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Are intentions in tension with timing experiments?


Libet’s timing experiments (Brain 106:623–642, 1983; Mind time. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2004) have resulted in some strong and unsavoury claims about human agency. These range from the idea that conscious intentions are epiphenomenal to the idea that we all lack free will. In this paper, I propose a new type of response to the various sceptical conclusions about our agency occasioned by both Libet’s work and other experiments in this testing paradigm. Indeed, my argument extends to such conclusions drawn from fMRI-based prediction experiments. In what follows, I will provide a brief description of these experiments, sketch arguments one may be tempted to draw on their basis, and argue that such arguments rely on a questionable premise: that experimental subjects have relevant proximal intentions (which, thus far, both proponents and opponents of these arguments agree on).

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  1. Proximal intentions are intentions to act now. Distal intentions are intentions to act later (cf. Bratman 1987/1999; Mele 1992).

  2. I follow Mele’s distinction between forming and acquiring intentions. Deciding to do something is a ‘momentary mental action of intention formation’ (Mele 1992, chapters 8 & 12). We can also come to have intentions non-actionally, when we passively acquire intentions. (My argument is that the subjects in the timing experiments neither form nor acquire relevant proximal intentions.)

  3. Interestingly, Libet does not argue quite in this manner. He instead takes his experiments to show that we have a conscious veto power over our intentions (2004).

  4. For discussion of the various functions of intentions see, for example, Searle (1983), Brand (1984), Bratman (1987/1999), Mele (1992), Livingston (2005), Pacherie (2006), Holton (2009), Lumer (2013).

  5. It is unclear whether the movements are initiated by the timed state, partly because it is unclear exactly what the subjects are detecting. If the state does initiate the movement then (1) this is not yet sufficient to conclude it is an intention, and (2) that it does initiate the movement undermines at least some of the sceptical conclusions people draw from the experiments (especially in arguments like the W-argument above).

  6. In some of the experiments, subjects are presented with alternatives in relation to how to perform a given action: they can use either their right or their left hand (Soon et al. 2008). While this adds to the complexity of the task, such selection is still an insignificant task one does not need to deliberate about, and which is not based on reasons.

  7. One may perhaps suggest that intentions in the experimental cases curtail unconscious deliberation rather than conscious deliberation. However, if it is the case that the experimental actions are not connected to reasons in the relevant way, there is no need to deliberate about these actions on an unconscious level either.

  8. Mele who took part in a Libet-style experiment himself, describes the phenomenology of his own timed state as that of mentally saying “Now!” to himself (34, 2009). Sufficed to say, this is also not typical of the phenomenology of proximal intentions.

  9. I would like to thank an anonymous referee for drawing my attention to this.

  10. I have not included settledness in the discussion of different functions and characteristics of intentions in Sect. 4, this is because it does not strike me as sufficiently distinct from other roles of intentions and their combinations.

  11. Compare Keller and Heckhausen (1990).

  12. If you still insist on calling them “intentions”, then my point is that we cannot generalize from the “intentions” detected in timing experiments to those states with the functions listed above.

  13. This hypothesis is supported, for example, by Keller and Heckhausen (1990) and Pockett and Purdy (2011).

  14. I am not claiming that urges are identical to motor intentions, or that by becoming conscious of urges we are becoming conscious of motor intentions.

  15. Importantly, I am not claiming that the movements in the experiments are not caused by any intentions. They are, arguably, caused in part by distal intentions (such as one’s intention to take part in the experiment, to carry out the required number of experimental trials, etc.). So, even if the experimental actions lack proximal intentions, this is not to say that they have no intentions in their causal history. My point here is that the timing experiments do not test for relevant intentions within the experimental cycles—not that there are no (distal) intentions that help bring about these actions. (Relatedly, I am not saying that the movements in question are not actions. Actions need not be initiated by intentions; other mental states such as desires or urges can plausibly initiate actions too. Additionally, as according to the previous point, these movements do have intentions in their causal history.) I further explore these points in Sect. 7.

  16. Also, one might object that if mental states are only dispositions to behave in a certain way, then it is not plausible to characterise the mental states as having certain capacities—rather, they are capacities.

  17. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for drawing my attention to this problem.

  18. I certainly do not mean to say that the proposed scenario is the only possible one. As I mention in footnote 8, Mele in his 2009 discusses, on the basis of his personal experience, a different strategy for the timing experiments: silently saying “Now!” to himself and later reporting the occurrence of this “Now!”. While Mele hypothesizes that this command represents or indicates a proximal intention, he does not provide arguments for this position. Relatedly, it is not obvious why we ought to think that this command in fact represents a proximal intention.

  19. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for this objection.

  20. It would be certainly worthwhile exploring the implications my view might have for different debates within the action theory literature. Unfortunately, this is beyond the scope of the current paper.

  21. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for this objection.

  22. For some specific suggestions and extended discussion on this subject, see Waller (2012).


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Thanks to Randolph Clarke, Alfred Mele, David Papineau and Robyn Repko Waller for helpful comments on this paper. A special thanks goes to Stephen Kearns.

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Correspondence to Marcela Herdova.

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Herdova, M. Are intentions in tension with timing experiments?. Philos Stud 173, 573–587 (2016).

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  • Libet
  • Timing experiments
  • Intentions
  • Consciousness
  • Free will