group was asked to think about when and where they would write their resume that day, while the second group was asked to think about when and where they would have lunch. Gollwitzer and Sheeran, These data also help reduce the scope of the well-known studies carried out by Wegner , According to Wegner, this means that conscious will is certainly a useful compass to understand our behavior in the world but has no causal power.
Like a compass, indeed, it does not affect the ship's route, even though it can indicate the direction taken at any moment. Wegner's experiments tend to show that in the circumstances considered, individuals are easily fooled, believing that they are the authors of an action that is actually performed by others, or performing an action that they did not consciously want to perform for example at a seance, without realizing it, participants move the table that is supposed to be moved by the spirits invoked.
However, it is not obvious that one should draw Wegner's conclusion Wegner, , p. And I'm saying that this necessary thing sometimes does happen—that conscious intentions or their neural correlates sometimes are among the causes of corresponding actions.
Which of us is on firmer ground here? It could be argued that such arguments based on induction are not conclusive and that, in the case of Wegner and Mele, one could overturn the burden of proof. But, as I will show, there are cases in which people are not prey to external circumstances and decide based on internally generated intentions in a conscious way. The illusionists could then reply to these observations that the reasons why people wish to change their behavior inevitably stem from unconscious motivations about how one wants to behave, all of which has evolved for fitness.
But this objection opens up an endless backward path that is hardly sustainable, because not all people develop the same motivations starting from the repertoire of predispositions with which they were born. One can therefore ask in what way we have come to be the people we are, making those choices. And the answer seems to include both random elements and conscious choices of the subject. Situationism can be considered a subset of epiphenomenalism and seems to be a very pressing challenge to the idea of free will.
In fact, it does not appeal to complex conceptual arguments nor to controversial neuroscientific experiments, but to the simple structured observation of the ordinary behavior of people in contexts often close to those of real life. In general, situationism endorses a frail control hypothesis Doris, ; Appiah, about human behavior: according to it, the latter is conditioned by external and situational factors which arouse a response in us without us realizing that such factors are relevant or that they affect our behavior. This means that we have very little conscious control over our behavior, which goes against the idea that we are endowed with free will.
Our habits, character and goals, which we believe to be the reasons for our choices, are actually less important than the minor contingencies we find every day. In other words, external factors are the prevalent ones, to the detriment of internal factors linked to the agent, thereby reversing the classical conception of freedom as an endowment of the subject. Of course, the influence of external factors is mediated by transient internal states. As we shall see, if you help someone after winning the lottery, this is most likely due to your good mood rather than a conscious choice.
Experiments on help behaviors have developed greatly since the s see Doris, For example, some participants were made to find a coin in a made-up phone booth, while others found nothing.
Both groups could then choose whether to help a person gather some papers fallen out of a folder. Another experiment was set in a mall: those who were asked to exchange a dollar banknote were much happier to do so when they could smell freshly baked bread or croissants, compared to those who did not Baron, In all these cases, it is assumed that behavior is affected by the situation, subverting the predictions based on the person's character. Moreover, the volunteers involved in this kind of experiments tend to reject the explanation of their behavior in terms of causes they were not aware of, and instead motivate their choices with different reasons, made up to make their current conduct coherent with their general guidelines.
In other words, the subjects refuse to accept the real motivations of their behavior as justifications for it. The mechanisms underlying situationism fall at least partly within the broader category of non-conscious determinants of action and preferences, described as consequences of the automaticity of decision-making processes and of human action. According to Kihlstrom , automated processes are characterized by: 1 inevitable evocation , that is, specific environmental stimuli give rise to specific responses, whatever the previous mental state of the subject involved; 2 Incorrigible completion , that is, once the automatic processes are triggered, they are carried out according to a defined scheme on which the subject cannot intervene; 3 efficient execution , that is, automatic processes do not require the subject's effort or active participation; 4 parallel processing , that is, automatic processes do not interfere with other simultaneous processes, nor interfered by them.
An extreme theoretical version of the idea of pervasive automaticity was offered by G. According to him, in short, for mental activities, and thought in particular, to count as mental actions, the agent must be able to voluntarily and consciously raise a content of thought. But in fact we cannot form the intention to think a specific thought: to do so, we should already have that thought available for consideration and adoption; and thought seem to come about automatically Strawson, However, this is an indirect critique of the idea of free will, which is not strictly linked to empirical psychology and should be discussed at the philosophical level.
Situationism has certainly improved the knowledge of the motives of human actions. In the light of increasing experimental evidence, it would be an unrealistic claim to think that people are not at all influenced by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Everything contributes and has a weight, but it is necessary to assess the relative importance of different factors, both internal and external to the individual. The main question is whether at times, when it comes to relevant choices, people can exercise their conscious control and act according to their own free will.
