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Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

Nancey Murphy is a Christian theologian and philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary. Psychologist Warren S. Brown is director of the Lee Edward Travis Research Institute there. He spent 11 years as a research scientist at the UCLA Brain Research Institute. As their background might suggest, their book, takes as key interests the physicalism of science and the room it leaves for the existence of God. I offer a review of the book, but do not want it to become overlong. For that reason, I do not develop explanations of some of their points.

Both Murphy and Brown believe in God but hold that the world can be explained by a physical account of it. Still, they argue that a physicalist account alone cannot make sense of meaning. We find meaning in our lives and in the world, which cannot be explained by a resort to only physical explanations.

The authors believe that, unlike our forebears, contemporary men and women have no "shared account of the nature of the human person." Some people believe in the soul, others do not. Some regard humans as having an innate sense of morality. Others don't. Here is a snapshot of the impact science has had on lives through its anti-spiritual explanations.

Today, many thinkers are concerned about the impact of neuroscience research findings on society. One concern is that neuroscience reveals our brains as creating the illusion of moral responsibility and free will. This book addresses that concern and finds that it is wrongly rooted in the view that a physicalist (or materialist) explanation of our minds automatically becomes a reductionist explanation.

Reductionism is a top-up approach to the world, but the problem in it is that it goes only one direction. It is a one-way street. As Stuart A. Kauffman observes in Reinventing The Sacred, if it were a viable explanation, the route would work both directions. As a single example, we cannot follow our sense of morality back down to any "parts that explain it." In fact, many philosophers and scientists find that much is left wanting in the use of evolutionary adaptation to explain morality. Further, much evidence supports the mind--and consciousness itself--as an emergent phenomenon. We find that development occurs in hierarchies of complexity and they do not allow for bi-directional explanation. They are dynamic systems, self-contained, ever-changing, and unyielding to static, reductionist reasoning. (That they are dynamic does not require that they be supernatural in causation.)

The authors say that an underlying thesis of their book is that--despite changes in physics-- many in our culture are still functioning with a largely Newtonian view of causation and are still largely Cartesian in their understanding of mind. That is, many see theirs and others' minds as an autonomous control center rather than as something integral with the body. In fact, the brain evolved to serve the body, not the other way around.

Meaning and intentionality have been wrapped in mystery as a refuge from the glare of scientific examination. The authors regard meaning and intentionality as products of a Cartesian assumption that mental acts, because internal, are unknowable. If instead we consider the mental in terms of manifesting itself as action in the social world then we have a connection to meaning and intention. There is something in how the word "chair" hooks into the world--how to sit in it. Unlike a Cartesian, Murphy and Brown are not dualists. Dualism is not a position commonly accepted today. Reductionist, physicalist--whatever the term--the typical contemporary stance is monist. (One notable exception is David Chalmers, a dualist who regards qualia--the "what if feels like to be me"--of consciousness as, at least for him, inexplicable from a monist vantage.)

An ultimate question is one of responsibility. If we are creatures of determinism, that frees us from moral responsibility. The social implications would become immensely devastating should the public come to believe in determinism. The authors ask, Who is responsible? In doing this, they turn to a central theme of book, a philosophical analysis of the concept of moral responsibility. In this, language because it is symbolic becomes essential for morally responsible action. The representation of good and bad behavior is a function of language.

The authors make a rather axiomatic assumption, that a sense of self is "one of several cognitive prerequisites for moral responsibility." In turn, this sense of self depends on narrative memory and other functions of the human brain. I must say that I agree with their axiom. My reasons follow.

Some philosophers of consciousness such as Thomas Metzinger (The Ego Tunnel, and Being No One) argue that the sense of self is an illusion created by the brain. They then say we have to live with this illusion to be functional members of society. The problem here is that if their view comes to dominate public understanding, an immense ethical problem arises for society. Murder? Rape? Robbery? One could insist that his neurons made him do it.

But we have an intuitive sense of ourselves as free agents. The authors are concerned with the question, How can we still believe in free will while understanding how our brain works--its body map, its construction of self-images, its basis in evolutionary adaptation?

Faced with their central question of human morality, the authors maintain that physical reductionism has to be false. Reductionism consists of denial that anything need be added to the human body to make a human being. Their thesis is that human reason and human accountability can be explained but not explained away.

They take the position of non-reductive physicalism and hold that theirs is a coherent position. For them, the reductionist point of view presents a key problem regarding free will. Reductionism ultimately explains things in terms of parts. To the reductionist the whole is no greater than its parts. In this view, there is no "me," so it can be said nothing made "me" do it.

Despite their physicalist view of the human body and mind, they find no reason to rule out the larger question of the existence of God.

