Conceptual Revisions: Intentions and Free Will in the Light of Cognitive Neuroscience

Pim Haselager

1 Introduction

Under normal circumstances, we experience a freedom to engage in or refrain from specific actions: we feel free to do or don’t as we like. From relatively simple choices (tea or coffee), to complex decisions (buy that house or not), to potentially life determining steps (marry him/her or not), we appear to decide and act freely. Barring exceptional situations, we are free to determine our own goals; form our behavioral intentions on the basis of what we perceive, know, believe, feel and desire; and then act upon them. Concepts such as identity, autonomy, and responsibility are interwoven with this everyday image of ourselves and others. For instance, my selection of goals (‘this is what I find important; that’s what I want’) demonstrates aspects of my autonomy, and reveals who I am, by showing what I find important to achieve and what I am prepared to do to pull it off.1 I normally also accept responsibility for my thoughts and actions. I myself chose to do something, and I view the results as consequences of my thoughts and deeds. Sometimes that makes me proud, sometimes ashamed, and at times I may even have to pay for it.

There is a lot to be said for this common sense perspective on ourselves, perhaps first and foremost that we live by it. And, as one great philosopher of common sense, Thomas Reid has said:

[i]f there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them—these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.2

Therefore, it seems reasonable to take such a common sense perspective as seriously as possible for as long as possible. At the same time, several of our most widespread views on ourselves and the world around us, for example, the earth’s relation to the sun, our rationality, the nature of matter, and so on have been challenged by science. And, in such cases, as Sellars has put it:

in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.3

Hence, the common sense perspective on free will is not and should not be immune to scientific challenges. Free will has been debated and challenged for centuries (from, e.g., the time of Pelagius and St. Augustine via Luther, Erasmus, Spinoza, and LaMettrie up to our current times). Recently, the discussion about the (im)possibility of free will has left the perhaps less visible corners of philosophy and theology as a result of neuroscientific research that demonstrates, sometimes dramatically so, the extent to which our thoughts and actions depend on matter, specifically neuronal matter. Whatever kind of media one may want to consult (TV, radio, newspapers, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), one is bombarded by reports about the latest results of cognitive neuroscience, often related to how our intentions can cause actions, accompanied by vivid demonstrations about what can be achieved via neurotechnology (brain imaging or brain stimulation). This had led to, what could perhaps be called, a popular debate about the nonexistence of free will.4

As is often the case in popular debates, extreme positions tend to capture the headlines and the imagination and tend to dominate the discussion. This can easily lead to situations in which only two options seem to remain: either free will exists or it doesn’t. I have briefly indicated elsewhere5 why I find the question of whether free will exists or not a misguided and badly formulated one. Briefly put, it is far from clear to me whether considering free will as a unitary phenomenon, something amenable to a classical style of definition specifying necessary and sufficient conditions, makes much sense. Rather, I suggest to see free will as a hypothetical construct:6 a hypothesized capacity that we need to further investigate to establish whether it is meaningful, existing, and if so, what its properties are. Positing such a hypothetical construct makes sense, as a first approximation, because of an experience of free will we sometimes have and because of the social practices of holding each other responsible or accountable for our thoughts, desires, and actions (as well as their consequences).7 It is not immediately obvious, nor required for the construct to be useful, that such a hypothetical construct will always map neatly to a mental and/or neurophysiological reality. Moreover, free will, insofar as it may turn out to be applicable, could turn out to do so only to a certain and perhaps even variable extent. Hence, here I will make a plea to use the current neuroscientific investigations not as an arbitrator for yes/no decisions. Instead, I will suggest that we should take the research of cognitive neuroscience (CNS) on intentions and free will as providing opportunities for better informed self-reflection and investigations of how we could revise that notion to expand our self-understanding. This also involves a consideration of how certain folk psychological notions, such as intention, may have been too uncritically accepted in CNS.8 In a way, CNS research may be seen as a snake biting its own tail: to the extent that it starts out from traditional concepts such as intention and free will, the results of CNS may help underscore not that the phenomena as such don’t exist at all, but that our way of conceptualizing them is in need of revision. Finally, I will briefly consider what implications revisions in the notion of free will might have for current or potentially future societal practices related to the attribution of responsibility. In all, conceptual revision in the light of neuroscientific progress may improve our understanding of intention and free will, which may benefit both societal practice and stimulate more adequate research in cognitive neuroscience.

2 Preliminaries

As the topic of free will has been extensively debated in a variety of ways, from popular media to arcane academics, and many different perspectives, concepts and positions can be taken, it is perhaps useful to briefly indicate my general outlook before going into details.

