Freewill and Consciousness Book Review – Draft Copy

A review of Free Will and Consciousness by Gregg D. Caruso

This is a draft copy of a book review to be published in the Jurisprudence Journal next year sometime around March 2016


Free-Will and Consciousness is an ambitious book which attempts to promote the case for free will scepticism by exploring the recent scientific findings in the behavioural, cognitive and neurosciences (BCN) and argues that these findings are contrary to our common sense belief in free-will where we consciously decide to choose different courses of actions. Such findings threaten our common sense belief that our conscious intentions cause our voluntary actions as mistaken because “much of what we do takes place at an automatic and unaware level.”(2). Caruso is another member to sign up to the increasing membership of free-will scepticism that includes distinguished proponents such as Derk Pereboom, Saul Smilansky, and Neil Levy.

Within the free-will debate, Caruso refers to his position as “hard-enough determinism” (4) in which the underlying neural and psychological processes that produce all our actions and choices are part of a “causally determinate system (or “near-determined system”) (4). Unlike hard determinism though, this position leaves open the possibility that there is some indeterminism in the universe, most likely at the micro level, “but it maintains that any such indeterminism is screened out at levels sufficiently low not to matter to human behaviour.” (4)


Caruso spends the first third of the book presenting the traditional philosophical debate over the freewill problem where he discusses the positions of libertarianism and compatibilism.

In the initial chapter, The Problem of Free Will: A Brief Introduction and Outline of Position, Caruso briefly discusses the tension between moral responsibility and determinism, a brief outline of the different philosophical positions in the debate, and a short discussion on moral responsibility.

In Chapter two, Against Libertarianism, Caruso focuses on the two most prominent libertarian theories of Agent-Causation (AC) and Event Indeterminism, weighing up the plausibility of each respective theory. Agent-Causal theory states that the agent himself is the cause of the free action, “as he is a self-determining being, casually undetermined by antecedent events.” (19) Caruso argues, the problem with AC is its inability to account for mental causation satisfactorily, which is a necessary condition for free-will as exemplified in our common understanding of human behaviour, as it either falls into radical emergentism or substance dualism.

Event-Indeterminism, on the other hand, is a naturalised version of libertarianism that attempts to escape the sui generis kinds of causation invoked by AC and other types of libertarianism. Robert Kane, the main proponent of such theory, argues that a free action is caused by the effort of an agents will when in moments of moral conflict an agent has two or more options of action available, which creates chaotic conditions of amplified quantum indeterminacy at the relevant neurological level, are activated in the neural network. Caruso argues, however, that event-indeterminism cannot answer the Intelligibility Question: how is libertarianism intelligible in a scientific worldview that embraces the physical universe as causally closed? Kane is unable to give a plausible answer how, given such quantum indeterminacy at the neural networks, that the agent is in control of choosing his actions, since he is unable to invoke a sui generis causation to account for his choosing of one action over the other. Moreover, a satisfactory answer cannot rest on the view that random quantum indeterminacy chooses the suitable course of action, since the agent does not have the required control for moral responsibility as we are not in control of quantum indeterminacy at the neural network level.

In Chapter three, Against Compatibilism, at the start of this chapter Caruso gives us a general survey between the debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism by discussing how compatibilism’s response to the consequence argument is generally unsatisfactory, at least from an incompatibilist point of view. However, Caruso’s main argument – in this chapter – attempts to show that experimental evidence from social psychology shows that compatibilism does not accurately reflect our pre-theoretical beliefs, rather they are libertarian and incompatibilist in nature. To paraphrase one experiment from Nichols and Knobe, the vast majority of subjects (over 90%) answered that our universe was similar to the indeterminist universe presented in the experiment (rather than deterministic). Moreover, if our universe were deterministic then the vast majority of students responded that we would not be fully morally responsible for our actions. This means that proponents of compatibilism cannot assert that their conception of free-will is a reflection of our ordinary conception of it, and neither can they appeal to pre-theoretical intuitions as support to their position. This conclusion becomes relevant when Caruso demonstrates an innovative internal argument against compatibilism later in chapter four.