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David Hodgson: A Plain Person's Free Will

David Hodgson: A Plain Person's Free Will

David Hodgson is "a Judge of Appeal of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia" who is "also deeply interested in philosophy." He has published books through Oxford University Press (Consequences of Utilitarianism and The Mind Matters ), as wells as articles on consciousness, probability and plausible reasoning.

Here is an abstract of his "plain person's" thesis as found in the Journal of Consciousness Studies: "In my experience, plain persons (here meaning persons who are neither philosophers or cognitive scientists) tend to accept something like a libertarian position on free will, namely that free will exists and is inconsistent with determinism. That position is widely debunked by philosophers and cognitive scientists. My view at present is that something like this plain person’s position is not only defensible but likely to be closer to the truth than opposing views. "

Hodgson's ideas can be read at his website. More. The abstract above refers to this argument by Hodgson in The Journal of Consciousness Studies.

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Benjamin Libet's Personal View of Free Will

Benjamin Libet's Personal View of Free Will.

"If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was travelling its way of its own accord on the strength of a resolution taken once and for all. So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will." (Attributed to Albert Einstein in the promotion site for Libet's The Volitional Brain. Perhaps from Einstein's autobiography, The World As I See It, in which he addresses his deterministic view of the universe.)

Most scientific thought concurs that the universe is deterministic and that the sense of free will is an illusion. That is, except for those who take into account chaos theory at the macro level, and quantum mechanics at the micro. The question remains, as posed by T.S. Eliot:

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
  • "The Hollow Men," 1925

  • Benjamin Libet conducted now famous experiments that seemed to light up the shadow. Essentially, they were that a subject thought he had made a decision to act, but instead the action occurred about a half second before the sense of a decision. The decision was illusory. The action involved no agent, no choosing person, but instead happened, with the sense of control ocurring afterward.

    Despite the evidence of his own experiments, Benjamin Libet allows some room for free will in an otherwise deterministic world. He provides many of his arguments in The Volitional Brain (Libet, Freeman, & Sutherland, 1999).

    Libet has this to say about his methods: "I have taken an experimental approach to this question. Freely voluntary acts are preceded by a specific electrical change in the brain (the 'readiness potential', RP) that begins 550 ms before the act. Human subjects became aware of intention to act 350-400 ms after RP starts, but 200 ms. before the motor act. The volitional process is therefore initiated unconsciously. But the conscious function could still control the outcome; it can veto the act. Free will is therefore not excluded. These findings put constraints on views of how free will may operate; it would not initiate a voluntary act but it could control performance of the act. The findings also affect views of guilt and responsibility. But the deeper question still remains: Are freely voluntary acts subject to macro-deterministic laws or can they appear without such constraints, non-determined by natural laws and 'truly free'? I shall present an experimentalist view about these fundamental philosophical opposites."

    He has several justifications, one of which is that many readiness potentials are produced by the brain although only one is acted upon. Another is that the conscious mind can veto actions before they are performed. Into this he tosses the notion of "consciousness fields," which is more supposition than evidence-based theory. I will add to that chaos theory and quantum mechanics.

    Critics argue that he has created a homonculus, a little man inside, who over-rides unconscious urges to act, but his own experiments verify that such vetos do occur. In this regard, the burden of explaining away the evidence lies with his critics, for subjects are indeed able to stop actions within a very narrow window of time. This has been established by Libet's own experiments.

    I should add that good Doctor Einstein was a determinist to the core, which was why he could never accept--call it what you will--quantum mechanics, wave funcion collapse, superposition theory, and especially Neils Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation of what is happening at that level. He couldn't accept any of it but history has passed him by in that regard.

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    Paul Weiss: Common Sense & Beyond

    Paul Weiss: Common Sense & Beyond

    I found an old book of papers presented before the New York Institute of Philosophy on the issue of human freedom (or non-freedom, if you prefer). Edited by Sidney Hook, the papers reflect a broad diversity of opinion. In reading them, I could only conclude that philosophers today are no less divided on the issue than they were then, in the mid-1950s. One piece did stand out for its reductio ad absurdum of many philospher claims on the issue. By Paul Weiss and titled "Common Sense and Beyond," some excerpts from it are provided below.

    " A good deal of contemporary discussion of the problem of determinism and freedom rests on a number of unexamined but rather dubious assumptions. Not until these are brought to the fore, and either modified or replaced, can there, I think, be much hope of progress toward the solution of this perplexing basic issue. . . .

    . . . . Any view that wholly abandons common sense is at least a fiction or a fantasy. Any view that refuses to examine it is at best uncritical and dogmatic. Reflection and reason require one to stand somewhere between these two extremes. . . .

    . . . Most discussions of freedom do not distinguish among (1) freedom from, (2) freedom to, (3) freedom for, and (4) freedom with.