Free will, for me, has little to do with the ability to do otherwise. If everything in a situation, our brains, bodies and environments, down to the molecular level, would be 100 percent similar to an earlier situation, we would do exactly the same. I have not seen any explanation that indicates how it could be otherwise, except by introducing an element of chance, and I don’t see what we would gain in terms of meaningful free will if that would be the case. That said, I don’t know whether determinism is true in the sense of the universe being a deterministic system. It might turn out to be; it might also be that quantum mechanistic indeterminacy might be more accurate. But at least temporarily and for the sake of the argument, I’m willing to work on the hypothesis that determinism is true. Determinism, in any case, is for me not the essence of the free will debate. Responsibility is. Attributing, accepting, or rejecting responsibility is a crucial ingredient of our social practices. I am interested in examining whether, and if so how, in the light of scientific discoveries about ourselves (body, brain, and environment) a notion of free will can be developed that supports this social practice of attributing responsibility in a meaningful, not merely metaphorical, way. The question is not about what kind of free will we would like to have but rather what kind of free will we can have, given what we know about the world and ourselves. Amidst so much that we should improve about ourselves, one of the more beautiful aspects of the human species is the capacity for and willingness to engage in an exploration of ourselves and our surroundings. We may not always immediately like what we discover, but as has happened before (e.g., the earth not being the unmoving center of the universe, the ancestry we have in common with apes, and our irrationality), we can learn to live with it and perhaps even use the newly acquired knowledge to improve ourselves.

One of the most crucial questions regarding free will is: how, in virtue of what, can free will exist and have the consequences it is claimed to have? How can I be free to form an intention to act in a certain way and then act it? Without an answer to this question, any theory or perspective regarding free will is based on a promissory note. Note that this question is not sufficiently answered by, for instance, acknowledging that, for example, the brain plays an important role as that would be too vague and potentially incomplete (what is the role precisely, how does it work, and if there are other elements that play a role, what are those and how do they work?). I don’t think science currently has an answer, in part because the evidence is incomplete and in part because the notion of free will needs to be clarified and revised for the question to be answerable. But I do think that the framework of scientific materialism is the most promising candidate to present an answer in terms of the physical law-abiding interaction of material elements. I am not an epistemological reductionist because higher level concepts are necessary to identify and explain the overall patterns we see in reality. However, although I’ve tried hard, I have been unable to see exactly how concepts like ‘emergence’, ‘collective variables’, and ‘downward causation’ could be understood in an ontological, causally efficacious way. That is, at least upon my own closer analyses, higher-order phenomena, essential from an epistemological perspective, derive their explanatory powers from lower-level physical-causal interactions. Hence, I can’t be an ontological non-reductionist.

I would like to remain a realist for as long as possible, in the sense that the answers to our questions to nature (investigations and experiments) display features of something that exists even if no observers would exist. Although these answers unavoidably reflect the questions as well, they not only reflect the questions. Something bites back, and that I call ‘reality’. I am a scientific realist in the sense that I believe that systematic and prolonged scientific investigation does converge, in the long run, toward a more veridical description and explanation of that reality. I am not suggesting that human beings, as a species, have an unlimited capacity to understand everything, and hence it is entirely possible that because of our species’s related limitations, we may not find the answers to certain questions, even though such answers might exist. I also do not think that science, currently, has already conclusively proven that, for example, souls, or nonmaterial causally efficacious phenomena, do not exist. I do think that such phenomena, given what we know, are highly unlikely to exist and that a materialist explanation of the mental is much more likely to capture ‘all there is’. I think this in part because of the converging evidence that science produces in relation to psychological phenomena, its empirical progress and because no alternative, as far as I can see, comes even remotely close to the descriptive, explanatory, and predictive powers of a materialist science.

Materialist science, especially in relation to mental phenomena such as free will, encompasses much more than merely neuronal phenomena. I reject a neurocentric approach because I think cognition and behavior are essentially and continuously embodied and embedded. Our physiological bodies and our social environments are crucial in shaping our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We can’t develop a full understanding of ourselves by focusing only on the brain. In this chapter, I will focus on neuroscientific data and theories, but I’d much prefer to replace every mention of brain by body-brain-environment, if that wouldn’t be so cumbersome.

3 What Cognitive Neuroscience Does (Not) Show

in Relation to Free Will

In a series of experiments,9 Libet et al. identified a brain signal in the supplementary motor cortex, the readiness potential (RP), that appears to reliably precede, by a few hundred milliseconds, the experience of wanting to move. The experimental setup is so famous that it makes little sense to repeat it here. Hence the question arises: if subconscious brain processes precede the intention and/or the action, what does that imply for free will? The awareness of the intention appears after the measured brain signals, so how could intentions be the true initiators of action? According to some, Libet’s experiments are the ‘final death blow’ to the idea that thoughts determine our behavior.10 But having participated in replications and extensions of Libet-style studies, I think any such claim is highly premature. There are many questions one can ask about Libet- style studies, and as these are extensively discussed as well, I will only mention the main categories here.

