The Gravity of Consciousness

This will not be a fully-fleshed out idea.

It will be a start.

And it will have an extremely long set up.

Bear with me.. and don’t get eaten by any bears along the way…

Backing up–it should be clear that I have an interest in the issue of free will, as I have talked about it here and here on this blog.  I also intended to write a NOM about any one of a number of Sam Harris posts disputing the existence of free will.

But rebuttals and critiques only go so far–and I think it’s more important to follow up a thought that came together yesterday as an analogy in a facebook conversation.  In that conversation, I was talking about how I perceived consciousness–the “seat” of free will–and I said the following:
For example–think of it as something like and not-like gravity. On the one hand, I think the methods of consciousness are not like gravity in that it is not something that affects all parts of the universe implicitly and wholly and that it may not be entirely explainable in the known material causes. On the other hand, perhaps there are effects of consciousness that are similar to how only really massive bodies exert NOTICEABLE effects on the universe. In other words–while it is true that you, J*****, exert a gravitational pull on everything in the universe to some extent–the measured effect is tiny–and not really much to speak of–especially when compared to the effects of something like the earth or sun. Perhaps, however, consciousness is like being a sun–in that it does have the power to create noticeable effects in the universe–even if the methods are not entirely contained here…

It is from that analogy that something coalesced into existence in my brain today with regard to the questions of free will and it is the following:

While it is true that we are learning more and more about how the human mind works and how subconscious processing often plays strong roles in our decision-making and also how our conscious mind is a lot more like the surface foam and waves moving over a much larger and deeper ocean of currents–I find the leaps that a lot of neuroscientists and others seem to make about the impossibility of free will to be a bit unfounded.

In particular, I find it a bit surprising that people are willing to discount or deny the existence of free will long before we have nearly a complete working model of the mind.  While I have no problems at all believing that the will and power of conscious humans is constrained by a number of factors and that overly expansive ideas of “free will” that believe we have no constraints at all on our voluntary actions are bogus, I think that claims like Sam Harris’s that obviously conscious free will is not real to be poorly argued, especially when he makes claims like this:
All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions.
To me, this claim is woefully underwhelming.  For example, look at what Harris did in this quote.  Look at his evidence versus his claim.  He starts his claim with a statement that ALL behavior is traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge.  That’s fine as far it goes–but what does that show?  Just because we are not conscious about how we are contracting a particular set of muscles in a certain way in order to throw a baseball doesn’t mean that we cannot throw the ball. 

Furthermore–Harris then starts to buttress this claim with some really odd evidence. He cites studies that “some ‘conscious’ decisions can be predicted 10 seconds before awareness” (and I note this study above in one  of the links–and the situation it refers to is totally limited in relation to its experience of life..)  and  that the motor activities of the brain do something  .3 seconds before our conscious brain feels it.

That’s his evidence.

I’m sorry–but that is rather weak.  Perhaps I’m just weird here, but I consider my consciousness to be more than what I’m just immediately aware of in the front of my brain.  The existence of an unconscious processing brain that is doing stuff outside of my immediate awareness is not conclusive proof that my consciousness has NO power over my voluntary actions at all.  Also–the fact that there might be a lag of FRACKIN’ .3 SECONDS before my immediate awareness takes cognizance of what my mind is doing does not mean that my mind didn’t weigh out possibilities and then make a choice–it just means that aspects of that processing were not entirely 100% in full view or rather–that my own perception of my processing shows a lag–that doesn’t mean that deeper down that something that is uniquely me and willful isn’t making choices.  This doesn’t eliminate the possibility of free will, but merely makes it somewhat opaque–but not entirely deterministic…

.. and this is a good segue into the gravity of consciousness (while simultaneously closing this interlude and getting back on track!)…

As I mention above, I find it quite unpersuasive that people have already written off the existence of free will on such limited evidence.  I find that the existence of free will makes a lot more sense to explain how humans make certain choices and that they are the author of these choices–thereby creating coherent and recognizable patters and a fairly understandable narrative over may decades–far better than assuming (as determinism would have it–that these individuals are just part of one extremely long–14 billion year long–example of a puppet theatre. (I will note that Harris, for example doesn’t make strong deterministic claims that we are puppets–but then, I will point out that he really just sort of doesn’t answer the question of what is really going on.. )

Where’s the gravity, you ask?  Well, while thinking about all of this today, especially the point about how so many have written off the existence of free will mainly–as I see it–because they haven’t yet found a mechanism for how free will can exist despite the fact that they don’t fully understand the mind yet and even though free will seems like a pretty obvious idea to everyone I talk to.. (as in–if I ask you why you ate that donut–you say, “because I wanted to” not because “the universe made me do it..”)–the connection I made yesterday between gravity and free will popped into mind…

… and it occurred to me that, like free will, we don’t actually understand how gravity works either.  We don’t have a good, theoretical mechanism for it.

