A technician explains measurements whilst a scientist explains observations.

Conscious free will and Empiricism

The free will debate is often characterised as a debate about whether we can make decisions that are not simply mechanically determined. It asks whether our decisions are as inevitable as the movement of a car's wheels once the gear train is in motion or whether there is something more to human life than just one event pressing on another. However, although these questions are interesting the empirical approach shows that the problem of free will is far more serious.

Try taking a conscious decision right now. You may be sitting reading but sit back and try to decide to do something. When I sit back and take a "conscious" decision my eyes might focus on a finger or I might have some tension in my leg and then the thought "I will move this finger" or "I will move this leg" pops into mind. It is obvious that non-conscious parts of my body and brain are creating this conscious experience because it just pops into mind. This raises an interesting problem: do we ever have conscious decisions or do decisions just pop into mind?

There is a logical flaw in the concept of simple, conscious, free will because if you are to consciously decide to "will" something to happen this conscious decision cannot just pop into your mind. If it just popped into mind the decision itself would be non-conscious. To make a conscious decision you must consciously decide that you are going to consciously decide that you are going to consciously decide that..... and so on ad infinitum. The only alternative to this infinite regress is to accept that what we believe to be conscious decisions are usually just things that pop into mind - the decision occurs in our experience but we did not make the decision consciously .

Neuroscientists have demonstrated this non-conscious nature of "conscious" decision making by discovering that preparatory electrical activity in the brain can precede a "conscious" decision by 0.2 to 7 seconds (See Time and conscious experience). When a decision is taken the timing of mental and neural events is such that the neural events precede conscious experience by substantial amounts of time*. The measurements of brain activity confirm the obvious logical point that you cannot know you have made a decision until you have made it!

This means that the only form of "conscious" decision that is feasible is like "biofeedback" in which the conscious state evoked by an event either enhances or depresses the future likelihood of the event. Conscious experience would then allow the acquisition of skills by providing feedback after each trial. Similarly, by rehearsing events mentally it might be possible to test the effects of events on conscious experience and amend future, non-conscious processing appropriately. This would also allow us to rehearse decisions before actually applying them to the world, it would allow us to think "suppose I moved my finger, what would that be like?" without actually moving the finger. Notice that I am not talking about a rehearsal in the non-conscious parts of my brain, I am asking whether introducing a rehearsal into my conscious mind can affect the outcome of the rehearsal in ways that might not occur for non-conscious rehearsals.

In the light of this analysis the proposal might be made that we could have "conscious" decisions if a conscious state can modulate the likelihood of particular actions.

Can the state of my mind affect the non-conscious parts of my brain? Well, the fact that I can write about the form of my conscious experience shows that this is possible: if the state of my mind, called "my conscious experience", can be described then there must be a physical link from this state to the written word via the non-conscious parts of the brain that control writing. Of course, the non-conscious parts of my brain have loaded my conscious experience with most of its data content so the only unknown component of my experience, as far as the non-conscious part of my brain is concerned, is the form of this experience (its multidimensional geometric layout). The most important aspect of this form is the continuity of the content over time. A simple signal that indicates that an image or sound that has popped into my conscious experience is consistent or inconsistent with a sound or image that is already in my experience might be sufficient to provide the required communication of this continuity. The exact mechanism for such a signal is obscure but it might be speculated that interference could occur at the point in the present instant where the vectors that constitute experience are directed.

If conscious experience is able to influence my decisions by training the non-conscious parts of my brain then why would I want to train myself to have a particular conscious state? Am I able to meditate and bring the non-conscious parts of my brain around to the conclusion that a particular state of my conscious mind is preferable? If this is indeed possible then I may have a conscious will that is free because, as is discussed in time and conscious experience, the selection of a mental state may involve a selection of a particular quantum state of my brain. The selection of a particular quantum state is a non-deterministic process and my will would be free, albeit delayed and not too good for rapid decision taking.

Other resources:

See http://www.blutner.de/philom/consc/consc.html for an interesting review of Libet's experiments.

* It is possible to train subjects to respond to flashing lights by pressing a button or by blinking to such an extent that this action becomes a reflex. Subjects who respond to events in a reflex fashion should, in principle, be able to deliver a response before they would report that they have made any decision to respond. This, along with the fact that you can only know you have made a decision once you have made it means that experiments on "conscious" decisions should be able to show the following conditions. Firstly brain activity must always precede the notification that a conscious decision has been made, secondly it should be possible to withhold an action so that the "conscious" decision always precedes the action and thirdly it should be possible to train reflexes so that some actions definitely precede their associated "conscious" decisions. The various experiments on the neuroscience of decision taking have confirmed all of these conditions.


  1. I'm no scientist, but this is a conclusion that I came to about a year ago, and it is nice to see that someone with some professional understanding has the same idea.

  2. I really resonate with this post.
    It seems to me that the unconscious brain/mind always being predictable, estimative and deterministic had one problem, it needed some extra level of flexibility and variability to make it more adaptable. So it developed the outer layer of the neurocortex as a powerful simulator that has a purpose to verify and validate whatever neuro-programming going into the lower layers. Is the human nature that created too many possibilities for humans to try and not enough time, so we enabled ourselves to have all these visions, hopes, lucid dreams, illusions, mental movies etc. that even they seem out of our chioce and control, they are the only things that enebale us to have choice and free will.

