The brain’s I: the self in action

by Katalin Balog

This is the third of a series of four essays on the mind and the brain. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.


Conscious will is our curse and blessing. It can seem our highest faculty, to be used for good or ill; it also can seem as the source of a particular kind of disgrace – or rather, lack of grace. As Heinrich von Kleist points out in his short story “On the Marionette Theater“, the conscious effort to succeed can be the death of innocence and genuine charm; the ruin of the dancer and the actor; more generally, can cause any of us to seem stilted and inauthentic – as the political arena amply testifies.

Nevertheless, conscious will, our capacity to act or refrain from action voluntarily, is widely held to be our most human capacity, a condition of human dignity and worth. But there is reason to think that on the most natural understanding of what this capacity involves, there is no room for it in the scientific world view.

HeadwBrain_editedThere are two, radically different ways to understand the mind: one is to look within, to understand oneself (and by extension, others) as a subject, a self; the other, to study the brain and behavior, in ways that are similar to our study of any phenomenon “out there” in the world. The first method is subjective, humanistic, and is essentially tied to a particular point of view. The second method is objective, it is based on observation of brain and body and it is accessible to anyone, irrespective of their personal idiosyncrasies or their point of view. Its best embodiment is the scientific method. How the subjective fits in with the objective is one of the most vexing questions both in philosophy and life.

In the first two parts of this series of essays, I have looked at how each side can – mistakenly – see the other as wrong or irrelevant. In this essay, I will continue to explore the conflict between the two approaches in our understanding of agency and the self. In the last part next month, I will argue for the need to better balance the role of the subjective and the objective in theory and practice.

I. Acting in the world

The scientific revolution of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries challenged not only our picture of the cosmos and our understanding of nature, making for a progressive “disenchantment” of the world; it also brought into relief conflicts between the scientific world view and the humanistic world view over agency and the nature of the self.

Descartes, who deeply appreciated the significance of the scientific revolution, still thought our will was our most perfect faculty allowing us to “bear in some way the image and likeness of God”. He said that God's will “does not seem any greater than mine…”, adding that “when the intellect puts forward something for affirmation or denial…. our inclinations are such that we do not feel we are determined by any external force”. Most of us not only feel, but find it natural to believe that our will and the actions that flow from it are not determined by external force or circumstance, in fact not determined by anything prior to the act of will, including our disposition, character, beliefs and predilections, desires and opinions – and yet that these acts of will are in some sense under our control, are an outpouring of the activity of the self. One might wonder if this belief is characteristic only of latter day Westerners; but there are indications that it is in fact universal across cultures.

This view is grounded in our experience of our own agency; however, it is at odds with the scientific view of the universe according to which the world unfolds according to impersonal laws of nature. Whether these laws are understood as deterministic or probabilistic, as most physicists understand modern physics to be, there is a conflict between the two views.

In 1814, in A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, the physicist and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace came up with the idea of a demon, a superior intellect

which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

The force of Laplace's idea doesn't ride on the possibility of perfect foreknowledge (it might really be impossible for there to be such a being) – though that makes the story all that more unsettling – it is his articulation of causal determinism that gives the story its punch. For it seems that if your body's precise location at any moment is determined by prior physical states of the universe together with the laws then it cannot be true that you are free to do or not to do something such as clap three times as you read this. The objective view of the body as governed by law comes into direct conflict with the subjective sense of agency.

It is hard to accept determinism; it is deeply at odds with our intuitive sense that – unlike rocks, tires and barrels – our future is open with possibilities, and that we are – at least in part – the authors of that future. We think of ourselves as standing apart from the great chain of being that weaves together everything else (see here a beautiful work by Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss on the way things go). It is tempting to think that our bodies, though they are part of the physical universe, obey our own commands and not the impersonal laws of nature that governs everything else. There seems to be a radical breach in nature brought about by the presence of subjects. Science can tell us only so much about the physical universe; the role and nature of subjects can only be investigated from the inside.

One might think that the conflict between our concept of agency and our understanding of nature goes away with the modern scientific understanding of the laws of nature being probabilistic, so indeterministic. If the laws are probabilistic, they and the past leave the future open. You will either clap your hand or not upon reading this; both events have a certain probability, and the outcome is not determined by what went before and the laws. Our choices perhaps are not fated then and so responsibility is possible. But is indeterminism enough to bolster our subjective sense of agency? On this picture, the choice just happened to go one way or another, in accordance with laws that do not determine the outcome, but specify their probability. The sense that it is we who created the future; that it is we who made the difference in what happens is still doesn't seem to be recovered. In a law governed, indeterministic universe, our behavior still follows the same impersonal patterns played out since the beginning of time as rocks, table and barrels do. We still need to add the special activity of the self that overrules, or rather, interacts with the laws that govern the rest of nature. It has also been argued that in a purely law-governed universe without self-legislating subjects, there isn't any room for responsibility. Misbehavior and vice then is fated and is better treated like natural disaster rather than moral failing to be punished. Good deeds similarly don't merit reward.

Descartes, fully appreciating the connection between laws and kind of freedom he upheld, rejected that the human body is entirely governed by impersonal laws of nature; he thought the laws of nature have gaps that leave room for the sui generis activity of the subject. David Hume, and Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, altogether rejected the incompatibility of freedom with a completely law-governed universe and found freedom not to require the kind of indeterminacy and agent control Descartes and some of his other contemporaries, like George Berkeley and Thomas Reid held it did.

