“EEG Recording Cap” by Colin licensed under CC by 2.0

Unconscious Intentions Do Not Undermine Free Will

Some have said that free will is an illusion (e.g., Wegner, 2002). And some free will skeptics base their claims on evidence that experimenters can predict our decisions before we are aware of making the decision or forming an intention. This leap from pre-decision prediction to free will skepticism seems intuitive at first. Upon reflection, however, it seems odd. In this post, I’ll explain.

1. Unconscious Intentions: The Evidence

In Libet-style studies, subjects are instructed to repeatedly choose between two options, whenever they want. While people are deciding what and when to choose, their brain activity is monitored. Sometimes participants are instructed to report, after making a choice, when they formed their intention (based upon the location of a hand on a clock like the one below). As the story goes, the researchers watching subjects’ brain activity could predict that the hand was going to move before the subject actually moved his hand. In the studies that gather self-reported intention timing, they could predict when the subject was going to move their hand before the subject was aware of their intention. They could do this by looking at patterns in brain activity (EEG) that preceded people’s choices.

“B.Libet.experiment” by CreateAccount licensed under CC by 3.0

As it turns out, many studies similar to Libet’s have been conducted. On average, researchers can predict a person’s action before they act or before they are consciously aware of their intention to act — sometimes by 200 milliseconds, but sometimes by as much as 11 seconds (e.g., Koenig-Robert & Pearson, 2019). While 200 milliseconds might seem negligible, seven seconds probably isn’t.

2.  The Argument

One interpretation of these results is that people do not become conscious of their own intentions until after the intentions form. This “unconscious intention” interpretation challenges common intuitions about free will. These common intuitions often form the premises of an argument against free will.

    1. If I am unaware of an intention as or before it forms, then I did not form the intention.
    2. If I did not form the intention, then whatever action(s) result from the intention are not free.
    3. I am unaware of my intention(s) as or before they form.

Conclusion: My intentional actions are not free.

Let’s refer to this as the unfree-because-unconscious argument to save space in this rest of the post.

3.  The Assumptions

These premises seemed intuitive to me until I reframed the scenario a bit. Now I have different intuitions about Libet’s studies (and their ilk). When intuitions change upon redescribing a case, we can be suspect of the intuitions. But suspicion only gets us so far.

3.1  Making Intuitions About Free Will Explicit

Let’s make the suspicion more explicit by revealing the hidden premises involved in the unfree-because-unconscious argument.

A. If I am unaware of an intention as or before it forms, then whatever action(s) result from the intention are not free. (This is just the conclusion of premise 1 and 2.)

B. Intentions can be identified by certain patterns of neural activity.

C. Our intentions (or their neural correlates) often form prior to our awareness of them.

3.2  Granting Some Of The Premises

I will grant C, which is the main motivation, as I see it, for free will skepticism that is motivated by a lack of self-conscious awareness.

We might be suspicious of premise B, but we will not resolve that suspicion here. So, we will grant it. And obviously, we can demand clarification about how B’s terms “free” and “intention” get translated into observable outcomes, but this too will not be resolved here. So, I will interpret these terms inclusively.

The point I want to make is that even if we grant B and C, it is not clear why we should accept A.

4.  Reflecting On Intuitions

And if we do not accept A, then it is not free will that is threatened by Libet’s studies, but something else—namely, the intuition that unconscious intentions are incompatible with free will. We can admit that this might be intuitive, but what if we frame things differently?

Think about it: should we expect to be aware of our own brain or mental activity in advance or in real-time?

When I think about this, I find that my intuitions suddenly flip-flop. I become much less concerned about temporarily unconscious intentions and much more willing to dismiss premise A. But in case it is not entirely clear why my intuitions respond this way, allow me to illustrate.

4.1  Unconscious Intentions: An Illustration

Assume B above. This means that any intention can be identified by an intracranial event. So, when we say, “So-and-so formed an intention,” we mean, “So-and-so’s brain did something.” Likewise, when we say that “So-and-so became aware of their intention,” we mean, “So-and-so’s brain did another thing.” So we can take intentions and the awareness thereof to be separate things: something X, and the awareness of X.

It does not seem to follow from the fact that the neural correlates of our intentions precede our awareness of the intentions that the subsequent action is not free. So long as someone intends to do something and they do it, then, conceptually speaking, free will seems to be intact.

4.2  A New Intuition

My new intuition is almost the opposite of A: our awareness of our intentions must be delayed, even if our actions are free!

What shifted my intuitions was asking a question like this: How could we expect to become aware of an intention before it exists?

