The Mystery of Consciousness

Sam Harris has another post on consciousness: The Mystery of Consciousness II.

While we know many things about ourselves in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we do not know why it is “like something” to be what we are.

Well, this is my stab at it.

Here’s an analogy. Take a long loose spring and connect it rigidly at both ends, and then impart a wave motion on the spring. What is the wave? In one sense it is only the motion of individual parts of the spring that together, because of the physical laws governing that motion, describe a wave in space. Though we can describe the wave – precisely, mathematically – we cannot capture that actual ‘wave’. We can record it on camera; we could copy it in another spring, or the same spring over time. But what we can’t do is capture the actual wave. Take away the spring, or simply stop its motion, and the wave magically vanishes.

This is how I see consciousness. Not, trivially, ‘brain waves’, though they are one aspect of consciousness – it’s output, maybe its ‘waste’, as heat is from an engine.

The one significant difference is that in consciousness the device (brain) in which this ‘wave’ is occurring is able to monitor itself – at least in terms of some vague abstracted representation of its inner operation. Just as the pressure in a balloon is the vague representation of the motion of the particles it contains, so consciousness is a representation of what’s going on in the brain.

The brain (like the entity it controls) is complex, so it’s no surprise that a representation of it would be complex too – at least one would expect complexity if that representation is to prove useful, but not so complex in use that it becomes so cumbersome it proves use-less.

An over-simplified analogy (for this would not(?) count as consciousness) would be if the spring was made of a network of microchips (retaining the connected elasticity of the spring) that could monitor accelerations and produce an overall vague representation of the action of the spring, as represented by some higher abstract level system (as an IQ figure summarises related but different task performances). What does it feel like to be a micro-chip spring? Would different waveforms emerge as different ‘thoughts’ or mental experiences?

In a sense the wave in the spring is an illusion – there is no ‘wave’ that is independent of the spring’s motion; it has no physical actuality itself, unlike the moving particles of the spring (avoiding any deeper physics and philosophy regarding the particles that make up the spring). Even if a micro-chip spring is monitoring its own (brain) wave activity, there is no actual wave.

Perhaps there is no real consciousness in actuality. As materialists we already accept there is nothing else but the ‘matter’ we are made of (whatever form it takes). Perhaps consciousness is only the residual analysis of the activity of (only part of) the brain, by (only a part of) the brain. So complex, yes, that it fools the entity that is ‘experiencing’ it into feeling it is something else, something additional.

This feeling of something additional seems crucial, and is possibly the cause of the feeling of consciousness, the feeling of what it is like to be something. Where does this feeling of something being additional come from? I think the clue is in the ‘only part’ aspects of what is being perceived and what is doing the perceiving. And I think it is related to the evolutionary process that got us to where we are today; and, significantly, to where we were, whenever we first realised we were conscious.

This ‘awakening’ is one that happens to us as individuals, during development, but it is so far back into our infancy, and maybe back to the early stages of brain emergence and development, in the womb, that at the time we don’t have the language, or the other experiences of self or others, that are required to register it – and certainly not enough to remember it in any senss that is meaningful to an adult. The awakening may happen gradually, or it may be a pretty sharp event, a spark – we simply don’t know.

And this awakening has a parallel in the wider sense of human culture. We have no cultural memory of when we humans (or our non-human ancestors), as individuals, and as communicated among ourselves culturally, became conscious and culturally self-aware.

So, what would it feel like to an entity (trying to avoid anthropomorphic sentiments) that had recently started to monitor its own behaviour, and then realised that, wow!, it can ‘see’ itself monitoring itself!? Wouldn’t it ‘feel’ just like this? Wouldn’t it feel like (given the unity of that feeling) that there is something that it is like to be that entity, to identify with it, to call itself, ‘I’?

Now, think of the micro-chip spring being able to have some autonomous control over its behaviour. Wouldn’t it have to develop strategies for controlling its wider entity that accounted for the fact that it didn’t have, couldn’t have, full and instantaneous control of every aspect of itself. At the limit this is a measurement problem: to monitor itself ‘completely’ it needs to monitor the monitoring system too, which would require more capacity to monitor, which in turn would require monitoring, and so on. Like all biological systems there’s a balance – and we seem to have reached ours, for now. We have limited ‘consciousness’: limited awareness and control of the wider entity that is represented by ‘I’.

A related question: What would it have felt like if our two brain hemisphere’s had been more independent, so that ‘I’ became ‘we-two’? What would that consciousness feel like? And what if we-two shared some of our self-awareness, say, but less of our motor capabilities? Or if our motor capabilities were unified, but our planning systems (our intent) were independent? Maybe evolution would have ditched these latter oddities and settled on a unified consciousness (how would a push-me-pull-you escape from threats?)

The split brain patients give us some clues, but if you ask them they don’t reveal two independent ‘consciousnesses’ – one half of the brain may be independent to some extent, but appears to be sub-consciously independent (i.e active, so not ‘un-conscious’ as in brain dead) – at least that’s how it appears from the outside. I wonder (haven’t quizzed those experienced in this area) if the other brain half is a locked in but otherwise self-aware identity.