    1. Whenever men are subject to unusual or unconventional restraints we think of them as being compelled; when those constraints are removed we think of them as freed, and speak of them as free. Thus we say that the released slave is a free man.
    2. Freedom to is the power to act either inwardly as a being of intent or outwardly as one who can publicly express his wishes or carry out his obligations. Thus we say the he who wishes to take drugs, and can, is free to take them; and that he who out to pay his debts and has the money to so is free to pay them.
    3. Freedom for is the power to commit oneself to an end and to work to bring it about. This end may be set by society or the state; one’s commitment to it might be a function of heredity and training. But the capacity to put oneself in a position to focus on this end and engage in activity to bring it about is to have a freedom for. Thus we say that men are at their best when they have been made free for a civilized life of leisure.
    4. Finally, we are men in a society and men in a cosmos, and whatever freedom we may express is largely futile or frustrated if it does not intermesh with that exercised by others. Thus we say that we are genuinely free only when we are in harmony with equally free fellow men.

    . . . . We cannot settle the problem of determinism and freedom until we have decided just what type of freedom, and thus what antithetical sense of determinism, we wish to consider.

    . . . . Yet a scientific account that requires the acknowledgement of determinacies or indeterminacies in the world tells us nothing about the nature of things, but only about that phase of existence isolated and pursued in common ways by a community of thinkers. In the end we have no right to say that anything beyond all knowledge is real. [Inveterate Bystander emphasis] . . . .

    . . . The wise scientist makes no claim that he is able to deal with or to know anything about the universe outside the scope of his language, instruments, or criteria. [Inveterate Bystander emphasis] . . . . " (From Determinism and Freedom in The Age of Modern Science, Sidney Hook, ed., Collier, 1979)

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    Free Will & Consciousness Research: W. Grey Walter, Benjamin Libet, Hans Kornhuber, Lüder Deeke, & Risto Näätäen

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    Benjamin Libet is most frequently associated with the Readiness Potential and its implications for free will, but W. Grey Walter (1910-1977), did pioneering work that brought early attention to the phenomenon in Britain and America, although similar findings had been made in Germany and later in Finland.

    W. Grey Walter: Background

    Born in Kansas City, Missouri, he lived in England from the age of five, and became interested in neurophysiology at King's College, Cambridge.
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    Steven Pinker & The Fear of Determinism

    There was a young man who said "Damn!"
    It grieves me to think that I am
    Predestined to move
    In a circumscribed groove:
    In fact, not a bus, but a tram.

    "One fear of determinism is a gaping existential anxiety: that deep down we are not in control of our own choices. All our brooding and agonizing over the right thing to do is pointless, it would seem, because everything has already been preordained by the state of our brains. If you suffer from this anxiety, I suggest the following experiment. For the next few days, don't bother deliberating over your actions. It's a waste of time, after all; they have already been determined. Shoot from the hip, live for the moment, and if it feels good, do it. No, I am not seriously suggesting that you try this! But a moment's reflection on what would happen if you did try to give up making decisions should serve as a Valium for the existential anxiety. The experience of choosing is not a fiction, regardless of how the brain works. It is a real neural process, with the obvious function of selecting behavior according to its foreseeable consequences. It responds to information from the senses, including the exhortations of other people. You cannot step outside it or let it go on without you because it is you. If the most ironclad form of determinism is real, you could not do anything about it anyway, because your anxiety about determinism, and how you would deal with it, would also be determined. It is the existential fear of determinism that is the real waste of time.

    A more practical fear of determinism is captured in a saying by A.A. Milne: "No doubt Jack the Ripper excused himself on the grounds that it was human nature." The fear is that an understanding of human nature seems to eat away at the notion of personal responsibility. In the traditional view, the self or soul, having chosen what to do, takes responsibility when things turn out badly. As with the desk of Harry S. Truman, the buck stops here. But when we attribute an action to a person's brain, genes, or evolutionary history, it seems that we no longer hold the individual accountable. Biology becomes the perfect alibi, the get-out-of-jail-free card, the doctor's excuse note. As we have seen, this accusation has been made by the religious and cultural right, who want to preserve the soul, and the academic left, who want to preserve a "we" who can construct our futures though in circumstances of our own choosing.

    "Why is the notion of free will so closely tied to the notion of responsibility, and why is biology thought to threaten both? Here is the logic. We blame people for an evil act or bad decision only when they intended the consequences and could have chosen otherwise. We don't convict a hunter who shoots a friend he has mistaken for a deer, or the chauffeur who drove John F. Kennedy into the line of fire, because they could not foresee and did not intend the outcome of their actions. We show mercy to the victim of torture who betrays a comrade, to a delirious patient who lashes out at a nurse, or to a madman who strikes someone he believes to be a ferocious animal. We don't put a small child on trial if he causes a death, nor do we try an animal or an inanimate object, because we believe them to be constitutionally incapable of making an informed choice.