In the rest of the book, Caruso begins exploring the relationship between free-will and consciousness. Throughout Free-Will and Consciousness Caruso simultaneously takes on libertarianism and compatibilism on closely related but separate fronts throughout. Against libertarianism, Caruso wants to dispose its main virtue of supposed phenomenology of conscious agency and free-will by offering us a deterministic account of the illusion of free-will by appealing to David Rosenthal’s version of Higher Order Thought (HOT) theory of consciousness. Against compatibilism, Caruso argues that this deterministic feeling of free-will is largely not under conscious executive control, but is run by the adaptive unconscious and behaviour is automatically triggered nonconsciously by environmental determinants. Any folk-psychological account of free-will that compatibilism should endorse without appearing ad hoc should, as a necessary condition, have consciousness playing a leading role in initiating and causing behaviour. The recent findings from the BCN show this is not the case.

Chapter four, Free-Will and Consciousness (I) Automaticity and the Adaptive Unconscious, explores the compelling empirical research on the adaptive unconscious and the automaticity of higher processes. Caruso sketches the adaptive unconscious as an evolutionary adaption which, recent experiments in the last 20 years have shown, regulates higher-level processes to the unconscious, just as the unconscious is widely known to regulate sub-mental processes.

In regards to automaticity, Caruso demonstrates countless examples where the environment unconsciously and automatically triggers a stereotype, which in turn causes us to act in unintended ways without conscious control, deliberation, guidance or will. However, this review will only concentrate on the question of whether the environment can trigger goal-directed behaviour nonconsciously without conscious control. Following Bargh’s auto-motive goal-directed model (1990) that was developed in response to this very question, it was found that “goal structures can be activated directly by relevant environmental stimuli … goals, once activated, produce the same outcomes whether they are put in motion by consciously made choice or through external stimuli.” The upshot of this model means that subjects will behave in a goal-directed manner that was selected without conscious control or guidance in that particular moment, although this goal-directed behaviour would have once been consciously chosen before it was nonconsciously implemented. This was demonstrated in an experiment where subjects were primed to behave in a co-operative manner in a fishing game where they could choose between behaving in a competitive manner by maximising profits by keeping all the fishes they took from the lake or by behaving in a co-operative manner by replenishing the lake by letting the fish go back into the lake. Importantly, in these experiments the participants were both unaware that these goals had been activated and also that they were behaving in a manner to achieve this co-operative goal. These experiments show us “we fail to realize just how wide open our unconscious minds are, and how easily our decision making is influenced by unnoticed environmental determinants.” (p.120)

Caruso says that “such results are disturbing precisely because they undermine our intuitive sense of conscious control” (p.128) and compatibilism is threatened by this because the picture of the adaptive unconscious controlling the bulk of our day-to-day lives “is more threatening than normal determinist arguments because it suggests we do not possess the kind of conscious executive control we typically assume” (p.128)

Caruso is right to think that such experimental data is threatening to the compatibilist sense of free-will by undermining the folk-psychological notion of executive conscious control being the commander of our moment to moment actions, but in no sense is this disastrous to their outlook. The compatibilist most likely will have to make concessions in regards to this by admitting that free-will is not the director of all decisions regarding our higher level mental processes, no matter how minor, since the experimental evidence shows that the phenomenology of such a belief was misguided. This is not an ideal backward step for them to make, but compatibilists will argue that real free-will consists in those moments when consciousness control, self-control, deliberation and planning are causally efficacious in making real-life decisions. Although Caruso argues there is not enough conscious control for us to be morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense, Caruso himself does suggest that consciousness “plays an important role in formulating long-term actions, plans and intentions” although it does not initiate these actions or cause these actions, consciousness also plays a role in “non-spontaneous decision making by providing focal-attention to help prioritize and recruit subgoals and functions” (201)

It is a testament to Caruso’s internal argument against compatibilism that by invoking the threatening implications of the adaptive unconscious and the automaticity of behaviour to the severely reduced efficacy of conscious control to our numerous daily decisions that a fierce battleground between compatibilism and incompatibilism will be fought in this arena: how much conscious control do we have over our non-urgent moment to moment decisions? Does consciousness have a downstream effect on these actions, behaviours and decisions? Is this enough conscious control for free-will and/ or moral responsibility?

