Free-Will – Returning a High-Class Tennis Serve

There are lots of unnecessary (*) myths about free-will, and I tend to espouse free-won’t variants in response to misleading interpretations of Libet. Some people use the repeatability of a golfer’s putt, I regularly use the thought experiment of imagining being able to return the serve from a high-class tennis player (after Daniel Wegner, just one example here.)

Well, forget the thought experiment, here’s the real thing

Knowing his opponent from previous battles (and no doubt studying others), Agassi has his strategy worked-out for predicting where he’s going to need to move to have any chance of returning Becker’s serve. All those previous calculations and stored memories are reduced to a “single most-significant bit” of information in the moment before his opponent unleashes. Leaving a moment in which to “tune” his response to a choice between a couple of pre-planned moves. The position of his tongue.

As well as this supervisory fine-tuning – the free-won’t model (mostly semi-automated feed-forward with inhibiting, guiding, permissive feed-back controls) –  there are also two very obvious aspects of game theory in there too. Firstly the repeated prior encounters, fundamental to evolving the strategy and the tactical choices. And the tuning of the bluff to disguise the existence of the strategy in order to limit the opponent learning from your response – and thereby reducing the value of that hard-won “bit” of information.

Lots of mind behaviour prior to motor action (including speech) involves anticipatory gaming of options and outcomes, but that’s a longer story about mind generally.

Also the left-right brain (McGilchrist, Master and Emissary) aspect in the fact that even that explicit return choice can be so well rehearsed it is also largely subconscious at the time, despite being overtly rational before and afterwards. The metaphor of the athlete like a well-oiled machine. The high-level consciousness can be looking out for the unexpected events or tricks from the opponent … or the crowd, or pigeons on the court or whatever.

Agassi’s own will is in total control of his best actions, even though there is absolutely no way all the intricacies can be “calculated” in the immediate decision to return the serve. And of course he could be further gaming us all in that ATP interview 😉


[(*) unnecessary because conscious will is no mystery – IMHO.]

[Post Note: I did read the “Arousal and Information” appendix in Mark Solm’s book – previous post. Apart from obviously espousing an information-based model of mind and consciousness, this formally extends patterns of consciousness across the full  range of “arousal” from dead, dormant or comatose to fully present, alert and wilful. A recognition that conscious-ness is many different levels of behaviour, even simultaneously – no need to stumble over lack of agreement on a single definition. Will probably have to read the main chapters on the arousal axis.]

2 thoughts on “Free-Will – Returning a High-Class Tennis Serve”

  1. Having just perused the Guardian’s current Long Read on the subject, I find myself in the camp that thinks there is something off about the whole debate, as if it were a linguistic confusion (with an obvious nod to Wittgenstein). Never mind that a person might not be technically accountable for what they do — we would have no choice about whether to hold them accountable, and apparently no choice about whether to debate it, or what position to take. So the whole question collapses into uselessness.

  2. Hi AJ,
    It collapses into uselessness if the linguistic “confusion” is allowed to dominate. In fact what is “off” about the whole debate is political – what different scientists and philosophers “want” the form of the conclusion to be, despite Witt pointing out the error of many / most.

    The linguistic confusion is easily resolved with a “good fences” approach to the naming of classes … 😉

    (That’s the point of my (*) comment that the confusing myths are entirely unnecessary.)

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