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Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
Susan Pockett

Susan Pockett is a neurophysiologist from New Zealand who developed an electromagnetic field theory explanation of consciousness in a 2012 article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies and in her 2012 book, The Nature of Consciousness: A Hypothesis.

She says:

The essence of the present hypothesis can be stated in one sentence. It is that consciousness is identical with certain spatiotemporal patterns in the electromagnetic field.

Now if this hypothesis is true, it may not be overstating the case to say that it solves the mind-body problem at a stroke. If the hypothesis is true, then consciousness is not material in the usually accepted sense, but neither is it some kind of non-physical spook (which, being non-physical, is therefore not accessible to scientific investigation). Consciousness (or at least normal human consciousness) is a local, brain-generated, configuration of, or pattern in, the electromagnetic field. A brain-sized spatial pattern in the electromagnetic field is not matter as such, so the hypothesis escapes the main objection to materialism. However, the electromagnetic field does have the easily observed property of affecting matter, so the hypothesis also side-steps the main objection to dualism. Philosophically speaking, this looks like a winner.

Pockett examined the implications for the problem of free will versus determinism (which she doubts can be proved to exist) and of recent studies in neuroscience that challenge freedom of the will (especially the Libet experiments).
Has neuroscience killed free will? The answer depends entirely on one’s definition of free will—and in this case it does not matter whether we are talking about the compatibilist, incompatibilist or libertarian variety. If any of these definitions of free will requires the conscious initiation of one action rather than another, then the answer is yes, neuroscience has killed that kind of free will. There is now an abundance of evidence that voluntary actions are not initiated consciously.

The pioneer in the matter of bringing the idea of conscious free will into the arena of experimental science was Benjamin Libet. His original experiments (Libet et al. 1982, 1983) are now well known: they show that the event-related potential coupled to a spontaneous action (the readiness potential or RP) starts off the order of 350 ms before the subject reports having consciously willed the action. For many years this highly repeatable and methodologically robust result was taken to mean that voluntary acts are initiated pre-consciously. More recently, Pockett and Purdy (2010) showed that when the same action is made not spontaneously but as the result of a specific decision, the RP preceding the action becomes so much shorter that it starts at about the same time as the reported conscious decision to make the action. This is probably explained by the fact that the earlier-onset parts of the RP relate more to expectation or readiness than to the initiation of a specific act: in the decision condition, the subject is so occupied with actually making the required (fairly complicated) decision that they have no processing capacity to spare for getting ready to move. On the face of it, this result restores the possibility that consciousness does directly cause actions.

Backward time referral is still taken literally by neuroscientist Stuart Hameroff. Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR "backward time referral of quantum information can provide real-time conscious causal control of voluntary actions."
A special issue of Consciousness and Cognition in June 2002 was devoted to Libet's interpretation of the long delay between cortical stimulation and conscious awareness of the stimulus. Especially controversial was Libet's interpretation of the delay as the "backward referral in time" of the felt stimulus. In her contribution to the issue, Pockett claimed that "it takes only 80ms (rather than 500ms) for stimuli to come to consciousness and that "subjective back-referral of sensations in time" to the time of the stimulus does not occur (contrary to Libet's original interpretation of his results)."

In 2004, Pockett wrote an article in Consciousness and Cognition on "the death of 'subjective backwards referral'." She cited Daniel Pollen's research in the 1970's to show that Benjamin Libet's idea of a long delay between direct cortical stimulation and the moment of conscious awareness was a consequence of suppression of neuronal activity. Libet's interpretation of the delay as "subjective backward time referral" was discounted by several contributors to the issue. Pockett said that Pollen's "evidence so seriously undermines the data interpretation underlying the notion of subjective backwards referral that it may well have finally buried it."

In the same issue of Consciousness and Cognition, Pollen commented on those who agreed with his analysis of Libet's 1964 paper,

Thus, I believe that our results are consistent with the insights of those who have long suspected a prolonged integrative mechanism and a delayed neuronal activation following threshold direct cortical stimulation Churchland (1981a, 1981b), Glynn (1990, 1991), Gomes (1998, 2002), and especially Pockett (2002), who correctly surmised the existence of a dynamic intratrain facilatory process that we have confirmed at the single cell level. The relationship between intratrain facilitation and a prolonged latency at liminal currents is straightforward. As long as such facilitation is present, it will always be possible to excite a neuron at a lower current than would be required to elicit an action potential with the very first stimulus but only after a sufficient delay for the threshold to be reached.