In chapter five, Free Will and Consciousness (II) Transparency, Infallibility and Higher-Order Thought (HOT) Theory, Caruso argues that one of our defining features of consciousness, the apparent transparency and infallibility of consciousness is a cognitive illusion that leads us to wrongly infer that we are free and causally undetermined because we are unable to introspect the deterministic processes of our decision making. To explain such a deterministic process and cognitive illusion, Caruso endorses Rosenthal’s HOT version of the theory of consciousness. According to HOT theory, “a mental state is conscious only if one is, in some suitable way, conscious of that state.” (156) By the transparency of consciousness, Caruso means, we are conscious of everything in our minds. He argues convincingly that there is ample evidence to suggest that consciousness is not transparent, and this was covered in the bulk of chapter four, that many of our mental states, desires, intentions, judgements, beliefs and goals can often occur unconsciously. By the infallibility of consciousness, Caruso means that we are certain about the knowledge of our mental states and our judgments cannot be in error. He argues that the ability to know our own mental states is limited, as consciousness, even via introspection, does not always accurately represent our mental states to us. This leads us to confabulate reasons for acting, as our conscious phenomenology for acting does not match up with our actual reasons for acting, as illustrated in an example with hypnotized subjects, “[a]fter being hypnotized, subjects can enact a posthypnotic suggestion –e.g., “when you awake you will be immediately crawl around on your hands and knees.” When asked what they are doing, subjects almost immediately generate a rationale – “I think I lost an earring down here” (p.152, as quoted Gazzinga 1985; Hilgard 1965; Estabrooks 1943). Moreover, it is intimated that confabulation of our reasons for acting happens on a daily basis (p.152, as quoted see Nisbett and Wilson 1977; Gazzaniga and LeDoux 1978; Wilson 2002) by arguing that we confabulate stories and create explanations as our conscious selves do not fully know why we act in the way that we do.

Assuming that daily confabulation of reasons is true (although some philosophers doubt it) (Sandis – unpublished), it poses some deep and worrying problems for free-will when paired together with the situationist experiments. Re-examining the structure of confabulation, as the hypnotist example plainly illustrates, the supposed phenomenology of the subject’s reasons for acting does not match up with the actual mechanism of the reason for acting. Given the situationist experiments, the primary conclusion is that objects (banal everyday objects like a Lucozade bottle, a briefcase etc.) in our environment can nonconsciously select and influence our desires, motivations and goal-directed behaviour. The fundamental worry then is that we can never be sure, despite our supposed infallible phenomenology, when we are actually acting for our supposed reasons since nearly any object in the environment could be nonconsciously selecting our goal-directed behaviour without our awareness. The worry is not that we are always confabulating reasons, but rather we are unsure when we are confabulating reasons and when we are not, as our phenomenology for why we acted would still seem just as infallible, and we would be woefully ignorant that environmental determinants have influenced our decision making processes.

In Chapter six, Consciousness and Free Will (III): Intentional States, Caruso focuses on two other phenomenological features of consciousness. Firstly, our intentional states are causally undetermined and arise spontaneously. Secondly, our feeling of conscious will: the feeling that we consciously initiate our behaviour through our conscious intentions and desires.

To start with the former, Caruso believes that the feeling that our intentional states are casually undetermined is crucial to our illusory belief that we have free-will, as we are not conscious that our intentions and desires are themselves causally determined. This gives us a sense of freedom with our actions that our actions are free. This can be explained by HOT theory. According to HOT, the HOT’s are unable to represent the original causes of our desires and intentions so we are unable to remain aware of the causes of our desires and intentions.