First, there is the question regarding the operationalization of‘intention’ or ‘will’. What mental process exactly is being measured?11 A decision, wish, intention, volition, or urge? What do participants in experiments think they are being asked to report about their awareness of what is leading up to their finger movements? And how accurate and reliable is their capacity to report such events? Second, what is the ecological validity of performing unprompted, meaningless finger movements for no reason in particular that have no discernible consequences in the real world? The Libet-style experiments have been criticized for lacking ecological validity.12 In these experiments the focus is on self-initiated voluntary actions, where participants engage in actions without being prompted. Yet, societally speaking, the importance of free will seems to lie rather in deliberative action, where someone pursues goals of one’s liking and, on the basis of arguments that one considers to be persuasive, engages in specific actions. Third, one may question the clarity of the data. Here it is important to realize that generally the time differences between RP and intention awareness are averages, not individual case-by-case differences.13 Fourth, the significance of the temporal relation between RP and awareness (and movement) is under debate. Most importantly, one cannot derive a causal relationship between the RP, the awareness of the intention, and the act from the mere observation that brain signals can be measured prior to intention reports and finger movements.14 Finally, the exact nature and role of the RP continues to be discussed. What exactly does the RP represent? How likely is it, for instance, that a brain signal in the supplementary motor cortex is correlated with an intention? Rather, the supplementary motor cortex is a brain area the activity of which is correlated with direct control of body movement and coordination. Hence, activity there may be predictive of, for example, a finger movement rather than a decision or intention to move. As Soon et al. say, it is “unclear whether the Supplementary Motor Area is indeed the cortical site where the decision for a movement originates or whether high-level planning stages might be involved”.15

Given such questions, any claim about a ‘final death blow’ would be, in the words of Mark Twain, ‘an exaggeration’.16 Rather, I suggest such experiments could be taken as illustrations of, instead of proofs for, scientific materialism. The Libet studies, as they currently stand, do not debunk the existence of free will.

However, it is also important to realize that absence of proof is not proof of absence. The fact that there are many issues remaining to be solved or even appropriately addressed only serves as a reminder that any conclusions about the nonexistence of free will would be premature. I think that attempts to use these questions as grounds for an argument that free will does exist would be ill-advised. The questions raised by critical reflection on Libet-style studies are being addressed by different setups,17 and the converging evidence for brain processes being detectable prior to subjective awareness of intention is substantial.

More importantly, there is a more general argument that strikes me as crucial: if it is not in virtue of the body-brain-environment, then how do we make decisions, have intentions, and engage in action? In other words, to reject a neuroscientific perspective on how cognition leads to action, one needs an alternative paradigm that is, from its perspective, empirically and logically reasonably well grounded as well. I do not see such an alternative. If intentions wouldn’t derive their causal powers from material (body-brain-environment) states, how would they have causal effects? In relation to this question I am committed to the working hypothesis that in as far as our behavior is caused, this will be in virtue of the physical law abiding causal interaction of material parts (body-brain-environment). Hence, despite the scientific relevance of the remaining questions, any attempt to ‘save’ free will based on the current lack of complete and fully demonstrative evidence seems as unsatisfactory as claims that it is beyond saving on the basis of the currently available evidence. All the same, our everyday, folk psychology way of talking about it need not map onto the underlying causal-material processes.

As an alternative, I suggest to move away from such a forced binary choice and to refocus on our common sense perspective on what intentions do and what free will is. As indicated in the introduction, the common sense perspective suggests that under normal circumstances, I am free to make up my mind about what goals to pursue and what actions to perform to achieve them. My goals, intentions, and actions are up to me. I propose to examine more closely the notions of‘intention’ and ‘free’ to see what possibilities a conceptual revision might offer as an escape from a forced binary choice.

4 Intentions and the Brain

It may be useful to consider the notion of intention as a first target for revision. From a common sense perspective, the idea is that agents, on the basis of what they perceive, know, believe, feel, and desire are free to develop specific intentions to act, which then, under normal circumstances (unless vetoed, etc.), are put into action. Of course, this need not imply that everything we do is based on an explicit conscious decision as much of our behavior can be automatic, unreflective, or subconscious. It merely means that to the extent that we engage in the practice of describing, explaining, and predicting behavior, we tend do so in terms of beliefs, desires, and intentions. This daily folk psychological framework or craft18 demonstrates its usability on a continuing basis.

It is, by now, a long-standing debate whether this everyday perspective on the role of intentions in action provides an adequate conceptual framework for the study of cognition.19 Traditionally, it has been tempting to take intentions literally, as representations in the brain that play a causal role in the production of behavior. In artificial intelligence (AI), physical symbol models were developed that attempted to capture the role of knowledge, beliefs, desires (goals), and intentions in terms of symbolic representations to be processed according to specific rules.20 In CNS, it is still common for researchers to explore the ‘neural correlates’ of mental phenomena.21 To be sure, this could very well turn out to be a useful, productive way of creating computational models and doing empirical research.

