Selfhood, Agency and Free Will

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

It may be obvious by now that I want to use the terms ‘self’, selfhood, or ‘our selves’ in a very specific way. I want to use them in the sense of ‘self-interest’ or ‘selfish behaviour’, as pointing toward what we are at the most basic physical or biological level, what we are as a consequence of our evolutionary inheritance. I’m going to reserve the common terms ‘myself’ and ‘ourselves’ for the more mundane meaning of the term, one that refers to what we are when we think of ourselves, of what our identity might be. When therefore I argue that we ‘mistake ourselves’ it is to this notion I am referring, namely the way that we typically mistake ourselves, that is our real identity, for ‘our selves’.

The physical and biological view of selfhood that I propose here seems initially to contradict some of our deepest intuitions, particularly those around free will and agency. Surely, I am an agent directed at the world, and surely as an agent I am free to initiate behaviour, selfish or otherwise?

I think we can answer the first part of the question with a definite ‘yes’. Everything that we know about our physical composition and our behaviour supports the notion that we and indeed all living entities are agents directed at the world. Neither we nor our ancestors could have survived without being such. In this sense a tree or a flower is an agent much in the way that we are. Natural organisms are created with a certain capacity to absorb nutrients and survive and reproduce in the environment they inhabit. In so doing they and we are animate organisms which have a physical perspective from which they operate and which enables both to enjoy a certain degree of stability and longevity. But all of this can be described without the need for a self or ‘inner nature’ that transcends those embodied, adaptive qualities.

Yet our sense of being freely-willing subjects remains problematic. I feel that I know right now that I could raise my left hand or not raise it; and the ‘I’ that has this choice is surely what I can justifiably regard as my self? It is only in the last forty years or so that experimental evidence, evidence derived from behavioural studies of human volunteers, has been assembled to suggest that this may not be the case. For example, in Benjamin Libet’s much-quoted experiments, reported originally in 1983, consciousness of willing an intended physical action was found to arise on average 350 milli-seconds after the beginning of the formation of the ‘readiness potential’ that is required for an action involving muscle activity to take place. Libet also showed that once the readiness potential was sufficiently activated there was a gap of a further 200 milliseconds before muscle movement began. Thus, consciousness of willing something appears to come too late (roughly half a second too late) in the causal antecedents of the action to be responsible for that action. Subsequent experiments reported in 1999 and 2008 confirmed these results.

On the basis of these and similar experimental findings the psychologist Daniel Wegner contended that our consciousness of free will can be demonstrated to be illusory. He maintained that the actual cause of a physical action went straight from non-conscious neural processes to the action itself. What he found separately, but broadly simultaneous with this effective cause, was a separate pathway from the same non-conscious, neural initiating event to a conscious thought about the action, which led the thinker to form the illusory notion that it was this conscious thought that gave rise to it. The latter path is slower than the former, thus supporting the evidence that the timing of the apparent ‘decision’ to move a limb occurs after rather than before the readiness potential has begun to form. Thus, free will is an illusion in three steps. Firstly, our brains (non-consciously) begin the process of initiating actions and carrying them out. Secondly, although we are ignorant of the underlying mechanisms, we become aware, at least on some occasions, of thinking about the action and mistake this thought for an intention. Finally, the action occurs after the thought about the intention has independently formed, leading us to leap erroneously to the conclusion that our intention caused the action. In effect, we go from non-conscious ‘intentions’ that are purely neural events, to conscious ones that we interpret as decisions to act, and from there construct the entire mechanism of conscious, freely-willed, self-led agency.

Wegner argued that this ‘we think we did it’ syndrome is itself closely linked to memory and evolved as a way of keeping track of our actions. The alternative of tracking non-consciously all of the influences and antecedents to our decisions is so expensive in resources that natural selection has opted for a much more elegant solution- let the conscious self-model own it and latch on to it. Authorship of our actions therefore helps us to navigate through the complexity of our daily lives. It is a compass helping us to steer a course of survival and replication, but there is no ship other than the body itself and no captain standing on the deck. We function by virtue of a fabulously complex network of neural and other physical processes and the phenomenal culmination of these networks is the self-model which creates, usually, a single interpretation of how everything fits together.

