Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument

James Garvey of TPM has this piece on an interview with Frank Jackson, where Jackson seems to have turned to physicalism, but I still don’t think he gets it yet.

A point to make at the outset: Refuting the Knowledge Argument does not in itself make the case for physicalism. A physicalist point may be used in an explanation of the physicalist understanding of the phenomena the Knowledge Argument is trying to describe, but the refutation of the argument is a logical one, and the physicalist comment only supports that refutation, by offering the physicalist view as an alternative. Continue reading “Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument”

Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective

There’s a Youtube video put out by the RI that sees Professor Nicholas Humphrey contemplating the nature of human consciousness.

Here’s the video: The Magic of Consciousness.

Some commenters seem to have trouble understanding how consciousness, and the mind, can be explained by physical processes when the subjective experience is screaming at them that the mind and consciousness are not physical at all. Continue reading “Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective”

Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

Dan Dennett has provided Sam Harris with a refutation of the incompatibilist notion of free will, and support for the compatibilist view.

Dennett fails totally. Here’s the post.

Dennett still does not get the incompatibilist perspective. In fact part of the problem is the philosophical literature. It is typically hopelessly loaded with fine-tuned and rather meaningless variations on the issues of free will. Continue reading “Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy”

What’s Up Doc? Heaven, Apparently

In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)

This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.

1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices’; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.

2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. Near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), so it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.

3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.

4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.

5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.

There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then is perceived to exist as if it is something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.

In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.

What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?

Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…

Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.

What happened to me demands explanation.

There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.

Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.

Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism, than it does about any actuality.

The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.

But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.

No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.

When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…

The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.

… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …

Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.

No fucking kidding!

I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.

Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.

I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.

Update: Sam Harris has chipped in:  This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.

16,000 Out of Ten Billion Processors Prefer Cats

Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.

Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.

The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.

Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:

The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.

Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:

Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.

On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.

Thought v Experience

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

So, where are we, and how did we get this far. This is a short history as I see it, laid out in the order of discovery rather than the chronology of events.

The Dawn (The Preparation)…

Man acquires self awareness and reasoning capacity through evolution. Maybe other members of the 2.4 million year old Homo genus had it too. Details unimportant.

Man’s Journey…

1) Man sees himself think for the first time. At this point he figures: I think therefore I am – thinking starts to dominate. Even though we did have to wait for Descartes to spell that out. Man isn’t aware of The Dawn at this time, and remains ignorant for most of his existence so far. But he soon begins to ponder origins, truth, reality.

2) Millennia of philosophical and theological musings emphasise the primacy of this purist thinking over the rough and gruesome experienced life, to the point that some speculate on the possibility of solipsism and many variations on the theme of idealism, pure spiritual existence. Philosophical logical thought develops and searches for absolute truths. Plato proposes his forms, as perfections distinct from the messiness of bodily earthly life. The simple, the pure, the perfect, become the object of our investigations, whether divine or natural. The divine thoughts invent many origin myths over time – all in the heads of the believers. These myths are expanded upon to produce complete narratives up to some important point, and ideas are refined into a monotheism, the variations of which dominate thinking. A simple but effective story that not only explains origins but is also recruited to the unexplainable of one’s personal life and times.

3) Natural philosophy bumbles along trying to figure out what’s happening in the practical world. Some progress and much nonsense. The difference here is that nonsense becomes evident as such when it turns out not to work. The still primary thinking process doesn’t suffer this setback, since, if you can think it, it must be true, or at least possible. Some start to question the balance of pure reason against a material empiricism, but without any clear headway on the empirical front we find thinking still dominates.

4) Big jump forward. Evolution discovered. It appears we evolved, not only from creatures that have less thinking capacity and self awareness than ourselves, but also from life forms that didn’t have any nervous system as we know it at all. We came from truly experience-only, non-thinking beginnings, which existed long before The Dawn. Experience is our primary means of discovery and had precedence after all – though this was hidden from our enquiring minds. And the supposed superior thinking, it turns out, is an add-on, an upgrade – a new and valuable tool when it appeared, but not the primary route to knowledge acquisition. It’s early use, as fine as that appeared to be, to the brains doing the thinking, was no better than the wobbly child on a bike for the first time, making some progress, but with little control.