When I think about the causation involved, it seems that becoming aware of an intention must be causally downstream of, among other things, the existence of the intention. After all, a cause cannot occur at the same time as its effect. So, we cannot become aware of our intentions as or before they occur. And that means that a delay between intention formation and intention awareness is only natural! I have to form an intention before I can become aware of it. My prior intuition that intention awareness must precede or be simultaneous with intention formation seemed to involve some kind of magical thinking—e.g., backward or simultaneous causation.

4.3  The Upshot: Free Will Is Compatible With Unconscious Intentions

If my new intuition is right, then one or more premises of the unfree-because-unconscious argument are false, which reinvigorates the possibility that our intentional actions can be free.

5.  Conclusion

We have arrived, then, at the following conclusion: whether or not a person is free is not a matter of their becoming aware of an intention as (or before) the intention (or its correlates) form. Indeed, it is not surprising, upon reflection, that we have to form an intention before we can become aware of it—regardless of whether we are “free”.

Of course, I have only (i) redescribed a phenomenon and (ii) reported how my intuitions changed. As with much of philosophy, philosophers are convincing only insofar as we share philosophers’ intuitions. And if our disagreement comes down to having different intuitions about unconscious intentions and free will, then we might wonder if our disagreement is just philosophical, or if it is, at least in part, psychological.

Further Reading

Libet Experiments” from The Information Philosopher.

Lau, HC, Rogers, RD, & Passingham, RE (2007). Manipulating the experienced onset of intention after action executionJournal of cognitive neuroscience19(1), 81-90.

Libet B, Gleason CA, Wright EW, and Pearl DK (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary actBrain, 106: 623-642.

Libet B (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary actionBehavioral and Brain Sciences, 8: 529-566.

Libet, B. W. (1993). Neurophysiology of consciousness: Selected papers and new essays.

Mele, A. R. (2009). Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, USA. (Chapter 2).

Mele, A. R. (2013). A Dialogue on Free Will and Science. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

Mele, A. R. (2014). Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. Oxford University Press.

Image credit: “EEG Recording Cap” by Colin licensed under CC by 2.0

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

10 thoughts on “Unconscious Intentions Do Not Undermine Free Will”

  1. I think there is a difference between “I did this but did not intend to do it” (e.g. some reflex, but also digestion) and “I did this consciously”. It’s not a question of who did what: “intentionnaly” and “consciously” are quasi-synonymous

    1. I think I agree with what you are saying, but only as a semantic point. Conceptually speaking, intending to do something and being aware of doing something are not the same (otherwise being aware of a reflex would require that the reflex was intentional, and clearly reflexes are not always intentional).

      Does that sound right to you?

      1. Well I guess that “doing something consciously” and “being aware of something” are different things but to me, conceptually speaking, intention and consciousness are tied together. If you view consciousness as pure awareness without any dynamic feature then in my opinion you already assume that free will does not exist.

        1. I see. I think Block’s distinction between ‘awareness’ and ‘attention’ (not intention) provide two dynamic features of consciousness (2008). If we have good reason to acknowledge Block’s distinction (and I think we do), then we need not worry about people assuming that free will does not exist based upon the assumption you mention.

          And I think I would agree that intention and consciousness are “tied together,” but only so much that intending to do something requires one to be conscious (as opposed to in a brain dead state). Beyond that, I am unsure what the conceptual or actual relationship between ‘intention’ and ‘conscious’ would be.

          1. Do you mean that consciousness is required for having an intentional state, but not awareness? Or maybe that awareness retroactively changes the intentional nature of a mental state (a kind of “free won’t”)?

          2. I am not sure about this. My first pass thought is that awareness also requires consciousness (again, as opposed to a brain death), but that consciousness is not sufficient for awareness. I think I would say the same for Block’s attention.

            This is all from the armchair though. I look forward to updating what I think with empirical results.

  2. Q: As always, I appreciate your thoughts on this. I seem to remember you giving me some instructive points awhile back. I wish I still had them on this post. Alas, a DDOS attack deleted everything on that server. I am still going through my back-ups. Should I find your comments, I could re-post them. All the best!

    1. Thank you. I also apreciate the great clarity of your articles.
      My view on Libets experiments is that we are merely measuring some unconscious propensities to act, which definitely exist, but that does not mean that we are not free at all as far as predictability is not 100% (which amounts to criticizing premisses 2 or 3, depending on what one is willing to call “neural activity”). I can remember having posted something like that.

Comments are closed.