In this way the conscious, willing agent is a complete illusion. There is a will, or at least there is intentional behaviour, but it is entirely embedded in the brain and body, and there is no need for a separately existing, conscious ‘self’ to account for its efficacy. There is a will but it is senseless and thoughtless, rather the sense we have of it is created as a by-product, or at most as a witness of and testifier to, non-consciously initiated behaviour. The sense we have of willing is really just a recording of what our body and brain have determined.

It remains the case that cultivating a sense of self and agency helps us to deal in a practical way with the tension between determinism and free will. At one level we can see that we are material objects in a material world and must therefore be at the mercy of deterministic forces. If everything in my life has brought me to this point and this time, how can my next action ever be truly free? This logic notwithstanding, I have a strong sense that I am free. Without a sense of self and agency such a view would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Thus a seemingly incorrigible sense of self enables us to regard ourselves as agents, thinking and acting positively in the world. The philosopher Julian Baggini likens this to a trick, not a conjuror’s trick, but to that of a mechanic who makes a bundle of components function as if it were an integrated whole, rather as a car functions as a vehicle although it is ‘just’ an assembly of parts. Because the trick works there is a sense that selves really exist (just as cars really exist). But of course the self, at least in this definition of it, is a function of physical, neurological components that will one day disperse. Moreover, in this view selfhood is not a cause of the perceived unity of consciousness, but is rather made possible because of embodied processes that underlie that perceived unity.

From a strictly physicalist position it is difficult to see how free will could break into the deterministic chain of events occurring in the brain and impose on them a new or altered direction. But by identifying the agent that acts with a self that carries out the task, rather than ascribing those actions to the non-conscious or pre-conscious brain and body, we acquire the conviction that consciousness as such has a causal role in behaviour. But the reality is that all of the things that we experience as conscious actions are the result of neural functioning with consciousness as one of its accompanying features but not its cause. In fact, it is impossible from the inside to distinguish a serial model (that is, one in which conscious experience is a required step in, say, decision making) from a parallel one in which consciousness is merely an accompaniment of that process. The brain encounters many moments at which ‘decisions’ have to be made, but it is neural processes, brains acting non-consciously or pre-consciously, rather than any immaterial ‘self’, that are responsible for the outcomes.

In any event these findings are perhaps not as damaging to our sense of freedom as might appear at first glance. What they show is that our feeling of willing something is, at least on certain occasions and possibly on all, not the immediate cause of the action, rather it is a ‘post-event’ interpretation by our brain, and one that is fallible. However, so-called compatibilists argue that free will would nonetheless hold if we are in sufficient control of our actions that they are in accord with consciously-held desires, beliefs, dispositions and values. Such desires and values will have been held at the time the action was undertaken and we are naturally disposed to act in accordance with those background dispositions. Thus, radical freedom at the point of the ‘decision’ is denied to us; if the conditions for our actions are created by our dispositions, and our decision is not freely willed, we have no choice at that point but to act accordingly.

Nonetheless we are ‘free’ in the wider sense in that our dispositions and values will have been shaped through our life history, and thereby bring in as the actor the individual we have ‘chosen’ to be, or at least allowed ourselves to become. Indeed, this is arguably a more meaningful definition of freedom in that it allows us latitude in developing our character and forming our intentions, in pursuing, in effect, a ‘good life’, or at least one that accords with our character. In this process consciousness in its broadest sense (and particularly in the more archaic sense of ‘conscience’) would still be causally effective in creating the framework for our decisions and behaviours. However, the sting in the tail is that 'we' in this context means not selves but rather bodies, albeit bodies and brains guided by accumulated values and dispositions.

The other error lurking in the debate on free will is the notion that we are integrated entities with a single purpose or set of purposes. Rather, as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt has argued, there are first-order and second-order wants, first what one wants and second whether one wants what one wants. This is perhaps most clearly seen in addiction. I might want something that is potentially addictive simply because the experience is pleasurable; the desire is a visceral response to some stimulus and repeated exposure augments the appetite for it. But at a second-order level I might also recognise that the desire is damaging and at that, perhaps more rational, level I do not want the want. This then is the internal contradiction that the addict encounters, and indeed it is encountered by all of us in varying degrees. In the light of this, free will is about having one’s first-order and second-order wants in harmony. Freedom of will is wanting what you want, and in this sense would form part of an individual’s character that would need to be nurtured, developed and perfected.

What I think these findings point us to is something much more valuable than the ability to do whatever we want, namely the ability to develop character and act in character. This is a life-long project that lies at the heart of the freedoms we possess.

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