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05 November 2012


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Miles Rind

The argument from the experiment shown in the video rests on identifying volition with a conscious impulse--a momentary "feeling like" doing something. If that identification is not made, then the experiment shows nothing whatever about the nature of the will. It seems to me that one does not need to take any position on the reality of free will to reject such an identification. It is simply bad conceptual analysis, experiment or no experiment.

Mohan Matthen

That's roughly what I had in mind for D.The consciousness of an impulse need not be the act of will. But did you have something different in mind?

Miles Rind

Well, yes, roughly; but only roughly! What I was saying differs from option D on two points. Since D is actually an argument rather than a single proposition, and its conclusion can be broken into two propositions, consider it thus: (1) free will is real, therefore (2) so-called "conscious acts of willing" are awareness of will, and (3) they are not will itself. My point was that one does not need to take a position on (1) to be justified in asserting (3). I am not sure what to say about (2), but that is an incidental matter.

Mohan Matthen

i don't think we are all that far apart in that case. My reason for inserting (1) was simply that if you think that (1) is false, nothing much follows from the experiment. On the other hand, if you think that free will is real, then (it seems to me) you are obliged to say that the seeming conscious awareness of making a decision cannot be what causes the act. Of course, you may think that it was a bad idea to say that free will equated to the causal influence of any act, whether the motor cortex activity or the conscious act. But there is something in the experiment that seems like an event of the right sort, namely the build-up of activity in the motor cortex.


Al Mele's Effective Intentions is a detailed philosophical examination of Libet, and quite worth a look.

Mohan Matthen

Correct me I am wrong but Mele seems to waver between B and D (or the consequents of those conditionals). For on one hand he raises the possibility of non-conscious intentions, and on the other, he suggests that conscious intentions could be proximal causes, while motor cortex activity might be more distal. Both are causal theses, but to his credit, Mele throws them both out there for empirical testing. 

Sent from my iPad

Eric Winsberg

I always thought of Libet not so much as evidence for a positive conclusion as it is a defeater for an inference we might have thought obtained.

Free will must exist because I can _see_ myself consciously willing my actions into being.

compare to:

It must be raining because I can see the water on my windows.

Libet is the equivalent of showing you that there is a sprinkler outside your window.

Mohan Matthen

Does Libet defeat the inference from being consciously aware of willing to "free will", i.e, to having brought about an external action by an act of will? Thesis D in my post equates the conscious episode (C) with awareness of willing (W). On this account, C does give you reason to believe that you have brought about the action by a free act of will: it is awareness of W, and W is a free act of will, and C gave you knowledge of it. But it defeats the further inference, which perhaps you were inclined to make antecedently, that C is itself the act of will. 

Eric Winsberg

Right. Before Libet, you might have thought C is itself the act of will. And therefore, you might have thought, freewill must exist, I can _see_ it. But Libet shows us that whatever else is going on, C is not the act of will itself, and hence the easy inference to the existence of will is defeated.

but it does not provide any direct evidence again the existence of will.


"One way to respond to this query is to insist that the reality of free will is empirical—it is an observed causal connection between certain conscious acts and action. So philosophy does have a special empirical basis, namely introspection (...) To put this another way: the super-high evidential status claimed for introspection belies its empirical content."

Daniel Wegner's work casts doubt on this claim (see The Illusion of Conscious Will). It's possible that the introspective "feeling of conscious willing" actually amounts to mere post-facto explanations of our behavior that is in fact largely motivated by unconscious processes, and even in those cases where conscious willing may be genuinely causally efficacious, it's not clear that we can determine from a first-person point-of-view when it actually is and when it isn't given that our introspective faculties would seem to be highly prone to error.

As for the larger claim, as the above suggests, I am skeptical that there are respectable cases where a posteriori philosophizing about empirical causal facts is appropriate in lieu of simply doing science proper (but maybe I misunderstood your point on this score. I'll allow you to clarify).


As an additional point, we seem to be working with a pretty thin account of free will (i.e. something like 'free action is consciously willed behavior'), but if you want something stronger, such as a libertarian account of free will, then Libet (and Wegner and co.) can undermine this account of free will by showing that our behavior is determined by a series of prior unconscious events (and to say nothing of whether or not conscious willing is in itself causally efficacious.) If it turns out that "conscious willing" is determined by a chain of causal events and factors that lie outside of our control, then it's plausible that we don't have free will in this stronger libertarian sense. The force or threat of Libet's experiments and contemporary work in neuroscience and psychology, then, will depend a lot on your definition of free will.

