The Format of Thought: a
Dynamical Systems Approach to
Department of Philosophy, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and
Institute for Cognitive Science
University of Pennsylvania
• DST purports to be a theory of the nature of thought.
• View of DST in mainstream philosophy of mind: Unclear on
how low-level explanations in DST can inform traditional
philosophical problems such as the mind-body problem,
mental causation, the nature of mental states/events, and
the free will-determinism debate.
• Today: quick discussion of novel DST view of mental
causation. Use this view of mental causation to develop a
position on the free will debate for DST
Approaches to the Nature of
• Naturalism: explain how mental phenomena fit into the world that
• Naturalistic approaches to conceptual thought:
• Connectionism: conceptual thought is a species of pattern recognition in
which activation patterns spread though a connectionist network (Paul
and Patricia Churchland, Paul Smolensky).
• Symbol processing approach. Conceptual thought is the manipulation of
symbols according to algorithms (Fodor, Pinker).
• DST – cognitive systems are kinds of dynamic systems, and as such, they
are best understood from the perspective of DST.
DST Approach to Mental Causation
• Normal model of causation is “linear causation” (“efficient
causation”, “billiard ball causation”) in which event E1
brings about E2. DST: different approach.
• Freeman: “Linear causality fails most dramatically in studies
of the relations between microscopic neurons and the
mesoscopic populations in which they are embedded...Such
interactions are not particular to neurons in neuropil, being
common in familiar systems such as hurricanes, lasers,
fires, herds…In each of these cases, particles making up the
ensemble simultaneuously create a mesoscopic state and
are constrained by the very state they have created.” (p.
DST and Mental Causation, cont.,
• Scott Kelso, “In synergetics, the order parameter is created
by the cooperation of the individual parts of the system,
here the fluid molecules. Conversely, it governs or
constrains the behavior of the individual parts. This is a
strange kind of circular causality (which is the chicken and
which is the egg?), but we will see that it is typical of all
self-organizing systems. What we have here is one of the
main conceptual differences between the circularly causal
underpinnings of pattern formation in nonequilibrium
systems and the linear causality that underlies most of
modern physiology and psychology…” (Kelso, 9)
• “Circular Causation”: higher-level emergent patterns
generate downward causal influence on the physical level.
• Philosophers: Is circular causation coherent?
Kim’s Exclusion Problem
• Not presented against DST specifically, but I’ll apply to
case of circular causation.
• Idea behind problem: Whenever a mental event is
proposed as a cause of another event, whether physical or
mental, its status as cause is in danger of being preempted
by a physical event—that is, a mental cause is liable to be
excluded by a physical cause.
• Causal Closure of Physical (i.e., microphysical) Domain.
General idea, quoting Kim:, “the physical domain is
causally and explanatorily self-sufficient—that is, to
explain a physical event, or to identify its cause, there is
no need to look outside the physical domain.”
• Ex) The biological domain is not causally self-sufficient
since nonbiological events (e.g., purely physical events
such as exposure to strong radiation, natural disasters)
can cause biological changes.
Exclusion Problem, cont.,
• Now consider circular causation. Suppose that a mental event M,
occurring at t, causes a physical event P. From the Causal Closure Principle,
it follows that there is a physical event, P*, occurring at t, which is a
sufficient cause of P.
• Kim. This already is an “uncomfortable picture”: Whenever a mental event
has a physical effect, the physical effect has a purely physical cause as
well. So there is causal overdetermination (and making the supposed
mental cause dispensable).
• Causal Exclusion. No event has more than one sufficient cause occurring at
t—unless it is a genuine case of causal overdetermination.
• “Unless one opts for the strange view that every case of mental causation
is a case of causal overdetermination, the exclusion principle must be
applied to the present case. Since each of M and P* is claimed to be a
sufficient cause of P, either M or P* must be excluded as a cause of P. But
• Kim: M must go. “The reason is simple: if we let P go, the Causal Closure
Principle kicks in again, requiring us to posit a physical sufficient cause,
say P**, for P. (What could P** be if not P*?) And we are off to an
DST Response to Kim
• DST has two options:
(1) Drop causal closure principle.