    "A biology of human nature would seem to admit more and more people into the ranks of the blameless. A murderer [might have] a shrunken amygdala or a hypo-metabolism in his frontal lobes. . . . Even worse, biology may show that we are all blameless. Evolutionary theory says that the ultimate rationale for our motives is that they perpetuated our ancestors' genes in the environment in which they evolved. Since none of us are aware of that rationale, none of us can be blamed for pursuing it, any more than we blame the mental patient who thinks he is subduing a mad dog but really is attacking a nurse. . . . Should we go even farther than the National Rifle Association bumper sticker--GUNS DON'T KILL; PEOPLE KILL--and say that not even people kill, because people are just as mechanical as guns? . . . .

    "People who hope that a ban on biological explanations might restore personal responsibility are in for the biggest disappointment of all. The most risible pretexts for bad behavior in recent decades have come not from biological determinism, but from environmental determinism: the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defense, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics. . . .

    "Something has gone terribly wrong. It is a confusion of explanation with exculpation. Contrary to what is implied by critics of biological and environmental theories of the causes of behavior, to explain behavior is not to exonerate the behaver. . . . The difference between explaining behavior and excusing it is captured in the saying "To understand is not to forgive," and has been stressed in different ways by many philosophers, including Hume, Kant, and Sartre. Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced (that is, someone held a gun to his head), we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull. . . . As Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, "If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ' I don't doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. . . . the law must keep its promises'. " (Steven Pinker,"The Fear of Determinism," in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Nature. NY: Vintage, 2002.)

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    Mindfulness Affects Brain Matter: Jeffrey Schwartz, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force

    Mindfulness Affects Brain Matter: Jeffrey Schwartz, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.

    Mind over matter, anyone? The question would be rejected by those who endorse the modern view of consciousness, which appeals to hard-liners in cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, or behavioral genetics, all of whom would support some material explanation for consciousness. These approaches consider as defective and retrograde any appeal to a non-material explanation. Along comes Jeffrey Schwartz, neuroscientist and Research Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, who has worked with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) patients, and who has a wholly different take on consciousness after finding that OCD people can free themselves from the disorder. ( See his book, Brain Lock: Free Yourself From Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.) He has written another book, this one with Sharon Begley. Its title is italicized in the header for this article. Schwartz is also a practicing Buddhist. Here he is on materialist explanations:

    LOOKING BACK, IT SEEMS INEVITABLE that advances in brain science during the 20th century led almost all people esteemed as "scientifically literate" to believe that eventually all aspects of the human mind would be explained in material terms. After all, in an era when the unquestioned cultural assumption was "for science all causes are material causes," how could one be expected to think differently? What's more, tremendous advances in brain-imaging technologies during the last two decades of that most materialist of centuries enabled scientists to investigate the inner workings of the living human brain. This certainly seemed to further buttress the generally unexamined and often smugly held belief that the deep mysteries of the brain, and the "laws" through which it created and ruled all aspects of the human mind, would someday be revealed.

    Thus arose the then virtually hegemonic belief that human beings and everything they do are, like all other aspects of the world of nature, the results of material causes--by which the elites of the time simply meant results of material forces interacting with each other. While primitive, uneducated, and painfully unsophisticated people might be beguiled into believing that they had minds and wills capable of exerting effort and rising above the realm of the merely material, this was just--as Daniel Dennett, a widely respected philosopher of the day, delighted in putting it--an example of a "user illusion": that is, the quaint fantasy of those who failed to realize, due to educational deficiencies or plain thick-headedness, that "a brain was always going to do what it was caused to do by local mechanical disturbances." Were you one of the rubes who believed that people are capable of making free and genuinely moral decisions? Then of course haughty contempt, or at best pity, was the only appropriate demeanor a member of the intellectual elite could possibly direct your way.

    On a societal and cultural level the damage such spurious and unwarranted elite opinions wreaked on the world at large was immense. For if everything people do results solely from their brains, and everything the brain does results solely from material causes, then people are no different than any other complicated machine and the brain is no different in principle than any very complex computer. If matter determines all, everything is passive and no one ever really does anything, or to be more precise, no one is really responsible for anything they think, say, or do.

    What's more, if anything they think, say, or do causes problems for them or society at large, then, the sophisticates of that thankfully bygone era believed, the ultimate way to solve the problem would be to make the required changes in the brain that would make it work the way a properly functioning machine is supposed to. This naturally led to the widespread use of drugs as a primary means of treating what generally came to be called "behavioral problems."

    After all, if the brain is the final cause of everything a person thinks, says, and does, why bother with old-fashioned and outdated notions like "self-control" or even "making your best effort" to solve a problem? If the brain is the ultimate cause underlying all the problems, then the sophisticated thing to do to rectify things is to give a chemical (or even place an electrode!) that gets right in there and fixes things. "God helps those who help themselves?" Not in the real world, where science knows all the answers, sneered the elites of the time.

