An awful lot of people attach tremendous importance to the notion that our decisions are somehow the uncaused product of our consciousness: that they happen not amongst the deterministic web of brain tissue, but impose themselves on that tissue, somehow, from without. I’m not one of them.
A good example of the strange certainty that people have about this assumption, which is supported by nothing more than an intuition and a wish, is given in this comment, taken from a recent discussion over at The Maverick Philosopher:
…we do know that organisms, at least conscious ones, do not act under the deterministic constraints of matter. This is clearly the case with rational organisms — i.e., human beings. I know this is true, because I have my own experience as proof.
You ask how can I actually know that I am not completely constrained by the determinism of matter? If I am, then my experience of consciousness is nothing but illusion. I have no volition. I merely function in accord with the laws of physics and chemistry. My current state unalterably determines my next state. I can form no intention, thus I can have no purpose or provide purpose to anything external to me.
And there you have it! First we are told about the intuition — “I have my own experience as proof” — as though it would be possible, somehow, for us simply to feel the difference between a subjective experience that was deterministically caused and one that wasn’t. Next, we are given the wish: “If I am, then my experience of consciousness is nothing but illusion. I have no volition. I merely function in accord with the laws of physics and chemistry.” Even if we set aside the question of why we should think that our consciousness, if physically caused, must be an illusion (whatever that means), this argument has no force: the fact that we might not like the idea of functioning solely in accord with physical laws has no bearing whatsoever on whether we in fact do so.
Meanwhile, neuroscience presses on apace. In today’s Physorg.com newsletter (I do hope that readers are by now beginning to notice what a rich source of breaking scientific news this publication is) we learn of a new study that will surely give no comfort to the antimaterialist camp.
The experiment involved examining the brain activity of subjects as they made an apparently “free” choice between two actions, while noting to themselves the time at which they made their decision. The results indicated that the choice was made by the brain — and predictable with high reliability — as much as seven seconds before the subjects were conscious of the decision.
Is this dispiriting news? It needn’t be. What ought to change is our insistence on clinging to a mistaken (and indeed, philosophically incoherent) concept of “freedom”. Yes, our brains are staggeringly complex biological and electrochemical systems, and our thoughts and choices are apparently the result of their physical activity. But we are still the nexus of this enormous engine of choice, the place where it all happens — and we are still every bit as “free” as we could reasonably or coherently wish to be. (We are still in the powerful grip of our habits of thought and action, but that is another problem altogether, and one we can do something about, if we are willing to work at it.)
I know that some of you will think I am mistaken. You are free, of course, to disagree.
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