However, it could be worthwhile to consider intentions as ‘hypothetical constructs’—that is, postulated unobserved entities or processes.22 As Dennett suggests, it is useful to engage in an ontologically neutral heterophenomenology, in that we take the reports about the experience of intentions seriously, without thereby committing to the claim that intentions are present in the brain.25 After all, in Libet-style experiments, it may seem that we already know that the intentions are there, and we are ‘merely’ attempting to find their neural correlates (e.g., the RP), but as far as empirical observation goes, it might actually be the opposite. In addition to the finger movements, in terms of hard observables, the RP is more concretely measurable (although see my previous reservations) than the intention, of which only the participants’ reports are empirically available. In “Why We May Not Find Intentions in the Brain” we argued that “intention may not be the most fruitful theoretical construct for investigation into the neural processes underlying action generation and control”.24 Details aside, the basic argument is that in their everyday practical use, intentions play an identifiable, concrete explanatory role. When someone asks me why I’m putting on my coat, my answer is that I intend to go out for a walk and that I believe it to be cold outside. Beliefs, desires, and intentions can be distinguished and identified in their everyday descriptive, explanatory, and predictive usage (this is sometimes referred to as the ‘functional discreteness’ of mental states).25 It may very well be, however, that this functional discreteness of intentions is more a consequence of our everyday explanatory usage than a consequence of its neuronal interpretation. The underlying neural activity is continuous and dynamically complex rather than discrete. In addition, the study of intention has led to a move away from the idea of an intention as a unitary state, moment, or step in the cognitive processes toward action. Instead, different phases of the process of intending now form the leading model. Verbaarschot, Haselager, and Farquhar distinguish between five different phases involved in Libet-style intentional action (see Figure 7.1).26

When subjects decide to participate in an experiment, this reflects a ‘global whether’ decision: once participating in the experiment, there is a general willingness to engage in actions conforming to the experimental instructions. A second phase consists of waiting (e.g., for a signal or for the moment of acting) during which random fluctuations in neural activity can be found.27 A third phase that can be distinguished is a ‘deciding what’ phase, when a particular type of action (e.g., moving left or right finger) is prepared. This can evolve into a fourth phase of deciding when to move, for example, when the neural fluctuations pass a certain threshold. Finally, a possibility of vetoing the intended act constitutes a potential fifth phase. Different models are obviously possible and may help explain the occurrence of differentially timed reports and brain signals. In any case, it is clear that an intention as a particular mental state occurring at a particular point in time is, at best, a huge oversimplification, and, at worst, a thoroughly misleading assumption for neuroscientific research. It might simply be that during the process of acting, when probed for experiencing or explaining, reports about intentions can be generated without there being intentions identifiable as such getting caused by brain processes.

112 Pim Haselager

The process of intending consists of five phases (top box)

Figure 7.128 The process of intending consists of five phases (top box): (i) global whether decision, (ii) waiting, (iii) deciding what, (iv) deciding when, and (v) local whether decision. The phases in the process of intending run from abstract (global agreement to participate) to specific (knowing which action to perform and when to perform it). The middle box shows the reported onsets of intending. Phases in the process of intending can be suggested to be linked to distinct neural correlates in the brain (bottom box). The neural preparatory processes for action run from activity in higher cognitive areas to lower cognitive areas. dMPFC: dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, RCZ: rostral cingulate zone, SMA: supplementary motor area, RP: readiness potential, ERD: event related desynchronization.

Schurger, Sitt, and Dehaene have sketched an alternative where random fluctuations in brain activity may pass a threshold, leading to an action.29 It is, in fact, precisely the completely open, reason-less nature of Libet-style actions (‘when you feel like it’) that may make the system very sensitive to noise and random fluctuations. Actions might take place, and explanations invoking intentions provided, while neuronally speaking, there was nothing more than noise. In another way of making the same point, Schmidt et al. suggest that acts are more likely to take place during the negative phase of slow, ongoing oscillations.30 The implication here again is that it is not a meaningful identifiable intention that makes the difference but simple threshold passing influenced by nonmeaningful neural activity fluctuations. Indeed, Verbaarschot, Haselager, and Far- quhar31 suggest that the RP, in the final analysis, may be identical to the contingent negative variation (CNV) occurring prior to an expected stimulus.32 As time passes during an experimental condition, the chance of moving increases, and the RP might merely reflect the neuronal anticipation of the upcoming movement.

The point here is not to claim that these alternative perspectives are true and the traditional views on intentions and RPs are false. These issues are far from being decided yet. The point is rather to open the possibility of revising our notion of intention and examining the implications for the search of neural correlates. Mainly, intentions could be viewed as hypothetical constructs, postulated on the basis of a conceptual framework applied in daily practice but not necessarily referring or relatable to internal structures or processes that can be identified precisely by neuroscience. Before considering the implications of such a revision in our understanding of intention, I now would like to consider a second revision, namely, that of ‘free’, as in ‘free will’.

