I'm starting this discussion to place the debate we were having in the comments section in a more appropriate place. I suggest we restrict the arguments here to how consciousness relates to the subject of free-will. I suggest this because consciousness is a vast subject and there will always be digressions and I will always be tempted to follow them.

Jim, can you please re-post your argument from the comments section here?

I will address the CEMI theory and its limitations (and obvious explanatory advantages) later but first I wanted to address what naturalistic philosophers have noted is a common error in the argument. Here are the relevant lines from your post:

"Consciousness is a product of evolution and, as such, it has a role to play in our survival. What is that role?

The most obvious answer may be the right one – we are aware because we then have the power to change our actions. Consciousness endows us with free will. There are many operations that our brain performs automatically, without conscious control – simple tasks like walking, to incredibly complex tasks like playing a musical instrument from a written score. But it is hard to remove the impression that under some circumstances, our conscious brain takes over, to influence and will these actions.

Consider driving along a familiar road. You may be listening to the radio, thinking about some problem at work, but your brain is busy performing all the complex computations necessary to control your limb movements and maintain your car on the busy road, unconsciously. You spot a hazard sign ‘Roadworks – Major Congestion Ahead!’ and immediately your conscious mind takes control, to slow the car and perhaps try to find an alternative route home. What is it that is taking control in these situations?"

This intuitive idea of consciousness supposes a state of complete awareness that the brain is under. This is demonstrably false. Consciousness is simply the one set of thoughts that reign supreme at any given moment, winning over other sets of thoughts and emotions. Now this is where the intuition of free will comes in. You say "we are aware because we then have the power to change our actions. Consciousness endows us with free will." This is a leap in logic. Free-will is not the same thing as causal will, BECAUSE the consciousness of events is determined by a particular set of events (like in your example of the road block). In other words, consciousness is itself an event (material or electromagnetic, I will discuss with you at a later stage- I really must look it up) that is determined by other causal events.

So what this means is that because the events that led to the road block were pre-determined, and the development of a particular conscious state was also predetermined, there is no free-will. Of course, we can argue for the compatibilist view (of Dennett, for example) that says that we can still behave as though we have free will because we ourselves were not in control of those causal events. However, classical free-will cannot be justified by this response.

The confusion arises because choice is often confused with free-will. We all have made choices based on our conscious states at that moment when the choices were made. Determinism holds that if those exact same causal events existed again, the exact same conscious state and the exact same choice would be made. This is, in practice, never going to happen because all the causal events that lead to a conscious state never repeat themselves.

I am writing this sentence not because I have free-will, although I actively choose to write it, but because the situation requires that I do. My choosing to write is determined by the natural causes. If I had not chosen to write, that would also have been pre-determined. We will eventually make the one choice that is determined by natural causal events. My consciousness is causally dependent on natural events, and ultimately, so is my will. Think of it as throwing a die. There are many different possibilities, but only one will reign supreme. It may seem free and random, ( and especially so when consciousness is involved), but there are causal conditions that lead to the final outcome.

As a side note, if you understand consciousness as a series of changing brain states, reacting to external (perceptions) and internal (memories and emotions) stimuli, it is fairly obvious what the evolutionary role of consciousness is. The primitive brain evolved as a response to external stimuli, as straightforward neuronal reactions to physical pressures, until internal stimuli became highly sophisticated by acquiring the ability for abstract thought thus leading to the dance between the outside and the inside that we call consciousness. It just happens that our capacity for abstract thought far exceeds that of rabbits, mole-rats and caterpillars.


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Ajita. Well written. I think that we need to look at where the concept of free will came from. We all have the experience of willfull action. Studies reveal that there is an unconscious cascade that results in, first our inclination to act, and secondly, our awareness of that coupled with some reasoning after the fact. All we can really say is that we sure had strong feelings and the decision did not counter our ability to reason it to fit our self image. Was it "free." From my studies I have gleaned that the concept of free will derives from religious thought wherein "god" gives us some ultimate "free" decision to accept him or not without any causation. There is also a reinforcing social aspect of this, in that society punishes supposedly conscious (should have known better) intent more than actions without.

I think that if we address the fact that we are learning creatures, and that ability to readily adapt in nature and in social structure demands self referential mapping so that we are aware of our place in the social environment. Social order demands reinforcement of acceptable behavior and I think we are capable of readily learning. Placing responsibility on the individual for his "choices" helps teach and keep in place acceptable behavior for the group. Obviously, the criminal has a causation cascade that undermines his ability to behave in that fashion, but the social order will use him as an example, and the harm he does others is held up as a terrible thing.

So, yes, free will is a fiction, and shouldn't even be argued as it seems to be the result of a religious metaphor.

In Buddhism we learn that increased awareness takes us back into the thought/emotion causation stream where we take the steam out of instinctual actions. What an amazing organism created by the evolutionary process: capable of learning to the point where it can learn to subvert the automatic reactions picked up through unconscious experience. The more I study, the more amazed I am.
The consciousness seems to be the last to know. If there is free will, it does not appear to reside in the part we call "conscious."

From Scientific American Mind, a snip:

"What are you going to do after you read this story? You may not know that yet, but your brain probably does. A new study shows that patterns of brain activity can reveal which choice a person is going to make long before he or she is aware of it."


another snip:

"...according to Haynes. The results support the notion that unconscious brain activity comes first and conscious experience follows as a result, says Patrick Haggard of University College London, who was not involved with the study. “We all think that we have a conscious free will,” he says. “However, this study shows that actions come from preconscious brain activity patterns and not from the person consciously thinking about what they are going to do.”




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