In this sense, note that it has always been thought that the character of a person is identifiable and recognizable. Now, the only reliable, though impressionistic and non-scientific, way of inferring a person's character is to observe their behavior and choices so as to find some regularities. If we can identify someone's character, this means that there is a certain regularity and predictability in their behavior. As a result, it seems that this agent does not decide only on the basis of changing external circumstances, but on the basis of internal processes their character that are fairly stable.
Of course, even if human beings are very good at navigating their social environment on the basis of intentional psychology, they can still be the victims of cognitive biases and generally tend to categorize by amplifying differences and underestimating less salient aspects.
To overcome this problem, psychologists themselves have constructed personality profiles to scientifically measure the constant behavioral orientations of individuals. While it is true that the existence of personality traits is controversial, and most personality tests have often been accused of being inaccurate, today we are making great progress in this direction thanks to big data. Gerlach et al. In any case, the idea of character as a stable tendency to react in coherent if not predictable ways to specific situations has now been affirmed, and the relevance of internal processes over external contingencies cannot be denied.
In fact, the success of character-based explanations and predictions could otherwise only be explained by a very unlikely coincidence, by which random circumstances go mostly in the same causal direction as the agent's behavior. Situationists may argue that often one's character is not predictive as their experiments show and that personality profiles are not so reliable Doris, But it's not always like that. Ogien, Those people were not influenced by the situations in which they found themselves—which indeed would have led them to be accomplices or inert spectators, as many other people in that period.
Instead, they showed coherence of character and personality over variable circumstances. Compassionate and courageous people of that kind seem to be a major problem for strong situationism, even if its supporters remain convinced that situationism can respond to this objection cf. Machery, Moreover, the surprising nature of the studies that highlight the role of environmental factors makes us underestimate that often most subjects—but not all—manifest the situation effect.
Therefore, in general, the empirical basis cannot be used to affirm that the internal processes of the subject, supposedly underlying free will, are never at work. Another aspect concerns the fact that choices set up in laboratory experiments are not always relevant or typical of real life, and therefore it is more plausible that they may be influenced by contextual factors. This is not true, however, for the best known experiments.
Consider, for example, the famous study showing how the participants' degree of altruism the participants being seminarists varied based on whether they were or weren't in a hurry due to some important commitment Darley and Batson, On a different level, we cannot fail to mention the issue of the reproducibility of social-behavior findings published in peer-reviewed journals Open Science Collaboration, And other studies also indicate that the arbitrary choices made by researchers in their study can increase false positives Simmons et al.
Interestingly, the authors of the latter study have created a prediction market, assembling a panel of about 80 psychologists and economists. One could compare the relationship between the description of unconscious subpersonal mental mechanisms and intentional psychology with that between relativistic mechanics and classical mechanics.
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When it comes to the description of the human being, moreover, there is also a subjective element, which might lead to prefer, for many reasons, the use of common sense in some areas of psychology. At the bodily level, we can measure the glycemic level of a subject and identify limits above and below which performance usually decreases and the state of health declines.
The same applies to environmental parameters such as atmospheric temperature or the amount of oxygen. But even if we can follow the numerical parameters at all times, individual subjective states may vary compared to the recorded data, so that an individual may remain active even with a low reserve of sugars and under oppressive heat. Conversely, under formally ideal conditions, others may suffer from the cold or have a deficiency of organic resources.
In other words, there is a central range of values for those parameters, so that only a major shift to either extreme significantly influences macroscopic behaviors. The same may hold for the fine effects detected in experiments in which people do not seem and probably are not fully free, conscious and rational in their choices. Significant interpersonal and social interactions could fall within that central macroscopic range of values of relevant parameters in which behavior is approximately free, conscious, and rational. On the other hand, the acquisitions of situationism can also be considered a useful cognitive tool in order to make our behaviors less exposed to contingencies and more consistent with our deep motivations.
This can happen, for example, in the case of the previously quoted seminarist experiment. Knowing that being in a hurry or even late for an important commitment a pilot being expected at the airport prevents us from acknowledging the urgent needs of others should induce people who want to be sensitive to the needs of others to leave home earlier, so as not to ignore any requests for help. Some studies tell us that this awareness is indeed in place Beaman et al.
Finally, there is a line of research that, while taking seriously the non-conscious functioning of our brain, sees it as the result of conscious learning process, according to an Aristotelian approach revised in the light of new neuroscientific knowledge Suhler and Churchland, ; Churchland and Suhler, In particular, the proponents argue that the reward system, which has so much weight in our choices, is part of us, even if it acts in a mainly automatic way; it can be educated and receives continuous feedbacks.