5 Free From What and to Do What With?

Regarding the everyday usage of ‘free’, it needs to be asked ‘free from what?’ and ‘to do what with that freedom?’ Here an important but often neglected difference can be made between freedom from the environment and freedom from the brain. It is the latter, I suggest, that is the main intuition underlying everyday interpretations of free will. This is sometimes expressed in phrases such as T use my brain’ in the sense of an T that initiates a thought, desire, or action that then gets prepared and executed by the brain and body. T (in some unspecified way of being me) wants or intends something, and then my brain enables me to do it.

Everyday interpretations of having free will in this sense mean that T think, intend, decide, and act not depending on but, at crucial points or moments, independently of the brain. In everyday contexts (and sometimes in neuroscientific debates as well), the freedom involved seems to be intended as ‘free from the brain’. That, at least, would explain why so many people are interested in (or shocked by) the possibility that Libet- style experiments indicate that intentions and volitions seem to follow, instead of direct, brain processes. One example is presented by Lamme:

The prefrontal cortex makes the behavior much less directly environmentally driven. Apparently also more free, at least for the one who perceives the behaviour from the outside. In reality it remains a matter of balance between different brain structures that work mainly at different temporary scale. That doesn’t make them less determined.33

Apparently, it is the freedom from the brain that is important, not the freedom from the environment. Yet, despite the perhaps intuitive attractiveness of interpreting free will as being free from the brain, I suggest precisely that this makes a good candidate for revision. Upon reflection it turns out to be hard to understand: as my brain is a part of me, bow could I be free from it? Just like I can’t breathe without my lungs, or pump blood without my heart, how would I intend, decide, or act without my brain?

Indeed, why would I want to be free from my brain? What could I do with that kind of freedom? If it would lead to different decisions, volitions, or intentions than I currently make, in what sense would they be ‘mine’? Who would T be if not constituted by my life experiences and personality features as stored or implemented in my brain? Rather, it is my brain, and my body, that enable me to make the choices, select the goals, and act the way I want. Together they constitute me. Together, my body and brain enable my freedom with respect to the environment. It provides me with experience-enriched evaluations of environmental stimulation and action possibilities. Of course, sometimes we regret what we chose, intended, or did. We feel we should have acted differently. But such evaluations and insights are made possible by the brain as the brain enables us to respond differently to similar stimulation. In short, brains allow a relative freedom from the environment both in time and space in that they make it possible to let the past influence the present and future or allow non-present stimuli (via internal representations, such as memories or imaginings) to shape our thoughts and actions. This creates the possibility to distance ourselves from the immediate push and pull of environmental stimuli or internal drives. It allows us to say no to our first behavioral impulses, and it is there that the origin of responsibility and moral assessment of behavior lies.

In a very interesting paper,34 Brembs points out that instead of searching for a metaphysical or theological interpretation of free will, we may do well to focus on a scientific one, starting with the observation that complete predictability would be evolutionary disadvantageous. Organisms without ways of varying their first reflexes would be extremely predictable, making relatively easy targets for predators. Although reflexes are efficient and fast, lack of flexibility constitutes an evolutionary weakness. When brains grow in complexity, a more subtle balance becomes possible between behavior that is determined completely by the environment and internal sources and/or modulators of behavior. Initially, mere random fluctuations help achieve evolutionarily useful types of unpredictability, enabling organisms to not blindly repeat the same response. Further developed brains allow experience-based variability (‘learning’), adding goal-efficiency to mere flexibility. With Brembs, I’m suggesting to locate the origin of free will in this internal, brain-based capacity to initiate or vary behavior, going beyond mere randomness. Unlike systems that are completely driven by impending physical forces (such as stones), or purely reflex-based organisms (one may think of ‘simple’ insects perhaps), organisms with a reasonably developed central nervous system could be more or less ‘free’ from their environment.

This is an appropriate point, I hope, to make a more general point regarding the primary focus on the brain that is so characteristic for many recent debates on intentions and free will. I think this seriously underestimates the contributions of the body and the environment to cognition and behavior. Although the brain is of crucial importance, it is far from being the only factor. My body provides me with a repertoire of sensory and motor capacities that are coupled in various configurations and operate in response to a variety of environmental and bodily input (e.g., presence of food or hunger). It is out of that dynamic interplay that mediated by my brain, my behavior emerges. Behavior and thought originate out of the complex interplay of body, brain, and environment, and focusing solely on the brain, excluding the contributions of the latter two, strikes me as a form of neurocentrism that I reject, as already indicated.35