As with the wave in the micro-chip spring I think that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, and as such can be explained (eventually) by processes in the brain. The hard problem, what then remains of it, is like trying to capture the wave that the spring’s motion describes – or trying to attribute the higher level representation (in the micro-chip spring’s central control/nervous system) of the wave, as if the wave itself actually exists.

Finally I’d like to consider this higher level representation that I think we have, which we call consciousness. I don’t think its anything like as precise and as acute as we often like to think it is. When we talk of memories, when we recall them all the indications are that they consist of nothing more than states in the brain, probably distributed over parts of the brain. Any one memory (e.g. a face) seems to require memory ‘bits’ from many neurons, and many of those neurons may be used in forming other higher level conceptual memories too. We often get confused about memories – someone mentions the name of a person we met once, and we have a vague recollection of their face – but that recollection may be incomplete, or may even contain elements of one or more other people, so that when we meet the person again they are not quite as we remember them. We mis-remember incidents too.

We know to some extent that the act of recollection is itself somewhat an act of re-building, re-remembering, re-enforcing – and in the mush and complexity and chaotic activity of the brain we should know that our thoughts are bound to be pretty random in their content. The amazing thing is that they are precise and accurate enough (over time, shared and compared, recorded and repeatedly re-analysed) to build long standing concepts, ideas, philosophies, sciences, religions.

An additional thought that comes to me here is that this is why Plato conceived his Forms concept – the many actual and messy and very real shapes with, on the whole, three sort of sides, eventually distills out into the pure form of the triangle. It is the pure triangle and the mathematical model of it that is the approximation to messy reality of real near-triangles, rather than real triangles being approximations to pure forms, as if those pure forms exist in any objective reality. All the precise mathematical theory of our science, the assumed infinite precision of the pure maths, is never experienced in actuality. We can hold vague conceptual notions like ‘infinity’ in our heads, but do they represent anything real? We struggle too with zero, nothingness – just ask a physicist about the nothingness of space.

All this gives me the impression (and being a thought in my brain is also fairly vague at this moment, needing further development) that consciousness and its virtual particles, it’s thoughts, are just illusory phenomena. That they are patterns described by actual physical particles in the brain is where the real physical material objectivity lies. Consciousness, as we perceive it, is a representation of that activity, and nothing more.

Kant could critique ‘pure reason’ so easily because it is so insubstantial – there is nothing there in and of itself. All there is is experience. What we think we know about evolution tells us that our ancestors were experiential creatures – experience comes before and is prior to consciousness, and as such is more real in every sense: in the sense above, that consciousness is at most a pattern of behaviour, or a higher level model of that behaviour; and in the sense that evolutionarily our experiential heredity is far more engrained and powerful than our mental heredity. Mentally, on cosmic scales, we are novices. Our parochial view makes it look a big deal. When we consider our genius we have only ourselves to compare. No wonder our view is skewed.

The predominance we have given to reason, thoughts, consciousness, I feel has come about because when we first became aware, that consciousness is what we were most acutely aware of. Our thoughts about our physical experiences seem to show us that those physical experiences are fleeting passing phenomena: they change, moment to moment, and as we age. But our self-awareness unity seems to be the thing that persists, and as such adds to the illusion that it is a thing in itself, rather than a representation of the overall, average, statistically consistent patterns, in a material brain.

A Scientific Free-Will: In Oppostion To Deterministic Free-Will

This is a review of the points covered in this paper:

Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates by Björn Brembs.

Thanks to Bruno for the link.

The paper dismisses the ‘real’ (metaphysical) free-will of dualism and theism (the soul?), but is more specifically aimed at giving a scientific account of free-will, but one that is not constrained to a completely illusory free-will as suggested by determinism.

It is not as clear as this paper claims that the universe is not deterministic. It might not be, but we as human animals have a specific difficulty in establishing this.

I’m quite happy to say we don’t know what ultimate reality is, if there is an ultimate reality. I’m quite happy to say we can’t be sure that the universe is actually deterministic. But all of science seems to be based on determinism. Well, at least it depends on causality. There is the notion of causality without determinism, but this seems a bit of a cheat. In most respect causation and determinism can be used interchangeably.

This paper seems to be based on the conflation of underlying state of affairs (the universe is deterministic or not) and what humans can deduce from it (to humans the universe is indeterminate).

So throughout I’ll try to distinguish between these:

Determinism, non-determinism – the extent to which fundamentally the universe is deterministic in the sense that any event is caused by one or more other events in a causal chain so that the outcome is determined by prior events. This is really an ontological position, about what the universe is and how it behaves. There are variations.

Determinacy, indeterminacy – the extent to which any one part of a deterministic system can or cannot know all about (and possibly may know nothing about) some other part. This determinacy is essentially an epistemological notion, in human terms, or an informational notion in a more general sense.

