Libet’s Puzzle of Will

One advantage of the Allocentric-Egocentric Interface (AEI) account of control consciousness is the way it delivers a satisfying way of absorbing the results of Benjamin Libet’s widely discussed work on readiness potentials and whether conscious will is an illusion (Libet, 1999).

Libet’s experiment involved having experimental subjects note, while looking at a clock, at what time they made the conscious decision to flick their wrist. Libet found, by noting EEG recordings of a readiness potential (a marked increase of neural-electrical activity preceding the wrist-flick), that there was a delay of 300 to 500 milliseconds between the readiness potential and the reported time of the conscious decision (the subjective time or time in which the decision seemed to the subject to be made).

One, perhaps troubling, implication of Libet’s result is that control consciousness is an illusion. We do not consciously will anything. Willing occurs prior to a conscious state which itself, the conscious state, is a by-product of the act of willing, not the willing itself.

It is worth noting that this sort of result is to be expected according to the AEI account of control consciousness. The highest levels of activation in a motor processing hierarchy occur unconsciously and prior to the recurrent signaling in intermediate levels that constitute the conscious state. Further, the parallel accounts that AEI gives of sensory consciousness and control consciousness allows for an interpretation of Libet’s result that is far less troubling than the will-as-illusion interpretation.

It is no more an illusion that we will consciously than that we perceive consciously. The distal objects of our perception, that is, the external-world events that we perceive, are perceived consciously even though they, the external events, are causal antecedents of our states of perceptual consciousness. If we find such a view non-paradoxical and non-puzzling, then we should be able to come to a similarly non-troubling view of the implications of Libet’s results for control consciousness. Just as external events are consciously perceived even though they are causal antecedents of states of consciousness, certain inner events are conscious willings or consciously willed even though they are causal antecedents of states of consciousness.

We could, if we wanted, apply overly stringent criteria to perception to generate a “puzzle of conscious perception” that parallels the puzzle of conscious will that many see raised by Libet’s results. One overly stringent criterion is a time-of-occurrence-criterion according to which in order to be distinct from a memory, a perception of an event has to occur at the same time as the event perceived. Another overly stringent criterion is a factivity criterion according to which in order to be distinct from an illusion, a perception of the time of occurrence of an event as now has to be accurate (the perception that now is noon cannot occur a little after noon without counting as an illusion). If we applied such criteria then we can derive that we never have accurate perceptions and, instead, we either have accurate memories or illusions of what’s happening now. More natural, however, is to avoid such overly stringent criteria and thus go on, just as common sense does, saying that we frequently perceive events at their time of occurrence.

Prinz writes, “of the fact that that the felt decision to move occurs 250 milliseconds after a readiness potential in motor areas of the brain,” that “[i]f the conscious experience of intention supervened on motor representations, we might expect the felt intention to co-occur with the onset of the motor response.” (J. Prinz, 2007, pp. 344-345).

Prinz’s use of the Libet point seems to assume that motor signals should suffice for consciousness on the motor theory. But this is no more a reasonable expectation for the motor theory than to saddle Prinz with the assumption that mere retinal input suffices for consciousness.

Previous Posts
1. Control Consciousness
2. The Pure Perceptual Model
3. The Motor Theory
4. The Imagery Theory
5. Introducing AEI
6. Control Consciousness Explained

4 Responses to “Libet’s Puzzle of Will”

  1. N. N. says:

    Does it bother anyone that there’s no way to tell whether a subject’s report is ‘on time’? It’s conceivable that there would be a delay between the conscious decision (whatever that turns out to be) and the report.

  2. Josh Weisberg says:


    What, on your view, does the recurrent loop add to control of the action? What difference in function is there between a looped and a non-looped action? (This is clarificatory…)

    I wonder what your line is about Wegner et al’s research. They show that we can be manipulated into the feeling of conscious will even when we are not the cause of the action. Also, we can be manipulated into not having a feeling of conscious will even when we were the cause of the action. This suggests that the higher-level looped states can dominate the lower-level ones when it comes to the content consciousness. That is, believing such and such about an event can make it feel consciously that we caused (or didn’t cause) an event.

    More broadly, I wonder how your view deals with top-down illusions. Is there still a loop, but the lower-level stuff is altered by top-down influences? Or is it that he lower-level stuff is correctly representing things, but conflicting higher-level stuff dominates our awareness? Or something else?

  3. Pete Mandik says:

    N.N.: I think that’s an important thing to be bothered by. I think Dennett does a pretty good job of looking at it from various angles in his Freedom Evolves book.


    Re functional differences. I think the sort of suggestion that others have made concerning pseudo-closed loop control is promising. The non-looped action is “flying blind” without even a simulation of likely effects. Looping, where what’s looped is sensory feedback, has certain obvious advantages, but certain disadvantages as well. Many of the disadvantages have to do with the amount of time it takes to get the sensory feedback. Looping, where what’s looped *isn’t* sensory feedback — pseudo-closed loop control — can overcome the disadvantages of sensory delay as well as the disadvantages of simply “shooting in the dark”. It’s worth noting that , likely, we have a relatively complicated system that includes an ability to toggle between various degrees of open-loop, closed-loop, and pseudo-closed loop control.

    Re Wegner’s illusions. I think the first of your options sounds best: that lower-level stuff gets altered by the higher level influence. I think there’s a tendency in the loops for things to settle into agreement, so if there’s a conflict between levels, it won’t last for long.

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