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…