2 – The rejection of determinism

I don’t see any reason to suppose that current science demonstrates that the universe is non-deterministic. Section 2 is not very convincing in its rejection of determinism since at least some of the examples specifically do not refute determinism. The ‘chance’ aspects of quantum mechanics are not unanimously agreed to be non-deterministic – though our limited understanding of it may give us the impression it is non-deterministic. Double slit experiments do not speak to determinism or non-determinism – they only imply that our models (wave v particle) are insufficient alone to describe such phenomena.

Even Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle does not refute determinism as clearly as some people make out. Determinism isn’t about being able to actually measure what will happen, it’s about what does happen as the result of an event that occurs. There are all sorts of details that are confusing about the ‘measurement’ of a particles position and velocity, to do with what is actually doing the measuring (and lots of nonsense about it being a conscious being, as opposed to mere interaction with anything, including other particles).

The real issues of determinism are not to do with quantum mechanics. There’s the possibility that quantum mechanics phenomena are deterministic. The problem is more fundamental than current science can explain. For example, if this universe is deterministic then was it too ’caused’ or is it just deterministic from the Big Bang onwards. An infinite regress of deterministic universes seems to be unpalatable for some reason, but I can’t figure out why. It’s not as if we have direct experience of anything outside our universe to come to any opinion about whether infinite regress is de rigueur for universal creation systems or not. We’re simply in the dark on all of this.

So, what we are left with is that the universe appears deterministic, and much of our classical science uses that fact – and brain science is classical science down to the level of molecules and the chemistry of the brain. There’s no convincing argument that quantum mechanics is truly non-deterministic, as opposed to simply being indeterminate. Applying quantum ideas to brain science is just as much a shot in the dark as the ‘metaphysical’ free-will it is supposed to avoid. deterministic models are sufficient for brain science, until such time as real evidence to the contrary appears

3. Behavioural variability as an adaptive trait

Some scholars have resorted to quantum uncertainty in the brain as the solution, providing the necessary discontinuity in the causal chain of events. This is not unrealistic, as there is evidence that biological organisms can evolve to take advantage of quantum effects. For instance, plants use quantum coherence when harvesting light in their photosynthetic complexes.

There are forms of indeterminism that are still causal. I’m not sure where this discontinuity in the causal chain might be.

This doesn’t do anything but introduce the above uncertainties in our understanding of physics, but this doesn’t refute determinism at this level. If some quantum event occurs in a plant, and that causes a molecule in the plant to absorb some light with the consequential result of photosynthesis in action, then that quantum event ’caused’, ‘determined’ that the reaction would take place. What quantum uncertainty fails to do in such cases is explain how anything is remotely certain or predictable.

But to attribute this to free-will is no different than talking about sodium ions. Whether one particular sodium ion makes it through a sodium channel in a particular neuron will ‘determine’ whether that neuron fires or not – and if that particular neuron constitutes a tipping point in some micro decision that the brain makes, then that micro-decision will fire or not, and that in turn will contribute to the way a larger decision occurs. Quantum events are so far below the level at which we can analyse human decisions that for any particular decision they are not worth considering. There is sufficient indeterminacy in any classical assessment of the brain without having to look for quantum effects to explain indeterminacy.

Quantum events are a fundamental part of electronics, but you can bet that most proponents of free-will very specifically do not attribute consciousness and free-will to electronic systems – i.e. computers.

Moreover, and more importantly, the pure chance of quantum indeterminism alone is not what anyone would call ‘freedom’. ‘For surely my actions should be caused because I want them to happen for one or more reasons rather that they happen by chance’. This is precisely where the biological mechanisms underlying the generation of behavioural variability can provide a viable concept of free will.

Part of the problem here is that this paper is essentially re-defining free-will in a materialistic scientific sense, and yet still requires a ‘degree’ of freedom to describe personal agency. But on the whole this paper still makes ‘real’ free-will just as illusory as is described by determinism.

Biologists need not resort to quantum mechanics to understand that deterministic behaviour can never be evolutionarily stable. Evolution is a competitive business and predictability is one thing that will make sure that a competitor will be out of business soon. There are many illuminating examples of selection pressures favouring unpredictability…

‘Unpredictable’ to who? To the animals that are in the middle of the evolutionary process. The selection pressures are deterministic pressures that drive individual animals behaviour, but those behaviours can still be adequately indeterminate to other animals, and, to a great extent, to themselves. This is a fine example of conflating non-determinism with the indeterminacy of knowledge (information) to an individual entity.

Escape behaviours are analysed at a macro level of a complex individual, and at best the response of bulk areas of the brain of the a complex individual. The C-start example is illustrating the causal complexity of events – the snake does ’cause’ or ‘determine’ that the fish responds to the snake’s advantage. This is hardly a refutation of determinism.

