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  • Commentary on “Free Will in the Light of Neuropsychiatry”
  • G. Lynn Stephens (bio)

A necessary condition of our having free will is that we initiate some of our actions by our own will or decision. Spence argues that, in light of certain empirical findings, we can accept that willing causes action, only if we acknowledge that willing is a non-conscious phenomenon. “If the notion of free will is retained. . . it will be a free will which is essentially non-conscious. . . . [A] conscious free will (in the sense of consciousness initiating action) is incompatible with the evidence. . . .” I shall argue that Spence’s conclusion depends upon a highly questionable understanding of what it is for a decision to be conscious.

The evidence to which Spence refers above comes from experimental studies by Libet. This work suggests that, at least for simple motor performances, we become aware of willing the action only after the act has been initiated. This raises the possibility that our subjective experience of willing an action generally follows rather than precedes initiation of the relevant act and, hence, does not cause that action.

What does all this entail concerning the causal efficacy of willing or deciding? Spence carefully refrains from drawing the conclusion that decisions never cause actions. Rather he concludes that “conscious decisions do not cause acts. . . . “Our decision or freedom is illusory (if by these terms we mean conscious phenomena).” We can continue to maintain that our decisions sometimes initiate actions, but only provided that we regard our decisions as non-conscious.

In order to evaluate the claim that conscious decisions do not cause actions, we need to distinguish two questions: (1) Does my decision, of which I am conscious, cause me to do A? and (2) Does my being conscious of my decision cause me to do A?

We might answer (1) in the affirmative, but (2) in the negative. That is, it might be true that my decision to do A caused me to do A and that I was conscious of that decision, but false that my being conscious of my decision caused me to do A. Indeed, we might suppose that, although my decision caused me to do A, I did not become conscious of that decision until after I had done A. How could this be? Suppose that my subjective experience of deciding to do A results from an (internal) perceptual process and that this process takes time. In that case it is possible that, having decided to do A, it requires more time for me to become conscious of that decision than is required for the decision to initiate my doing A. By the time I become aware of my decision, I have already done what I decided to do.

The evidence Spence offers is incompatible with the hypothesis that the subjective experience of [End Page 97] my decision to do A causes me to do A, but quite compatible with the hypothesis that my decision to do A, of which I was conscious, caused me to do A. When he expresses his point by saying, “decisions to act arise prior to our consciousness of them,” or “The role of consciousness in volition is not that of initiator,” he is drawing the conclusion warranted by his evidence.

However, he goes beyond his evidence when he says, “Thus our decision or freedom is illusory (if by these terms we mean conscious phenomena),” or “Conscious decision do not cause acts.” To justify these conclusions he needs to argue that something counts as a conscious decision only if we become conscious of it at precisely the instant at which it occurs. (Compare: Something counts as an event that we see, only if we begin to see it precisely at the instant at which it occurs.) Absent some defense of this view, a defense provided nowhere in Spence’s paper, we may continue to maintain that conscious decisions do cause actions.

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Commentary: Commentary by Stephens

Response: Response to the Commentaries

G. Lynn Stephens

G. Lynn Stephens, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Alabama...

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pp. 97-98
Launched on MUSE
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