Yes… yes… we have equations that describe what gravity does… and that you can use to calculate the effects of gravity–but out of all of the primary natural forces that shape matter and activity in the material universe, we don’t have a good theoretical model that explains how gravity does this. To get specific about this:

1. Newton, who discovered the Law of Gravitation, didn’t say much on how it worked and when pressed tended to say that “God tinkers” to explain gravity.
2. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity claims that gravity is the phenomenon wherein matter curves space (like how a weight thrown on a stretched out sheet will cause it to deform), but how or why it does this–that is not really explained.
3. Finally–as people have noted, current understandings of gravity don’t fully jive with quantum mechanics, especially down at really small distances..

Thinking about these points–I find it quite interesting that although we don’t fully understand the mechanism of gravity, you find very few people going around claiming that it cannot possibly exist.

Obviously–we see gravity’s effects–and therefore to claim it doesn’t exist just because we don’t understand the mechanism would seem strange, but, as I flip this around, this is EXACTLY what is being done with “free will” by a number of people. They don’t have a mechanism for it–so it cannot exist…

Now–obviously, there are some holes in this analogy and that’s why I said this is a start of an idea, but I would also like to push this thought a bit further and to go a bit more speculative here.  Holding onto the fact that gravity is somehow existent in our universe even though we cannot find any actual mechanism for it, I wanted to posit that the consciousness of an individual (and I’m not limiting myself to humans, but anything that might have aspects of self-awareness) might have a kind of capacity that is similar to gravity–namely that we may not find any clear material/physio-chemical mechanism that explains how it works in our 4-dimenstional material space-time continuum, but that each consciousness somehow–as I ruminated on here to some length–transcends this realm, and yet still has the ability to effect changes and alterations upon matter–much like gravity does–without our being able to see or test for its mechanism in all the ways that we normally do.

Now–how this interface actually works–I don’t know.  I could speculate that the interface between this transcendent consciousness has the ability to shift/shape the quantum states of matter in some way that is peculiarly tied to the fact that it exists in this extra-dimensional realm.  I don’t know… but this adjusting of quantum states would be where the real will comes into play.. where the multiple possibilities that exist at quantum levels are collapsed in a purposeful way…

Another question one might ask is why does consciousness have this capacity and nothing else–and here I would also have to speculate that it has something to do with the fact that we are self-aware entities–self aware in a way that rocks and water are not aware.  Perhaps the cascades of these kinds of chemical/biological interactions that we seen in our brains produce a quantum phenomenon that we call consciousness and that this consciousness is projected outside of 4-dimensional reality, but that by means of some sort of quantum interference (???) it has the ability to then come back and shape the quantum states of matter..  I don’t know.. and, I admit, this situation does sound pretty bizarre and out there… but it may not be that much more bizarre than gravity,  which seemingly and magically, can affect the movement and structure of matter over vast distances and times without us understanding how it works at all…

And now.. I’m spent and need to go get food and drink.  I believe that I have the choice to do this–just like I have the choice to not go there–or to go somewhere else–or to do none of these things and become a serial killer from now on…

… and no one has yet given me a good reason not to believe this…


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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4 Responses to The Gravity of Consciousness

  1. Chris Laraia says:

    I’d drop the gravity analogy. I don’t think it helps your case here as it seems too speculative to launch an argument from.

    When you say you have the choice to become a serial killer do you truly believe that you have that choice? That you really have to deliberate on the matter in order to come to the conclusion that, “no, I do not have any desire to do something that is morally and viscerally repugnant to me”? We know a great deal about what sorts of things lead one to become a serial killer and none of them have anything to do with one weighing the relative pros and cons of murdering people but rather, a host of rare psychological disorders coupled with unfortunate early experiences cause one to develop a penchant for serial murder. The same goes for everything else in life. If you were not born with the particular set of intellectual qualities that you have would you have still chosen to pursue a career in academia? What if, instead, you were born with a very high aptitude for baseball or painting?

