Cartesian Theater

by on April 14, 2008 · 22 comments

Tom doesn’t elaborate on why the topic of free makes him angry, but I think the gloss on this article—you might have no free will because your brain makes decisions before you’re aware of them!—is pretty stupid. Obviously, if your brain is the organ that you use to make decisions, you would expect your brain to be engaged in certain kinds of activity before any given decision is made. And obviously if you observed this activity closely enough, you’d find that the process takes a finite amount of time. And obviously you wouldn’t be able to report that the process had completed until it had, in fact, completed. But this doesn’t mean that “your subconscious” is forcing you to do something outside of “your” control. That brain activity was just part of the decision-making process you went through to reach the decision.

As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, the idea that this experiment is creepy comes from what he refers to as the theory of the Cartesian theater: the idea that “you” are really a metaphorical guy sitting at a little control panel inside your brain, telling your brain what to do. Dennett suggests that a lot of people have this view as their implicit model of how the brain works. Hence, people assume that “you” should be able to direct your brain’s decision-making process, which makes it creepy when the brain does something without “your” controlling it. But if examined closely, the notion of a Cartesian Theater doesn’t make a lot of sense. Among other problems, it suffers from the problem of infinite regress: if you’re really a little guy at the control panel of your brain, who’s controlling the little guy? Ultimately, if you want a materialist explanation for human cognition, it’s inevitable that you’ll wind up conceiving human consciousness as an emergent property of the physical system called the brain. And if you’re not interested in a materialist explanation for cognition, then why do you care what a bunch of neuroscientists have to say?

  • http://www.manifestdensity.net Tom

    I probably should have explained a bit more: I was angry (pleasantly so) because a grad student friend of mine had been recounting how her somewhat-famous and certainly well-respected professor had recently opined to her class that computers can’t be considered to make decisions because at no point in what might be called their decision-making process is there anything occurring that is anything other than straightforwardly deterministic.

    As if there’s any evidence that human consciousness is nondeterministic! At that point you get into the usual problem of finding that you want your own decisions to be reliable/nonrandom but also not boringly, mechanically predictable. This is basically incoherent — all that’s left is to retreat into mystery, filing consciousness under other physical processes that we don’t yet understand (see e.g. Roger Penrose’s belief that quantum weirdness is to blame, which I complain about at length here).

    (I should probably mention that none of this falls within the aforementioned professor’s particular field, that he probably is a brilliant guy, etc etc).

    Anyway as Yglesias will tell you I’m not a huge Dennett fan — I think the Cartesian theater is incoherent for the reasons he (and you) state, but that the apparent unity of experience (and the very concept of apparentness!) still needs to be accounted for, and that Multiple Drafts’ conclusion that there’s actually nothing to explain isn’t very satisfactory.

    But I think the Libet experiment is disconcerting for more than just its disproof of the Cartesian executive. It’s a little weird but still basically okay to say that consciousness and the neuronal action of your brain are the same thing observed in different ways. But the time lag demonstrated by these experiments shows that this isn’t the case, and strongly implies that our conscious selves are epiphenomenal, entirely the one-way product of the unknowable whims of a three-pound lump of fat and water.

    In other words you are a slave to a stranger, the dream of a sleeping beast, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That is pretty disconcerting.

  • http://www.manifestdensity.net Tom

    I probably should have explained a bit more: I was angry (pleasantly so) because a grad student friend of mine had been recounting how her somewhat-famous and certainly well-respected professor had recently opined to her class that computers can’t be considered to make decisions because at no point in what might be called their decision-making process is there anything occurring that is anything other than straightforwardly deterministic.

    As if there’s any evidence that human consciousness is nondeterministic! At that point you get into the usual problem of finding that you want your own decisions to be reliable/nonrandom but also not boringly, mechanically predictable. This is basically incoherent — all that’s left is to retreat into mystery, filing consciousness under other physical processes that we don’t yet understand (see e.g. Roger Penrose’s belief that quantum weirdness is to blame, which I complain about at length here).

    (I should probably mention that none of this falls within the aforementioned professor’s particular field, that he probably is a brilliant guy, etc etc).