5) The Enlightenment starts to show the benefits of empiricism. But there is over confidence. Dogmatic science emerges. Science has a short affair with modernist dogmatism in the 20th century, where it is believed by some that science is infallible. But this is because they too misunderstand what science is and how it is limited in the hands of humans – they are still not thinking straight. Despite the principles that are being developed many scientists and science proponents fall into the same pattern of behaviour that has plagued religion – the truth of authority, the certainty of knowledge. Our child has become a teenager, a boy racer, overconfident for lack of drastic failure, impervious to the effect on others.

6) Roll on the later 20th and the 21st centuries. The science wars break out and expose the fallibility of science, as a very human enterprise. We’re seeing more and more how flawed our individual thinking and experiential capabilities are. But they are all we have. Further revolutions in communication spread dissension against the dogmatic authority of science; with no small help from the feminist backlash to the male domination (and not just in science).

7) Science grows up, recognises its fallibility and the fallibility of it’s methods and the fallibility of its scientists. There’s a real democracy of science: open to all comers, no matter what gender, race, culture, religion; but at the same time the science itself is a democracy of data, not of people – the data speaks, not the people (in theory). Despite all the problems, this is the best route to take to knowledge. It’s not perfect. It will make mistakes. Some philosophers are listening to science, and some scientists are taking on philosophy. Science has to think about how it does science. Sadly, not everyone sees it this way. There are still philosophers in their ivory towers ridiculing science because of its flaws; and theists are still locked into ways of thinking that are being dictated by myths from the pre-scientific times. They mistake ‘ways of thinking’ for ‘ways of knowing’. They don’t see the failures of their own ‘ways of thinking’ (e.g. that faith is a good idea). They are not different ‘ways of knowing’ – since humans have only one way of knowing: experiencing the world and thinking about the experiences. Many point to the emotions, and feelings. But these are no more than internal experiences, to be experienced and reasoned about – they form part of the same one ‘way of knowing’.


So, here we are. This scientific view might not seem as perfect and as pure an outcome as it was anticipated ‘pure thought’ would produce – but the primacy of pure thought was always an illusion anyway. We only thought our thinking was our primary means of discovery. It was not, is not. It is an add-on, an upgrade that we can use to make sense of our senses. But without our senses it’s just a mental machine running on nothing but internal feedback from its own noise, destined to wonder everywhere and anywhere and to take sense and nonsense as indistinguishable justified beliefs.

In fact we can say more than that. Thinking is sensing. The neurons of the senses and the brain are pretty much the same thing. They are ion driven pulse carriers, with internal chemical systems and chemical interfaces to other cells. Brain cells ‘sense’ and ‘activate’ each other much as sense neurons sense and motor neurons activate. It’s a far more complex and incestuous relationship within the brain, but we have no evidence that our experience of thinking consists of anything other than this neuron interaction. We feel thinking is something special, and even feel we have the experience of a free thinking mind in some other realm, the mind realm. But if we consider how inefficient it would be for a thinking system to have to sense its own thinking process in great detail – an infinite regress avoidance system, a filter of internal unnecessary experience – then it seems quite reasonable that a thinking brain cannot detect the actual mechanism by which it thinks. The result is we feel we have minds free of this physical home.

But as far as we can tell we are entirely evolved empirical systems, in which thinking is just one more complex physical component process.

So, is this it? Is this the end of the line. Has science reached its pinnacle?

No, only the start…

Understanding and prediction of nature are still some of the main businesses of science and philosophy – to know how things are and to predict how things will behave. This includes all the mysteries of human nature – though the prospect of demystifying some of this seems to frighten some people – they cry ‘Scientism!’

It’s hard to say where this will lead. We have no more reliable a conception of what science, human knowledge acquisition, will be like a millennium from now, than did those living a millennium ago have of what today’s science would become.

Perhaps we need another mental add-on or upgrade. What’s the next model up from our current emotional but rational feeling mind? What extra mental tricks will we be able to perform? Given our current pace of technological change it looks most likely that it will be an artificial upgrade rather than a biological evolutionary one.

Given our remaining commitment to the primacy of thinking it seems to me like we’ll need an upgrade to progress through this bottleneck of a brain that still sees thought as the primary means of acquiring knowledge. Science seems the best, the only route to success in moving forward. The track record for religion is stagnation in past millennia; and philosophy is hard to shift out of an obsession with long discredited or unevidenced ideas.

Biocentrism – How life and consciousness are the keys to the universe?