Note that if the Mauthner cell was to respond to ‘randomness’ then its response would be non-deterministic, and the fish would not respond with the C-start behaviour so predictably – the snake has learned (in the evolutionary sense) to take advantage of that predictable response, the determinacy of the outcome of an action. The whole notion of non-determinism is its own demise, or else nothing would be predictable at all. The unpredictability of behaviour we find in biological systems can be sufficiently described by indeterminacy of complex classical systems.

All the examples in section 3 are examples of how deterministic systems are subject to influences that to those systems are indeterminate; so looked at in isolation it looks like the system has some unpredictability. But that does not mean it isn’t part of some wider system were all the component events are ‘determined’ by prior events.

In evolutionary terms it is put as random mutation and natural selection. But here the ‘random’ mutation is only apparently random to us, because of the vast complexity and the inaccessibility of the DNA that is mutating. But for any DNA molecule that mutates there will be an obvious causal event at the molecular level that caused that molecule to mutate (e.g. chemically driven mutation), or it might result from some atomic decay process, maybe triggered by a passing subatomic particle. Some of these physical events at this level are at the forefront of particle physics, but do not as yet refute a deterministic mutation, and so do not imply that evolution is a non-deterministic process.

The best adapted survive (the natural selection bit) because of causal events in their environment (their environment includes their own bodies; and brains, for entities that have them).

4. Brains are in control of variability

These observations suggest that there must be mechanisms by which brains control the variability they inject into their motor output. Some components of these mechanisms have been studied. For instance, tethered flies can be trained to reduce the range of the variability in their turning manoeuvres.

Well, then the training has causally determined that their behaviour should change, by mechanisms relating to how all animals with brains learn (see Eric Kandel and others on memory, learning, conditioning).

Variability is not shown to be non-deterministic by this section. In fact it gives some good examples to support the deterministic world view – even though the determinism is many levels removed, to the extent that most animal behaviour patterns are statistical outcomes of extremely complex causal systems.

5. What are the neural mechanisms generating behavioural variability?

Instead, a nonlinear signature was found, suggesting that fly brains operate at critically, meaning that they are mathematically unstable, which, in turn, implies an evolved mechanism rendering brains highly susceptible to the smallest differences in initial conditions and amplifying them exponentially [63]. Put differently, fly brains have evolved to generate unpredictable turning manoeuvres.

Instability is not non-determinism. It just means that a particular system or part of a system is finely tuned to respond (be caused to change) by small changes to its inputs (its environment). It is still a deterministic system, just less predictable to other systems nearby, particularly those trying to predict the outcome based on immediate stimulus alone. Of course there are all the precursor developments that put the system into that unstable state. The various learning and conditioning examples given by Eric Kandel illustrate the variability of neuronal systems depending on the frequency and type of stimulus. This does not mean that within these neurons the processes are not deterministic.

6. Determinism versus indeterminism is a false dichotomy

Together with Hume, most would probably subscribe to the notion that ’tis impossible to admit of any medium betwixt chance and an absolute necessity’ [75]. For example, Steven Pinker (1997, p. 54) concurs that ‘A random event does not fit the concept of free will any more than a lawful one does, and could not serve as the long-sought locus of moral responsibility’ [76].


However, to consider chance and lawfulness as the two mutually exclusive sides of our reality is only one way to look at the issue.

The problem here is that this paper is confusing ‘determinism’, the underlying mechanism that ‘drives’ events, with ‘indeterminacy’, the inability of any system (including but not restricted to humans) to ‘determine’ or predict what a particular outcome will be.

The unstable nonlinearity, which makes brains exquisitely sensitive to small perturbations, may be the behavioural correlate of amplification mechanisms such as those described for the barrel cortex [74].


This nonlinear signature eliminates the two alternatives, which both would run counter to free will, namely complete (or quantum) randomness and pure, Laplacian determinism.

No it does not! The stability or instability of particular mechanisms only relates to how sensitive a system is to being ‘determined’ to change by deterministic precursors, it’s stimulus inputs, and its current state in detail. This has been a problem for psychology – the treatment of the brain as a black box. Various stimuli can illicit the same bahaviour, and the same stimuli can illicit different behaviour – even in the same subject – because there is insufficient knowledge about what’s going on inside.

These represent opposite and extreme endpoints in discussions of brain functioning, which hamper the scientific discussion of free will.

They only hamper the science in that many philosophers and theists want there to be some magical ‘real’ free-will that is outside the causal reach of a deterministic universe, and those philosophers and theists are in some cases getting involved in the debate (Bill Klemm being an example of a theist scientist who lets his theism dictate his view in this regard). So this issue of the nature of free-will at a more fundamental level is important, and ongoing.

Instead, much like evolution itself, a scientific concept of free will comes to lie between chance and necessity, with mechanisms incorporating both randomness and lawfulness.

Here the term ‘chance’ can just mean trivial ‘inditerminacy’, but it does not refute philosophical determinism upon which all science is based.

The Humean dichotomy of chance and necessity is invalid for complex processes such as evolution or brain functioning.

