Over the past few months, I’ve added a fairly rigorous discussion of Free Will and a two-part rant on Consciousness to Medium. During the process, I made a point of reading what others had posted on the topics, adding Claps and trading comments with a variety of interesting folks.
I did notice a certain muddiness in some of the discussions…not surprising when words like Free and Consciousness are involved.
Asking questions of other writers and, even more so, being asked questions led me to isolate a series of ‘pivot point questions’ that seem to distinguish the different stances. I’m offering them here in hopes of making a contribution to clearer thinking about it all.
I’ll editorialize with my own conclusions but I think the questions are useful even if you break the other way on them.
But first, what am I talking about here? Conscious Free Will?
I’m going to ground it like this:
My lab rat, or thought-experiment core, is the conscious consideration of at least two options and a conscious choice between them.
Pivot Point 1: Does what is experienced have agency?
There’s a view that choices happen ‘off-stage’ and what we experience as ‘free choice’ is epiphenomenal, or color commentary, or even some sort of post hoc tale we tell ourself so as not to appear inexplicable to ourself.
The commonality is a belief that agency lies somewhere outside the experience itself.
My view: in many cases agency is precisely where it presents itself to be.
Discussion: There can, of course, be unconscious contributing factors but… notwithstanding the braid of physical, cultural, conscious, and unconscious processes that set up a decision point…a conscious decision is made. Sometimes it’s proceeded by weeks of research filling out a checklist. Sometimes it’s making a list of 6 options and rolling a dice. Regardless, a decision is made — and the thing that causes the results of the decision is precisely consciously making the decision.
That seems like a pretty clear statement but I’ve found that it isn’t. A mental image may help. Folks would tell me, “oh yeah, I agree but the real decision has already been made, right?”
When I was in middle school and a Boy Scout, we specialized in construction: towers, bridges, that sort of thing. We made our own rope out of bailing twine. The twine was of varying thicknesses with fibers sticking out in all directions. We used it because the twine was cheap and, although the appearance of the end result was bristly and funky, it was a very sturdy rope.
Here’s how I imagine the intertwined and overlapping systems that make up our mental and behavioral processes.
Imagine 12 strands of the twine woven together into a bristly rope and dyed splotchily on a continuum from dark grey to bright white. The strands are intertwined paths of causality. The bright white is when that causality proceeds via a conscious process; the various greys are processes outside of consciousness to varying degrees. Consciousness is not an observer of a non-conscious process. It is a process.
Pivot Point 2: Is what is experienced a completely material and, hence, predictable process?
Some, of course, believe it is not.
My View: I’m with the materialists.
Discussion: Descartes split the human experience into two components: the body and higher abilities, the two connected through the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature here is the classic Ghost in the Machine
Note that this is fundamentally a religious perspective. There are things outside the world…God, angels, souls…and we participate in that transcendent plane.
That Ghost still hovers over this discussion and, even when unacknowledged, has left an unrehabilitated bit of religious sensibility…an unconscious assumption that if Free Will and Consciousness aren’t somehow immaterial and unpredictable then they aren’t really what they present themselves to be. (My workout on the topic is here.)
To sharpen this up, I’d like to propose a ‘Turning test’ for conscious experience:
If we materially recreate all the processes leading into a conscious moment then the output will be precisely what we experience.
To rephrase, if consciousness and choice are fully material processes, what could prevent their replication? To return to the rope metaphor, current fMRI research should let us tease out all the threads — all the systems activated — and model them in some material substrate that isn’t an actual human nervous system.
That should totally recreate our experience. If it can’t, then something else is going on and I’ll happily back up and take the other fork:-) And, either way, this will move us into serious sci-fi territory!
Of course, given the architecture and number of connections in a human nervous system, there will be some significant challenges getting to this point.
Pivot Point 3: What do we mean by consciousness?
This is the tricky one with roughly three continually evolving schools of thought.
My view: heck if I know precisely. However, I don’t find it useful to approach the question in the abstract, ie primarily by thinking more and harder. This is a topic to approach empirically.
Discussion: Evolutionary biology, broadly defined, provides a better path in.
We are not simply embodied consciousness. We are part of an evolutionary history and connected to a web of species. Each species is the current exemplar of a different branching at some point over the last three billion years.
On the paths from bacteria to complex animals, there are points where decisions are clearly all instinct — another somewhat muddy term but let’s use bugs as an example.
At some point, Sapiens, and most likely a few other species, developed ‘planning depth’ best conceptualized in game terms as the ability to think some number of moves ahead. (In the case of Homo Sapiens, we have developed sophisticated tools to add complexity and reach to our planning depth but our starting base depth is just a few moves ahead of what’s observed in our closest Chimp relatives.)
Our consciousness is so intertwined with rehearsing the next few steps or replaying the last few, that it’s hard to separate basic awareness from the ongoing planning chatter. Sorting out the threads in all this will be difficult but essential to eventually grasping what consciousness is. Perhaps transcranial magnetic stimulation or brain lesion research can give some clues. Perhaps cross-species comparisons of fMRI scans can as well.
I’d like to note that Carl Jung and members of his school believe that myth, e.g. Prometheus’ story, encodes and even channels the emergence of ego-centered consciousness.Myths, to them, aren’t merely a chronicle of changes in human culture and consciousness but are the vehicle for those changes. What is described in many of our myths is the wresting of deployable energy from the type of unconscious impulse that directs most behavior. ‘Conscious free will’ is an accomplishment, still tenuous. There’s a chance that some of the tools out there in Carl Jung / Joseph Campell land may prove helpful. I think so, but I’ll save more discussion on all that for another story.
The rope of darkened threads is a mythic tangle
Pivot Point 4: How can we tell if anyone else shares what we experience as consciousness?
My view: Technically we can’t but cmon!
Discussion: First, there’s the above: our evolutionary history. We are members of a species and an evolutionary lineage and share most of our genotype and most all of our morphology with the other Sapiens present and past and, in fact, a couple of our chimp cousins to boot.
Second, taking that as a given, the argument for any individual’s uniqueness is weak. What exactly would make you different from any other member of our species in this respect or, in fact, different than a number of other fellow inhabitants of our wonderful but imperiled biosphere?
In point of fact, I may not be able to tell if we’re seeing the same red but I can test to see if you’re color blind. I’m not privy to your decision-making process but we can experimentally determine the impact of a wide variety of cognitive biases. I don’t think it’s all that opaque. Frankly, I hear shards of the Ghost’s sheets flapping around this question and assume it will join Xeno’s Paradox in the annals of temporarily useful but ultimately irrelevant questions.
Pivot Point 5: Without truly ‘free’ conscious choice is there any basis for morality?
I’m going to leave this one alone. Not that it’s irrelevant, but it’s not something I’ve spent much time thinking about beyond a simple heuristic that specifies that one’s responsibility extends to the range of one’s awareness of the impact of one’s actions.
If this is your jam, there’s a good look at free will and normative behavior by Ray Hubbard here: Can Compatibilism Save Free-Will? Reconciling a scientific worldview with free-will.
Thanks for reading.
If you like this sort of thing check out The Philosopher’s Stone on Medium or, in it’s trippiest form, on Brendan’s Podcast.