    Happily for the future of humanity, in the early years of the 21st century this all started to change. The reasons why, on a scientific level, grew out of the coming together of some changes in perspective that had occurred in physics and neuroscience during the last decades of the previous century. Specifically, the theory of physics called quantum mechanics was seen to be closely related, especially in humans, to the discovery in brain science called neuroplasticity: the fact that throughout the lifespan the brain is capable of being rewired, and that in humans at least, this rewiring could be caused directly by the action of the mind.

    Work using new brain-imaging technologies of that era to study people with a condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) played a key role in this development. OCD is a medical condition in which people suffer from very bothersome and intrusive thoughts and feelings that give them the sense that "something is wrong" in their immediate surroundings--usually the thought or feeling that something is dirty or contaminated or needs to be checked because it isn't quite right.

    This is what is called an obsession. The problem the medical condition causes is that although the sufferers generally know this feeling that "something is wrong" is false and doesn't really make sense, the feeling keeps bothering them and doesn't go away, due to a brain glitch that was discovered using brain imaging. Sufferers often respond to these gut-wrenching thoughts and feelings by washing, checking, straightening things, etc., over and over again, in a desperate but futile attempt to make things seem right. These futile repetitive acts are called compulsions.

    In the 1990s it was discovered that OCD sufferers were very capable of learning how to resist capitulating to these brain-related symptoms by using a mental action called "mindful awareness" when confronting them. In a nutshell, mindful awareness means using your "mind's eye" to view your own inner life and experiences the way you would if you were standing, as it were, outside yourself-most simply put, it means learning to use a rational perspective when viewing your own inner experience.

    When OCD patients did this, and as a result came to view the bothersome intrusive thoughts and feelings just as medical symptoms that they had the mental power to resist, they found they were empowered to direct their attention in much more useful and wholesome ways by focusing on healthy and/or work-related activities. Over several weeks, and with much mental effort and faith in their ability to overcome the suffering, many OCD patients were found to be capable of regularly resisting the symptoms. . . .

    In the early years of the current century brain imaging was used to reveal many similar and related findings. For instance, people with spider phobia, or people viewing stressful or sexually arousing films, were found to be entirely capable of using mental effort to apply mindful awareness and "re-frame" their perspective on their experience. By so doing it was clearly demonstrated that they could systematically change the response of the brain to these situations and so cease being frightened, stressed, or sexually aroused, whatever the case may be.

    This latter finding was realized by some at the time to be potentially relevant to teaching sexual abstinence strategies to adolescents--for if you have the power to control your brain's response to sexual urges, then practicing sexual abstinence in arousing situations will not only strengthen your moral character; it will also increase your mental and physical capacity to control the workings of your own brain--an extremely wholesome and empowering act!

    All this work came together when physicist Henry Stapp realized that a basic principle of quantum mechanics, which because of the nature of the brain at the atomic level must be used for proper understanding of the brain's inner workings, explains how the action of the mind changes how the brain works. A well-established mechanism called the quantum zeno effect (QZE) readily explains how mindfully directed attention can alter brain circuitry adaptively. Briefly, we can understand QZE like this: The mental act of focusing attention tends to hold in place brain circuits associated with whatever is focused on. In other words, focusing attention on your mental experience maintains the brain state arising in association with that experience. . . .

    The rest, as they say, is history. Once a solid scientific theory was in place to explain how the mind's power to focus attention could systematically rewire the brain, and that the language of our mental and spiritual life is necessary to empower the mind to do so, the materialist dogma was toppled. We may not have all lived happily ever after in any simplistic sense, but at least science is no longer on the side of those who claim human beings are no different in principle than a machine. More. If that link fails, click here for the article with omitted paragraphs. (From World on The Web, 3 April 2004, Volume 19, Number 13)

    (In a spirited debate with Michael Schermer on C-Span2, Schwartz drew from the Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination to help explain his view of volition.)

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    Freedom of Will & The Myth of The Third Alternative

    Freedom of Will & The Myth of The Third Alternative.

    We each believe that we possess an Ego, Self, or Final Center of Control, from which we choose what we shall do at every fork in the road of time. To be sure, we sometimes have the sense of being dragged along despite ourselves, by internal processes which, though they come from within our minds, nevertheless seem to work against our wishes. But on the whole we still feel that we can choose what we shall do. Whence comes this sense of being in control? According to the modern scientific view, there is simply no room at all for "freedom of the human will." Everything that happens in our universe is either completely determined by what's already happened in the past or else depends, in part, on random chance. Everything, including that which happens in our brains, depends on these and only on these:

  • A set of fixed, deterministic laws.
  • A purely random set of accidents.

    There is no room on either side for any third alternative. Whatever actions we may "choose," they cannot make the slightest change in what might otherwise have been-- because those rigid, natural laws already caused the states of mind that caused us to decide that way. And if that choice was in part made by chance--it still leaves nothing for us to decide.

