Consciousness & Free Will – They Are Just Illusions

Just when we think we know why we are superior to monkeys – the larger size of our prefrontal cortex: that ‘thinking’ or executive brain – now neuro-biologists are telling us we don’t really think at all, at least not the way we think we think. Thinking, the way we think of it, is associated with awareness, or consciousness and free will. But now, we are told that we humans are not unique in having consciousness because octopuses do too and they too exhibit intentional behavior.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness which was signed July 7, 2012 in Cambridge, United Kingdom by a group of eminent neuroscientists,  Christof Koch among them, concludes:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the… substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently… evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

None of this information is really new – what the declaration does is to force us to re-define consciousness and intention (free will), as they are no longer seen as the sole attributes of humans. The way these work in us is the same way they do throughout the animal kingdom.

Not only that we are just animals, but we are only bags of molecules whose interactions determine what we think and do, not unlike an amoeba ambling in its liquid soup, stretching towards nutrient molecules. Okay, we are a little more sophisticated than that.

In an experiment with electrodes placed on a subject’s skull, a researcher asked the subject to lift a finger whenever he felt like doing so. Astonishingly, electrical activity was recorded a full 300 milliseconds (.3 seconds) before the subject indicated his urge to lift his finger! So the experimenter could actually predict what a person was going to do by merely reading his brain electrical activity, before the person was even aware of it! So we truly don’t know what we are doing.

And all of this is great for the criminal, you say – he’s not responsible for what he’s done if he did not intend to do it!  Oh… but not so fast.

Anthony Cashmore, biology professor at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has argued that we should revamp our criminal justice system based on this fact. See his article, The Lucretian Swerve – The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system  in the Proceedings of the National  Academy of Sciences (January 12, 2010).

Professor Cashmore essentially argues that a belief in free will is equivalent to a belief in the duality of body and soul, and a belief in vitalism (that there is a sort of divine purpose governing us all, not explainable by physics and chemistry), both of which have long been banished by modern biology.  We are in reality just automatons behaving in response to the molecular milieu inside our body.  But even so, there’s really is no escape – if your name is on this bag of molecules, you are responsible for its behavior, good or bad. Professor Cashmore thinks that pleas of insanity or stress should be put aside and the enormous costs of psychiatric and legal testimony for the defense should better be applied to help the rehabilitation of the convicted.

But there is more to the story – we are not total automatons, we are conscious automatons. It appears that the 300 ms delay in our becoming conscious of our will to lift a finger is the time it takes for the initiative to be broadcast widely in the executive brain. As a result, once we become conscious of it, we can stop the action – there’s a 150 ms window in which we can do so. This is further proof that a person could be responsible for his actions. But more importantly, this veto power of our consciousness * may be the source of our discretion, and discernment – mostly learned behaviors that allow us to function as a society, and a cultured society. Furthermore, this training and channelling of our unconscious maybe the source of our creativity.

Writer Joan Didion probably speaks for all creative artists when she said of her need to write:

Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. **

And the role of her (perceived) self will:

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act…

In this sense the act of creativity is the unmasking of our unconscious and the need to broadcast it. How do we manage our unconscious? Can we access it without being a writer or artist?

Here then, Buddhism may not be entirely irrelevant. We are long aware of ways to train (or organize) this bag of molecules that we are, this complex body-state which is mostly unconscious – via the many forms of meditation and body training.

But I must add, on an optimistic note:  we are nevertheless unique even if we may not have free will or consciousness as such. Tell me, is there another animal species who would challenge its own supremacy and uniqueness?

NB  For an example of how our body processes information during learning on the molecular level, see my essay Information = Knowledge?

*  This ‘veto power’ is discussed on  p.462, The Age of Insight – The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain by Eric Kandel, the Nobel neuro-biologist.

** See also the opening quote of my blog post by the artist Jasper Johns.

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