In the sense that the distinction is unimportant once the general notion of determinism is accepted and the science moves on, regardless of what some philosophers and theists want to be the case. Brain science can proceed with a deterministic model – it can hardly be said that this model has been exhausted.

Such phenomena incorporate multiple components that are both lawful and indeterminate.

This seems more correct, using the term: ‘indeterminate’. It can be said that it is all lawful (obeying physical laws) and as such any part of it, and the interaction of that part with any other, produces a determinate outcome; but we cannot determine that outcome, primarily because of the complexity.

This breakdown of the determinism/indeterminism dichotomy …

The dichotomy is not determinism/indeterminacy, but determinism/non-determinism. It’s perfectly reasonable in a deterministic universe for it to have parts that are indeterminate to other parts – i.e. one part cannot ‘know’ about another part until such time as the second part impacts on (‘determines’ change in) the first part.

Stochasticity is not a nuisance, or a side effect of our reality. Evolution has shaped our brains to implement ‘stochasticity’ in a controlled way, injecting variability ‘at will’. Without such an implementation, we would not exist.

Yes, fine – if ‘stochastic just means unpredictably variable to us. This is not refuting determinism.

A scientific concept of free will cannot be a qualitative concept. The question is not any more ‘do we have free will?’; the questions is now: ‘how much free will do we have?’; ‘how much does this or that animal have?’. Free will becomes a quantitative trait.

This is really about the extent to which an animal (or any system) is autonomous, in the sense of the extent to which complex processes inside it (mostly its brain, for an animal) ‘determine’ its behaviour. For a more autonomous system it is less immediately dependent on its environment for its behaviour than is a less autonomous one. But both are completely deterministic in that all the processes on the inside and outside are governed by deterministic physical laws – always depending of course on the extent to which low level determinism actually does prevail.

7. Initiating activity: actions versus responses

This is more about the extent to which systems are indeterminate, not about the underlying determinism.

8. Freedom of choice

For instance, isolated leech nervous systems chose either a swimming motor programme or a crawling motor programme to an invariant electrical stimulus [78–80]. Every time the stimulus is applied, a set of neurons in the leech ganglia goes through a so far poorly understood process of decision-making to arrive either at a swimming or at a crawling behaviour. The stimulus situation could not be more perfectly controlled than in an isolated nervous system, excluding any possible spurious stimuli reaching sensory receptors unnoticed by the experimenter. In fact, even hypothetical ‘internal stimuli’, generated somehow by the animal must in this case be coming from the nervous system itself, rendering the concept of ‘stimulus’ in this respect rather useless.

This is expressing only how difficult it is to account for actions within neurons. The inner action of a neuron, with all its internal processes controlling the expression of neurotransmitters, the migration of triggers up and down the inner pathways, such as those determining gene expression and inhibition, all the outside details of what allows the action potential to fire, the stimuli that determine how and when it grows synapses in the local learning memory process, etc. A neuron is already a complex system. It doesn’t matter how precise an external stimulus may be, the subsequent outcomes will be variable. But that does not mean that the countless molecular events going on inside and around the neuron are not deterministic.

Yet, under these ‘carefully controlled experimental circumstances, the animal behaves as it damned well pleases’ (Harvard Law of Animal Behaviour) [34].

This itself is just an expression of the indeterminacy of the measured system, not that it actually does have ‘real’ free-will, or that the underlying physics is non-determinate.

Seymour Benzer, one of the founders of Neurogenetics, captured this phenomenon in the description of his first phototaxis experiments in 1967: ‘ … if you put flies at one end of a tube and a light at the other end, the flies will run to the light. But I noticed that not every fly will run every time. If you separate the ones that ran or did not run and test them again, you find, again, the same percentage will run. But an individual fly will make its own decision’.

Distinguish ‘real’ free-will from indeterminacy. That each fly ‘will make its own decision’ is an expression of this indeterminacy, not only in the minds of the experimenters, but also to the fly. The fly does not ‘know’ or decide of its own ‘real’ free-will – it simply ‘behaves’ in accordance to the multitude of complex deterministic operations that are going on inside its tiny little brain, and within that brain’s 100,000 neurons. One hundred thousand neurons in a fruit fly! How the hell is a simple light box experiment supposed to expose the determinism or non-determinism of the underlying countless number of molecules within each of those neurons to an extent that would make the fly behaviour ‘non-determinate’? The behaviour is only ‘indeterminate’ due to this complexity.

All these experiments are bulk property statistical experiments, at least on some scale. When trying to measure the behaviour of flies with a light box the outcome is bound to be a statistical measure of the indeterminate behaviour of countless deterministic events at the scale of the neuron, and below that at the molecule, and below that of the atomic and subatomic activity.

John Searle has described free will as the belief ‘that we could often have done otherwise than we in fact did’ [92]. Taylor & Dennett cite the maxim ‘I could have done otherwise’ [93]. Clearly, leeches and flies could and can behave differently in identical environments.