    Every action we perform stems from a host of processes inside our minds. We sometimes understand a few of them, but most lie far beyond our ken. But none of us enjoys the thought that what we do depends on processes we do not know ; we prefer to attribute our choices to volition, will, or self-control. We like to give names to what we do not know, and instead of wondering how we work, we simply talk of being "free." Perhaps it would be more honest to say, "My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand." But no one likes to feel controlled by something else.

    Why don't we like to feel compelled? Because we're largely made of systems designed to learn to achieve goals. But in order to achieve any long-range goals, effective difference-engines must also learn to resist whatever other processes attempt to make them change those goals. In childhood, everyone learns to recognize, dislike, and resist those various forms of aggression and compulsion. Naturally, we're horrified to hear about agents that hide in our minds and influence what we decide.

    In any case, both alternatives are unacceptable to self-respecting minds. No one wants to submit to laws that come to us like the whims of tyrants who are too remote for any possible appeal. And it's equally tormenting to feel that we're a toy to mindless chance, caprice, or probability--for though these leave our fate unfixed, we'd still not play the slightest part in choosing what shall come to be. So, though, it's futile to resist, we continue to regard both Cause and Chance as intrusions on our freedom of choice. There remains only one thing to do: we add another region to our model of our mind. We imagine a third alternative, one easier to tolerate; we imagine a thing called "freedom of will," which lies beyond both kinds of constraint.

    The Myth of The Third Alternative

    To save our belief in the freedom of will from the fateful grasp of cause and chance, people simply postulate an empty, third alternative. We imagine that somewhere in each person's mind there lies a Spirit, Will, or Soul, so well concealed that it can elude the reach of any law--or lawless accident.

  • |Cause|----|Free Will|----|Chance|

    I've drawn the box for Will so small because we're always taking things out of it--and scarcely ever putting things in! This is because whenever we find some scrap of order in the world, we have to attribute it to Cause--and whenever things seem to obey no laws at all, we attribute that to Chance. This means that the dominion controlled by Will can only hold what, up to now, we don't yet understand. In ancient times, that realm was huge; when every planet had its god, and every storm or animal did manifest some spirit's wish. But now for many centuries, we've had to watch that empire shrink.

    Does this mean that we must embrace the modern scientific view and put aside the ancient myth of voluntary choice? No. We can't do that; too much of what we think and do revolves around those old beliefs. Consider how our social lives depend upon the notion of responsibility and how little that idea would mean without our belief that personal actions are voluntary. Without that belief, no praise or shame could accrue to actions that were caused by Cause, nor could we assign any credit or blame to deeds that came about by Chance. What could we make our children learn if neither they nor we perceived some fault or virtue anywhere? We also use a selfish impulse, yet turn it aside because it seems wrong, and that must happen when some self-ideal has intervened to overrule another goal. We can feel virtuous when we think that we ourselves have chosen to resist an evil temptation. But if we suspected that such choices were not made freely, but by the interference of some hidden agency, we might very well resent that interference. Then we might become impelled to try to wreck the precious value-schemes that underlie our personalities or become depressed about the futility of a predestination tempered only by uncertainty. Such thoughts must be suppressed.

    No matter that the physical world provides no room for freedom of will; that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm. Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We're virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it's false--except, of course, when we're inspired to find flaws in all our beliefs, whatever may be the consequence to cheerfulness and mental peace. (From Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind)
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    Thinking Without Thinking: Marvin Minsky, The Dalai Lama, & Artificial Intelligence

    Thinking Without Thinking: Marvin Minsky, The Dalai Lama, & Artificial Intelligence.

    Some people think that consciousness and computers are a contradiction in terms. That is, they believe that computers can never qualify as conscious, which is a uniquely human quality.

    Marvin Minsky believes that conscious artificial intelligence is not at all out of the question, which is in keeping with his writings. His thinking in no regard qualifies as religious, and therefore holds nothing sacred about human ability. Would religious leaders differ with him? If readers expected solid disagreement from the Tibetan Buddhist community, they might be surprised to learn that the Dalai Lama does not take exception to a point of view such as Minsky's. Here, then, are two perspectives on the issue, first Minsky, then the Dalai Lama.

  • Minsky: " Just as we walk without thinking, we think without thinking! We don't know how our muscles make us walk--nor do we know much more about the agencies that do our mental work. When you have a hard problem to solve, you think about if for a time. Then, perhaps, the answer seems to come all at once, and you say, ' Aha, I've got it. I'll do such and such.' But if someone were to ask how you found the solution, you could rarely say more than things like the following :

    ' I suddenly realized . . . '

    ' I just got the idea . . . '

    ' It occurred to me that . . . '

    If we could really sense the workings of our minds, we wouldn't act so often in accord with motives we don't suspect. We wouldn't have such varied and conflicting theories for psychology. And when we're asked how people get their good ideas, we wouldn't be reduced to metaphors about ' ruminating,' and ' digesting,' ' conceiving' and ' giving birth' to concepts--as though our thoughts were anywhere but in the head. If we could see inside our minds, we'd surely have more useful things to say.

