The School of Psychological Sciences

Philosophy of Mind: Agency, Free-will and Consciousness

I also enjoy good philosophy of mind. Though this is not my main expertize, I got familiar with some of this fascinating literature, on the nature of causation, free-will, mental representations and consciousness, topics which our field of cognitive neuroscience also aspires to explain. I am happy to name a number of philosophers whose work has strongly stimulated and motivated me (I did not always agree with them) such as: John Searle, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Alfred Mele, Robert Kane, James Woodward, Ned Block (I should add here the important classics : Plato, Decartes, Locke and Hume). Most of them are also interested in the field of cognitive neuroscience, and I believe that a combined scientific/philosophical investigation can be productive. In particular, I believe that a basic philosophical background (and practice) is essential for scientists who wish to venture into topics such as Consciousness and Free-Will, since without clarifying the meaning of these notions, much of the questions and the conclusions of their research are likely to be meaningless.

I will illustrate this with one example, on which I did some work. Does the neural mechanism of cognitive and decision processes imply that Free-Will and Agency are mere illusions? My answer to this is emphatically no.  To understand why not, one needs to first understand that being free does not mean being free from the laws of nature and that free actions are actions that are carried out by the agent (via some evaluation of the alternatives) in the absence of external coercion.  There are, however, important issues to explain. In what way are agents who do things, special? How is determination by laws of nature different from being controlled by a powerful indoctrinator? (and is education different from indoctrination? The answer is yes!). What is the role of luck/chance in our agency and moral responsibility? I did attempt an answer to these issues. To highlight the main idea in few lines: Agency involves more than the ability to cause events, it involves the ability to cause events in a robust and teleological (goal oriented) way. Thus agents are sources of robust teleological causation and responsibility for an event is tracked down to the earlier source of robust causation over the event and luck is an unavoidable and constitutive part of our identity. I tried to argue that this idea is consistent with our knowledge of neural dynamical processes, bases on convergent and divergent dynamics. So, I tend to conclude, that if people need an excuse for getting rid of free-will and responsibility in their life, they should find better ones than neuroscience.

The most difficult philosophical problem, it seems to me, is that of phenomenal consciousness. Together with Zohar Bronfman and Noam Brezis (PhD students at TAU) we are doing experimental investigations to detect fleeting traces of the phenomenal consciousness that are fragile and easy to loose access to (click here for a recent publication on this). Still, I suspect that a full answer to why a certain brain state feels the ways it does is not within our present horizon. See also labsite for more about these topics,