[Part of a set on Consciousness]

Psychology Today continues to publish junk mixed in with some science. Biocentrism gets its turn. Robert Lanza peddles it in this article: Why Do You Exist? Don’t look to the sky and gods for answers. It lies deeper. (Not sure about deeper; more Deepak).

A few hundred years ago when they were trying to make gold from other elements many people would have wondered at the mystery of God’s creation and said it wouldn’t be possible, or even that we shouldn’t try to understand God’s creation.

But now we know you can make gold from other elements, if you have the right technology for constructing elements of gold from sub-atomic elements, because we now know how gold is composed of them.

It seems with the brain’s workings we are still in the dark.

There are two issues: ontological and epistemological.

Epistemologically it’s true we still don’t know enough about the brain to figure out how consciousness emerges within a brain to be able to say how that happens, or how to build an ‘artificial’ container of consciousness, AI.

But, ontologically, we have found nothing in addition to the basic physics that goes to construct atoms, molecules, proteins, cells, neurons, brains. Mind-body dualists have nothing to show for the mind or the soul as ontological entities. It appears to be physics all the way; but that we don’t yet understand how that works doesn’t count as evidence against that view.

Articles like this are two-a-penny. If you re-read you find that some basic statements of fact take up most of the article, while the final few paragraphs really just re-state the fact that we don’t know enough about the brain to understand consciousness. Of course it helps to wrap it all up in a bit of mystery – I gather some people like that.

“That’s why in real experiments, the properties of matter – and space and time themselves — depend on the observer. Your consciousness isn’t just part of the equation — the equation is you.”

But we are just properties of matter – space and time themselves. Or rather, there’s no evidence to the contrary. Your consciousness is part of the equation, as are you. Observers (you and me) are part of the system. As is any spider. As is a telescope. It’s all matter interacting – just that some matter interacts in a more complex chaotic way than others, depending on its formation. And some of that matter exists in a state of self-examination. And some of that matter imagines all sorts of mysteries to explain itself.

“The answer to life and the universe can’t be found by looking through a telescope or examining the finches of the Galapagos. It lies much deeper. Our consciousness is why they exist.”

I think we’ve found out far more about life by doing just those things than by all the mysticisms we have tried for millennia. On what scientific grounds can it be said that “our consciousness is why they exist”? Is the author descending into philosophical solipsism rather then science? (Well, yes – see later) All our senses and reasoning tell us that stuff exists, and that the tricky bit is that we don’t know how reliable our consciousness is, even with all of science at our disposal, at discerning the bedrock of reality – or even if there is such a thing.

Our biggest problems are epistemological, and that’s the route of our difficulty of establishing the ontological. The signs of the ontology of stuff are strong (a point Samuel Johnson made with “I refute it thus.”) – so strong we are convinced that we, our bodies, are actually here as containers of consciousness. As much as we might feel or want consciousness to be something special, something extra, there’s no evidence that it is.

“The answer to life and the universe…” – What pretentious nonsense. What’s the question? What does it mean, really, to suppose the you can form a specific question about life and the universe? There are many questions we may form about life, and about the universe, and about life in the universe – but the general ‘question’ of ‘life and the universe’ is incoherent. That someone’s consciousness can suppose it is coherent, and then go on to such incoherent drivel as this: “It unifies the thinking and extended worlds into a coherent experience and animates the music that creates our emotions and purposes — the good and the bad, wars and love.”

What unifies the thinking? Consciousness? Well it would wouldn’t it?

It unifies the thinking and *extended worlds*? What does this mean? To unify extended worlds, or to unify consciousness with extended worlds? What extended worlds?

And animates the music that creates our emotions? I thought biological processes animated our emotions.

…and purposes? OK, our consciousness, our self reflection, on our cultural life histories and on our memories and our emotional drives, animates, creates, our purposes in life – we construct purpose for ourselves.

“It doesn’t load the dice for you to play the game of life.” – What?

“But as Will Durant pointed out…” – Very good. Basically, we need to get on with life while we’re trying to figure it out. Bear in mind that many people, if not most, just get on with life without too much of this reflection of where we come from, what we are made of, how we tick.

“In whatever form it takes, life sings because it has a song. The meaning is in the lyrics.” – I suppose it helps to maintain the mysticism if you end on a bit of poetic prose. But really, what has this contributed to our greater understanding other than to cloud it in more mystery?

But, back to the top of the page:

“Biocentrism – How life and consciousness are the keys to the universe.”