Mark Stephen Eberle

Hasn't Al Mele already responded in pretty much every book of his to the fallacies of these type of experiments? Something to the effect of, of course there's brain activity - the test subject is primed to be ready to make a decision so the brain is "gearing up" to make a decision. We simply don't have access to the subject's mental states which prevents us from drawing any substantial conclusions regarding the relationship between the brain activity measured and the subject's mental causation.

Michael Kremer

I remembered coming across some recent work of scientists casting doubt on Libet's conclusions, and googling I quickly found this: "If we are correct, then the Libet experiment does not count as evidence against the possibility of conscious will," says Schurger. I don't know what response this work has received.

Mohan Matthen

Izzy @ 10, my point is to question whether it is appropriate for philosophers to aposterioritize. So I sympathize with you. I do, however, think that there are cases when it is appropriate for philosophers to point out a causal alternative that is overlooked by the scientist. For instance, in apropos your 11, they may point out that the "chain of causal events and factors" need not lie beyond our control. That they are not conscious does not imply that they do. This said, it is ultimately the domain of the scientist to test the hypothesis.

Mohan Matthen

Mark @ 12, I commented on Mele @ 6. I could be wrong, of course, but I would be interested to know if I am.

Aaron Preston

I don't see that *Libet* has shown us this at all (that "whatever else is going on, C is not the act of will itself...") The distinction between *willing* and *consciousness of willing* is exactly the kind of introspective/phenomenological (in roughly Husserl's sense) distinction that, as Mele shows, experimental researchers like Libet are generally quite bad at making. In _Effective Intentions_ (and maybe elsewhere... _Free will and Moral Luck_, maybe?)he shows that they characteristically fail to distinguish not only between the various "consciousnesses of" and their objects that crop up in experience, but between deliberating about acting, deciding to act, intending (proximately or distally, generally or specifically) to act, desiring to act, and imagining acting, etc. Part of his argument is that because the "willusionists" never consider in any detail the distinguishing properties of these different mental states, they give us no reason to think that the brain activity preceding "conscious will" doesn't represent an act of deliberation, desiring, imagining, etc., rather something that might take the place of "conscious will" as the cause of action.

One might think that Libet has given us additional reasons for making the distinction between willing and consciousness of willing, perhaps in the form of a demonstration that they occur at different times. But I'm not sure he's shown even that. I take the upshot of Mele's critique of Libet-style experiments along with his argument from reaction-time experiments to be that we have no empirical basis for doubting, and some empirical basis for accepting, that our willing occurs exactly when we think it does, i.e., when we become conscious of willing, even though the two are different states.

Aaron Preston

If I’m correct about the upshot of Mele's critique of Libet-style experiments along with his argument from reaction-time experiments (see above), then it would seem to be false that Libet-style experiments provide strong evidence for:

1. Conscious acts of "willing" an action occur after the brain activity that cause the action, and so
2. Conscious acts of willing do not cause action.

Indeed, to the extent that a “conscious act of will” (or “an act of conscious will”) is really just “an act of will of which we are conscious”, to say that “we have no empirical basis for doubting, and some empirical basis for accepting, that our willing occurs exactly when we think it does, i.e., when we become conscious of willing” entails that Libet-style experiments provide no evidence, let alone strong evidence, for 1 and 2.



It's clear that philosophers often try to correct scientists about their conclusions by attempting to point out "causal alternatives" to them, but what philosophers are doing here is not something that's methodologically beyond the domain of science. Drawing meaningful conclusions and inferring the proper causal explanations of empirical data is crucial to the scientific process. It's very much the meat and potatoes of the business. Admittedly, some scientists are better at it than others, and hence, you have many debates about the proper interpretation of the results of observed scientific phenomenon (the discussion in the scientific literature over Wegner and Libet's work is one case in point). I'm actually very sympathetic to interdisciplinary work among philosophers and scientists because philosophers can help bring their analytical and conceptual skills to bear on empirical matters, but I do not think that there's something special, exclusive, or unique about what philosophers are doing when they attempt to reason about scientific findings.

But it's at this murky juncture where you run into a lot of both bad philosophy and bad science (where the concerns of philosophy and science overlap). A philosopher, for instance, that strays too far from the data is just as egregious in his ways as the scientist who isn't critical enough in the analysis of her own findings. I am genuinely far more suspicious, however, of philosophers trying to interpret science than the other way around (Nagel is a prime example). This is why I prefer to see the situation as more interdisciplinary among philosophers and scientists when the purview of scientific conclusions tend to have significant philosophical significance or import (that bear on the nature of concepts such as free will, for instance).

The main insight, however, is that disagreements about these kinds of results are as much philosophical disagreements as they are scientific disagreements. There are no objections to the data, that I can tell, on "purely" philosophical grounds on this approach. (I should add that I'm generally skeptical about any "inherently" philosophical questions with regard to explaining natural phenomenon). These disputes are legitimate scientific and philosophical disputes among philosophers and scientists alike, bearing on the data at hand in relation to its implications for our concepts about the world.


In case I didn't clarify this point above, in response to this claim, "For instance, in apropos your 11, they may point out that the "chain of causal events and factors" need not lie beyond our control." A philosopher could certainly do this, but I do not think they are in an essentially more privileged position to do so over and above the scientist. It may be the case that the philosopher is, in some sense, more equipped to do so in virtue of her capacity for making finer conceptual distinctions, but it's not a "purely" philosophical conclusion. It's a claim that falls out of the science and concerns proper interpretation of the data. If the scientist is erroneous in his thinking about the issue, then finer conceptual distinctions are in order. It's important to remember that scientists have philosophical and interpretative disagreements all the time. I'd even say this is where most scientific disputes lie, rather than on issues of replication or proper methodology in experimentation.

Allan Olley

Well as I said previously I see all knowledge as one and so everyone may have a justified opinion on everything and things are not going to nicely silo off, so I tend to agree with the sort of thing Izzy and others have said.

With regards to the particular example you raised it seems to me that more overlaps occur between philosophy and science in the example than just free will (even if we use the wide notion rather than the libertarian notion). Since the Libet result seems to possibly suggest how our direct experience can be deeply wrong, at least if our experience somehow purported to give us the direct experience of our having made a decision in real time. It suggests a piece of evidence that could be deployed to justify a total (Pyrrhonic or the like) skepticism and this could undermine science (as a reducto). Obviously this result in itself does not justify such extreme skepticism, but similarly it is not sufficient to undermine free will in all situations etc. (for some reasons given in the post and responses). General skepticism is something more debated in philosophic circle, but of course it does totally encompass science. The point being our naive self-image from reflection and introspection is tied up in all our endeavours in some way (it may be that we've somehow succeeded in shielding science from our cognitive illusions but that requires an argument). Such entanglements ensure that classic philosophical issues and debates (as opposed to philosophy of science X debates) are sure to have connections with scientific discoveries and debates.

I have to say that when I compose my words in conversation I don't know what I am going to say (word for word) until after I say it (perhaps I am odd in this respect). So I'm not sure what Libet type experiments tells us beyond what we would notice if we reflected more critically on our experience.



It's right to say that to the extent that science and in particular psychology and neuroscience seem to show that our introspective/perceptual faculties are rather prone to error, that science itself as a fundamentally knowledge seeking enterprise would also seem threatened. That is to say, if our perceptual faculties are unreliable, then how is empiricism qua the very basis of science reliable?

Although science is often deeply counter-intuitive, and reveals that much of what we thought we knew about the world is wrong – debunking explanatory myths as far ranging as Zeus, the ether, to potentially even free will – this essentially negative self-knowledge is still, in effect, providing us with more knowledge about ourselves than we had before.

These findings do not merely amount to a general skepticism about the reliability of our perceptual faculties, but raise very specific doubts about the use of our faculties in various circumstances. It's possible, however, that science will reveal that we are severely limited by our faculties in the amount of knowledge we can actually attain about the world. For instance, we can only perceive a very small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, as in say light waves and sound waves. We cannot detect X-rays and gamma rays, for instance, and the whole range of the electromagnetic spectrum that constitute our surroundings (it wasn't evolutionary advantageous for us, although it was for other members of the animal kingdom). Right now as you sit at your computer there are radio waves, gamma rays, x-rays, and others transmitting all throughout the room and yet you cannot detect them with your senses. Who knows how the world would "look to us" if we could perceive all of these things?

In evolutionary psychology, it's even suggested that it was advantageous for us to evolve faculties that should be prone to error. For instance, various findings show that when standing on a cliff looking down we tend to exaggerate and overestimate the distance to the ground as opposed to when measuring the distance from standing at ground level. The proposed explanation is that it would be "too costly" for us to risk falling by determining the distance to be safe, when in fact, it wasn't (you can only be wrong once), so those adaptations for perceptual faculties that tend to overestimate distances from lofty heights were selected. In other words, perception was evolved and calibrated to be useful more than it was to be accurate. Does this mean all of science is undermined? I don't think so. I think this is just a case of science delimiting the scope of our capacity for knowledge. It's true that it also establishes its own limits, but not on a priori grounds, and it's not a kind of "self-undermining" that I think lends itself to an unqualified general external world skepticism.

Libby Lirette

@mark Stephen Eberle I agree with this response because the subject is aware that they are about to make a decision, therefore they are consciously waiting for an urge to press the button. This expectation could cause the person to “will” for an urge to press the button, and then when the urge reached a certain threshold, the subject perceived that they were receiving an urge when really their own expectation of an oncoming urge caused it. This goes back to how we do not have access to a person’s mental states, only what they perceive to be their mental states.

Holly Dickson

@ Mark Stephen Eberle: This is an interesting counter-experiment to Libet's experiment. If it is true that the brain prepares itself to accommodate any possible response, and then, when you determine what action you are most likely to perform the neurons start firing, this would discredit Libet's experiment as proof against free will. Because the brain begins to prepare itself when a decision comes along, the neurons are firing anyways whether you have chosen to act yet or not. The brain just tries to predict, sometimes falsely, which action you are going to choose to perform, which is why Libet's experiment shows brain activity a few milliseconds before the decision to act occurs.

Keegan Anderson

Eric Winsberg @ 9

I agree with Eric here. The Libet experiment doesn't disprove free will - it just shows that the awareness of decision definitely isn't itself an example of free will. Free will gets harder to observe and possibly stops being a real-time conscious result, but the experiment doesn't disprove free will.

Kate Singletary

@ Mohan Matthen:
Whether or not it is appropriate for philosophers to aposterioritize is a great question. When considering what is appropriate for philosophers, it is important to keep in mind the main objective trying to be accomplished. Here, Libet is trying to make a statement about free will, and now we are discussing the legitimacy of the claim. Science and philosophy, however majorly different, share a common goal, they both want to solve stuff. Is it safe to make conclusions based on a priori, I don't think so because it may not lead to an accurate claim. Do you think Libet used a priori in reaching the conclusions of his experiemnt?

Mohan Matthen

Kate @ 25: Libet or others (such as Haggard above) assume that when you feel yourself making a decision, that is the supposed act of willing. Many of the comments above challenge this identification, as does option D in my original post. So that might have been an a priori identification that Libet made, and it's possibly wrong. (See Keegan @ 24 for the latest endorsement of this option.)

However, it's not so so obvious that option D is correct. A lot of philosophers and psychologists think that non-conscious causation cannot be the same as rational willing. Libet seems to force us to suppose that either willing occurs unconsciously before we are aware of it, or that it isn't causally effective. That's a substantial choice, and my point is that it should not be made a priori.

Josh Bryant

@Miles Rind, I agree with your statement because the argument that comes from this experiment does try to make a bold conclusion about the nature of free will based on a feeling of doing something. A feeling of doing something is a bad thing to base a conclusion off of because when you do something it is possible that that action was a choice made of your own free will and not a result of a concious impulse.

Brianne Cozzette

@Eric Winsberg: I agree with Eric in that Libet's evidence shows that the definition of free will might be incorrect and that there is is more thought that must go in to deciding what free will is. However, Libet's evidence does not completely destroy the notion of free will.Free will could still exist, however, Libet's experiments and data shows that there is an obvious need for improvement due to an increase and advancement in technology.


Sue Pockett Honorary Research Fellow MSc (University of Auckland), PhD (Otago)has been researching this topic for years and has several recent papers at her webpage.

Pockett S and Purdy SC (2010) Are voluntary movements initiated preconsciously? The relationships between readiness potentials, urges and decisions. In: W Sinnott-Armstrong and L Nadel (Eds) Conscious Will and Responsibility: A Tribute to Benjamin Libet. Eds, New York; OUP.

Pockett S., Banks W.P. and Gallagher S. (2006) Does consciousness cause behavior? Cambridge Mass: MIT Press.

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