  3. two words... homunculus argument

  4. Emet: "two words... homunculus argument"

    There is a huge problem with the popular interpretation of the homunculus argument. The homunculus argument is that: if pre-twentieth century physics is correct then there would need to be an observer in the brain to observe what the brain observes and an observer in the observer's brain to observe what it observes ...etc.. This is then interpreted as an unimpeachable argument that observation cannot happen in the brain - a weird interpretation when the alternative, that pre-twentieth century physics is false, is a known fact. The homunculus argument is that a theory disproves an observation so, do you abandon the theory or reject the observation? (see Materialists should read this first)

  5. Thoughts: the homunculus argument can be applied generally to imply the reduction of an argument in an attempt at resolving said argument through the conjuring of the same argument as evidence. Your argument in 'Conscious free will and empiricism' is an example.

  6. Which argument are you referring to?

  7. Perhaps I should explain further. What I am proposing is that we have a state of mind that allows us to be comfortable or uncomfortable with actions. If we are comfortable with a set of actions this trains us to permit them to occur again. This is largely information processing and is non-conscious except for the "state of mind", the "state of mind" is a geometrical phenomenon (see Time and conscious experience) and not necessarily a simple deterministic occurence.

  8. This idea operates under the assumption that conscious thought imply free will... which they don't. Conscious or not, its physical brain activity. There is absolutely no room for free will in the objective world. This hardly deserves discussion.

    1. Yes, physical activity has form and function. The physical activity that creates conscious experience has a four dimensional form - something that is not forbidden by physics. See Time and Conscious Experience

  9. The free-will/determinism debate is over to-day. It has gone on for 2500 years. That is long enough. So listen and learn, while I solve it once and for all. First of all, the word "free-will" is an oxymoron. It's a stupid word and there's no way to define it. The word you want is "freedom." And that is a biological term. "Free-will" is a nonsense term. It has nothing to do with morality or religion or anything else. "Freedom," on the other hand, has to do with biological organisms. Every biologist knows that there is a "hierarchy" or "degree" of freedom in the animal world. The lowliest organisms (vegetables, for example) have very little freedom until they became "movers." A tree doesn't have the mobility or sufficient intelligence to make an antibiotic to cure itself if it becomes sick. Trees are not free to do much of anything. They can't move, they just stand there. What a stupid aspect of nature it is for a tree to just stand there. Stupid trees, no freedom there. But once you have the ability to move, you have alternative routes in front of you. A robin may fly to any number of trees. He doesn't DECIDE on any particular tree, he just flies onto a branch in the tree. There is no "free-will" here, it's just a stupid robin flying onto a tree branch. The farther up you go in the "hierarchy of being" the more alternative paths you may have. When you get to be a human, there is a lot of freedom of movement that you have. When McVeigh decided to bomb the federal building, it had nothing to do with morality or religion. It only had to do with how free he was as an animal. He planned it for months and then he set off the bomb. He was a human and he had enough freedom as a higher form of life to do it and he did. It was a terrible thing to do, and he was a terrible person for doing it, but no god gave him "free-will." There is no god. He was just an animal with freedom, and much more freedom than bears or cats have. Now I hope you "get it." There never has been an instance of free-will in the history of the earth. There is only the freedom evolved for each species, according to how complex it is. The more complex the species, the more freedom it has. So there! I have spoken. Now don't give me any more of that free-will nonsense. The debate is now over. Period. There is no retort here. I am having the last word. If you want to say anything, you'll have to change the subject because the free-will debate has to-day been settled. There's nothing more to say except maybe to thank me for my brilliance. I'll be checking this site now and then for praise.

  10. Hi, it's me again. I was hoping to get some praise by now. Oh well, I guess you'll thank me a little later. One more thing. That Libet stuff is a lot of nonsense when it comes to humans. It works fine for lower organisms: the neurons all talk amongst themselves and then decide when they reach a threshold. All decisions take place unconsciously. The brain never knows about it. Until you come to humans, that is. Then, because humans have a self-reflexive mind, it learns of the decision a split second after it was made. Animals are never aware of the decisions, because they're animals. Now let's go back to the McVeigh thing. He planned it for months, that means he had decided to do it for months. Now how can you say he wasn't aware of his decision until a split second after his brain cells had unconsciously decided for him without his having any knowledge of it. I don't want to hurt your feelings but you must be really stupid? Now let me have the praise I deserve. I ended the free-will debate, I proved the Libet stuff irrelevant to non-human animals because of their only being conscious via the brain stem and not self-aware via the frontal lobes, and I proved the Libet stuff also to be irrelevant to humans because they may be aware of their decision for a long, long time, and even months as per McVeigh. I will end my brilliant words now because I just cannot wait for you, dear readers, to praise my very erudite insights. I trust it will be glorious day for me. Thank you so much in advance of your praise.

  11. Hello, hello. Is anybody there? If I don't get any praise soon I will have no choice but to praise myself.

  12. I'm in a real pickle here. I've never had to praise myself before. But since nobody wants to praise me, you give me no choice . . . "You are a true philosopher. Thank you so much for your wisdom. I now understand that the word "free-will" is a meaningless term, and the word I want is "freedom." Freedom simply evolved from the amoeba to man, each according to its needs for mobility and so forth. There's nothing mysterious, religious, or moral or about it. It's not a miracle. It's just freedom for gosh sakes. A robin has a lot more freedom than a snail, and I'm freer than a robin. The higher you go in the hierarchy of life, the greater the degree of freedom you have. What's so hard to understand? I get it now, and thanks to you I will not give anyone that free-will nonsense anymore. You deserve a lot of praise. YOU ARE WONDERFUL!!! again, thank you so much. Sincerely, myself."

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