Willusionism, epiphenomenalism, and the feeling of conscious will

Abstract

While epiphenomenalism—i.e., the claim that the mental is a causally otiose byproduct of physical processes that does not itself cause anything—is hardly ever mentioned in philosophical discussions of free will, it has recently come to play a crucial role in the scientific attack on free will led by neuroscientists and psychologists. This paper is concerned with the connection between epiphenomenalism and the claim that free will is an illusion, in particular with the connection between epiphenomenalism and willusionism, i.e., with the thesis that there is empirical evidence for a thoroughgoing skepticism with regard to free will that is based on the claim that mental states are epiphenomena. The paper discusses four arguments for willusionism that in some form or other appeal to epiphenomenalism and argues that three of them can be discarded relatively easily. The fourth one, based on Daniel Wegner’s theory of apparent mental causation and his claim that free will is an illusion because the feeling of conscious will is epiphenomenal with regard to the corresponding voluntary actions, is dealt with in more detail. The overall verdict is negative: there is no empirical evidence for any kind of epiphenomenalism that would warrant the claim that free will is an illusion. Whatever it is that makes free will the object of contention between neuroscience and philosophy, epiphenomenalism provides no reason to think that free will is an illusion.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The disagreement between willusionists and their opponents is mostly prescriptive, not descriptive (e.g., Ross 2006; Vargas 2005). What is controversial is not so much the empirical evidence as such, but whether it supports the skeptical conclusions generally drawn from it, given that there is substantial disagreement about the individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for calling an agent or her decisions and actions “free” in the (or at least a) philosophically, morally, juridically etc. relevant sense (for an exception see Mele 2009, in particular Chap. 4, who bases his criticism of willusionism on the way data are gathered, the instructions given to participants etc.).

  2. 2.

    The index of the rather voluminous second edition of The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (Kane 2011), for instance, has only three entries on “causation, mental.” See, however, Gallagher (2006).

  3. 3.

    This non sequitur is unfortunately far more widespread than one would expect (see Mele 2009, p. 70ff.). Eliezer Sternberg, for instance, who graduated in neuroscience and philosophy, says: “if we could prove, using some experiment, that the conscious willing of actions occurs after the brain begins executing them, that would [...] mean [...] that conscious will does not cause our actions” (2010, p. 78). An even stranger causal interpretation is the following: “[Libet’s studies] suggested that conscious intention occurs after the onset of preparatory brain activity. It cannot therefore cause our actions, as a cause cannot occur after its effect” (Haggard 2005, p. 291). The fact that this doesn’t even come close to a valid argument—that the conscious intention occurs after the brain activity is quite obviously compatible with the claims that it causes the action and that causes must precede their effects, given that the conscious intention clearly does occur before the action—does, again, not prevent Sternberg from joining in: “According to Libet, free will cannot be the cause of our actions because causes have to occur before their effects [and h]e has shown that the brain activity comes first” (2010, p. 80).

  4. 4.

    There is ample psychological evidence for such an account of the causal role of intentions (e.g., Goschke 2003; Hommel 2000). Philosophically speaking, even a more charitable “best explanation” reading of Libet’s experiment fails to provide support for epiphenomenalism because it cannot rule out the alternative hypothesis that conscious intentions are structuring rather than triggering causes of behavior, to use Dretske’s (1988, 1993) distinction.

  5. 5.

    I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to address this issue. An excellent and charitable discussion of Libet can be found in Bayne (2011).

  6. 6.

    For a healthy dose of skepticism with regard to an all-encompassing automatism see Kihlstrom (2008).

  7. 7.

    Within philosophy, Malcolm (1968) famously argued that a mechanistic account of the mind would leave no room for “purposive explanations,” so that no one would ever perform an action for a reason.

  8. 8.

    While the empirical will is characterized (with a barely disguised dualism) as an “an intricate set of physical and mental processes” (2002, p. 27; emphasis S.W.), the phenomenal will is described variously as a “feeling” (ibid., p. 40) or “experience” (ibid., p. 21), an intention (ibid., p. 27), a “conscious thought” (ibid., p. 25) or “that what is in consciousness” (ibid., p. 28)—phenomena which are obviously quite different. Moreover, while Wegner sometimes seems to dally over an outright epiphenomenalism according to which something mental can never—not even in the guise of the empirical will—cause something physical (e.g., ibid., p. 29), at other places he is quite explicit that the causal efficacy of the mental per se is not at issue (e.g., ibid., p. 63) and it is only the phenomenal will that is epiphenomenal (see also Sect. 6).

  9. 9.

    An anonymous reviewer has suggested that while it is true that Wegner does seem to claim that his evidence shows that the experience of conscious will does not cause our actions, it may be more charitable to take him as attempting to show that we are not conscious of the volitions that actually cause actions, and the states of which we are conscious do not cause actions—which is just to say that the empirical will is efficacious, while the phenomenal will is not.

  10. 10.

    Wegner and Wheatley are said to have shown that “subjects will experience themselves as the author of an outcome despite having no actual influence over the event” (Vinding et al. 2013, p. 810), that “people may believe they have performed an action which was in fact performed by another party” (Sarrazin et al. 2008, p. 614), and that the “subjects believe that they have caused the movement of the cursor even when this is not the case” (Frith 2005, p. 763).

  11. 11.

    The Helping Hands study is said to have demonstrated that “feelings of agency might be invoked in situations void of any motor act at all” (Synofzik et al. 2009, p. 522), that we can “have a sense of agency when we do not act at all” (Pacherie 2011, p. 454), and that the subjects “perceive the action to be a result of their own doing,” “experiencing willful control of actions that are actually outside of their control” (Parks-Stamm et al. 2010, p. 540).