    Anyway as Yglesias will tell you I’m not a huge Dennett fan — I think the Cartesian theater is incoherent for the reasons he (and you) state, but that the apparent unity of experience (and the very concept of apparentness!) still needs to be accounted for, and that Multiple Drafts’ conclusion that there’s actually nothing to explain isn’t very satisfactory.

    But I think the Libet experiment is disconcerting for more than just its disproof of the Cartesian executive. It’s a little weird but still basically okay to say that consciousness and the neuronal action of your brain are the same thing observed in different ways. But the time lag demonstrated by these experiments shows that this isn’t the case, and strongly implies that our conscious selves are epiphenomenal, entirely the one-way product of the unknowable whims of a three-pound lump of fat and water.

    In other words you are a slave to a stranger, the dream of a sleeping beast, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That is pretty disconcerting.

  • Elliott

    Tom, have you read “If Not God then What?” It is written PSU professor with a similar take on consciousness gave a pretty interesting lecture about his theories of why the human brain is so fascinated by music , mystical experiences and scientific investigation. I went out to buy his book and was quickly dismayed when I realized the bulk of it was geared towards trying to convince me that “free will is an illusion.”

    I want to paint a picture for you that easily explains the results of the Libet experiment for “the other side.”

    If the casual physical processes in your brain do not determine all your actions and we in fact do have some relative degree of “free will,” that means whatever the true nature of the Observer is, it has the ability to interfere, or not, with brain states.

    Which means that when the Subject is asked a question it can sort of delegate the decision making process to subroutines in the brain. The question whether to arbitrarily push a button to my left or right seems so obviously trivial that I would have no problem delegating that decision to pure biological whim. The fact that my brain makes the decision and it appears to take a fraction of a second for it to send that set that order into action is not surprising. This idea that, “you are a slave to a stranger, the dream of a sleeping beast, and there's nothing you can do about it.” comes from the idea that the subject of the experiment supposedly “could not stop” this biological whim (because from your point of view, the subject can do nothing at all), but would reason would it have to. Perhaps an experiment that involved exposure to pornography accompanied by the sudden introduction of mixed (gender) company might better demonstrate the ability of the Subject to interrupt his own brain processes. Obviously this could also be given a purely material explanation, because our experience of shame or embarrassment also show up as activity in the brain.

    I know that, if you're still reading this, you might be thinking to yourself that we have to “make the assumption” of free will for this picture to make sense. You are right. But the only thing that makes your interpretation hold water is the opposite assumption.

    Maybe you should ask yourself why YOU want to disbelieve in the existence free will, since really the experimental evidence says really nothing about it either way.

    Tim Lee, great blog post! I just wanted to comment on your remark that, “this doesn’t mean that “your subconscious” is forcing you to do something outside of “your” control.” Obviously that is not proven by the experiment, but it could be true. Free will, if it exists, is relative. I dont have the ability to fly like the air through superman, so why would I have the ability to control all of my brain states?

    I do aspire to become more in touch with my neural biorhythms through practices such as meditation and biofeedback, but I do not believe we can ever completely control ourselves. To me this is where the great tension between being and doing come into play, in relative and limited nature of free will. Without that tension human life appears like a morbid comedy where we either willfully destroy ourselves or helplessly watch as a clockwork universe winds us all down.

  • Elliott

    My apologies for the numerous typos seen above, yeesh!

  • Elliott

    Tom, have you read “If Not God then What?” It is written PSU professor with a similar take on consciousness gave a pretty interesting lecture about his theories of why the human brain is so fascinated by music , mystical experiences and scientific investigation. I went out to buy his book and was quickly dismayed when I realized the bulk of it was geared towards trying to convince me that “free will is an illusion.”

    I want to paint a picture for you that easily explains the results of the Libet experiment for “the other side.”

    If the casual physical processes in your brain do not determine all your actions and we in fact do have some relative degree of “free will,” that means whatever the true nature of the Observer is, it has the ability to interfere, or not, with brain states.