6 Revisions and Responsibility

A crucial question, of course, is what such revisions might imply for our notions of morality and responsibility. I do not see why a brain-based relative form of freedom from the environment, and intentions as claims to authorship of action would render responsibility attributions, either by oneself or by others, obsolete. Rather, such a view might make the main motivation for ethical judgments more clearly visible. It is precisely because human beings are capable of distancing themselves from the immediate forces of their biological and environmental stimuli and requirements that it becomes possible to create standards for the evaluation of behavior. Brains play a crucial role in making that possible by adding experience-based variation to more random forms of variation. Embodied embedded brains also enable authorship claims in the form of intention reports that summarize the main cognitive (interpretations, reasons, and feelings) and environmental (events) factors that present the agent as socially acceptable as possible. It is also in virtue of some specific features of their brains that humans can apply such standards to assess concrete actions and their consequences as well as the reasons provided for them in intention reports. Such a revision might imply that evaluative standards are better understandable in terms of healthy brains rather than in terms of absolute norms or natural or divine laws. Healthy body- brain-environment systems have a certain capacity for experience and education-based self-control that liberates them from mere instinctual or reflex behaviors. It is for this reason that we normally wait a substantial amount of years before considering individuals as ‘adults’, with the particular rights and duties that come with that label. To put it (perhaps overly) simply: societies consist of networks of interacting individuals, embodied embedded persons, that on the basis of culturally developed standards, expect a certain amount of self-control, enabled by their body-brain-environment constellations, that come with the attribution of responsibility. When such self-control is not properly demonstrated, societally accepted forms of blame can be admonished, together with the imposition of societally accepted behavioral restrictions or cognitive reeducation practices. When the required self-control turns out not to have been possible, for example, due to physical or experiential damage, this can be taken into account in the implementation of behavioral restrictions or clinical or educational steps.

Of course, there is a bullet to be bitten here. If this brief and incomplete sketch is in the right direction, and freedom from the brain is not only unlikely to be possible but also not required, and assuming that the brain is a deterministic system (which it may very well not be,36 but I’m assuming it here momentarily for the sake of argument), then we also have to revise a traditionally important aspect of free will, namely, that we could have done otherwise. Here too I admit to having difficulties in understanding exactly what ‘could have done otherwise’ might mean or why it is considered to be so valuable. Of course I understand (and regularly experience) the thoughts and feelings of regret after I have done something. I should have done that differently, and given my capacities for reflection and self-control, in principle I could have acted differently. However, I do not see how it would be possible, or even desirable, to be in that exact 100 percent similar type of situation (down to the molecular level, body, brain, and all relevant aspects of the environment) and then still having had the possibility of performing a different action. If it would be by chance, by random fluctuations (as the work quoted previously suggests), then what value would it have for a form of free will that can support genuine self-determination or responsibility attributions? If it would nor be by chance, then how, in virtue of what, would that have been possible? Rejecting freedom from the brain implies that if I would be exactly (but genuinely exactly, down to the level of molecules) the same in exactly the same condition and circumstances, I would have done the same. Otherwise, how would I have been me?

7 Conclusion

Conceptual revisions, especially in relation to concepts that we hold dear, both individually and as a society, are not necessarily easy. The scientific picture, incomplete as it may be, indicates that we are bipedal great apes, possessing linguistic skills often used for confabulating societally acceptable reasons for actions that are generally driven by subconscious processes on a small planet circling around an insignificant sun in a remote area of the universe. The revisions of intentions and free will examined in this chapter may undermine other aspects of a cherished human self-perspective. It is conceivable that being free comes down to possessing a certain amount of flexibility in relation to internal and external stimuli and that intentions find their most concrete and identifiable implementations in socially relevant reports rather than in brain states. Such revisions may carry the promise to gain better insights in who or what we are and how we function, but they also come at the price of showing us in a less favorable light than perhaps we would like. Soci- etally speaking, such revisions might lead to a reevaluation of certain practices that may not be accomplished without certain forms of unrest or even upheaval. That is not necessarily a bad thing, although it does require caution, carefulness, and consideration with alternative possibilities and perspectives. Above all, it requires an avoidance of overly simple answers or premature claims of proof.