In regards to the latter, Caruso discusses the infamous Libet experiments that he believes successfully undermine a major part of the folk psychology of free-will, that our conscious intentions and willing’s cause our actions. Due to brevity, I will not explain the Libet experiment here, but the conclusions of his and similar experiments is that for simple motor actions, such as tapping your fingers on the desk, it appears that we have an unconscious intention to tap our fingers (called a readiness potential RP) before we have the conscious intention to tap our fingers. The Libet experiment, Caruso argues, suggest that conscious will is an illusion – it is not the case that we consciously initiate actions through our conscious intentions or decisions, rather our intentions and actions are initiated unconsciously.

In Chapter seven, Consciousness and Free-Will (IV): Self-Consciousness and Our Sense of Agency, Caruso argues that the illusion of free-will is maintained by our sense of agency that includes the two subjective components of ownership (characterized as I am experiencing the movement or thought) and of authorship (characterized as I initiate an action through my will). To account for this sense of agency, philosophers, theologians and laymen have postulated the existence of a unified Self to account for this wilful behaviour, this is Caruso’s target in this chapter.

The subjective experience of ownership can be explained away by the way in which HOT’s represent their target mental states by employing the indexical concept “I”, which not only makes one conscious of the target state, but also a sense of self to which target state is represented as having by the HOT. However, In medical diseases like alien hand syndrome or schizophrenia (especially in the case of thought insertion), Caruso argues, the sense of ownership over our actions breaks down due to a self-identification error over our thoughts and actions which we do not ascribe to our unified self or sense of agency. However to account for a sense of unity of our conscious, as well as HOT’s employing the essential indexical in representing its target state, in introspective consciousness (when I have a third-order thought of the HOT – which makes the HOT itself conscious) we identify that all of one’s conscious states belongs to a single unified conscious subject, and we identify this conscious subject on a range of considerations from “personal history, bodily features, and psychological characteristics to current location and situation. (229)

Accounting for a sense of agency, Caruso moves on to answering the question: what accounts for the experience of wilfully initiating action, being the author of my own actions, having the self-as-cause? He argues that “the relevant intentions and thoughts that precede an action are tagged with a sense of self (i.e. if they are experienced as owned by a seemingly unified self), and (a) the subsequent action is perceived as consistent with those thoughts, and (b) there are no other competing causes available for the action … on this account, one experiences a sense of self-generation or authorship when they draw causal inferences relating prior self-ascribed thoughts with consistent and self-ascribed actions.” (243)

An extended argument based on Caruso’s adaptive unconscious


Returning back to chapter four, Caruso discusses an experiment that reveals the utility of the adaptive unconscious. The IOWA Gambling Task is an experiment that is designed to test real-life decision making performance (Bechara 1997). The subject is sat in front of four card decks labelled A, B, C and D, and they is given $2000 facsimile money and told to earn as much money as possible and to lose as little as possible. The turning of the decks A and B will yield a larger reward than decks C and D (say $100 to $50 respectively), but the losses in decks C and D are much smaller and less regular than A and B. Over a sustained period of time, picking only the A and B decks will give you losses in the long run, but continually choosing decks C and D will give slow and steady monetary gain. Typically, the experiment lasts for a 100 turning of the cards, but the subject will be unaware how long it will last for, and will be told to continue with the experiment until it’s time to stop.

“Bechara et al. found that participants began to choose advantageously before they consciously realized which strategy worked best. He found that after about 10 cards participants began to generate anticipatory skin conductance responses (e.g., their palms began to sweat) whenever they pondered a choice that turned out to be risky, before they knew explicitly it was a risky choice. At about the same time (around 10 cards) they began to avoid decks with large losses. It wasn’t until much later, at about 80 cards, that they were able to explain why decks C and D were better in the long run. And it wasn’t until about 50 cards – forty cards after the gamblers started generating stress responses to the risky decks – that they were able to say they had a “hunch” that something was wrong with those decks. Bechara et al. concluded: “The results suggest that, in normal individuals, nonconscious biases guide behaviour before conscious knowledge does”

Caruso uses this example from cognitive neuroscience to demonstrate that this example shows that our adaptive unconscious undermines the following assumption: “Most of us assume that our decisions and actions are guided by conscious executive control. We assume that we are consciously and systematically processing incoming information in order to construe and interpret our world and to plan and engage in courses of action.” (p. 113)

However, whilst I think he demonstrates an admirable point, I believe that he can go further with such experimental data, and show a convincing example where the notion of the adaptive unconscious as shown in the IOWA gambling task not only undermines the executive conscious control we have regarding day-to-day events but more pertinently how important the adaptive unconscious is as a potentially determining factor in the crucial aspects of an agents decision making process throughout his life.

