The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Free Will

The US philosopher Patricia Churchland showed how confusing the topic is. Kant's definition of "free will", i.e. that nothing at all other than your will causes your actions, is untenable: countless circumstances affect your actions, and most of your actions are not even conscious. Whichever action we end up performing in a certain circumstance, it takes place because the brain ordered so. Nothing happens to the body without the brain being at least "informed" of it and in most cases "ordering" it. For every movement of your body there is a signal coming from or going to the brain. Nothing moves in the body without a signal traveling from or to the brain.

More humbly, the law deals with "intentional" and "voluntary" acts to determine your liability for the consequences of those acts; but even this is hardly satisfying. The law excuses someone who was not in control of himself, but it is not clear what that means. Who is the "someone" who is or is not in control? My brain is always in control of my body. In other words, who is the thing that "wills"? The brain is the organ that directs all my actions. If "i" am my brain, then i am always responsible for my actions. But my brain can object that it is simply a calculator: given the current brain state and some new input (external stimuli), the brain calculates a new state that results in some action. The brain is responsible for neither the external stimuli nor for the preexisting state (an evolution of the original genetically determined state after countless external stimuli).

The immediate cause of a new brain state (and therefore of a new action) is the external stimuli: are they the ones that "will" my behavior? If not, then is it the preexisting brain state, which, again, has been created by a long chain of reactions to stimuli all the way back to my gestation in my mother's womb when a random genetic event created my original brain? That original brain itself was an effect, not a cause. Everything that happened later to my infant brain was due to genetic programming and external stimuli. I did not "will" to have that original brain shaped in my mother's womb and i did not "will" to be bombarded by all those external stimuli. I have control over neither genes nor environment. It sounds unfair to hold me responsible for the actions caused by my current brain, shaped by events that were beyond my control. Neither my genes nor my neural connections were chosen by me; therefore i should never held responsible for what i do.

We often excuse people who "lost control" of themselves, but either we all have control of ourselves (everything we do is due to our brain). or we all have no control of ourselves (our brain was shaped by genes and environment). The word "control" must mean something else in order to make sense beyond the trivial sense of "my brain controls my body" or "the environment controls my brain". Nonetheless, we clearly understand the meaning of "self-control", and that makes a big difference on how we judge someone's actions. Churchland describes the case of a man who set fire to his barn and was initially deemed to be demented (and therefore excused), but later found to have set fire to the barn in order to collect insurance money (and therefore jailed). The action is the same, the consequence is the same, but in one case we assume that there was no "intent" whereas in the other we read an "intent". We excuse "insanity" based on rationality. If we "know" that an act will benefit us, then there is no way to tell the judge "i was not in control of myself". If we don't "know" that the act will benefit us, and in fact may turn out not to benefit us at all, then we are "not in control". The question then shifts to determining which part of the brain is the "knower" to be held responsible for the other parts of the brain that carried out the action. When that "knower" had nothing to do with the workings of the rest of my brain, the actions caused by my brain are excused by society.

We also excuse "insanity" based on something much harder to prove: the case in which someone "could not stop himself" from doing harm from someone else. This sounds odd, to say the least. Someone knows that he is doing something, and knows that it will harm someone else, but cannot stop from doing it. And, yet, you don't have to be insane in order to qualify for this type. Given strong enough a provocation, all of us react by doing something that "we cannot stop ourselves" from doing and that we may regret a few seconds later. This is the routine "loss of control" that is common throughout ages and genders. This "loss of control" is hard to distinguish from the one due to dementia or insanity. The "knower" in the brain is perfectly aware of what is going on but is incapable of stopping the rest of the brain from causing the action that the knower knows will be harmful.

We also excuse children. The law does not punish children the way it punishes teenagers and does not punish teenagers the way it punishes adults. The law indirectly recognizes that a part of the brain, the "knower" is not fully developed in children and teenagers in order to hold "them" accountable for their actions.

"Self-control" is valued not only by the law but also by ordinary folks. It is a virtue to be admired and imitated. Self-control is an exhibition of pristine "free will". In fact, that is precisely what parents teach children. In fact, that is precisely what society teaches criminals. In fact, that is precisely what mental institutions try to instill into the minds of the insane.

We also excuse people whose brain is affected by a disease. A tumor in your brain is considered an excuse for your behavior. However, the tumor is as much part of your brain as anything else in it. It was formed by processes inside your body. We consider that part of the brain as an invader, an offender, a hijacker, although it was created by my own brain. The excuse is that i didn't "know" that this tumor was growing inside my brain. I was "not in control" of this tumor. I did not "will" it, although it was created by my brain within my brain with no external intervention.

Sometimes we even excuse gullible people. Most gullible people are not locked into mental institutions. They live among their friends and are viewed as very nice (if sometimes funny) people precisely because they are gullible. One could argue, though, that gullible people have less of that "knower" in their brain. A criminal, who is thrown in jail for his actions, has, by definition, more of that "knower" in his brain, and that's why we throw him in jail (he was perfectly aware of his actions and of their harmful effects on others).


Is consciousness merely an "observer" of what is going on in the brain (of neural processes), or is consciousness a "creator" as well of neural processes?

Some scientists (Albert Einsteinamong them) argued that consciousness must be fabricated by reality, that what we feel is simply an unavoidable consequence of the state of the universe, that we are simply machines programmed by the rest of the universe.

Other scientists believe the opposite, that consciousness fabricates reality, that we have the power to alter the course of events. They believe in free will.

Do we think or are we thought?

This question is misleading. The question is, in a sense, already an answer: the moment we separate the "i" and the body, we have subscribed to dualism, to Descartes view that spirit and matter are separate and spirit can control matter.

A free will grounded in matter is not easy to picture because we tend to believe in an "i" external to our body that controls our body.

But, in a materialist scenario, the "i" is supposed to be only the expression of brain processes. If that is the case, then "free will" is not about the "i" making a decision: the "i" will simply reflect that decision. What makes the decision is the brain process.

This does not mean that free will cannot exist. It just needs to be redefined: can a brain process occur that is not completely caused by other physical processes?

In a materialist scenario, free will does not require consciousness: consciousness is an aspect of the brain process that "thinks". The question is whether that brain process has free will.

If consciousness is indeed due to a physical process, if consciousness is ultimately material, does this preclude free will? For centuries we have considered free will to be an exclusive property of the soul, mainly because 1. We deemed the soul to be made of spirit and not matter, and 2. Nothing in Physics allows for free will of matter.

If we now recognize that consciousness is a property of matter (possibly one that occurs only in some special form and configuration of matter, but nonetheless ultimately matter), the second statement must be re-examined because the possibility of free will depends on its truth. If the motion of matter is controlled only by deterministic laws, then free will is an illusion. On the other hand, if matter has a degree of control over its own motion, then free will is a fact.

The question is not whether we have free will, but whether the laws of our universe (i.e., Physics) allow for free will.


Free Will and Randomness

Free will is often associated with randomness: a being has free will if it can perform "random" actions, as opposed to actions rigidly determined by the universal clockwork. In other words, free will can exist only if the laws of nature allow for some random solutions, solutions that can be arbitrarily chosen by our consciousness. If no randomness exists in nature, then every action (including our very conscious thoughts) is predetermined by a formula and free will cannot exist.

In their quest for the source of randomness in human free will, both neurologists like John Eccles and physicists like Roger Penrose have proposed that quantum effects are responsible for creating randomness in the processes of the human brain. Whether chance and free will can be equated (free will is supposed to lead to rational and deterministic decisions, not random ones) and whether Quantum Theory is the only possible source of randomness is debatable.

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