OK, I could see how solipsism could be used to suppose everything we think is real is instead constructed by a mind. But then we wouldn’t be able to tell if there was one mind, or many. Is it my mind, my consciousness that’s constructing you, or are you constructing me? Is there just me, or just you? Or, are we really multiple consciousnesses? How does all that work?

But, how *life* and consciousness… this seems to presuppose life in order to create a universe that then creates life? What’s this all about.

Not surprisingly not everyone is impressed by biocentrism.

“Lanza believes experiments already in progress or recently completed could validate his idea”

Specifics would be helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, Robert Lanza may be a great cell biologist – that’s for his peers to evaluate. But he joins a bunch of other scientists who have gone off on flights of fancy supposing that they have the answer to life the universe and everything (which we all know is 42 – job done, he’s wasting his time).

Be warned, his book, Biocentrism, has this from Deepak Chopra on the cover: “Original and exciting”.

I will read the book. But I’ll wait for a cheap second hand copy. It’s always a problem trying to weigh up the pros and cons of buying these books. If you’re going to criticise the ideas it’s at least fair to give them a full read. On the other hand finding that it’s junk after you’ve increased the royalties and contributed to the promotion of pretentious tosh is a bit irksome.

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.

Limitations of Self-Awareness, Self-Knowledge

Why can’t we use inner reflection to identify our real nature, sense every impulse of our working brains, and explain from a first person perspective the inner workings of our minds, or spot the owner of our free-will? How far can meditation take us in our discovery of ourselves? What can we learn about life the universe and everything by just thinking?

This is my current view on these issues.


There are some fundamental problems that we don’t appear to be able to overcome. Any system, no matter how simple or complex, cannot contain a complete description of itself.

When you reduce information to its basic level, the lowest common denominator, the lowest level of representation that allows a distinction between one state and another, it is a binary representation. And in a binary representation the lowest level of physical distinction, the substrate on which the information can be held, is the presence and absence of sub-atomic particles or their states. How far physics takes us down this road is a technical detail. The limits of distinction between states of matter, or perhaps states of space itself, are details for physicists to investigate. But ultimately, information is contained in states of systems.

A corollary of this is that with the heat death of the universe comes the loss of all information, because there is nothing left on which to record the information, there is nothing left from which distinguishable states can form – and of course no one around to read and add meaning to any information there might have been.

Until that time comes we can flip back into our macro current world and consider, for example, a memory device that contains one bit of information – 0 or 1 – and in taking on one of those values it has a state. What would it require for that system to be self aware? At the very least it would need another bit to record the state of the first bit. But to be useful to any degree it would need to be self aware over time. If it was to record the last three states, to have a ‘memory’ of itself, it would need four bits in total – one for the current actual state, and three to record successive prior states. And this is before it starts to process, to think about, itself in any significant way – so far the system is only memorising a finite number of its own states. But already it’s self-awareness is incomplete – it knows now about the state of its main bit over three time periods, but knows nothing about the states of its three other bits.

Expand this to any system: it can contain only limited information about itself. The massive redundancy in some systems allows them to contain information about crucial parts of themselves, parts worth monitoring. Computer systems can be self-checking. But only to a degree – what checks the checkers? Even if we allowed each sub-system to check the other sub-systems in a mutually complete checking system then there would be nothing left, no remaining capacity, to do any actual work. There are limits to how much a system can be self-aware. It is a compromise between doing useful work and being self aware.

Regarding animal brains in this way would mean that any animal in principle could have some degree of self-awareness. If it is able to sense itself, sense it’s internal workings (its ‘thoughts’, which amounts to information about a small part of it’s own processing capabilities), as well as its body and environment, and if it has a memory in which to record data, and a system that can examine that memory and make inferences about the past, the present, and the future, and use those inferences to drive further behaviour, then it is self-aware. But any such animal system is restricted, in the limit, by the basic physics that limits the means of containing information. Information, after all, is nothing more than states of systems.

That’s not to say the brains of humans or any other animal are anything like restricted in this sense to any practical degree. There may well be masses of capacity left in a human brain for self-monitoring. But that’s not to say that capacity can be used, or in fact has evolved to be used.

Low Fidelity Introspection

There is a problem with the fidelity of the information that our brains process – the brain isn’t that good at examining itself, despite our otherwise useful self-awareness. Our best evolutionary inferences suggests the brain is self-aware to the extent that it offers some adaptive advantage in dealing with our environment. It isn’t clear that there is any particular advantage to being more acutely aware of our inner selves. So it doesn’t look like our brains are built for self-awareness to any greater degree than we currently experience.