    Many people seem absolutely certain that no computer could ever be sentient, conscious, self-willed, or in any other way ' aware' of itself. But what makes everyone so sure that they themselves possess those admirable qualities? It's true that if we're sure of anything at all, it is that ' I'm aware--hence, I'm aware.' Yet what do such convictions really mean? If self-awareness means to know what's happening inside one's mind, no realist could maintain for long that people have much insight, in the literal sense of seeing-in. Indeed, the evidence that we are self-aware--that is, that we have any special aptitude for finding out what's happening inside ourselves--is very weak indeed. It is true that certain people have a special excellence at assessing the attitudes and motivations of other persons (and, more rarely, of themselves). But this does not justify the belief that how we learn things about people, including ourselves, is fundamentally different from how we learn about other things. Most of the understandings we call ' insights' are merely variants of our other ways to ' figure out' what's happening." (The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky, (Simon and Schuster) )

  • The Dali Lama once said that there is no theoretical limit to artificial intelligence. If "conscious" computers are some day developed, he will give them the same consideration as sentient beings. ( Salon Magazine, 27 February 1997, in an interview with Jeff Greenwald.) Elsewhere, he had this to say about artificial intelligence : "It is very difficult to say that it's not a living being, that it doesn't have cognition, even from the Buddhist point of view. We maintain that there are certain types of births in which a preceding continuum of consciousness is the basis. The consciousness doesn't actually arise from the matter, but a continuum of consciousness might conceivably come into it." (Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind, Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela ( Shambala) )
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    Notes on Time and Choice: Daniel Dennett, Benjamin Libet, Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, and Advaita

    Home______Notes on Time & Choice: Daniel Dennett, Benjamin Libet, Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, & Advaita
    Everything humanity thinks and believes about itself is predicated upon two concepts. One is free will; the other is self. Look wherever you will, whatever society you find, and all cultures contain a belief in some kind of will, and self. Civilizations, economies, legal systems, art, religion, all arise from them. But what if they are illusory? Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) said that life is a dream. Nobody wants to believe that; such belief seems to threaten entire human edifices, our history and struggle to arrive at these Twenty First Century shores.

    Still, both concepts are based more on belief than on indisputable evidence. They are similar to St. Augustine's description of time, of which he said, " When you don't ask, I know; when you ask, I know not." Look within, show me your self. No, not that. That is only a name, an occupation, a physical description, a life history, or a relationship to others. Your self. Where is it? You see my point.

  • Declarations about choice are time-bound, whether they be fatalist, determinist, or free volitional.

    Calm, sustained introspection reveals that "choice" arises after the fact. This occurs for jnanis, enlightened Hindu masters, as taught by advaita. Benjamin Libet's experiments also demonstrate as much. An event, either thought or muscle response, precedes volitional sense. The analytical approach of advaita espouses that through such introspection freedom eventually occurs. The self disappears, seen for an illusion, a shackle. Nobody chooses because nobody exists to choose. Does choice get done? Ramana Maharshi, a revered modern master, dismissed the question with this remark: "There is neither freedom nor destiny. This is the final truth." He meant that any analysis, any attempt to explain, plunges the sage back into objects of consciousness, things perceived, when actually only the Perceiver is.

    The realization is liberating, but is the explanation deceptive?

  • Daniel Dennett would argue that it is deceptive. Essentially, he says that we must develop a new paradigm about volition. Our ways of thinking are faulty. In his book Freedom Evolves, he considers free will as morally important, and of course, he is right. Our entire legal system is predicated upon the belief that people can avoid wrong doing. He holds that free will does exist but not in the way people normally think about it. This may seem contradictory because he also says that conscious will is an illusion. He means that it does not exist in the traditional sense. We have no conscious voluntary volition. Nothing we choose is decided upon consciously. Yet, we remain morally responsible. How is this possible? How can we be morally responsible if free will is not conscious?

    Dennett would say, Not so fast. The problem here is with words. We accept that an atom can be split, although we cannot sense it as an event. Still, the concept serves thinking about quantum events. We cannot experience free will, but we can gain understanding if we accept that words have limits and we think about them in new ways. They can yield different meanings. Like many current thinkers and researchers, he acknowledges that the old view of free will is gone forever, but he asserts that another kind is available. We can still value free will. In order to survive, we can value life with an artificial heart rather than one that no longer pumps. What is this new heart, this new free will?