    Which means that when the Subject is asked a question it can sort of delegate the decision making process to subroutines in the brain. The question whether to arbitrarily push a button to my left or right seems so obviously trivial that I would have no problem delegating that decision to pure biological whim. The fact that my brain makes the decision and it appears to take a fraction of a second for it to send that set that order into action is not surprising. This idea that, “you are a slave to a stranger, the dream of a sleeping beast, and there's nothing you can do about it.” comes from the idea that the subject of the experiment supposedly “could not stop” this biological whim (because from your point of view, the subject can do nothing at all), but would reason would it have to. Perhaps an experiment that involved exposure to pornography accompanied by the sudden introduction of mixed (gender) company might better demonstrate the ability of the Subject to interrupt his own brain processes. Obviously this could also be given a purely material explanation, because our experience of shame or embarrassment also show up as activity in the brain.

    I know that, if you're still reading this, you might be thinking to yourself that we have to “make the assumption” of free will for this picture to make sense. You are right. But the only thing that makes your interpretation hold water is the opposite assumption.

    Maybe you should ask yourself why YOU want to disbelieve in the existence free will, since really the experimental evidence says really nothing about it either way.

    Tim Lee, great blog post! I just wanted to comment on your remark that, “this doesn’t mean that “your subconscious” is forcing you to do something outside of “your” control.” Obviously that is not proven by the experiment, but it could be true. Free will, if it exists, is relative. I dont have the ability to fly like the air through superman, so why would I have the ability to control all of my brain states?

    I do aspire to become more in touch with my neural biorhythms through practices such as meditation and biofeedback, but I do not believe we can ever completely control ourselves. To me this is where the great tension between being and doing come into play, in relative and limited nature of free will. Without that tension human life appears like a morbid comedy where we either willfully destroy ourselves or helplessly watch as a clockwork universe winds us all down.

  • Elliott

    My apologies for the numerous typos seen above, yeesh!

  • Elliott

    Tom, have you read “If Not God then What?” It is written PSU professor with a similar take on consciousness gave a pretty interesting lecture about his theories of why the human brain is so fascinated by music , mystical experiences and scientific investigation. I went out to buy his book and was quickly dismayed when I realized the bulk of it was geared towards trying to convince me that “free will is an illusion.”

    I want to paint a picture for you that easily explains the results of the Libet experiment for “the other side.”

    If the casual physical processes in your brain do not determine all your actions and we in fact do have some relative degree of “free will,” that means whatever the true nature of the Observer is, it has the ability to interfere, or not, with brain states.

    Which means that when the Subject is asked a question it can sort of delegate the decision making process to subroutines in the brain. The question whether to arbitrarily push a button to my left or right seems so obviously trivial that I would have no problem delegating that decision to pure biological whim. The fact that my brain makes the decision and it appears to take a fraction of a second for it to send that set that order into action is not surprising. This idea that, “you are a slave to a stranger, the dream of a sleeping beast, and there's nothing you can do about it.” comes from the idea that the subject of the experiment supposedly “could not stop” this biological whim (because from your point of view, the subject can do nothing at all), but would reason would it have to. Perhaps an experiment that involved exposure to pornography accompanied by the sudden introduction of mixed (gender) company might better demonstrate the ability of the Subject to interrupt his own brain processes. Obviously this could also be given a purely material explanation, because our experience of shame or embarrassment also show up as activity in the brain.

    I know that, if you're still reading this, you might be thinking to yourself that we have to “make the assumption” of free will for this picture to make sense. You are right. But the only thing that makes your interpretation hold water is the opposite assumption.

    Maybe you should ask yourself why YOU want to disbelieve in the existence free will, since really the experimental evidence says really nothing about it either way.

    Tim Lee, great blog post! I just wanted to comment on your remark that, “this doesn’t mean that “your subconscious” is forcing you to do something outside of “your” control.” Obviously that is not proven by the experiment, but it could be true. Free will, if it exists, is relative. I dont have the ability to fly like the air through superman, so why would I have the ability to control all of my brain states?

    I do aspire to become more in touch with my neural biorhythms through practices such as meditation and biofeedback, but I do not believe we can ever completely control ourselves. To me this is where the great tension between being and doing come into play, in relative and limited nature of free will. Without that tension human life appears like a morbid comedy where we either willfully destroy ourselves or helplessly watch as a clockwork universe winds us all down.

  • Elliott

    My apologies for the numerous typos seen above, yeesh!

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