(2) Drop notion of circular causation, accepting linear causation
instead. Saying that higher-level states are realized by complexes
of physical states, and the physical states really do the casual work.
(Important: consistent with explanatory import of higher-order
• DST wants first option, but which is one correct? Depends on your
metaphysical views about the nature of properties.
Debate Over Property Natures (in
• Are property natures a matter of their purely “intrinsic” or internal natures,
or their causal powers/dispositions? (Lewis vs. Shoemaker).
• Categoricalism/Categorialism: property natures are not determined by any
causal powers, they are “internal” to the property itself (Armstrong, Lewis).
• Ask: how are fundamental particles taxonomized? By what they do.
• Can property natures really be separated from their causal powers? (What
would it be like to say that F is a mass property but F does not do what it
does in our world).
• Dispositionalism: property natures are determined by causal
powers/dispositions of properties (Schoemaker).
• Suppose property natures are determined by their causal
powers. Then, microphysical property dispositions could
determine the causal powers of complexes of particles
that realize macroscopic brain events that seem to be
exhibiting “circular causation”.
• In such a case, the causal closure principle is TRUE.
Physical properties, because they are complexes of
causal powers, determine the causal powers of the order
parameter. (The causal power of the order parameter is
a higher level property that is metaphysically comprised
of the lower level properties).
Categoricalism: Causal Closure is
False (DST Option)
• Now let’s look at other option. The causal powers of a
property are irrelevant to property natures.
• In this case, it is difficult to see how (micro)physics is
causally closed. The laws of microphysics, together with
the pattern of microphysical properties in a brain,
wouldn’t determine the brain’s higher-level patterns
(e.g., that there is a certain order parameter).
• I’m going to take this option. DST thinks it has
irreducibly higher-level causation. I’ll now apply this
novel form of causation to the problem of free will.
The Problem of Free Will
• Humans are unique creatures, at
least relative to other creatures
on Earth, as we are at a high
enough stage of intellectual
development to reflect on
whether our actions are truly
• We recognize a conflict between
two perspectives we have on
ourselves. We see ourselves as
free agents; yet we also see our
behavior as being determined by
underlying causes that we at
least sometimes are not fully
• Problem of Free Will: Are my
intentional actions genuinely free,
or are they determined by laws of
nature, together with antecedent
states of my brain?
Why Does the Problem of Free Will
• Free will is associated with a cluster of related themes:
• Genuine creativity
• A sense of desert: we deserve what we get
• Moral responsibility
• And related to this, free will is associated with various
attitudes that we have toward our own and other‟s
behavior: gratitude, vengefulness, resentment, admiration,
desire to see them/ourselves punished.
The Deterministic Perspective
• On the other hand, we also view ourselves from various
impersonal, scientific, or objective perspectives. For
• Our ability to think depends upon the well-being of our
brains. Aren‟t our decisions to act in a certain way
determined by the underlying forces at work in our brains?
• A simplified view (not the DST picture): At any time t, the
configuration of particles in your brain is determined by
where the particles were located (at t-1), together with the
laws of physics.
• Determinism: Any event is
determined just in case there are
conditions (e.g., acts of God, the laws
of nature, social pressure, states in
the brain) whose joint occurrence is
sufficient for the occurrence of the
event: it must be the case that if
these conditions jointly obtain, the
determined event occurs.
• How can • Visualization of
determinism even wave function of
aspire to being true hydrogen atom
mechanics says the
nature of the world
Quantum Mechanics and
• Det: given that event e occurs, event f must occur.
• If QM is true, strictly speaking, determinism is false at the
• Where does this leave the free will debate?
• Philosophers: not much of a change. The chance of a given
particle decaying in say, 2 hours, is still “determined” by
the laws of QM. That is, events are probabilistically
constrained, or guided by, antecedent conditions, together
with the laws.