We can exercise our physical bodies to some extent, and the same is clearly true of our brains – we learn stuff. But just as our physical bodies are limited, so we can’t learn to fly unaided, for example, so then we should expect similar limitations for our brains. Where is the evidence that we can in fact exercise our brains to perform ESP, true transcendentalism, out of body experiences, and so on. There appear to be limits to what the brain can achieve, and without contrary evidence there would appear to be a practical limits on what we can do with self-awareness.

Our bodies and brains have evolved mainly to enable us to survive in our environment. And bodies evolved before brains became significantly complex. So we are mainly physical empirical beings that sense and manipulate our environment; and self-awareness is a late addition, and is restricted to very few species, the most prominent users being, it seems, we humans. Why would we continue to think that it is capable of some of the magic attributed to it by ancient mysticisms.

We don’t have specific sensors, like our eyes or ears, that can look into our brains to examine its state. Though the brain is a system of neurons, it doesn’t actually have any nerves dedicated to sensing itself, in the way we have touch sensors around the body – that’s why some brain operations can be conducted with a conscious patient.

What we appear to have is some rudimentary conscious sub-system that allows us to monitor and manipulate the system as a whole. But as an instrument it’s quite flaky and prone to error. So much so that’s it’s difficult to isolate individual thoughts, to really understand what our concepts are. We have quite a history of philosophy that’s been trying to figure this stuff out; and more recently a psychology that’s been concentrated for the most part on a guessing game about what’s going on inside our brains by reflecting on the meaning of behaviours observed on the outside. The history of the attempts by psychology to second guess what’s happening in the brain is reminiscent of a cold war spy novel – we know something fishy is going on inside the wall, but we don’t quite know what.

Don’t get me wrong, our brains are equipped to perform some pretty amazing conceptual generalisations. We can go far and wide in our imaginations. But one of the complaints often made about neuroscience is that its tools, such as fMRI scans, are nowhere near precise enough or informative enough to tell us anything useful about consciousness. But when did you last use your own introspective mind to scan itself for tumors, potential aneurysms, or which part of your brain is being used during speech?

Our introspection is limited to a very cursory examination of our ongoing experiences, the vague recollections of some of our memories, and creating generalised plans for the future. When we think we are achieving something really clever with our minds you can bet we are using external enhancements to aid us – making notes, recording thoughts as audible messages, sketching diagrams. And when we want to create some complex plan we figure it out over time, recording steps, manipulating and fine tuning the plan, and finally executing it step by step by referring to our documentation. We can’t hold a detailed complex plan in our heads.

Nor can we claim any truth to expansive imagined entities, like God, since all our ideas about God are concocted inside limited human minds. The fact that a finite human brain can conceive of some supposed infinite being, as some Muslims like to portrait God, is not evidence that such an entity exists or could exist. Thhis conception is only a fuzzy idea inside a human brain and has no correspondence in reality – unless of course there is independent empirical evidence that such a being exists. So some of the proofs of God’s existence we often come across are bogus from this point of view alone.

Illusions of Personal Experience

Our brains are concept mashup machines. Thoughts whirl around our brains, often with little directed control. Some of us are more spontaneous than others (read ‘erratic minds’), but even the most well practiced meditating monk can’t control their thought processes so easily, and that’s after years of practice. You might get a few control freaks who think they are in total control of their own minds, but what is more likely is that their straight jacketed minds are in control of them.

Some people are fooled by concepts like ‘the infinite’, and think that because we can hold these vague concepts in our heads they actually give us access to the content of those concepts in some way, as if we really can grasp the infinite. But we need to acknowledge that the human brain is a limited capacity physical system. It has many constraints on what information it can hold. Everything it knows about the external world is an approximation.

Personal experiences, like sunsets, are internal experiences. The total experience of a sunset is still occurring inside a human head, still within the limits of the information that the brain can contain and process. The awe inspiring feelings of wonder, of being at one with the universe, are still contained within that physical head. The feelings of pain that humans suffer is still the internal representation of the action of the nervous system and its effect on the body – and even then the effect on the body is only meaningful in that the body’s response is also, in turn, detected by the sensory system. All brain activity, including massive seizures and other overwhelming mental phenomena are still constrained by the physics of the brain in action. Out of body experiences are contained imaginary experiences inside a human head. There is no evidence that they represent or correspond to any actual mechanism for viewing ones own body from a location, other than from within, looking out. Transcendental experiences are fuzzy events in the brain. There is no evidence that any transcending of any other kind is actually occurring.

