There is a certain charm in a fellow who can bring himself to write “We humans like to think of ourselves as mindful creatures” while intimating it isn’t so. Yet if we can think we are by definition mindful creatures. And therefore we cannot be automatons incapable of a sense of agency. Including the agency to write the paradoxical sentences.
Try this sense-of-agency experiment at home. Set up on one table a bunch of books or cans or whatever. And then, as quickly as you can, take them one at a time and place them on another table or shelf some distance away. As you’re doing this, think back to a time you have sinned and ask yourself what you would have done differently.
Do this first and then read on. Seriously. I mean it. Try.
Fun, wasn’t it? I hope you didn’t trip and injure yourself and are therefore inclined to sue. But if you do, since I don’t have insurance and don’t have much else beside to sue for, you will be enriching your lawyer and not yourself.
Think back to the time of the experiment. Do you remember the conscious process of moving your legs? I don’t mean that you moved your leg, but the process of how you moved it. It went something like this.
You first using your agency sent signals from your brain, down the brain stem—remember doing this?—which traveled through the spine and emerging out somewhere around your hip. The signals went to some muscles around your right knee and lower leg; others signals, that you sent, don’t forget, went to your toes, the whole shebang coordinated to flex this group of muscles, relax those, and so your right foot pushed back against the ground.
As the pushing happened, signals from your foot and other places around your body, shot back to the brain, which coordinated them and said among other things, in brain language, “The center of gravity is off; we’re listing to port; adjust the right arm outward to counterbalance.” And we haven’t even got started on breathing, pumping blood, and more.
You, of course, directed each one of these signals, of which there were an enormous number. You were aware of them all. Yes?
On top of all that, you had to direct a mass of neurons to recollect your failing, and enlist a whole bunch more to muse on it, and still more to feel shame and a host of other regretful emotions; perhaps another small chunk of brain was devoted to saying a prayer asking for forgiveness.
Whew! What a lot of stuff that happened! Can you imagine what it would be like if we really were conscious machines, with a brain that really must be controlled in all its aspects by our agency, i.e. our will? It would be hellish, or, rather, it would be impossible.
None of our thoughts are like this. We have no idea what is going on over most of our bodies most of the time, and thank God for that. Our intellect and will are thus free to engage in higher pursuits, like in telling our bodies it’s cocktail hour. We then let our bodies take us where we need to go and do what we need to do so that our blood-alcohol levels do not drop to a dangerous low (as Rumpole would say).
…we retain an intense feeling that we’re in control of what we’re doing, what can be called a sense of agency. So where does this feeling come from?
It certainly doesn’t come from having access to the brain processes that underlie our actions. After all, I have no insight into the electrochemical particulars of how my nerves are firing or how neurotransmitters are coursing through my brain and bloodstream. Instead, our experience of agency seems to come from inferences we make about the causes of our actions, based on crude sensory data. And, as with any kind of perception based on inference, our experience can be tricked.
As with optical illusions. Neuropsychologists find these of great interest, as if they were new phenomena in our explanations of free will. Yet how often before computers could generate illusory pictures did we confidentally step into what we thought was small puddle only to discover it was black ice and thus fall on our keisters? Having agency does not mean sensing the world with perfection.
Frith says experiencing an optical illusion is “the same with our experience of agency. Our inferences can be wrong. I can believe that I am acting when it’s actually someone else. Or I can believe that someone else is acting when it’s actually me.”
As evidence of this curious suggestion Frith points to those hapless individuals who engaged in “facilitated communication“, folks who guided the hands of autistic children but who said they thought it was the kids doing the guiding. Same thing happens (sometimes) at Ouija boards and with dowsers. Yet fooling yourself (when it’s genuine and not pretended) is not that different from what happens when you run back and forth between tables. You’re not thinking about the specific body movements, but about something else.
“We have the strong impression that we choose when we do and don’t act and, as a consequence, we hold people responsible for their actions.” It is well to hold Frith responsible for writing this. Or would he like his paycheck be sent to another?
“Contrary to what many people believe, I think agency is only relevant to what happens after we act — when we try to justify and explain ourselves to each other.” The possibility of mistaken explanations does not invalidate correct explanations, which Frith must agree with, else who wrote that passage?
A consensus need not be accurate to be attractive or useful, of course. For a long time everyone agreed that the Sun went round the Earth. Perhaps our sense of agency is a similar trick: it might not be ‘true’, but it maintains social cohesion by creating a shared basis for morality. It helps us understand why people act as they do — and, as a result, makes it is easier to predict people’s behaviour.
This is confirmation that all attempts to run from free will boil down to this (what we can call) self-contradictory Frithian statement: we must agree that we cannot make choices so that we can make better choices.