But the early appearance of the readiness potential still bothers many thinkers. Pockett was concerned that it may "kill free will." However, in her 2013 article If Free Will Did Not Exist, We Would Have To Invent It," she considers three definitions of free will that those experimenting with the readiness potential might be using:

  1. compatibilist free will, when an agent is not externally coerced,
  2. an incompatibilist free will, which could exist if causal determinism were an illusion,
  3. a libertarian free will, when an agent can originate an act with no physical antecedents.
Pockett argues strongly that the existence of causal determinism is unproven, and probably unprovable. She concludes that "causal determinism is not an established scientific fact."

Pockett quotes the SEP definition of determinism as "every event necessitated by antecedent events." There is no such determinism (really pre-determinism) There is however, a statistical or "adequate determinism."

In other more recent work, Pockett has come to accept the evidence from Daniel Wegner and others (e.g., the Libet experiments) that humans do not consciously perceive the initiation of their own actions. Consciousness is a post-hoc fabrication, a confabulated narrative to explain what was done unconsciously. In her 2012 paper, The Electromagnetic Field Theory of Consciousness, she says that it does not directly cause voluntary behavior. So Pockett questions both determinism as the cause and consciousness as the cause of actions.

However, just as full "consciousness" is very rarely involved as causes of our actions, there is no evidence whatsoever that the early appearance of the readiness potential in the Libet experiments has already made our decision.

In her 2004 article, Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?, Pockett criticizes whether the subjects in the Libet experimants were really making a "voluntary" decision.

The movements studied do comply with an everyday (i.e. relatively weak) definition of freely willed actions. However it seems to me quite likely that the subjects may have interpreted the experimental instructions as requiring them to set their brain motor systems in a threshold state and then wait for a random neural event to initiate each action, rather than actually deciding voluntarily when to make the movement. Thus the reported time of the decision to move may actually have been the time at which the subject became aware that this random neural event had happened and the action was under way. Additionally, even if this interpretation is completely wrong and each movement really was preceded by a definite decision to move, this decision could only have been concerned with the ‘when’ of the movement, not the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ of it. Both what the movement would be and how to make it had been decided well in advance. These experiments certainly show that sometimes (and only sometimes, even in these experiments) ‘decisions’ about when to make a particular movement are made preconsciously. But they do not address at all the question of whether larger decisions about what to do and how to do it are routinely made preconsciously.

In our information philosophy analysis, we agree with Pockett that the abrupt and rapid decisions to flex a finger measured by Libet bear little resemblance to the kinds of two-stage deliberate decisions during which we first freely generate alternative possibilities for action, then evaluate which is the best of these possibilities in the light of our reasons, motives, values, and desires - first "free," then "will."

We can correlate the beginnings of the readiness potential (350ms before Libet's conscious will time "W" appears) with the early stage of the two-stage model, when alternative possibilities are being generated, in part at random. The early stage may be delegated to the subconscious, which is capable of considering multiple alternatives (William James' "blooming, buzzing confusion") that would congest the low-data-rate single stream of consciousness.

Selected Works
  • Pockett S. (2013) If free will did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. In Exploring the illusion of free will and moral responsibility. Ed GD Caruso, Lexington Books NY. pp265-272 (View a PDF version of the article)

  • Pockett, S. (2012) The electromagnetic field theory of consciousness: a testable hypothesis about the characteristics of conscious as opposed to non-conscious fields. Journal of Consciousness Studies 19 (11-12) 191-223. (View a PDF version of the article)

  • Pockett S and Purdy SC (2010) Are voluntary movements initiated preconsciously? The relationships between readiness potentials, urges and decisions. In: W Sinnott-Armstrong and L Nadel (Eds) Conscious Will and Responsibility: A Tribute to Benjamin Libet. Eds, New York; OUP. (View a PDF version of the article)

  • Pockett S (2007) The concept of free will: philosophy, neuroscience and the law. Invited Paper: Behavioral Sciences and the Law 25, 281-293. (View a PDF version of the article)

  • Banks WP and Pockett S (2007) Libet's work on the neuroscience of free will. Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, Blackwell.

  • Pockett S., Banks W.P. and Gallagher S. (2006) Does consciousness cause behavior? Cambridge Mass: MIT Press. (View an online version of the article)

  • Pockett S (2006) The great subjective back-referral debate: do neural responses increase during a train of stimuli? Consciousness and Cognition 15, 551-559.

  • "Hypnosis and the death of 'subjective backwards referral'," Consciousness and Cognition 2004, 13, pp.621-625

  • "Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?"Imprint Academic, 2004, pp. 23-40

  • "On Subjective Back-Referral and How Long It Takes to Become Conscious of a Stimulus: A Reinterpretation of Libet's Data," Consciousness and Cognition 2002, 11, pp.144-161

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