But the crucial point here is that they could not know that they could have done otherwise, or that they would have done.

In some cases we may loose nearly all our autonomy. A man falls off a cliff and smashes on the rocks below. I say, “Wow, once he started falling, did he have to die?” and John Searle says, “He could have done otherwise.” – What? he could have used his free-will to fly back up to the cliff? We acknowledge some obvious restrictions to our free-will.

In other cases what’s going on when a bunch of neurons spark around in our heads and ‘decide’ to raise our left hand or right hand, the notion that we ‘could have done otherwise’ doesn’t really capture the internal complexity of that event, and certainly doesn’t demonstrate ‘real’ free-will, and certainly doesn’t refute determinism.

While some argue that unpredictable (or random) choice does not qualify for their definition of free will [2], it is precisely the freedom from the chains of causality that most scholars see as a crucial prerequisite for free will.

This confuses indeterminacy, chance (whatever that is) and ‘real’ free-will – unless of course we re-define free-will just to mean outcomes of complex deterministic yet indeterminate systems.

9. Consciousness and freedom

It thus is no coincidence that we all feel that we possess a certain degree of freedom of choice.

Because we cannot determine all the micro-deterministic events that drive our internal decision making processes. It’s quite plausible, and consistent with classical deterministic physics, that a system that is limited-self-aware (has some data about itself, but cannot monitor most of itself, particularly its central control system) that it has some representation of itself as spontaneously making decisions.

It makes sense that depriving humans of such freedom is frequently used as punishment and the deprived do invariably perceive this limited freedom as undesirable.

We only feel this is the case because we have innate (determined by evolution and development) physiological drives that emerge as emotional desires to have freedom of motion. One feature that distinguishes most animals from plants is that they must move to survive – to hunt and to avoid being hunted. It seems a good evolutionary adaptation to make restriction of movement an undesirable situation that the whole body fights against – again expressed in some animals, particular humans, as an emotional discomfort in having freedom of movement restricted. But again, not refuting determinism

The concept that we can decide to behave differently even under identical circumstances underlies not only our justice systems.

The circumstances are never the same! Every time an organism responds to some stimulus it changes the organism, which, in whatever minor degree it may be, has the potential to change the response next time the stimulus is applied. And all the time, time is ticking by and the environment is changing.

But be careful, because this link to justice is part of the problem – our illusion that we have ‘real’ free-will can lead to injustice by attributing all responsibility only to the individual. Thankfully there is at least some consideration of extenuating circumstances in many cases – at least in sentencing if not in judgement of guilt.

Electoral systems, our educational systems, parenting and basically all other social systems also presuppose behavioural variability and at least a certain degree of freedom of choice.

This tends to our desire for freedom in that it allows our complex brains a psychological freedom. Many people do question the extent to which democracy implies real freedom (and even question the notion of freedom). It may be that its greatest importance is that it makes us feel free, so satisfying our psychological and physiological desire for freedom of movement – which translated into more abstract terms used by humans means political freedom.

The data reviewed above make clear that the special property of our brain that provides us with this freedom surely is independent of consciousness. Consciousness is not a necessary prerequisite for a scientific concept of free will.

This is a good point – but note that ‘free-will’ here is the re-defined free-will, which from my perspective is still subject to deterministic physical mechanisms. But I agree they are distinct. A system can be autonomous (free) to some degree without being conscious. A tossed stone is free to fly through the air and fall to the ground – but of course this then begs the question of what the ‘free’ in free-will really means. Can a system lack all autonomy (not sure that can be the case) and still be conscious? Not so sure about that one.

We sometimes have to work extremely hard to constrain our behavioural variability in order to behave as predictably as possible.

Yes. Which shows that our will is not as free as we would like it to be. Which begs the question, for the religious, that if God wanted to give us free-will, why is it so un-free from deterministic constraints?

Therefore, the famous experiments of Benjamin Libet and others since then [2,4,5,98–100] only serve to cement the rejection of the metaphysical concept of free will and are not relevant for the concept proposed here.

Here the ‘metaphysical concept of free-will’ is referring to what I’ve been calling ‘real’ free-will. But Libet’s experiments do not cement the rejection of ‘real’ free-will, and I’d have thought they were of interest to this re-defined ‘scientific’ free-will, in that they refer to the timing of brain events and choices made, and the conscious awareness of those choices.

Conscious reflection, meditation or discussion may help with difficult decisions, but this is not even necessarily the case. The degree to which our conscious efforts can affect our decisions is therefore central to any discussion about the degree of responsibility our freedom entails, but not to the freedom itself.

This is the interesting point when it comes to responsibility and the autonomy of an individual. If two men are walking towards me and one attacks me and the other then defends me, then I can attribute immediate causation (identify the most significant entities in the causal chain of events). I can say that the action of one and not the other determined that I had a nose bleed. But there may be many prior causes that determined why I was struck by the first man, and this is where responsibility and determinisms and the extent of autonomy come into play.