  • 1. Haselager (2005).
  • 2. Reid (1764, section VI); see also Moore (1925).
  • 3. Sellars (1963,173).
  • 4. Dennett (2003), Soon et al. (2008), Swaab (2014), Filevich, Kiihn, and Haggard (2013), and Harris (2012).
  • 5. Haselager (2013).
  • 6. Dennett (1991b) and MacCorquodale and Meehl (1948).
  • 7. Mecacci and Haselager (2015).
  • 8. Haselager (1997), Uithol, Burnston, and Haselager (2014), andVerbaarschot, Haselager, and Farquhar (2016).
  • 9. Libet et al. (1983).
  • 10. Lamme (2010,211).
  • 11. Mele (2010).
  • 12. Mecacci and Haselager (2015).
  • 13. See Verbaarschot, Farquhar, and Haselager (2015) and Verbaarschot, Haselager, and Farquhar (2016) for detailed discussion.
  • 14. Radder and Meynen (2013), Khalighinejad et al. (2018), and Schurger (2018).
  • 15. Soon et al. (2008,543).
  • 16. Twain (1879). twains-quote-about-mark-twains-death-are-greatly-exaggerated.
  • 17. For example, Verbaarschot, Farquhar, and Haselager (2019) and Verbaarschot, Haselager, and Farquhar (2019).
  • 18. Dennett (1991b, 135).
  • 19. See Sellars (1963), Feyerabend (1963), and Churchland (1979, 1981) for some early inputs.
  • 20. For example, Newell (1980).
  • 21. For example, Wairagkar, Hayashi, and Nasuto (2018) and Pereira et al. (2017).
  • 22. MacCorquodale and Meehl (1948).
  • 23. Dennett (1991a).
  • 24. Uithol, Burnston, and Haselager (2014).
  • 25. See Stich (1983), Haselager (1997), and Uithol, Burnston, and Haselager (2014).
  • 26. Verbaarschot, Haselager, and Farquhar (2016), based on Brass and Haggard (2008), and Brass et al. (2013).
  • 27. Schurger, Sitt, and Dehaene (2012).
  • 28. Verbaarschot, Haselager, and Farquhar (2016).
  • 29. Schurger, Sitt, and Dehaene (2012).
  • 30. Schmidt et al. (2016).
  • 31. Verbaarschot, Farquhar, and Haselager (2019) and Verbaarschot, Haselager, and Farquhar (2019).
  • 32. Alexander et al. (2016).
  • 33. Lamme (2010,119, my translation).
  • 34. Brembs (2011).
  • 35. Haselager et al. (2008) and Van Dijk et al. (2008).
  • 36. See, for example, Khalighinejad et al. (2018) and Schurger (2018).


Alexander, Prescott, Alexander Schlegel, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Adina L. Roskies, Thalia Wheatley, and Peter Ulric Tse. 2016. “Readiness Potentials Driven by Non-Motoric Processes.” Consciousness and Cognition 39: 38-47.

Brass, Marcel, and Patrick Haggard. 2008. “The What, When, Whether Model of Intentional Action.” The Neuroscientist 14 (4): 319-325.

Brass, Marcel, Margaret T. Lynn, Jelle Demanet, and Davide Rigoni. 2013. "Imaging Volition: What the Brain Can Tell Us about the Will.” Experimental Brain Research 229 (3): 301-312.

Brembs, Bjorn. 2011. “Towards a Scientific Concept of Free Will as a Biological Trait: Spontaneous Actions and Decision-Making in Invertebrates.” Proceedings of the Royal Society В 278 (1707): 930-939. https://doi: 10.1098/ rspb.2010.2325.

Churchland, Paul M. 1979. Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Churchland, Paul M. 1981. “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes.” The Journal of Philosophy 78 (2): 67-90. https://doi:10.2307/2025900.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1991a. Consciousness Explained. London: Allen Lane.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1991b. “Two Contrasts.” In The Future of Folk Psychology, edited by John D. Greenwood, 135-148. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking Press.

Feyerabend, Paul K. 1963. “Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem.” In The Mind/Brain Identity Theory, edited by Clive V. Borst, 142-156. London: Macmillan.

Filevich, Elisa, Simone Kiihn, and Patrick Haggard. 2013. "There Is No Free Won’t: Antecedent Brain Activity Predicts Decisions to Inhibit.” PFoS One 8 (2): 1-11.

Harris, Sam. 2012. Free Will. New York: Free Press.

Haselager, Pim. 1997. Cognitive Science and Folk Psychology: The Right Frame of Mind. Thousand Oaks: Sage Press.

Haselager, Pim. 2005. “Robotics, Philosophy and the Problems of Autonomy.” Pragmatics & Cognition 13 (3): 515-532. https://doi: 10.1075/pc.l3.3.07has.

Haselager, Pim. 2013. "De vrije will wordt mede mogelijk gemaakt door de hersenen (Free will is made possible in part by the brain. Text in Dutch).” In Vrije wih Fen hersenkronkel?, edited by Palmyre Oomen, 45-61. Zoetermeer: Klement.

Haselager, Pim, Jelle van Dijk, and Iris van Rooij. 2008. “A Lazy Brain? Embodied Embedded Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience.” In Handbook of

Cognitive Science, edited by Paco Calvo and Antoni Gornila, 273-290. Oxford: Elsevier.

Khalighinejad, Nima, Aaron Schurger, Andrea Desantis, Leor Zmigrod, and Patrick Haggard. 2018. “Precursor Processes of Human Self-Initiated Action.” Neuroimage 165: 35^17.

Lamme, Victor. 2010. De vrije wil bestaat niet [Free Will Doesn’t Exist], Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker.

