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Wednesday, May 20, 2009


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You posted:
"Basically, what Mele does quite skillfully in this article is show the indispensability of accurate conceptual analysis and phenomenology for the proper interpretation of empirical findings. The real illusion here is the supposition that the empirical findings of neuroscience can by themselves shed any light."

Couldn't agree more with you on this point.
Inductive correlation depends on non-inductive identification of the phenomena being correlated. If our psychological conceptual scheme is awry then we can't make the correct correlations.

Thank you, Bill. It is always good to hear what Mele has to say on issues of agency and freedom. He is an astute scholar of these subjects.

The hand raising experiment in question was a pioneering experiment done by Libet 30(?) years ago and has been succeeded by many more sophisticated experiments, but its results are still worth discussing.

Mele, you say, wants to identify the neural event (the “action potential") that arises a ½ second or so before the arm shoots up with a wish or urge to act, and there is only a urge, not a decision to act at that point. The problem with that bit of cleverness is that with when the action potential is being transmitted to the peripheral nerves, I have BEGUN TO RAISE to my arm. Though it is not yet visible in gross movement, I am already raising my arm at that point. If I am already doing x, I have decided to do x? Yes? And the neurological process begun unconsciously a ½ sec before movement is visible is also self-sufficient to raise the arm. No contribution or confirmation from the conscious decision areas of the prefrontal cortex is needed or wanted. A third of a second into the process, the prefrontal areas recognize what is happening and claim it post facto as a conscious choice!

The same phenomenon has been tested with major league hitters, who have less than a half second to decide to hit or take a fastball pitch. These studies show that within a 1/10 of a second of the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand the hitter must begin his swing if he is going to have time to swing. Hitters think they get to watch the pitch and decide only as the ball approaches the plate, but by then they are well into their swing—all this before their conscious mind has had time to appraise the situation and “decide”. In fact the brain has already decided a 1/3 of second ago and the hitter is well into his swing while their conscious mind is struggling to catch up. The conscious mind is just too slow for some decision-making, but it doesn’t want to concede it has no control in these situations. The hitter comes to the plate with a wish or urge to hit. The brain of a major leaguer is able to recognize very quickly a good pitch from a bad one, and this unconscious recognition is enough to decide and trigger swing or no swing decision in a 1/10 of a second or so. The conscious brain comes very late to the this decision process and plays only the role of a self-aggrandizing spectator.

Hi Bill,

I do not know anything about this Libet person, but based on what I have read in your postings on this issue it seems like he may be another sad case of an empirical scientist helping himself to unwarrented philosophical claims. (For instance, making a leap from empirical psychology to the free will debate) Would I be going astray to suggest that this is a chronic problem? In other words, it seems to me like empirical scientists, who are often quite dismissive of philosophy and metaphysics, often can't resist making metaphysical claims. On the other hand, I don't know of any instances of philosophers arriving inappropriately at empirical claims. Interdisciplinary respect seems to only go one-way.

How do these studies determine the time of onset of the conscious intention? I suppose it can only be by a report from the subject saying, "my intention begins now" or some such. But the onset of a conscious intention and a report of this intention are two different things, and the report must necessarily come after the onset. And the report itself is an intentional action, which must have its own conscious intention motivating it. Isn't it at least possible that it takes about 550 ms to issue the report of the onset of a conscious intention that is coincident with the neural processes observed at -550 ms?


Glad we agree. What you say about inductive correlation is exactly right. I pulled Collins' *The Nature of Mental Things* off the shelf and I noted that some of your comments are surprisingly similar to things he says. I hope to post some excerpts from him later. He too maintains that contemporary materialists are dualists of a sort, brain-body dualists.

If you don't have it his Free Will and Luck is really worth reading. It includes an expansion of the above paper as well. His luck argument took me a while to wrap my brain around but ultimately it became quite convincing to me.

Sadly Libet is not the only psychologist or neuro-scientist to display a naive familiarity with the philosophy in this area. Over at Garden of Forking Paths they regularly point out papers where scientists make quite strong (and unsupported) claims about free will.

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