Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Causation, Consciousness, & Free Will
One of my earliest memories is standing next to my childhood home, in a gap between shrubs where a garden hose was connected to the faucet. I was staring at the reddish brick that covered three corners of our house and I seemed to go into a trance. All I remember is that the experience was very pleasant and I wanted it to go on. It didn’t. My father came up behind me and barked out some order. I was ripped out of the state and I turned and stuck out my tongue at him. Those were the days when such a gesture stirred the familial gods into action.
Dad grabbed me by the collar and swatted me two good times on the butt. I remember thinking that I could not explain to him what had happened. I also remember him saying “next time you better stop and think!”
There is a lot to chew on in that memory. Here, I will only focus on my father’s understanding of responsibility. It lies in the ability to disengaged from the chain of causation. One state of mind leads naturally to an action. I am enraged, so I swing the club. I am responsible for the action because I am capable of stopping and thinking. I can step back from the momentum that includes all the psychological forces and the context that is funneling them toward the action and decide to act or not.
I have for a long time believed that free will is rooted precisely in that ability and that consciousness is precisely the power that allows us to exercise it. All the automatic processes that make up our biological activity‑e.g., intracellular mechanics and the response of heart rate to physical activity‑are flexible only within built-in parameters. Consciousness is something different. It can respond in creative ways to both familiar and novel situations.
I am tempted to do something (eat this, cuddle with her, etc.). How is it that I decide not to do it? One explanation is that contrary inclinations arise from my social conditioning, which works on my evolved inclinations. Just as a stool supports my butt because its four legs push towards its center, so I keep to my diet and avoid adultery because the balance of forces pushes in that direction. It is easy enough to model consciousness as only a sophisticated system of monitoring. My becoming aware of food is analogous to my thermostat responding to a change in the room’s temperature.
The problem with that explanation is that, if it were true, there would be no need for appetites and emotions. An autonomous biological machine could balance inputs to produce outputs (actions) without any need for pain and pleasure, fear and love. Such a machine would, however, be much less flexible than one that was genuinely free. An organism that is free is unpredictable and not limited to previous responses and strategies. It can do whatever the Hell it pleases.
A conscious animal might do anything within the limits physical capabilities, including range of motion and spectrum of perception. That freedom, however, needs to be harnessed by the forces of natural selection. The animal exists because its ancestors existed. It can do anything it wants but it has to want to do what will promote the successful reproduction of its kind if its kind is to be communicated across time. Since it is conscious and therefore free to do or not do, it had to be bribed with appetites and passions to do what promoted its successful reproduction.
This is, in my view, the only plausible explanation for genuine consciousness. All organisms, conscious or not, are constantly trying to do something. The vine climbing the wall is trying to reach the sunlit stones. The spider crawling across the table is up to something. We cannot understand organic activities without a dimension of value. The plant will flourish and flower or wither. The spider will feed and mate, or not. Only conscious animals will have good and bad days, satisfying or wretched lives.
The only alternative to this explanation is epiphenomenalism. According to this view, consciousness is only an accidental product of neurological processes. All the effective causation is going on below the level of consciousness. We become aware of our decisions only after they have been made by our subconscious brains. There are two reasons why I find this very implausible. One is that involves an effect with not consequences. It would be very odd that this amazing phenomenon, consciousness, is a result of causation but produces not consequences of its own.
The bigger problem is that it seems to recapitulate Cartesian dualism. On the one side, you have all the effective mechanisms that operate in the physical brain. On the other, the mind that is fooled into thinking that it plays a causal role. Causation flows only one way, so there is no interaction problem and I am not sure that this is logically incoherent. Still, it is very weird. It would be analogous to trying to explain the movie industry while resolutely insisting that what shows up on the screen has no part in the explanation.
We can be reasonably certain, I submit, that the elements of our consciousness‑sensation, emotion, and deliberation‑have a causal role in our behavior. Free will and moral responsibility are emergent products of our mammalian evolutionary inheritance. I don’t think that this necessarily requires a metaphysically robust doctrine of free will. One might well wind all of this back into a deterministic physics. But then I regard deterministic physics as conceit of the early moderns.
Free will is analogous to the clutch on a standard transmission. It allows us to disengaged and make a decision. We can stop and think before we plow ahead.