10. The Self and Agency

In contrast to consciousness, an important part of a scientific concept of free will is the concept of ‘self’. It is important to realize that the organism generates an action itself, spontaneously. In chemistry, spontaneous reactions occur when there is a chemical imbalance. The system is said to be far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Biological organisms are constantly held far from equilibrium, they are considered open thermodynamic systems. However, in contrast to physical or chemical open systems, some of the spontaneous actions initiated by biological organisms help keep the organism away from equilibrium. Every action that promotes survival or acquires energy sustains the energy flow through the open system, prompting Georg Litsche to define biological organisms as a separate class of open systems (i.e. ‘subjects’; [101]). Because of this constant supply of energy, it should not be surprising to scientists that actions can be initiated spontaneously and need not be released by external stimuli. In controlled situations where there cannot be sufficient causes outside the organism to make the organism release the particular action, the brain initiates behaviour from within, potentially using a two-stage process as described above. The boy ceases to play and jumps up. This sort of impulsivity is a characteristic of children every parent can attest to. We do not describe the boy’s action with ‘some hidden stimuli made him jump’—he jumped of his own accord. The jump has all the qualities of a beginning. The inference of agency in ourselves, others and even inanimate objects is a central component of how we think. Assigning agency requires a concept of self. How does a brain know what is self?

This paragraph describes the illusion of self and free-will quite well. That the processes that initiate action are sometimes predominantly, and on a small time scale maybe wholly, attributable to internal processes, is the cause of our illusion. Those internal processes are still deterministic at the lower levels, with various collections of internal events coming together to trigger an externally visible behaviour. It’s the fact that we the observers, and sometimes the subject that is performing the behaviour, are not aware of the precursor internal causes that it looks so spontaneous to us – and this is the root of attribution of the concept of free-will. Free-will seems more like a psychological perception than a reality.

One striking characteristic of actions is that an animal normally does not respond to the sensory stimuli it causes by its own actions. The best examples are that it is difficult to tickle oneself…

This is still a comparison of outcomes from deterministic sequences of events. It relates to the complexity of the system and the availability of internal feedback that makes tickling oneself different than being tickled by someone else. If you doubt this distinction then look up Dead Hand (definition 1).

Thus, in order to understand actions, it is necessary to introduce the term self. The concept of self necessarily follows from the insight that animals and humans initiate behaviour by themselves.

As a general convenience in many circumstances I’d agree that this is a good model for such complex systems as humans with the degree of complex indeterminate autonomous behaviour we exhibit.

It would make no sense to assign a behaviour to an organism if any behavioural activity could, in principle, be traced back by a chain of causations to the origin of the universe.

I would agree with this to some extent. In the mugger example I gave above I don’t have to trace causes back to the Big Bang to determine that the most predominant immediate cause of my pain was the mugger, not my defender. This is simple cause and effect, nothing to do with agency in the free-will sense.

In my house the circuit breaker keeps tripping. I discover that unplugging my fridge prevents this, but unplugging all other appliances doesn’t. I blame the fridge and replace it. The problem persists with the new fridge. On further investigation I find the fault is with the wall socket behind the fridge – plug anything there and the breaker trips. This illustrates the problem with the simplistic notion of free-will and personal responsibility. Sometimes we do have to look further than the immediate agent for the behaviour we witness. It might save hanging the wrong man – or in my case replacing a working fridge.

An animal or human being is the agent causing a behaviour, as long as no sufficient causes for this activity to occur are coming from outside the organism.

And here lies the tricky bit. Sometimes those apparent spontaneous and ‘freely-willed’ actions of animals and people are pre-determined by circumstances that conspire to form the decision making process we are witnessing in the present. We could blame a drug user for ‘choosing’ to do drugs – but if such a person is from an abusive drug-taking family then what would we expect them to do? That a man born and raised in Iran is a strident Muslim need be no surprise to us in the West – though Christians don’t necessarily see their route to Christianity being so conformal to prior causes. That a child spontaneously leaps around or shouts odd words might be an indication he has Tourette syndrome, whereas some observers might think him rude. Many human undesirable behaviours previously attributed to free-will have subsequently been attributed to specific conditions beyond the control of the subject. The free-will model – particularly the religious one associated with sinning – isn’t that helpful a model.

Agency is assigned to entities who initiate actions themselves. Agency is crucial for moral responsibility. Behaviour can have good or bad consequences. It is the agent for whom the consequences matter the most and who can be held responsible for them.

And so it is believed by Libertarians, and fundamentalist theists alike. There are no limits to how this simplistic view of our animal nature can be used to limit our freedoms, in the very act of declaring them free.

11. Why still use the term free-will today?

By providing empirical data from invertebrate model systems supporting a materialistic model of free will, I hope to at least start a thought process that abandoning the metaphysical concept of free will does not automatically entail that we are slaves of our genes and our environment, forced to always choose the same option when faced with the same situation.