The compatibilist view is that an action of mine is free just in case I did it because I decided to do it, and had I decided to do otherwise I would haveacted otherwise. On this view, lack of compulsion and constraint – such as someone pointing a gun to my head – is what makes me free. Had you decided to clap three times upon reading this, you would have done it – so you were free to do otherwise, but you chose to not clap which was a free choice. This can be true even if the universe is entirely governed by law, deterministic or probabilistic. The kind of constraint and necessitation involved in the operation of laws has nothing to do with human freedom, on this account.

The upshot is that the compatibilist is unperturbed by the scientific image of a law-governed world. They concede that – as the objective standpoint reveals – human choices are governed by impersonal law, but they hold that this is irrelevant from the point of view of a free agent engaged in practical reasoning and decision making. What is relevant is the weighing of reasons and coming to a decision based on those reasons. It is this process that gives us the subjective sense that our actions are not law-governed. But, according to the compatibilist, we are simply wrong about that. As a matter of fact, for an action to be something you have done, it has to be produced by certain kinds of causes in you undergirded by natural law. For instance, when you chose to clap, that is something you do, rather than something that just happens, because what caused you to do it is your desire to do it – and not, say, someone pushing or forcing you to do it.

Compatibilism has been famously denounced by Kant as a “wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery”. But what exactly is missing in human terms from a law governed universe? Why is it essential to our sense of acting freely that nothing in the past (including our character, values, our beliefs and desires, etc.) determines our actions? And how do we make sense of the idea that an action is our own doing if it is not determined by anything? Discussions of this often rely on images and metaphors to convey the point. It is often said that in a world governed entirely by natural law people would be like robots, or marionettes, with no movement of their own. And, the story goes, people are not like that. If Laplace's demon, or God, whispered to you anything about your future decisions, isn't it clear that you could always rebel? As for the sense of authorship of our decisions, isn't that something we directly experience?

These stories and images are suggestive. Still, it is notoriously difficult to make sense of the difference between something simply happening without a cause and something being done without a cause, as freedom from the subject's point of view seems to require. In such a scenario the future is open, but the agent is still in control. But how is that possible? Medieval Christian philosophers came up with the idea – later espoused by Descartes, Berkeley, Reid and many others in contemporary philosophy – that there is a special way in which subjects can cause things to happen without having been caused by anything themselves. The idea is that not all causal explanation appeals to events, such as some brain event leading the event of the muscles in my hand and arms moving in a certain way; free choices, in particular, are caused by the subjects themselves – and not events such as desires or wants in that subject. In an updated version of Aristotle's example in his Physics, the clapping movement of the hands and arms is caused by an event in the brain which is caused by…. a subject. The important thing is, the subject's causing an event in the brain is not to be understood as some mental event in the subject causing the brain event – on such an understanding we would still be presented with the human being as simply part of the great chain of being bound together by law and not chaos; we wouldn't have explained how the self can break from the laws that would hold it in bondage. On this view, “agent causation”, i.e., the subject's causing an event in the brain is an entirely sui generis process, yet it is a basic feature of the world known to us from our own experience.

This idea is seductive; yet it is hard to understand what this capacity of the self – to move things unmoved by anything else – amounts to, and how can it better underwrite our social practices of moral praise and blame based on individual responsibility. Since the subject is not determined by anything (not even probabilistically), its activity is inexplicable. And since it is inexplicable, it seems more to be the random outpouring of spontaneity than a solid foundation for responsibility, praise and blame.

Free will and agency is one of the prime battle fronts between the scientific and the subjective view of the world. The proponents of agent causation claim that our experience of agency warrants major revisions to the scientific world view. They think that the subjective view reveals that – at least where human agents are involved – physical processes are not entirely law governed. These are very strong claims flying in the face of sophisticated, overwhelming scientific consensus. Small wonder that there is a pushback from the other side. Neuro-scientists like Libet, Wegner and others question if there is even such a thing as free will at all, never mind compatibilist or not. Though such claims are not based on serious enough scientific evidence they fit into a trend in neuro-science that makes a point of skewering even the most deeply held beliefs based on introspection and subjective reflection. And while I can't imagine scientific evidence that would make it rational or even intelligible to deny the existence of subjective experience, and probably even human agency, I also think that the boundaries need to be maintained on the subjective side as well. Agent causation is a case in point. Its proponents claim that it is firmly rooted in the experience of agency and our concept of a person; but the subject as unmoved mover seems a highly theoretical construct with only a tenuous connection to the experience. Take Sartre's description of freedom as ‘absolute' in Being and Nothingness:

For human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes to it either from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept….it is entirely abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making itself be, down to the slightest details.

Most of us find this over the top as a reflection on actual experience – though perhaps that is the point, that we need to wake up to more radical possibilities – but even if it was accurate as a description of experience, such experience, and the project of radical self-making it suggests, is not incompatible with the law-governed universe.

The guiding idea of the traditional debate about free will – that conscious deliberation and choice is the most uniquely human capacity – also merits some critical reflection. The literary tradition is by no means unanimous in its celebration of the conscious will. In the short story On the Marionette Theater, Kleist observes that in our fallen state conscious will and deliberation robs our actions of grace and beauty; being given to conscious deliberation, sometimes described as willfulness, is not always considered a good thing. From Homer to Dante, many thinkers observed that our best often comes when we do not think or will. As Dostoyevsky says in Notes from the Underground, “reason is a good thing, that can't be disputed, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man's intellectual faculties, while volition is a manifestation of the whole of life.”

This perspective suggests that it might be a mistake to look at the conscious will as a special capacity standing apart from all others and from the rest of nature; we should rather see it as part of a continuum of mental states and abilities. Not a captain; but part of the team.