Libet, Benjamin, Curtis A. Gleason, Elwood W. Wright, and Dennis K. Pearl. 1983. “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential).” Brain 106 (3): 623-642. https://doi: 10.1093/ brain/106.3.623.

MacCorquodale, Kenneth, and Paul E. Meehl. 1948. “On a Distinction between Hypothetical Constructs and Intervening Variables.” Psychological Review 55 (2): 95-107.

Mecacci, Giulio, and Pirn Haselager. 2015. “A Reason to Be Free.” Neuroethics 8 (3): 327-334.

Mele, Alfred R. 2010. “Testing Free Will.” Neuroethics 3 (2): 161-172.

Moore, Gerald E. 1925. “A Defence of Common Sense.” In Contemporary British Philosophy, edited by J. H. Muirhead. 2nd series. Reprinted in Philosophical Papers, by G. E. Moore (1959).

Newell, Herbert. 1980. “Physical Symbol Systems.” Cognition 4 (2): 135-183.

Pereira, Joana, Patrick Ofner, Andreas Schwarz, Andreea Ioana Sburlea, and Gemot R. Muller-Putz. 2017. “EEG Neural Correlates of Goal-Directed Movement Intention.” Neuroimage 149: 129-140. https://doi.Org/10.1016/j. neuroimage.2017.01.030.

Radder, Hans, and Gerben Meynen. 2013. “Does the Brain ‘Initiate’ Freely Willed Processes? A Philosophy of Science Critique of Libet-Type Experiments and Their Interpretation.” Theory & Psychologу 23 (1): 3-21.

Reid,Thomas. 1764. An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense. Charleston: Etheridge. into_the_Human_Mind.

Schmidt, Stefan, Han-Gue Jo, Marc Wittmann, and Thilo Hinterberger. 2016. ‘“Catching the Waves’ - Slow Cortical Potentials as Moderator of Voluntary Action.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 68: 639-650. https://dx.doi. org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.06.023.

Schurger, Aaron. 2018. “Specific Relationship between the Shape of the Readiness Potential, Subjective Decision Time, and Waiting Time Predicted by an Accumulator Model with Temporally Autocorrelated Input Noise.” eNeuro 5 (1): e0302-17.2018. https://doi:10.1523/ENEUR0.0302-17.2018.

Schurger, Aaron, Jacobo Sitt, and Stanislas Dehaene. 2012. “An Accumulator Model for Spontaneous Neural Activity Prior to Self-Initiated Movement.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (42): E2904-2913. https://doi:10.1073/pnas.l210467109.

Sellars, Wilfrid. 1963. Science, Perception and Reality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Soon, Chun Siong, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze, and John-Dylan Haynes. 2008. “Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain.” Nature Neuroscience 11 (5): 543-545. https://doi:10.1038/nn.2112:543.

Stich, Stephen. 1983. From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Swaab, Dick. 2014. We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s. New York: Random House.

Twain, Mark. 1897. https://www.mentalfloss.coin/article/562400/reports-mark- twains-quote-about-mark-twains-death-are-greatly-exaggerated. The New York Journal, June 2,1897. In Emily Petsko. 2018. “Reports of Mark Twain’s Quote About His Own Death Are Greatly Exaggerated.” Mental Floss. https://www. death-are-greatly-exaggerated.

Uithol, Sebo, Daniel C. Burnston, and Pim Haselager. 2014. “Why We May Not Find Intentions in the Brain.” Neuropsychologia 56: 129-139.

Van Dijk, Jelle, Roel Kerkhofs, Iris van Rooij, and Pim Haselager. 2008. “Can There Be Such a Thing as Embodied Embedded Cognitive Neuroscience?” Theory & Psychology 13 (3): 297-316.

Verbaarschot, Ceci, Jason Farquhar, and Pim Haselager. 2015. “Lost in Time . ..: The Search for Intentions and Readiness Potentials.” Consciousness and Cognition 33: 300-315.

Verbaarschot, Ceci, Jason Farquhar, and Pim Haselager. 2019. “Free Wally: Where Motor Intentions Meet Reason and Consequence.” Neuropsychologia 133. https://doi.Org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2019.107156.

Verbaarschot, Ceci, Pim Haselager, and Jason Farquhar. 2016. “Detecting Traces of Consciousness in the Process of Intending to Act.” Experimental Brain Research 234 (7): 1945-1956.

Verbaarschot, Ceci, Pim Haselager, and Jason Farquhar. 2019. “Probing for Intentions: Why Clocks Do Not Provide the Only Measurement of Time.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 13.

Wairagkar, Maitreyee, Yoshikatsu Hayashi, and Slawomir J. Nasuto. 2018. “Exploration of Neural Correlates of Movement Intention Based on Characterisation of Temporal Dependencies in Electroencephalography.” PLoS One 13 (3): 1-23.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >