Saturday, March 24, 2007

Free or not ...

... that is the question: I think therefore I am, I think. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

... the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet has shown that before every such movement, there is a distinctive build-up of electrical activity in the brain. And this build-up happens about half a second before your conscious ”decision” to move your arm. So by the time you think, ”OK, I’ll move my arm,” your body is halfway there. Which means your conscious experience of making a decision - the experience associated with free will - is just a kind of add-on, an after-thought that only happens once the brain has already set about its business. In other words, your brain is doing the real work, making your hands turn the pages of this magazine or reach over for your cup of tea, and all the time your conscious mind is tagging along behind.

This will come as no surprise to those of who subscribe to Georg Groddeck's notion of the It, that, as Freud summarized it, "what we call our ego behaves essentially passively in life, and that, as [Groddeck] expresses it, we are 'lived' by unknown and uncontrollable forces."
Or, as Groddeck himself put it: "Who draws the conclusion, that I mentally medicate a human who has broken his leg, is very true – but I adjust the fracture and dress the wound. And then – I give him a massage, make exercises with him, give a daily bath to the leg, with water of 45 centigrade for half a hour and I take care, that he does neither gorge nor booze, and every now and then I ask him: Why did you break your leg, you yourself ?"
In other words, just because my conscious ego is following the prompts of my It, doesn't mean that my It isn't free. What has Libert demonstrated other than that I respond to things even before I am conscious of doing so?

1 comment:

  1. 'What has Libet demonstrated other than that I respond to things even before I am conscious of doing so?'

    But precisely that as a cognitive neuroscientist, in other words, experimental evidence.

    However, Stephen Cave, the author of the review you've linked to, appears not to have read Libet very carefully. Here from Libet's Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness: 'On the other hand, it is possible the conscious will, when it appears, acts as a trigger to enable the unconsciously prepared initiative to proceed further to production of the act. In such a case, the conscious feeling of initiating or producing the voluntary act would reflect reality; it would then not be an illusion.' ( p. 145)

    And further: 'I propose, instead, that the conscious veto may not require, or be the direct result of, preceding unconscious processes. The conscious veto is a control function, different from simply becoming aware of the wish to act. There is no logical imperative in any mind-brain theory, even in identity theory, that requires specific neural activity to precede and determine the nature of a conscious control function. And there is no experimental evidence against the possibility that the control process may appear without specific development by prior unconscious processes.' (p. 146)