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  • Free Will in the Light of Neuropsychiatry
  • Sean A Spence (bio)

Self awareness is . . . one of the fundamental, possibly the most fundamental, characteristic[s] of the human species . . . an evolutionary novelty; the biological species from which mankind has descended had only rudiments of self-awareness, or perhaps lacked it altogether. Self-awareness has, however, brought in its train somber companions—fear, anxiety and death. Man is burdened by death. A being who knows that he will die arose from ancestors who did not know.”

Dobzhansky (1967)

“What complicates life is having to make choices. The person who has his choices made for him lives simply.”

Peter Hoeg (1993)

If the notion of free will is to be retained by philosophers, psychiatrists and psychologists, then it will be a free will which is essentially non-conscious. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that a conscious free will (in the sense of consciousness initiating action) is incompatible with the evidence of neuroscience, and the phenomenology described in the literature of normal creativity, psychotic passivity, and the neurological syndrome of the alien limb or hand. In particular the work of Libet and others who have directly stimulated the brain and measured activity from its surface leads to the conclusion that subjective states (be they sensory or intentional) are preceded by predictive neural activity. Subjective phenomenology is temporally distinct from the initiation of “voluntary” action. In addition it will be argued that free will is more than a belief and that it comprises a perceptual sensorimotor component. Free will is conceptualized as a three component phenomenon consisting of a perceptual, non-linguistic experience of freedom, an experiential belief which is linguistic, and related to a specified action in time, and an abstract belief which is linguistic but remote from any particular action and akin to philosophical discourse (the abstract belief or otherwise, in free will). A theoretical explanation of some of the pathological phenomenology of possession of action is offered in terms of temporal considerations. The direction of action within mental/virtual space is hypothesized to be a function of the temporal sequence of its initiation and awareness of the latter “reaching” consciousness. It is suggested that perturbation of this temporal sequence may lead to the misattribution of host-as-alien-initiated action. Work of this kind, which is beyond subjective introspection, is necessary if we are to develop adequate models to use in conjunction with modern investigation techniques.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the status of free will in the light of evidence accrued from neuroscience. In particular it will question whether traditional notions of free will (relying as they seem to upon conscious awareness) are compatible with the temporal properties of consciousness.

Given the breadth of this undertaking the literature may appear partisan, deriving mainly from the fields of neurology, psychiatry and phenomenology. This is true. The emphasis will be upon examining free will in real case scenarios. It is [End Page 75] hoped that this will lead to some original insights into this area, and that this may provoke debate of what must be one of the central features of human phenomenology—the experience of free will.

Free Will

The following is an example of an attempt to address the problem of free will taken from a philosophical encyclopedia:

The cluster of problems about the freedom of the will arises from an incompatibility. . . .

On the one hand we believe that we can sometimes choose whether to act in a certain way or not; . . . that we are responsible for so acting or refraining from action; . . . that for those parts of our history which do not lie within our choice we cannot be held responsible.

On the other hand we believe that nature is uniform, that whatever happens results from and can be explained by a set of causes and conditions, and in particular that our actions result from our inherited character as modified by environment.

[I]f our actions arise from an inherited character as modified by our environment, then it would seem that we are no more responsible for our actions than we are for our inherited character and environment.

(Urmson 113. Paragraphs and italics...

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pp. 75-90
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