What Position should DST take on
• Suspicion? Would renouncing linear causation as model
of mental causation dissolve the problem of free will?
• The problem of free will arises with circular causation
– Suppose M is a mental event and that further, we act in virtue of
M, picking up a coffee cup. Further suppose that (as per circular
causation) M brings about physical event P1 by downward
causation. P1 then causes the picking up of the cup.
– The free will problem emerges: Is the happening of M
determined by the laws of nature, together with antecedent
events? Or does M somehow “break free” of the laws?
The Sense in Which We Think We
Have “Free Will”
• To answer the question of whether we act freely for DST, we must ask:
What is genuine free will to begin with? Standard view:
• From a subjective standpoint, we perceive ourselves as free agents who
are able to influence the world in numerous ways. In many cases, we see
before ourselves a field of possible actions, out of which, we freely choose
• There‟s a sort of “up to us-ness” associated with our actions: our actions
are under our control. For any action A, we might have done otherwise.
• S has free will when:
(a), it is “up to us” what we choose from a field of possibilities
(b), the origin of our choices and actions is in us and not in
anyone/anything else over which we have no control.
DST and Free Will
• Suppose DST can give a plausible account of intentional action (e.g.,
Freeman, Ch. 5, 2000).
• At first blush, this doesn’t limit DST to a certain position on the free will
• An account of intentional action doesn’t require that the actions be
“genuinely free”; they could be determined. Indeed, DST explains action in
terms of the evolution of a dynamic system – this sounds sympathetic to a
kind of determinism.
• On the other hand, most of us think that there is a sense in which some
actions are free and others are not: e.g., Joe doesn’t act freely when a gun
is pointing at him, but he does when he picks a vacation spot. A
neurobiological theory of intentional action should explain such differences,
giving a sense in which certain actions are free.
Taxonomy of the Positions on the
Debate over Free Will
• There are two primary ways one can be a proponent of Free Will or
• 1. One can be a Compatibilist: Free Will and Determinism are
compatible with each other.
• 2. One the other hand, one can be an Incompatibilist. In this case,
either (a), you believe in free will and you don‟t believe in
Determinism (“Libertarian”); or (b), you believe in determinism
and reject free will (“Hard Determinism”).
• Argue: DST is incompatible with Libertarianism. Develop a novel
Compatibilist position for DST: “Neurocompatibilism.”
• (We could also develop a Hard Determinist view).
(Libertarian/Free Will Version)
• “Libertarians”: free will is incompatible with
determinism. Further, free will exists (thus,
determinism is false).
• Libertarians often urge that free intentional
action involves a form of causation that is
unique to mental causation, and not normal
event causation (i.e., linear causation).
Perhaps circular causation is such?
Randomness Problem for
• A major task the Libertarian faces is showing
that there is a real sense in which there is free
will that is not compatible with determinism.
• What is it for an event to be an act of free will
but not determined? Would it be random? Truly
random events aren’t under the control of
anyone or anything. How would that be free will
worth having? No one would be responsible for
• There are a few ways that the Libertarian reacts to the worry that if events
aren‟t determined, they are merely random, not giving us true freedom or
moral responsibility. One is of interest:
• There is a new form of causation by an agent that is not normal event
causation. This was developed by Rodrick Chisholm, who contrasted
normal event causation with „agent causation‟ (a special form of causation
• Big Issue for these theories: We have a physical world of physical causes,
on the one hand, and a distinct realm, of agent causes, on the other. But
how do agents causally interact with the physical world of event
causation? How do our freely willed thoughts enter into the world of
physical causes and effects? (Like interaction problem with Cartesian
• DST can answer this in a naturalistic way. Introduce circular causation as
a novel form of causation associated with intentional action. It is not a
mystery how emergent features effect the microphysical realm. Avoids
problems with Chisholm‟s account.
