Conditioned Response or Free Will?

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When I was studying Philosophy of Mind, I came across ‘Kim’s Argument’, which briefly stated is as follows. When a finger is pierced by a needle, pain is felt and the finger pulled away from the needle. The series of events are 1) needle pierces finger, 2) pain is felt, and 3) finger is withdrawn from the sharp object. It is suggested that ‘pain’ mediates the process and serves as a key stimulus for survival. However, biological research has shown that this series of events, although apparently logical and obvious is in fact wrong. The actual series of events is like this: 1) needle pierces finger, 2) a reflex arch linking the finger to the spine initiates a set of muscular contractions that pull the finger away from the danger, and 3) pain is then generated as a response to the entire episode. The human mind then ‘misinterprets’ events, and places them into an order that although wrong, is nevertheless logical and useful for a developed brain-mind nexus to make use of. The memory, threat and fear of experiencing more pain in situations that might threaten or damage the body, acts as a motivator of behavioural modification (that serves to avoid dangerous situations). The reflex arch is probably the oldest response to environmental danger, evolving during a time when the distant human ancestry possessed only a spine. Later, with the development of the brain-stem and limbic system, the ability to feel pain (or pleasure) evolved, together with the ability ‘fear’ pain and seek pleasure. After this, the neo-cortex developed together with the ability for humans to ‘think’ and be ‘self-aware’. The rational mind ‘inverted’ the course of natural events and responses because it made sense to do so. This is to say that by inverting the sequence pertaining to a reflex arch, there was an evolutionary advantage. Although this is the case, from the perspective of science and philosophy, this ‘inversion’ is an error operating within human perception, This is an interesting observation for developing a true theory of evolutionary development. It also seems to correspond to the idea that ‘common sense’ (although useful on a day-to-day basis) is often not ‘scientifically’ correct.

In 1983, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet devised an experiment to see if human-beings possess ‘free will’. Participants were asked to watch a clock-face containing a rotating dot. They were asked flex a finger – but just prior to the finger being flexed – they had to be aware of the ‘intention’ to flex the finger (before initiating the action) whilst simultaneously noting the position of the dot on the clock-face. As this process was unfolding, Libet recorded the participant’s brain-wave performance through EEG activity. Libet discovered that prior to the finger being flexed, there was a ‘readiness potential’ around one second prior to any movement being performed (this confirmed similar findings made by Kornhuber and Deecke). More importantly, Libet’s research demonstrated that the spike in brain activity began to build around 350 milliseconds BEFORE the participants themselves became AWARE of their intention to act. Libet interpreted these results to mean that ‘free will’ in general is a myth, but added as there was 200 milliseconds between becoming aware of deciding to act, and performing the physical action, there was a 200 millisecond window of opportunity to change one’s mind. Interestingly, further research has shown that those suffering from Tourette Syndrome, Schizophrenia, or healthy people who are highly impulsive, all posses a much shorter veto time.

Reference: New Scientist Instant Expert, Your Conscious Mind, JohnMurray Learning, (2017), Pages 56-57

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