In carrying out a conscious action, brain activity travels from the prefontal areas to the relevant areas such as Broca’s area in the case of speech. If science can pinpoint the brain activity that precedes and correlates with the performance of actions, what need is there to bring the notion of “conscious acts” as part of the explanation of how actions get started?
The general context is that if every physical event in the universe is determined by other physical events, there is no need for metaphysical notions such as “soul”, “consciousness” and “free will” as explanations for the physical event of an individual carrying out an action. This stance can be called the deterministic stance.
Those who disagree with deterministic views (and agree with soul-ists views), often claim that the basic of human conscious acts is based on quantum processes or chaotic processes. A response to those who hold those views would be that firstly, if quantum processes are truly random, then it just means that if conscious acts are based on quantum processes there is no agency behind them. And if conscious acts are chaotic processes (as opposed to stochastic processes) it still means that they are deterministic.
Feeling of will
The persistence of soul-ist views is a testament to how strongly we feel that we are the agents of the actions we make. In a way, those feelings are reinforced because every time we experienced them, an action happens, just as we would expect. It seems that feelings of will correlate with physical actions. But it is not always the case.
Action without feeling of will
In 19th century, a mode of communication with the dead called table-turning became popular. This way of communication was supposed to be based on tilting the table so as to choose a sequence of letters that would make up a message. English physicist Faraday devised an experiment that showed that the table-turning was due to unconscious muscular actions by the spiritualist sitting before the table. When the spiritualists performing the table-turning were made aware of this, the table-turning ceased. After questioning, it became apparent that they had not been aware that the spiritualists did not know that they were moving the table with their fingers. This is case of an action without a corresponding feeling of will.
Feeling of will without action
In a previous post, Libet’s experiments were mentioned. Brain activity preceded the participant’s “awareness” of his action. It turns out that Libet’s discovery was predated by neurophysiologist William Grey Walter. He placed electrodes in the participant’s motor cortex and he asked them to manipulate a slide projector. Participants pressed a button to change the slides. After the experiment was over, Walter told the participants that the button was fake. The slides changed as a result of activity in the participants’ brains. In this case, there was a feeling of will without a corresponding (real) action. Another case of feeling of will without a corresponding action is sleep paralysis where an individual wishes to move his body but there is no corresponding action.
Illussion of will
The results of Libet’s and Walter’s studies suggest that rather than something associated with our bodies called “consciousness” being the source of our actions, it is the brain activity that carries this actions and somewhat later, some brain activity gets to interpret the meaning of this brain activity and conceptualised it as an intention, once the action happens we link that action to the intention. Repeating this practice over time, reinforces this idea that somewhere in the brain there is “something” called “consciousness” that decides what to do.
Illusions of the brain
The human brain as a very neat record when it comes to playing illusions. Apophenia refers to the experience of seeing patterns and meaning where there is none. The Gestalt school of psychology is based around the idea that the brain “fills the gaps”. Is figure A a white triangle, or is it just a set of three incomplete circles?
What about this picture? Most of us would call this a face even though it is not necessarily so. If a human drew this, we could feel justified to call this a face. But the justification is not there when something resembling a face is found in nature. We are so used to associated a vast array of different shapes to a human face that it sometimes backfires when we start thinking that we are seeing faces everywhere.
Just like the reinforced association to a vast number of shapes to a human face can become difficult to overcome, the feeling of will can also become difficult to overcome. It is like overcoming a habit that has been and is reinforced every second our lives.
The notion of “conscious actions” as synonymous with “volitional acts” is incompatible with a deterministic worldview. And several experiments like Libet’s and Walter’s question the mere possibility that the notion of “volitional acts” can be something more than a pattern of activity in our brains. Do we have any hope to overcome the deeply rooted feeling that our “consciousness or/and our thoughts” is in control of our actions?