Prospects for Self-Awareness

It may be possible for animals, in principle, to be far more self aware than humans are now. Despite the fundamental limitations of self-aware systems I wouldn’t think even human have reached full capacity to know ourselves. Perhaps the introspection of meditation is a small step in that direction. But though it does give access to first person data, it doesn’t have the fidelity of scientific instruments, such as those of neuroscience. Meditation is pretty vague in what it tells us about ourselves, though it does seem to gives us greater autonomous control, to a limited degree.

Perhaps transhumanism can enhance human brains to allow us to do better. We already enhance ourselves, directly, with spectacles, walking sticks, crutches, artificial limbs. With a stethoscope I can listen to my own heart beat with greater fidelity than relying on feeling my pulse. Some blind people can be given rudimentary sight by having a camera system stimulate the tongue with electrical impulses (which causes adaptations in the brain to interpret the sensory signals as vision). There’s plenty of scope for enhancing human physical and mental capabilities for the purpose of increasing our self-awareness abilities.

We already enhance our brains externally. The collective fields of science allow us to combine millions of tiny increments in knowledge into vast repositories of data and engineering capability. Could humans ever have designed and built a 747 without the repository that has accumulated over the last few centuries? Could a single brain ever do it even given all those resources? Team work, in the present and over generations, is how we currently play out a limited transhumanism – we already ‘transcend’ (here in a very practical sense) the basic biological humans that we once were. What we haven’t achieved yet is the enhancement of our self-awareness by enhancing our brains. Though there are chemical means of achieving some improvement now, through psychotropic drugs, it’s not a permanent enhancement, as might be a biological or genetic change.

Maybe there’s hope for us to become more usefully self-aware and even more self-controlled, and hence even more autonomous. But that autonomy is not the traditional free-will we often feel it is.

Physicalism and Conciousness

See section 2 on Conciousness, and in particular the Mary problem.

As Colin McGinn has stated, “Consciousness defies explanation in [compositional, spatial] terms. Consciousness does not seem to be made up out of smaller spatial processes…. Our faculties bias us towards understanding matter in motion, but it is precisely this kind of understanding that is inapplicable to the mind-body problem.”

Nonsense. What is computer software? Can you explain it? How can you copy it without creating new matter or energy? It’s information, that’s why. Our thoughts are information, the product of physicalism and caused by it. Nothing inherently mysterious, though it might appear so to the human mind that is actually experiencing it. The mind-body duality dilema that people struggle with is analogous to an optical illusion – e.g. the hollow mask that appears solid, or the wire cube that flips orientation – as with these it’s difficult to think in our mind of both states simultaneously. We can flip states, but we can’t ‘see’ or imagine both simultaneously. In a similar way we can (almost) imagine computer software as information, but have greater difficulty imagining this condition when applying it to our own thoughts. It becomes even more confusing, and more like the attempt to simultaneously ‘see’ both states of an optical illusion, when we try an imagine what’s happening when we think about what we are thinking now in the first person; and some explanations of conciousness and dualism confuse the issue by trying to do this.

Did Mary (see site) learn something new about pain? Yes. She physically experienced (both in terms of physical neurological responses and informational interpretation) the real pain for which she had only previously had a physical neurological model. Her model has simply been updated with real first hand experiential data, when previously the only experiential data she had was neurological mapping of things she had already experienced. In practice of course this ‘schrodingers’s cat’ type of thought experiment is limited. The definition of the experiment is incorrect. Pain is simply a more intense stimulus of corresponding stimuli – presumably Mary hadn’t been denide the sense of touch, otherwise she would have had difficulty relating to much of the theoretical information she had read in the first place. What sort of human would have emerged from the room if that had been the case. It’s a hypethetical case where the accuracy of the perceived consequences are dubious, to the extent that the conclusion does not necessarily follow. Mary can’t even pick up the bowling ball if she’s been deprived of the appropriate senses!

“Given that it is exceedingly difficult and seemingly impossible to provide a compositional, spatial analysis of the intrinsic nature of an event such as an experience of pain, can a metaphysical naturalist reasonably promise us some other kind of explanation of its nature?”

