Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Reflections on science, God and Cartesian theaters

In the local discussion group referenced previously, as well as dialogue with Andy Smith on free will, it occurred to me that I am quite offended by the notion that by maintaining consciousness is not an epiphenomenon or illusion it is somehow akin to believing in a supernatural God or Cartesian dualism. I too am most interested in providing empirical evidence for my interest in consciousness, hence I'm using the work of neuroscientists like Damasio, Churchland and now Schurger and Dehaene. These are folks that do not accept any sort of Cartesian ghost (quite the contrary), ground their hypotheses in empirical evidence, and provide mounting experimental data to support their theses. Which is, of course, the scientific method, to take what you already know, make educated guesses about the next step, device experimental methods to test it, and to use those results to either confirm or refute the guess. And that is exactly what the above scientists are doing and making considerable progress. I just cannot see how this is holding to some kind of illusory or delusional 'belief.'

With that in mind, let's recall the New Scientist article that made us aware of this new research on Libet. Schurger was quoted as saying the following, but I don't know the source, since it is not in the referenced paper:

"If we are correct, then the Libet experiment does not count as evidence against the possibility of conscious will," says Schurger.

Granted I'm not sure if that particular experiment by Schurger et al. determined whether the act of moving a finger in response to a command proved if the "intention" was conscious or nonconscious, since it is obvious we can have controlled, nonconscious perception and action. But more complex perception, planning and action does seem to involve consciousness, and this is what the likes of the recent articles by Schurger and Dahaene are exploring with experimental tests. (And Damasio, btw, has done numerous of his own experimental tests and published them in highly regarded scientific journals. Again, no pulling illusions out of Cartesian theaters here).

In reference to a more recent article (2011) from Dehaene, he has conducted a number of experimental tests on his hypothesis from 2001. He also provided considerable data from other researchers into the topic, then compares the results to this theory. This is science, and these scientists, are not searching for God or disembodied, ideal minds; they are searching for empirical evidence to explain the phenomenon called consciousness. And which explanations and evidence is not only mounting in support of its thesis, but can be highly useful for helping a lot of people with a lot of problems.


  1. Beyond the fact that this conclusion is based on a neural model that happens to look like the actual data, rather than actual data themselves…

    “A decision is triggered when the evidence favouring one particular outcome becomes strong enough to tip its associated assembly of neurons across a threshold…The random fluctuations of neural activity in the brain might provide that trigger, encouraging movement when this noise accumulates to a threshold level.”

    This is not free will. The decision is not made by “I”, it is made by random fluctuations (which in fact may not even be random, if we could probe more deeply into causation at this level). It’s a classic case of the brain weighing inputs (even if, in this case, they aren’t “inputted” from outside the individual), with the decision made by the weighing process. I see no room for free will there.

    But as I said before, it doesn’t really matter. Dennett, Churchland, etc., are conceding that there is no free will in the traditional understanding of what that means. They have retreated to top-down causation, the notion that higher-order processes may have effects on lower order ones. As I also said before, I don’t have a problem with this, indeed, I’ve written extensively in support of it. It just shouldn’t be confused with free will. Maybe we need a new term to distinguish the two. Churchland’s “self-control” seems to me to be a good start.

    Ed, I just want to add that I find it a little ironic you are pushing this free will issue. I know from reading your blog that you lean strongly liberal/Democratic (as do I). Free will is much more of a conservative notion, in the sense that conservatives generally argue that individuals are completely responsible for their actions, whereas liberals are more likely to view individual actions as a product of the social environment. While I know this isn’t what you mean, many conservatives all too readily appeal to the traditional notion of free will to support their arguments. If you are poor, for example, you deserve to be poor, because you haven’t worked hard enough. In a “free country”, everyone has the chance to make money. The liberal would of course respond that some people have much greater opportunities than others. Not just in the sense that someone from a wealthier family has access to better education, may be able to get set up with capital for a business, etc., but the very way in which they respond to these opportunities is more effective, because of the environment in which they grew up.

    As I noted in an earlier comment, I think much of the problem can be avoided by distinguishing “freedom to” from “freedom from”. The first implies free will in the traditional sense, some entity outside of the causation process. The second is more in keeping with Churchland's self-control, where evolution, development and learning processes all allow for individual change in a way that leads to avoiding or escaping causation processes that affect simpler forms of life.

    I think the conservative mindset is more associated with freedom to. Consider the current debate over guns. Gun advocates, who tend to be conservative, define freedom in this context as the freedom to own a gun. Gun control advocates, who are more likely to be liberal in their general outlook, tend to define freedom as freedom from a social environment in which people are allowed to have guns and therefore is more dangerous. Conservatives, as I have written about before, tend to identify more strongly with families and small groups, so do not appreciate the enormous social ramifications of individual gun ownership.

  2. So you know I am NOT promoting the traditional notion. And that I said ok, forget the expression "free will" and let's stick to top-down control or "freedom from." Can you take yes for an answer?


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