  12. 12.

    An anonymous reviewer has argued that since the free stops received only an average rating of 56, we should not expect forced stops that were experienced as intended to be rated close to 100. This, however, puts the cart before the horse. If 100 corresponds to “I intended to make the stop,” then a stop that was experienced as intended should receive an average of 100, not of 56. Therefore, the fact that free stops received an average rating of 56 does not show that the correct rating for intended stops is 56, but that the free stops were not perceived as fully intended.

  13. 13.

    As any introductory statistics textbook will tell you, such radically different sample sizes are problematic (e.g., Field 2013, pp. 236, 326). While it is not strictly speaking impossible to get significant results in such cases, the default assumption is that you don’t, and you have to perform complicated transformations if you want to obtain significance. The conditions for significance include a normal distribution and the same variance, and Wegner and Wheatley report neither. While they do report the SD- and p-values at other points in the paper, their discussion of the different intentionality ratings is entirely in terms of ordinary percentages and no indication is given that the increase from 56 to 62 is indeed significant.

  14. 14.

    For instance, when helper and patient receive different questions over headphones, only the helper’s questions tend to be answered, and patients cannot describe objects that the helpers cannot see (e.g., Felce 1994; Jacobson et al. 1995; for a review see Mostert 2001).

  15. 15.

    An anonymous reviewer has pointed out that facilitated communicators are purposefully responding to the signals they take to come from the disabled person, priming them for responsiveness to extraneous cues, while the confederate is trying not to respond to any cues at all. In cases of joint action, however, you always have to try to respond to cues from the other in order to coordinate your movements with the other’s movements. In order for the confederate to let the subject make the stop and just follow the subject’s movements, she has to try to find out where the subject wants to move the cursor next in order not to interfere with this intention, and this puts her in the very same situation that the helper in cases of facilitated communication is in.

  16. 16.

    This is not to say that one cannot sweep across a computer screen within 3 s; the claim is that it is unlikely that the confederate can do this without making it obvious to the subject that the confederate is pursuing her own hidden agenda and the apparently joint choice far from “joint.”

  17. 17.

    Wegner and Wheatley tried to control for the possibility that simply hearing the primes caused the subjects to stop on the primed item (ibid.). But ruling out this possibility does not rule out that hearing the primes made the participants more likely to stop on the primed item, which is what is at issue. Moreover, Wegner and Wheatley’s “control” only concerns free stops: their argument is that since hearing the primes didn’t cause the subjects to stop on the primed item in the free stops, it is “not likely” to have influenced their choice in the forced stops. The free and forced stops, however, differ significantly in that in the latter, but not the former, the confederate actively tries to reach the target object. Therefore, even if hearing the prime alone doesn’t cause the subjects to stop on the target object in the free stops, it may still be (in light of the considerations above) that hearing the prime plus the fact that the person with whom the subjects believed to jointly operate the cursor apparently showed a tendency towards the target object in the forced stops made it more likely that the subjects independently decided to stop on the target object—“I wouldn’t have chosen the swan simply because I heard the word “swan,” but if my fellow is apparently moving in the direction of the swan anyway, why not stop there?”. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to address this issue.

  18. 18.

    Something similar holds for some (albeit not all) of Wegner’s other empirical evidence. Meynen (2010), for instance, argues that Wegner’s interpretation of auditory verbal hallucinations, far from providing supporting evidence, actually leads to an argument against the theory of apparent mental causation.

  19. 19.

    Something similar holds for a comparable study by Aarts et al. (2005). See also Carruthers (2010).

  20. 20.

    See also Wegner (2004, pp. 683–684): “If the feeling of conscious will is not authentic, can thought still cause action? Of course it can. The idea that the experience of conscious will is a poor indicator of a causal relation between mind and action is not the same as saying that mind does not have a causal relationship to action. It could, and in fact we all should be fairly certain that it does.”

  21. 21.

    See, for example, Wegner (2002, p. 318): “Why, if this experience of will is not the cause of action, would we even go to the trouble of having it? What good is an epiphenomenon?”

  22. 22.

    This is not to say that counterfactuals are per se transitive (see Lewis 1973, Sect. 1.8). The realization relation between mental and physical properties is usually understood as an asymmetric dependence relation between properties (or their instantiations) which holds with at least nomological necessity, so that the absence of a realized property implies (with at least nomological necessity) the absence of the realizing property (see Walter 2010).

  23. 23.

    Take, for instance, conceptions of freedom along the lines of Harry Frankfurt’s hierarchical compatibilism (e.g., Frankfurt 1971) or John Martin Fischer’s reason-sensitive compatibilism (e.g., Fischer 1994; Fischer and Ravizza 1998): even if mental states are mere epiphenomena, our desires, motives, values etc. may suitably mesh within hierarchically ordered elements of our psychology and be (counterfactually) sensitive to an appropriate range of reasons and rational considerations (see also Double 2004).

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Acknowledgments

Work of the author was supported by an Opus Magnum grant of the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, AZ 10.12.5.001.

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Walter, S. Willusionism, epiphenomenalism, and the feeling of conscious will. Synthese 191, 2215–2238 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-013-0393-y

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Keywords

  • Free will
  • Epiphenomenalism
  • Mental causation
  • Willusionism
  • The feeling of conscious will
  • Neuroscience and philosophy
  • Daniel Wegner