    I also liked Harris’s mental “experiment” where he asks the audience to imagine a celebrity in your mind. When you do, did we have the freedom to choose differently? Why did I pick Madonna and not Prince? Did I have any control over which celebrity sprang into my mind first? This is how life is like. And when we consciously deliberate our choices in a more prolonged, thoughtful manner, the reasons we came to pick one option over another can either be attributed to classical, rational causation or the result of the more random, nebulous swirl of our subconscious. In either case, we are not truly in control. We are reacting to the stimuli that the universe, our thoughts and our subconscious throw at us.

    I’m still with the evil, Matrix A.I. robots. Even in those cheesy movies I thought they had the better arguments. The concept of Free Will is flattering to our egos. In time, I suspect that the accumulated evidence will arrive with enough weight that Free will seem as egocentrically naive as wanting to believe that the earth is the center of the universe.

    • tricstmr says:


      Actually I have a number of disagreements with your points.. let me try to go through them:

      1. I do believe I have the choice to become a serial killer. I think many times randomly through the day whether I should not stop and kill that person. I wonder many times if I stopped and stabbed myself and ended my life what would happen in the world. I wonder many times while driving whether I should just crash the car.. I play out thought experiments constantly.

      Now I take your point that there is a lot of good evidence that we’ve accumulated from the serial killers THAT WE’VE CAUGHT that describes the usual model of what goes into the make up of a serial killer and that I prolly don’t fit that particular profile very well. But to say “we know a lot” is not nearly the same as saying “we know so much that we can 100% determine who is and who will and will not become a serial killer.”
      This applies to the free will question. To say we have no free will to me, is to say we are completely puppets. That we can predict the future given enough information.

      People have made many such claims before, historically–and they have all suffered from the arrogance of believing that they knew more than they did.

      2. My choice to be in academia is actually a weird story. While it is true that my talents of having a sharp brain that does standardized tests well does prepare me well for such a career–it was not my intention to end up here–or rather–I did not strive to be here–but it was merely one of a range of possibilities. In fact, my talents do predispose me to be qualified for this career–but they also predispose me towards being an engineer working out in a corporation, or to being an army intelligence agent, or to being a financial analyst, or to being a high school physics teacher.

      There are a whole range of careers that I contemplated growing up–each one of those actually–and the reason I am currently where I am had as much to do with random circumstances (such as loving Germany for some reason as a kid and therefore taking German in high school and then encountering an nn group one day back in 1993 that led me know a Certain German woman whom I eventually then went and lived with which made certain opportunities available and which made others less likely…etc..)

      Just because NOT EVERYTHING is open to a person doesn’t mean that a whole range of things isn’t. This is the problem I have with “no free will” type arguments–they seem to use the straw man argument of “if there are any constraints on a person’s will–they have no free will” which is just horse shit.

      To use a concrete, but similar kind of argument, let me go to engineering. In engineering, one learns that when you are trying to design something, there are lots of different constraints that you have to deal with. You have material constraints (strength of materials, physical laws, size dimensions, etc), social constraints (aesthetics, costs, production capacities, etc), and other kinds of constraints (time is a good example) any time you want to design something.

      All of these constraints limit your action… Nevertheless, in almost all cases, there area always still a multitude of possible design solutions that you can come up with for any problem because all of these constraints still leave you with either an underconstrained situation (where variables can be moved around) or overconstrained (where you have to push stuff to various limits and see how things shift) that allows you “free play” in your designing.

      This is how I see free will.. and I think it is a good analogy to life.

      In contrast, most of the arguments–like those of Sam Harris–come from a more scientific perspective where they seem to think there is only 1 possible solution that has to be arrived at–that it’s an either/or kind of situation–and because they can find a few constraints that have started to limit the possibility of total free will–they take these constraints as pointing to the other conclusion–that there is no free will–as if they are approaching a limit in mathematics..

      But thats an unconvincing argument to me. They haven’t shown that the limit is ever reached. They assume that and expect me to–and I find that assumption unfounded and unrealistic.