Before we continue, I will briefly describe the patients suffering from ventromedial prefrontal lobe damage that the healthy controls were compared to as a paradigm for abnormal decision making processes. Bechara et al (1994) noticed that individuals who suffered specifically from ventromedial prefrontal lobe damage as compared to general brain damage had abnormal decision making tendencies. It was often the case that patient E.V.R, a prototypical example of this condition, “often decides against his best interest, and is unable to learn from his mistakes. His decisions repeatedly lead to negative consequences.” (Bechara et al, 7-8). In the IOWA gambling task, similar to the controls, patients with ventromedial prefrontal lobe damage began by sampling both the good (C-D) and bad (A-B) decks, but instead of remaining the majority of the time like the controls with the advantageous decks, these patients return frequently to the disadvantageous decks.

Now, more interestingly, I would like to explore whether there is a link between abnormal decision making and what we would typically describe as a life that is the outcome of bad decision making consequences, such as being in jail. Do healthy controls and criminals behave in a similar manner on the IOWA gambling task, but criminals freely choose decisions that have high risk consequences, like going to jail? Or is being a criminal due, in some measure, to having an abnormal decision making process?

Recent research has tested the differences between healthy controls and criminals (whom are physically and psychologically healthy) on the IOWA gambling task. The paper from Yechiam et al (2008) that tested this hypothesis states that our results “provide support for the similarity hypothesis (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990) in that criminals, in general, made poor decisions characterized by failure to learn from repeated mistakes … Although both prisoners and healthy controls preferred the disadvantageous decks initially, only the control group eventually learned to strongly prefer the advantageous decks. None of the prisoner groups learned to prefer the advantageous decks by the end of the task.” (emphasis mine)

This conclusion sounds remarkably similar to the patients that suffered from ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) damage. Could it be the case that criminals suffer from a decision making abnormality analogous to those with vmPFC damage without the physical damage? Potentially so when we consider that long-term cocaine abuse also damages decision making in the vmPFC (Carlson 1977). The results from Yechiam et al (2008) continue “drug and sex offenders, and to some extent, OWI [dangerous driving] and theft criminals as well, behaved similarly to chronic cocaine abusers [on the IOWA gambling test]. Compared to controls, these groups weighted gains more than losses … Cocaine abuse has been linked to a reduction in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has a central role in reward learning. Using cocaine results in an increase in exhilaration to immediate gains (McGregor & Roberts, 1993) It is therefore not surprising that forms of crimes characterized by addiction (e.g. drug and sex crimes) are associated with a similar tendency to prefer alternatives that produce high gains and discount their potential losses[1].”

Based on the previous discussion, what does it mean that all the criminals that participated in this experiment did not choose the advantageous decks over the disadvantageous decks? And, in this context, what is the relationship between the adaptive unconscious and the criminal?

Starting with the latter question, two reasonable explanations can be considered: (a) the criminals did not receive the nonconscious mechanism that the disadvantageous “bad decks” were A and B like the healthy controls did; (b) the criminals did have the nonconscious mechanisms similar to the healthy controls to stay away from the “bad decks” but they preferred these decks over the “good decks” anyways due to the high immediate gains of this deck[2].

Explanation (b) appears unsatisfying if we assume that individuals typically act what appears to them to be in their own self-interests, as repeatedly choosing the “bad decks” would contradict this notion. This leads us to explanation (a) if we grant the self-interest assumption. These criminals, for unknown decision making reasons, do not know which decks are in their best interests, so they systemically prefer the decks which give them immediate gains and highs, like long-term cocaine abusers. Similar to long-term cocaine abusers that suffer from reduced dopamine levels, these criminals do not learn from their repeated mistakes of choosing this “bad deck” and since they are more focused on the immediate gains they do not worry about the long-term losses.

