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Whodunnit? Unpicking the ‘seems’ of free will

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The cornerstone of the dominant folk theory of free will is the presumption that conscious intentions are, at least sometimes, causally related to subsequent ‘voluntary’ actions. Like all folk theories that have become ‘second nature', this model skews perception and cognition to highlight phenomena and interpretations that are consistent with itself, and pathologize or render invisible those that are not. A variety of experimental, neurological and everyday phenomena are reviewed that cumulatively cast doubt on this comforting folk model. An alternative view, more consistent with the evidence, sees intentions and actions as co-arising in complex neural systems that are capable of (fallibly) anticipating the outcomes of their own ongoing processing. Such tentative predictions, when they become conscious, are appropriated by a ‘self system’ that believes itself to be instigatory, and reframed as ‘commands'. This confusion between prediction and control is hypothesized to arise particularly in selves that are identified in terms of a complex proliferation of partially conflicting goal-states. Such a system routinely needs to carry out detailed and time-consuming analyses of the motivational character of situations, thus creating the conditions in which anticipatory neural states surface into consciousness. The experience of ‘self control’ occurs when the system successfully predicts the dominance of a ‘higher', more long-term or a priori less likely goal state, over another that is seen as ‘lower', short-term or more likely.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Bristol School of Education, 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1JA, UK.

Publication date: August 1, 1999


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