– Is DST really compatible with a Libertarian position? If
causal closure was violated by mental features there is a
sense in which one breaks free of physical laws. If
“Determinism” means “determined by physical laws,”
then the view is genuinely Libertarian. But if
determinism means “determined by laws” (including
special science laws) then the view is Compatibilist. This
is a more common way of formulating Determinism, and
was how I formulated it .
– So: Let‟s see what a Compatibilist DST view looks like.
(Compatibilism: FW and Det. are compatible).
Problems for Neurocompatibilism
1. Emergent phenomena in general can
exhibit downward causation, but,
intuitively, only minds exhibit free will.
So, exhibiting downward causation is a
necessary condition for a system acting
on the basis of free will, but it is not a
2. Content of beliefs, desires, etc. are both reasons for
the action and causes of the action – Davidson, Fodor.
What are the correlates of concepts according to DST?
Need these for a DST theory of FW as Compatibilism is
supposed to accommodate our ordinary framework of
attribution of blame, praise, etc.
3. Recent Revolution in Free Will
Debate: the work of Benjamin Libet
• - Bigger Problem: • Now, humans only become
Neurocompatibilism will aware of the intention to
need to deal with Benjamin act 350-400 msec. after RP
Libet‟s work on free will. starts, but still before the
• Libet. Freely voluntary acts
are preceded by a specific
electrical change in the
brain (the “readiness
potential”, RP) that begins
550 msec. before the act.
(This is almost the same
amount of time it takes to
utter two syllables).
Libet Revolution, cont.
• As Bill Banks and Sue
Pocket explain: “The issue
is this. Libet‟s clear-cut
finding was that his
subjects consciously and
freely „decided‟ to initiate
an action only after the
neurological preparation to
act was well under way.
This implies that the
conscious decision was not
the cause of the action.”
Banks/Pockett on Libet, cont.,
• „If conscious decisions are not the cause of
actions, it follows that we do not have conscious
free will. Even worse, because the ability
consciously to initiate actions is an essential
property of self, the denial of conscious, personal
origination of action is a challenge to our sense of
selfhood. The implication is that we, our
conscious selves, are not free actors with control
over our choices in life. We are only conduits for
unconsciously made decisions. Libet‟s one simple
experiment has slipped our entire self-concept
from its moorings.”
Is Compatibilism Dead?
• At first blush at least, this is a clear attack on free
will, (both the Libertarian and Compatibilist
versions). Seems to support Hard Determinism.
• The “volitional” process is initiated unconsciously!
• We seem to closely associate consciousness with
free will, so it seems like this isn‟t a case of free
Carving out a Free Will position?
• Libet is saying that consciousness
could still control the outcome; it can
veto the act. So do we have a more
limited sort of free will?
Libet Revolution, cont.,
• Some say it is only “free wont”. On the other
hand, if you can veto something, there‟s a sense
in which for the relevant action that you did not
veto, you „could have done otherwise‟ (you could
have vetoed it).
• For many, free wont will not be sufficient for free
• Try to do a bit more for Compatibilism.
Nonconsciously initiated actions can be free.
Ex) Tennis match with Venus Williams.
- Did you consciously intend to return her serve before action initiation? No way.
- As you learned to play tennis, you consciously intended to master actions that, due
to all your practice, you now initiate involuntarily and non-consciously. So, in a sense,
the actions are initiated freely. To go back to our def. of FW, “the origin of the choice
is in you.” It is not as though, contra your purpose in the game, you mysteriously
initiated a “return the serve” move when you were at the net. Your returning the
serve is very much a part of you.
- Although the paradigm cases of free will are conscious ones (ones in the global
workspace before initiation of motor action); non-consciously initiated actions can be
acts of free will (in a derivative sense) as we freely chose to develop these skills.
- They just aren‟t the paradigm cases.
- Conclusion: Libet‟s results are not contrary to Neurocompatibilism.
• Looked at the novel view that DST has of mental
• Applied it to FW, noting relation to issue about property
• Suggested a possible view on FW debate and replied to
the Libet issue.