I do think the ‘materialistic model of free will’ shows the ‘real’ (metaphysical) free-will model to be illusory – or at least illustrates it not to be so straight forward we can go on attributing blame and dishing out punishment willy-nilly. But I do think we can accept quite easily that we are slaves to our genes and environment – but to an indeterminate extent that makes this particular piece of knowledge non-constraining psychologically. As put earlier in the article, but not quite expressed in this sense, it’s the indeterminate nature of games that make them interesting. Flipping a double headed coin is not as interesting a game as flipping a normal coin – and in the case of the latter it makes no difference how deterministic the outcome is from a point of view of the physical laws of the universe, because to us it’s indeterminate. So, we cannot say we are always ‘forced to always choose the same option’, because we are not – the options are determined, but indeterminate to us: psychologically this is free-will. We may be constrained by determinism to make a specific choice on a specific occasion, but the same determinism, effected by other subsequent states, may result in a different choice next time. This time based indeterminacy makes arguments that ‘I could have chosen otherwise’ quite meaningless.

In fact, I am confident I have argued successfully that we would not exist if our brains were not able to make a different choice even in the face of identical circumstances and history.

We have not the slightest clue about rerunning history, but if determinism pertains then history cannot be rerun, but if it could then we’d end up with the same outcome. Only if the universe is truly non-deterministic could it be said that running the universe again would result in different outcomes – but doing so would result in a different universe altogether, at least one in which the person wanting to try this would not exists, and probably the earth would not exist either. If quantum indeterminacy was at work then even with the same starting state we would end up with quite a different universe. The only sense in which this notion of rerunning history and making different decisions makes sense is in fact if ‘real’ free-will was something above and beyond and independent of the otherwise deterministic material reality of the universe.

In this article, I suggest re-defining the familiar free will in scientific terms rather than giving it up, only because of the historical baggage all its connotations carry with them. One may argue that ‘volition’ would be a more suitable term, less fraught with baggage. However, the current connotations of volition as ‘willpower’ or the forceful, conscious decision to behave against certain motivations render it less useful and less general a term than free will.

Fair points. Deciding what to call it is tricky, given the baggage.

Finally, there may be a societal value in retaining free will as a valid concept, since encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating [103]

But this is a misconception about what is implied by it, as illustrated by Jesus and Mo. And if determinism is the case, and free-will is illusory, then is it really scientifically sound to deny this because some people will entertain this misconception and think they can cheat?

Look at it this way. If I decide to save a drowning man then I was driven to it, deterministically, by all be genetic, developmental, personal societal history and the current state of my brain as I weigh up the danger to myself and the pleas of the drowning man – my action is determined in that sense. But if I say, ah well, what does it matter, I cannot help leaving him to drown – then it’s determined that I do say that, and yes, this then is the determined outcome. Whichever action I take is the determined action. And it may well be that initially the acquisition of determinism as a philosophy of the mind does lead to the outcome that the man drowns. But then so could the ‘real’ free-will model, in that it can be used as an excuse too: he shouldn’t have been messing about near dangerous water, it’s his fault he’s drowning. And in all this either excuse may be a psychological mask for a fear that is preventing me saving the drowning man – my brain deterministically invented excuses either way.

In the end we just do what we do. The psychological approach we have towards it is itself determined. The point is that it is indeterminate to us, so we go on appearing to make choices, and apparently sometimes rationalising those choices later, and that rationalisation is itself a deterministic process going on in the brain.

So the extent to which this entity, me, is autonomous and can make decisions, seems to be down to influences that drive me one way of another. That I will change is inevitable – until my component parts dies and distribute so that there is no longer any value in the concept of ‘me’. That I will change in a way that suits my biological drives is not under my control, beyond this degree of autonomy. I cannot help, it seems, but view the world this way, and go on making the case for determinism this way. Unless this entity, me, is persuaded to some other point of view – entirely deterministically though as yet indeterminate to me.

I no longer agree that ‘ ‘free will’ is (like ‘life’ and ‘love’) one of those culturally useful notions that become meaningless when we try to make them ‘scientific’ ‘ [96]. The scientific understanding of common concepts enrich our lives, they do not impoverish them, as some have argued [100]. This is why scientists have and will continue to try and understand these concepts scientifically or at least see where and how far such attempts will lead them. It is not uncommon in science to use common terms and later realize that the familiar, intuitive understanding of these terms may not be all that accurate. Initially, we thought atoms were indivisible. Today we do not know how far we can divide matter. Initially, we thought species were groups of organisms that could be distinguished from each other by anatomical traits. Today, biologists use a wide variety of species definitions. Initially, we thought free will was a metaphysical entity. Today, I am joining a growing list of colleagues who are suggesting it is a quantitative, biological trait, a natural product of physical laws and biological evolution, a function of brains, maybe their most important one.

Yep. That’s more like it. The trouble is Björn, you can’t help it. You are driven to this point of view by the deterministic causal universe.