Tuesday 18 April 2023

The Relationship between Free Will and Consciousness

Today's post is by Lieke Asma at Munich School of Philosophy, on her recent paper “The relationship between free will and consciousness” (Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2022). 

Lieke Asma

Even though Benjamin Libet’s experiments on voluntary action have been criticized extensively by both neuroscientists and philosophers, his ground-breaking research did put one topic firmly on the agenda: what exactly is the relationship between free will and consciousness?

Most philosophers agree that if all our conscious intentions would be epiphenomena, we would not decide for ourselves what to do. Self-determination, a crucial condition for free will, would be an illusion. Relatedly, many scholars have argued that Libet did not study those intentions relevant for free will proper

Real choice is not about moving your wrist at a certain moment, but making plans for the future, for example to buy a house or to plan a trip. These intentions typically are the result of conscious deliberation. In this picture, the relationship between self-determination and consciousness is captured in terms of conscious formation of intentions.

In my recent paper The relationship between free will and consciousness, I argue that conscious formation intentions is neither sufficient nor necessary for self-determination. Firstly, it overlooks the problem of deviant causal chains. To use an example from Donald Davidson: a climber may consciously form the intention to loosen his hold of the rope in order to rid himself of the weight of another climber, but the intention may unnerve him so that he loosens the hold accidentally. Even though loosening his hold was caused by a consciously formed intention, what happened was still an accident. 

Secondly, many philosophers have recently convincingly argued that in order to act for reasons, which is taken to be crucial for self-determination, we do not need to consciously deliberate. Often, we simply already know what the right course of action is. Conscious deliberation does not add anything to the quality of the action.

How, then, if at all, are self-determination and consciousness related? In my view, the answer lies in the character of the action itself. I adopt the view that reasons for action are not mental states or facts, but actions at a higher level of description. For example, the reason for which I choose to buy a house in a particular city is living in that city. 

From that perspective, real choice, or free will proper, is not about whether I have consciously deliberated about what to do, but whether my decision amounts to a genuinely different action at a higher level of description. It matters whether I buy a house in that city or in a village close by, but it doesn’t matter whether I buy the fifth or sixth house in the same street. That is, to the extent that both houses fit my action at a higher level of description equally well; if one house has a larger garden and I enjoy gardening, I should choose that house. 

In this proposal, more consciousness does amount to more self-determination: the better I understand what I am doing at a higher level of description, i.e., what a good life amounts to, the better I know which specific actions I need to perform in a particular situation. A person who can form the intention at a high level, for example to be compassionate, to be a good partner, or to take care of their health, and knows how to translate this into concrete, specific actions, is most free.

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