This is metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. “compositional, spatial analysis of the intrinsic nature of an event” – does this actually mean anything? These arguments are often dressed up in these phrases that some researcher has latched onto or invented to describe some concept that is difficult to understand – fair enough. But then the problem is that these phrases are used in ways that make it difficult to grasp what is being said.

“…can he (physicalist) at least provide a plausible explanation of how it came about that the universe contains occurrences such as experiences of pain and pleasure? We doubt it.”

Why, when it has expressly been given? The dualist is confusing a simple causal relationship between an excessive physical stimulus and the informational model that the receiving organism experiences as a result, as a separate entity.

How does a human feel pain? A cat? A worm? A bacterium? A cell? A complex molecule? A grain of sand? Physicaly, they don’t, they simply react – either extremely passivily according to relatively simple laws of physics for a grain of sand, or in more complex physical/chemical ways for a molecule, or in increasingly more complex chemical/exlectrical/biological/neurological ways for higher organisms.

Being organsims with a complex nervous system that includes the brain we have adapted ourselves to the interpretation of our environment. One of our interpretations is to feel/think/experience our environment in terms of our own experiences. The more animate and the more similar to us other entities are, the more easly we make this mapping – we anthropomorphise or personify. We do this with ourselves and our ‘thoughts’ to the greatest degree. Some of us even have to create, or imagine, or to model non-existant entities using the same principle – demons, faires, ghosts, gods, etc. Sometimes our brains get it wrong – they extrapolate (a very valuable tool used in the prediction process) – they extrapolate too much, they become gullible, seeing optical illusions, even delusions.

“What, then, is the theistic alternative? Theism begins by acknowledging that experiences of pleasure and pain and choices are events that occur in subjects which refer to themselves by the first-person pronoun ‘I.'”

Do some of the lower organsims not feel pain? If they do, do they refer to themselves in the first person? Again, when is this magical dualism switched on – just humans, apes, …? Be careful, else you’ll be dragging up biblical nonsense again.

“As the theist René Descartes wrote…(quotes Descartes)…”

The dualist is here acknowledging the simplicity of the mind in one respect, but denying it from the physicalist respect, which itself is very simple.

Decartes: “I cannot distinguish in myself any parts” – could that be because there is nothing to distinguish? Is Decartes referring to the distinction between mind and body, or the distinction between parts of his thoughts? Is he struggling to identify his thoughts as distinct physical entities? Maybe he’s struggling because they don’t exist as such. When my computer is running some software I can see the results on screen, I can imaging the electrons moving at amazing speeds around the silicon based microscopic circuitry, and I can imaging the source code I have written if it’s my program that’s running – but can I imaging the actual ‘software’ itself as a physical entity? No more than I can be self aware and imagine my own thoughts as something distict from my physicality.

I can certainly imagine what the dualists are describing. I can imaging some ghostly substance that might be my soul, spirit, thoughts – but that’s all it is, an imagined concept. I have no reason to think it exists. When movies portray a dead soul rising out of a body – is that what we really think is happeng in some invisible dimension? Of course not (or maybe you do). But there is no evidence to support that imagining, that concept. I can imagine flying pigs, with little wings – do they exist? Because I can imagine something doesn’t mean it exists.

I can imagine God, angels – all with typically anthropomorphised representations. If God really exists with some of the real properties he’s supposed to have, such as omniscience, can I imagine that? Only in a limited way, as I imagine the mathematical concept of infinity – something bigger than anything, but to which if I add more it is the same thing? Does that sound a little like the ontological argument for God? Figments of our limited imaginations!

In postulating the concept of dualism we are using a limited capacity tool (the mind) to grasp something of itself that is merely apparent. We accept illusions, hoaxes, some delusions, for what they are – the mind not presenting a sufficiently good approximation of the external physical reality – but then for no apparent reason than the mystery of not underestaning something, we invent dualism, supernatural external agents, theism. Figments of our limited imaginations.

Why is it so difficult to see that the alternative – the physical causal relationship between neurological activity and the resulting mental models?

Don’t be fooled by the apparent complexity. How can this proposed simple process take part in this argument, including those parts of the process that produce the written (typed) work above (whether you think its good or not it’s still apparently complex). But, just as the many many simple little steps of evolution have produced us, so the many many simple little processes in this organism have produced this. If I had omnisciently and omnipotently flashed out all this text instantly, in zero time, then we might be closer to the realisation of what God is. But I didn’t. Every impulse to my fingers to type, every nuerologocal action that contributes, is very very simple – they are simply working very fast and in great numbers. The sophisticaion comes from the co-ordination. But co-ordinated lesser orgaisms that are independent to some extent also produce similarly amazing results. Bees building honey combs, ants foreging for food – they are all sophisticated co-ordinated processes where the individual elements are all amazingly simple whan compared with the result.

