On the 300 Millisecond Issue I

In Free Will, page 8, Sam Harris describes the research of Benjamin Libet in the 1970’s relating to the timing of certain human brain functions. Libet used EEG scans to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex region can be detected approximately 300 milliseconds before a person is consciously aware of having taken a simple decision to move his or her finger or wrist.

Many commentators, Harris amongst them, feel these findings deal a substantial blow to our common notion of free will. In Harris’ words,

These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next — a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please — your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision”, and believe you are in the process of making it. (Free Will, pg. 9)

Harris goes on to query, “Where is the freedom in that?” (Free Will, pg. 9).

Although on the face of it, these findings do seem to threaten a notion of free will, it is not clear to me that they really threaten all notions of free will. Rather, although I agree they do deal a blow to what might be called conscious free will, there might be other notions of free will that, as Daniel Dennett puts it, “are still worth having”.

I am not trying to claim originality here, but let’s propose another kind of free will, we’ll call it “unconscious free will”, and see if that cannot help to advance us beyond Harris’ position. And while we are at it, let’s imagine a more complicated situation than Libet’s decision to move a finger.

It is a hot day in an even hotter city, and I decide to buy an ice cream cone. The nearest vendor has just chocolate and vanilla, I take a quick decision, and opt for chocolate.

Let’s assume that in this scenario the 300 millisecond issue applies, and my mind was in fact made up about a third of a second before I myself felt I had taken the decision. Does this kill off all notions of free will? I would venture not.

We are all aware that our minds frequently are at work in ways of which we are not conscious. My personal, favourite example is that I seem to have a mental block against the name of a certain actor whose work I rather enjoy. The block in fact is occurring to me right now: I can see his face, name some of the films he has been in, it is right on the tip of my tongue, but I just cannot now come up with his name. No problem: from past experience, I know full well that later in the day, without even thinking about it, his name will come to me, it will pop right into my stream of thought, right out of the blue. (By the way, Harris cites this lack of control over our thoughts as another blow against free will, stating, again on page 9, but elsewhere as well, “…I cannot even decide what I will next think…” …but that is a topic for another blog.)

It is not clear that this unconscious mental processing diminishes my free will in any sense, even given that I don’t actively control it. Indeed it is quite useful (Alan Bates was the actor’s name, and as foreseen, it came to me sometime later — to sharpen the point, as if of its own volition — when I was thinking of something entirely different.)

Let’s imagine the 300 millisecond pause is in fact a process of unconscious deliberation in choosing my ice cream cone. “Oooh, chocolate or vanilla? Weeeellll, normally I like chocolate better. But the last time I ordered here, I had a vanilla, and it was really good. Vanilla it is. Wait, no, chocolate is my favourite, variety is the spice of life, chocolate it definitely is.”

Is it a lack of free will if this deliberation process (imaginary though it might be) occurs unconsciously, in the same way that some silent little ferret in my brain digs around, looking for Alan Bates’ name? Do we have to be conscious of our deliberations in order to declare their results an act of free will?

Some would argue yes, presumably Harris amongst them. (Although I accept it is a dubious proposal to put words into Sam Harris’ mouth.) Perhaps such thinkers would argue, if you are not consciously aware of the deliberation process, you are controlled by it.

But is this argument true? Can we not imagine ways in which we consciously control the unconscious deliberation process?

Let’s imagine a related mental exercise. Many weeks before the ice cream decision, I decide I want to learn to appreciate wine more, so go on a wine-tasting course. The teacher makes many detailed points about how our taste buds work, what it is we taste in wine, how best to appreciate wine, and so on. One of the points he or she makes is that it is important to taste the same type of wine, the same vintage even, over and over again. It is only through such repetition that you come to learn the true nuances involved.

So, I find myself convinced by this argument, and as it seems reasonable that this trick would apply to types of food and drink as well, I resolve generally to use it in other food choices. This decision, too, might be “taken” by some unconscious process in my brain 300 milliseconds before I am aware of it. But nonetheless, the decision IS taken, and over the course of the following days, I have ample to time to review and even rescind it.

Fast forward to the ice cream decision. Due to my wine decision, my unconscious ice cream deliberation takes a different turn. Although chocolate is my favourite, my previous choice was vanilla, and maybe through repetition, I can learn to appreciate vanilla better. Although I am not aware of these deliberations, they are informed by a previous decision I have made, which has become conscious, and which I have consciously not altered. So as a result, what would have been a chocolate decision becomes a vanilla one instead.

Unconscious, yes. But devoid of free will? No.

I think not, because I don’t believe freedom only lives and breathes in the isolated moment,  in the milliseconds of time that are available to us when we take a quick decision. More often there is what I would call a free continuity leading up to such choices. That will be the subject for another blog, but I believe this free continuity is even better than the “freedom only in the milliseconds” model, as the latter leads to a kind of tyranny of the impulses.

From this point of view, one can say that Libet’s discovery does not deal a blow to free will. Rather, those 300 milliseconds could be the time in which genuine deliberation occurs quickly, and unconsciously, but freely, before we are even aware of having “taken a decision”.

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