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Tallis in Wonderland

Who Caught That Ball?

Raymond Tallis ponders the fields of action in which our freedom is expressed.

It is the summer’s one sunny day in England, and you are playing cricket. You are fielding. The bowler bowls, the batsman bats, you react, and you find that you ’ve caught the ball. The batsman starts his long journey back to the pavilion, and you are surrounded by your team-mates high-fiving your surprised hand.

Do you deserve their praise? Of course you do: it was you who caught the ball. But did you really do it? For a start, it seemed to have happened without you thinking about it. Indeed, if you had stopped to think, the out come would have been happier for the batsman and unhappier for you. And the more carefully you examine the catch, the less it looks like the kind of thing anyone could do.

First of all you had to ensure that your hand and the ball intersected. This required an instantaneous selection of your final position and posture, so that you could set your flying body ’s trajectory to that position. You would also have to make sure your arm unfolded the right amount, moving, like your body, at the right speed. Mere intersection would not be enough: the posture of the hand has to be predetermined. If the hand is not open wide enough, the ball will never get bedded in: it will bounce off, leaving you with a sore fist. If the hand is open too wide, the ball will slip out, and you will have to bear the dual crosses of a stinging palm and a disconsolate bowler. But this is not all you have to get right. The moment the ball makes contact, the open hand of welcome has to turn into a barricade of digits moving in precise formation to turn the new arrival into a captive. What ’s more, the handy work of the snatch squad has to be made easier by ensuring that the stiffness or impedance of your arm is precisely gauged. If the impedance is too high, and you present a brick hand, the ball will bounce out before the cage door can close. If the impedance is too low, the ball will brush your hand aside. More precisely, there has to be a continuous alteration of impedance before and after the impact. And there are many other variables that have to be controlled of which you are not even dimly aware.

Could you really do all that? Of course not. So why do you deserve your team-mates’ praise? Aren’t you just the lucky possessor of bodily mechanisms that deliver what you claim as your actions?

This question is not simply of interest to cricket fans. For brilliant catches seem to highlight the extent to which the things we do seem more like happenings than conscious actions. Indeed, much of what we do has somehow to do itself. We could not intend most of the components of the ordinary behaviour of walking along, talking to our friends. Mechanism seems to pervade every aspect of what we regard as voluntary action. Those who believe that our sense of free will is an illusion will smile knowingly.

The neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet did some famous experiments that to some thinkers seem to undermine even further the notion of ourselves as the authors of our actions. The preparation to carry out a voluntary action is associated with a particular neural potential or brain wave – the so-called readiness potential. In Libet’s experiment, subjects were invited to flex their wrists when they felt inclined to do so. They were asked also to note the time when they experienced the conscious intention to flex their wrists. Libet found that the readiness potential timed by the neurophysiologist actually occurred before the conscious decision, as timed by the subject. There was a consistent difference of over a third of a second.

The interpretation of these findings has been a matter of intense controversy, many of them methodological – but some people (not Libet himself) have argued that, since the brain activity associated with voluntary actions precedes even the intention to perform them, we do not truly initiate voluntary actions. At best we can inhibit ongoing activity: we have ‘free won’t’ rather than ‘free will’. Actually, free won’t at least is free – if it is genuinely free – but many others have seen Libet’s experiments as confirming what we feared: that our brain is calling the shots. We persons are merely the site of those events we call ‘actions’.

It all looks pretty bleak for those who believe that we really do do the things we think we do. But before we yield to the idea that we are simply a collection of mechanisms, we need to examine our two examples a bit more carefully.

How did you (really) catch that ball? First of all, you had to participate in a game of cricket. This requires that you should have voluntarily turned up to a particular place on a particular day; that you understood and assented to the rules of cricket; and that you understood and consciously and willingly undertook the role of slip fielder. This, not just the grass-covered surface, is the field of your action. More importantly, in order to make the catch, you would have had to practise. This means that you will have spent time in the nets preparing yourself for the moment that would bring such glory upon you. This in turn would have required you to order your affairs so that you would be able to go to the nets at the booked time – negotiating the traffic, making sure your day was clear, and so on. Once there you would listen hard to your coaches ’ advice and do your best to translate it into action.

What about Libet’s experiments? Let us remind ourselves of the circumstances of Libet’s subjects and the action they performed. Their action did not consist simply of flexing their wrist, but of getting up in the morning to visit Dr Libet ’s laboratory; consenting to take part in an experiment whose nature and purpose (and safety) they understood; listening to, understanding and agreeing to the instructions they received – and then deciding to flex their wrists. In other words, the immediate intention is not the whole story, and the timing relation between the immediate intention and the readiness potential is not all that important. The whole story is one of sustained and complex intentions being maintained over a very long time and taking in many thousands of behaviours – getting on and off buses, looking for the laboratory, cancelling other appointments, and so on. The flexing of the wrist is just the last component of this action called ‘taking part in Dr Libet’s experiment’. The fact that the readiness potential – the first step in initiating movement – seemed to precede the immediate intention to make a movement by 300 to 450 millisecond now seems less disturbing, since the general intention to make a movement of the required kind had been there as soon as the instruction was given. The intention to cooperate with Dr Libet’s experiments had been present for even longer – in some form or other since the subject read about his experiments and decided to see if she could participate in them because they sounded interesting.

What can we learn from these two examples? Lots of things that should arm us when we are faced with people pretending to think that free will is an illusion. Behind any given action there is a huge hinterland of complex actions – actions that are very difficult to imagining happening without the actor’s deliberate intent. The slip fielder carries out a vast number of voluntary actions to enable himself to perform that magnificent catch effortlessly and virtually without volition.

Libet’s experiment has attracted particular attention because it is about the brain, and some people like to imagine that we are somehow identical with our brains. They focus on the notion of ‘neuro-plasticity’ as the basis of learning. That’s probably not too misleading if they do not fool themselves into thinking that learning is something that happens in, or is performed by, a stand-alone brain. Becoming an ace slip fielder involves not only brain plasticity, but also bodily plasticity, plasticity of the self (including increased confidence in my abilities, which can be self-fulfilling) and plasticity of the world (as when I decide that others should work with me in a different way to ensure that one or other of us gets that important catch). It is a mistake to try to stuff all that back into the brain and try to see it in terms of changes in synaptic connexions at the microscopic level, or alterations in cortical maps at the comparatively macroscopic level.

What’s more, our examples remind us how much of the neuro-plasticity that tunes our mechanisms to deliver what we want is self-driven: we are always positioning ourselves to acquire the experience, skills, knowledge and even the attitudes that will enable us to perform effectively. And this is how it is with much of our lives, which consist of acting on ourselves in order to change ourselves, from going to a pub to have a drink to cheer oneself up, to paying good money to cut a better figure in Paris by polishing up one ’s French. Stuffing all this back in the brain and denying the larger background to our actions, which are to a significant degree chosen and shaped by us, is the first step to handing actions over to the impersonal material world and making determinism seem almost plausible.

If we scrutinise actions in isolation we will be inclined to doubt that they are voluntary. We see the underpinning mechanisms and not the effort we expended into making the mechanisms slicker. We see a mere glimmer of intention and not the field of intention it belongs to. Once we do that, we are half-way to seeing actions as the result of immediately preceding causes, and three-quarters the way to determinism. Remember this, and you will be equipped to attenuate the knowing smile on the face of the next determinist you meet. It does not entirely refute the notion that we are small mechanisms in the great mechanism of the universe, but it makes it more difficult to hold.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2008

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His book The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head will soon be published by Atlantic.

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