      3. When I try to imagine a celebrity–I actually start imagining many of them. Brad, Angelina, Carl Sagan, and Sam Harris all appeared pretty much simultaneously in my brain–and they were there because of external stimuli that I was exposed to and which my brain decided were the best (of a range) of choices that I’ve categorized as “celebrities”.. If pushed.. I would pick one or the other for the fuck of it.. because it doesn’t really matter..

      Yes–reality has constrained my choices here in various ways–I don’t know the names of Chinese Celebrities and so they cannot play in the game–and maybe recent events put Carl and Sam in my head whereas next time it would be others… But where is your evidence that the final choice was determined by prior stimuli–and no one has ever given this level of evidence.. basically, they say “well, you made a choice–and therefore it was predetermined”–but they haven’t proven that all such choices are predetermined 100% by material reality..

      4. You bring up “nebulous subconscious” here.
      I call bullshit.

      If you are going to talk about any kind of determinist free will–then nebulous subconscious–doesn’t make a difference. It’s all just puppet strings.

      Do you believe that everything you do is pre-ordained? That you are being puppetted around without a choice? That’s what a lack of free will means to me–you have no choices.

      Here–you are also bringing up “control” as an either/or issue–unlike the graded and partially constrained situation I describe above, and I think that’s a false dichotomy. Just because we don’t have total control over our subconscious doesn’t mean that there aren’t underlying mental processes that are indirectly influenced by our conscious mind and choices.

      I do want to ask–do you think I have a choice to agree with you or not in this conversation? Is it possible for you to actually change my mind by what you do–or not change it–or is the state of my mind for the next weeks already foreordained no matter what you say or don’t say?

      5. I think the gravity analogy works just fine. I didn’t ever claim to be offering a hard and fast “argument”–but rather I offered a thought–a perspective.

      You don’t agree with that perspective–(by your arguments–how could you agree? It was already determined that you wouldn’t! ) –and that’s okay… I not out to convert anyone or convince them.. these are just my thoughts…

      I do find it interesting that you bring up the evil AI of the Matrix and the center of the universe arguments for two reasons:
      A) The Matrix is predicated on an idea that you could simulate all of reality well enough–that you could digitally encapsulate the analog reality of nature–and that this would be sufficient for our brains… That is another one of those assumptions that is pretty well unfounded… simulations–even the best ones–are really poor compared to our reality–despite using immense quantities of energy–one might note, that to make a computer better than a human at jeopardy, you need to expend something on the order 10,000x as much power–an entire room full of servers, and far more money just to do one task…–and this is despite decades of research in the area.. and we are pretty clearly at size limits for processors…

      To assume that machines will ever be able to compete with biology in this is making a big assumption that needs much more evidence rather than just optimistic assumptions.. (people have been talking about the “singularity” for decades.. and it’s date–like fusion power–is always 20 years in the future…)

      b) According to General Relativity–the Earth is at the center of the universe because every point of the universe is the center. Reality is not as straight forward as too many people want it to be.

      I await openly any more thoughts (that the deterministic universe compels you to give me!)… 🙂

  2. Jeanja says:

    Assume for the sake of argument that free will is *possible*. Would evolution select for it? If so, under what circumstances? And what would be the features of an “adaptive” free will?

    I can imagine a situation when free will would be selected for. A herd of lemmings are running to the edge of a cliff. If some of them comprehended that they were doing this– “Gee, I’m running to the edge of the cliff and will fall over the edge and die”– then it would be hugely beneficial if they had the free will to choose to do otherwise– “Wait, I don’t want to die, so I’m not going to follow the other lemmings.” Those lemmings would survive to reproduce while the other lemmings died. So a free will that allowed an animal to do other than the impulses given them by nature and nurture could be adaptive.

    Of course, such a free will has potential evolutionary costs. An animal with free will may decide to commit suicide or simply not reproduce. Usually nature and nurture are right. So evolution should make it costly to exercise free will. Interestingly, experiments on how humans exercise willpower suggests that we only have a limited amount of it. E.g. if we already exercised willpower to avoid the donuts at breakfast, we may have no willpower left to avoid the cookies at lunch!

  3. Pingback: Wordsmithing… | The Philosophy of NOM

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