In regards to the former question, what does it all mean? Well, since the contrast between criminals and healthy controls is stark and obvious, healthy controls eventually realise the advantageous decks compared to criminals, appearing to highlight that it is not in the conscious executive control for the criminal to realise that he should be preferring the “good decks” C and D. Before it reaches the consciousness of the criminal, the adaptive unconscious of the criminal non-consciously biases his behaviour in a manner that prefers the “bad decks”. If it were the case that consciously criminals may figure out which were the “good decks” and which were the “bad decks” then you would expect to find a few criminals act in a similar manner to the healthy controls on the test, even if it took them longer to come to this realisation. However, this is not the case, all the criminals that participated systematically and frequently preferred the “bad decks” in a similar manner to patients suffering from vmPFC damage and long-term cocaine abuse. This suggests that these criminals all had abnormal decision making processes, despite any physical manifestations of brain damage, which meant that they would act against their best (not self) interest, repeatedly failing to learn from their mistakes, and make decisions that would lead to negative consequences. This all stemmed from factors which were out of their control beginning with the adaptive unconscious failing to reveal the best interests (in this context, the “best decks”) to the criminal, as a consequence of this his consciousness could never reveal to him his best interests, which entailed it was never in the conscious executive control of the criminal to initiate action and behaviour in his best interests.


In conclusion, Free Will and Consciousness is highly recommended as it convincingly sets out to achieve what it desires: providing a compelling determinist account of consciousness that accounts for the libertarian phenomenology of free will, whilst at the same time its comprehensive account of consciousness provides a threatening innovative internal challenge to compatibilism. Lastly, the vast amount of neuroscience research conducted in this monograph is staggering, including insights ranging from Jeannerod on motor control to Frith’s neurocognitive model in schizophrenia. No stone is left untouched in the domain of scientific research.

[1] Though it needs further investigation as to whether one of the potential determining factors for the behaviour of criminals is due to reduction in dopamine, these conclusions show that when it comes to decision making supposedly mentally healthy individuals criminals display similar cognitive decision making errors of chronic cocaine addicts. This disturbing implication raises some serious questions, such as the following, which will not be followed up here, if we class individuals suffering from long-term cocaine addiction with diminished responsibility (in the non-hard determinist metaphysics utilised by the court of law) should particular sub-set of supposedly healthy criminals with decision making abnormalities have diminished responsibility for their actions as well?

[2] It would be instructive if the following science experiment was conducted: do the prisoners unconsciously recognise the decks “a” and “b” are bad? The literature –surprisingly – only discusses the stress response of the healthy controls in relation to the “bad decks”.


3 thoughts on “Freewill and Consciousness Book Review – Draft Copy

  1. I think I may have to give this book a gobble.

    I don’t think that the phenomenological method gives any grounds for free-will.

    If you look at my treatment of the questions “How do I distinguish between what I have control over and what I don’t?” and “How do I distinguish between internal phenomena and external phenomena?” I think you’ll see how Phenomenology (If i am correct in thinking that phenomenology is interrogating the world from the 1st person subjective perspective – basically taking the world as it is consciously given and going from there) lead – i believe – inevitably to the negation of the concept of free-will.

    I treat of them here:


      1. No worries 😀 I’ve had a bit of a turn around in my thinking and being over the last month or so – and haven’t really been blogging – – to be honest I doubt whether I’ll be blogging a lot for a while – the stimuli for doing so has gone. I don’t really care about impressing people anymore and that’s all this blog was: a big ol’ “look at me!”
        But never say never – as inspiration or revelation comes I will whack a post up – – but not gonna make it a bind.

        I agree with you here though – the phenomenological method is the greatest proof against free-will – it shows us how futile we really are – that no matter how much we believe there is this I that I am that is able to control itself it just doesn’t bear the most fleeting of glimpses. This is why people get so hung up on morality – they think that morality is a support for free-will which is utter hogwash; free-will is support for morality! Since there is no free-will there is no moral responsibility and if there exists any facts we can gain through our intellect that is one of them!


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