We are at the top of the chain, as far as we know, in this evolutionary scale, so we find it difficult to imagine anything that might be more complex than ourselves that is not some ultimate God.

Dualism, as with God, is a failed attempt to come to terms with the complex. We can imagine the simple. We can imagine somethings more complex. But eventually, as complexity increases we lose touch and make a giant leap to something bigger, but conceptually easier to identify – even if not easier to understand.

In maths, imagine a simple sum: 1 + 1 = 2. Now imagine some complex formula – say some series using powers and factorials – still with me? Now try some complex differential equations – still here? Now Schrödinger equation… – have you seen them and do you understand them? By now some, if not most of us (including me) has lost track of these equations – they are more complex than I am familar with. I can imagine some vague representation on a physicists blackboard, employing symbols I’m not familar with – it’s all Greek to me. Now, let’s imagine infinity – got that?

I bet more people with upper high school and graduate level maths find it easier to grasp the notion of infinity than they do some complex expression representing something in physics. It’s quite straight forward to imagine clearly some simpler things, and relatively easy to grasp something of the notion of a concept that is very extensive, in size, number, power, infomational capacity, than it is to imagine some things that are just more complex than we are used to. It’s easier to imagine God as represented by some very vague notions of extreme extension to simpler human properties, than it is to imagine in detail more complex processes or organisms than those with which we are currently familar.

Dualism is similar to some extent. We find it difficult to imagine where the boundary lies – or how the continuum flows – from the physical bodies that we have come to be familiar with and the thoughts that we are also familiar with. Because we can’t imagine this we invent a separation – dualism. It’s a failure of our current capacity to understand.

So, are physicalists so advanced that they can conceive of it, while the poor dumb dualists can’t? No, of course not. What is most likely at work here is an ingrained view that’s difficult to shake off. I would guess, though I have nothing to support this, that all physicalists have had dualist interpretations at one time – simply because it is easier to imagine.

This is an imagination gap. If the gap is narrow we can build a bridge easily. If the gap is wide we prefer to fly across, skipping whatever is missing. Go from what we are familiar with to some extreme concept based on the familar properties. It’s difficult to imagine what we don’t know. This imagination gap should be familar to most students, particularly the more advanced your studies*. You can read the fear of the apparent consequences in the writings of theists. We are dealing with a ‘duality of the gaps’ that is similar to the ‘God of the gaps’.

“we are not arguing that there is some gap in an otherwise seamless naturalist view of reality”

Oh yes you are.

“This is an argument from the fundamental character of reality and what kinds of things exist (purposes, feelings…”

Yes, purpose and feelings exist, but not as some distinct dualist entity. They are properties of the organism that is experiencing. Particularly feelings and emotions – simple hormonal biological chemical electrical reactions. ‘Purpose’ is apparent, not real in the sense that is independent free-will.

The only dualism I see in all this is that in the mind of the dualist. On the one had an imagination failure in not seeing the continuum and inclusiveness of physicalism that encompases conciousness, and on the other, the runaway imagination that goes in leaps and bounds from missing data regarding conciousness, to mind-body dualism, on to basic theism, and then on to all the wild imaginings of heaven, hell, saints, miracles, etc.

*I remember very clearly the earliest experience of this, on a very limited scale. In primary school I could do ‘short-division’ but I couldn’t fathom out ‘long-division’ – it was very frustrating, and even frightening – I feared I was really dumb!. Then a neigbour’s son, a year older than me, spent some time going through examples. I remember very clearly when the penny dropped. A spiritual revalation? Later, at university I struggled with some concepts of advanced chemistry – it was an electronics course and I naively hadn’t expected to be learning chemistry and I’d skipped chemistry at highschool, so I was ill equiped for some of this stuff. I remember the anguish in class, seeing all the other students nodding knowingly while I was thinking “what the hell is he talking about”. Recognising the response I went off to the library and made sure I caught up. Never be afraid of what you don’t know! If you need to know it, put in sufficient effort so that your brain and its neurological patterns become famialar with it – eventually you’ll see the light – alleluiah!