Our choices are authentic, coming from inside and not as the effect of external circumstances, because we are our brain. According to advocates of this perspective, through the reward system, the very feeling of intense and prolonged effort can become rewarding in itself.
This observation of neuronal activations indicates both a robust ability to control and the fact that such ability can be strengthened through reinforcement. Certainly, self-control and free will do not only depend on conscious processes. According to Levy, the global workspace model implies that consciousness makes a difference to our choices, even if non-conscious mental states also influence our behavior.
Levy's examples on free will include the observation made by Penfield , according to which patients affected by an epileptic attack follow a habitual and stereotyped pattern of behavior but lose the ability to make decisions with respect to situations that they have never encountered before. This inability can be explained by the impossibility of consciously accessing a wide range of information, while in turn explaining the rigidity of behavior during epileptic attacks.
The famous judicial case of somnambulistic violence Broughton et al. An otherwise perfectly healthy person got out of bed in his sleep and went to the house of his parents-in-law and stabbed them, without ever leaving the sleepwalking state, even though the two victims were screaming and tried to defend themselves. The subject was in a situation where he did not understand the contradiction between his beliefs and values on the one hand and his behavior on the other. The actions of the subject in that altered state of consciousness were not expressive of, nor controlled by, a sufficiently broad spectrum of his attitudes, given that those attitudes made him the person he used to be.
Unaltered consciousness, in fact, gives control to the agent as a whole by integrating all the information available. Only consciousness in its normal functioning allows for access to, and the evaluation of, not only the perceptive inputs but also the motivations, beliefs and values of the subject, in the process that is typically associated to free will. In this sense, the idea that there must be conscious choices for behavior to be considered free has not only a philosophical value but refers to the effective functioning of our brain. For example, the acquisition of new skills requires the participation of areas associated to the global workspace, in particular large areas of the cortex, but once the new skills are acquired the areas that are activated by their use are greatly reduced Haier et al.
An action that involves the use of those skills can be considered free though not necessarily even in subsequent situations because the agent had previously consciously acquired them. To the present state of knowledge, all this appears to be true. However, this does not mean that all the evidence supporting modular epiphenomenalism, despite its limits, can be ignored.
Such evidence does not deny free will for the factual and conceptual reasons outlined so far, but it does not leave things as they were before situationism either. Taking up the conditions of free will exposed at the beginning, many philosophers support what can be called reasons accounts of free will Wolf, ; Wallace, ; Fischer and Ravizza, ; Arpaly, Based on these accounts, the ability of the agent to respond appropriately to reasons is what gives the subject the control typical of free will and necessary for moral responsibility.
The reasons accounts have many points in their favor, starting from the adherence to the intuitive idea of free will. But they are also the ones that are most often challenged by situationism, as situationism prima facie shows a degree of irrationality in our behavior or at least a rationality that is too low to be able to affirm that we have free will. In the first four chapters, each author elaborates and defends a central and influential position in the contemporary debates about free will and moral responsibility: Kane on libertarianism, Fischer on compatibilism or, more accurately, semicompatibilism , Pereboom on hard incompatibilism, and Vargas on revisionism.
The last four chapters, which are the authors' responses to the other three's initial essays, help clarify and expand their initial presentations.
The first three of the four positions are defended in greater detail elsewhere, as each of their proponents have monographs devoted to more complete expositions of their views; 1 the present volume could also be used as a jumping-off point for these more thorough though earlier treatments. While revisionism is not as prominent a position as ate the other three, its inclusion is beneficial in that Vargas's contributions not only help sharpen the disagreements between the other three positions but also offer much in their own right.
Many of the arguments and maneuvers will be familiar to those already versed in the existing literature. But the present volume does more than merely represent earlier work, as all of the authors also venture into new territory though some more than others and respond to recent objections. Elsewhere, Kane distinguishes four questions that are at the center of the debates about free will:. The Significance Question: Why do we, or should we, want to possess a free will that is incompatible with determinism?
The Intelligibility Question: Can we make sense of a freedom or free will that is incompatible with determinism? Is such a freedom coherent or intelligible?
The Existence Question: Does such a freedom actually exist in the natural order, and if so, where? In the opening chapter of the present volume, Kane primarily focuses on the Compatibility and Intelligibility questions, though he also addresses the other two in the course of his essay. He begins by noting that the exercise of free will requires an individual to believe that multiple options are open to her--that is, to believe that the future is a garden of forking paths.
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