    Today, discussion of volition must account for Benjamin Libet's pioneering experiments. (This brief article cannot do them justice, but they are explained elsewhere in this blog.) To discuss free will, a key element of Benjamin Libet's experiments must first be explained.* Subjects were told by Libet to flick their wrists whenever they chose to do so. When Libet's subjects indicated they had "chosen," they revealed a 300 millisecond lapse between the unconscious behavior trigger and the brain's sense of a "decision." This gap is termed the moral void, a time indicating the lag between the actual trigger and the awareness of choice. The conscious sense provided the illusion of control, of decision-making, but the "decision" had already been made. *(For a fuller explanation, see the references to Libet at the bottom of this article.)

    Since they were first conducted in the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet's experiments have had researchers and thinkers debating the issue of free will, as on the face of it the experiments suggest that the sense of decision occurs after the action, not before it.

    Dennett is one of the thinkers in the debates, and to explain his view of free will, he takes Libet's experiments as his starting point. The problem, he says, has to do with understanding of the self. We must develop new understandings for the word, self. Dennett illustrates self in relation to these locations in the brain: in the rear, at the vision center; in the middle at the classic Cartesian theater; in front at practical reasoning. He then offers three scenarios.

  • The sense of self sits in practical reasoning, awaiting the contents from the vision center. Perhaps visual content is late by the time it arrives. The self thus gets dated information.
  • The sense of self sits in the vision center, and also experiences, say, a 300 millisecond time delay.
  • The sense of self sits at the classic command headquarters, in the Cartesian theater, where all supposedly comes together and consciousness happens. Contents arrive at the same time, but one message, the decision to flick the wrist, left 300 milliseconds ago, while another, the readiness potential, or planning stage, left 550 milliseconds ago. Even though they happened differently, they are sensed as happening simultaneously.

    Dennett observes that each of these scenarios prescribes a locus for the self, but what if the self doesn't preside in a single place? One explanation he offers is that the self could have been at practical reasoning, the vision center, and the command headquarters--at all of them. The self simply misjudged the clock when reporting the moment of decision. Why? Because the self had to return to command HQ to pick up the new information, and by that time the clock hand had moved past the point of actual decision. This is one explanation. He offers various hypotheses, but his essential point is that the self must be distributed by space and time within the brain.

    The self, he maintains, is not a point within the neural loop, but is the loop. That is how it exists within space. But it must also be spread in time. It cannot be measured in instants. Dennett construes the self as a decisional entity presiding over longer durations.

    Dennett debunks Descartes' self, the self of I think, therefore I am fame. For Dennett, we do not exist as a self, a little man or woman, inside the mind who pulls levers and pushes switches in the conduct of our daily affairs. Most of what we do is unconscious and automated. That is why he says the old view of free will is dead. He instead argues that we should not discard volition, but should see it in a new light, as he tries to explain. His new free will is neither centralized nor immediate in its volition. In this, he is similar to Francisco Varela's Emergent Self. * ( See Dennett in Shakey, Beavers, & Cartesian Theater, 12 February 2004, & Cartesian Anxiety: Francisco Varela: The Emergent Self & Its Implications for Eastern No-self, 6 January 2004.)

    Think about sports in this regard. Nobody has time to make decisions. Inside a tennis player, nobody pulls levers, nor pushes any buttons. The player does not decide how to return a serve. He acts as a result of pre-conditioning. His intention is prepared by mind-set and a plan to defeat the opponent. Attention always allows response faster than any effort at decision. With attention, intention can advantageously occur. Without attention, the best of intentions may go astray.

    My comments on Dennett: He has tricked self out in new clothes, but he offers a different concept, not any pioneering new theory, or further evidence. Nothing is new here--just the usual clever, ingenious Dennett. Although I don't buy his concept, I also understand his concern for the sense of moral responsibility. He regards people as self-monitoring, which provides a feedback loop for future behavior.

    Somewhere in his discussions, he speaks of Dumbo The Flying Elephant, who cannot fly until crows give Dumbo a "magic" feather. Holding the feather in his trunk, the little elephant believes that he can and with it he does fly. In Dennett's book, Freedom Evolves, the author offers our feedback loops a new feather, a different understanding of self. Still, it remains a feather. Would Dennett deny the fact? I don't think so, but he would insist that people are enabled by understanding its function and believing in its potential. Feedback loops reinforce belief systems. He realizes that belief systems have powerful effects. They condition both individuals and entire societies. For a discussion of this, see My comments, in the article The Illusion of Free Will: Physicist Amit Goswami, Sage Ramesh Balsekar, & Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, 28 December 2003.

  • Dennett premises his argument on cause and effect and this assumption is time-bound. From the point of view of advaita, however, cause and effect, time itself, may be regarded as illusory. (This is indeed how advaita holds causality in its other teachings, many of which derive not from dogma but from empirical introspection.)

  • Quantum consciousness. Does the issue of self and choice involve a form of wave function collapse in which a state becomes determinate in accordance with the observer? * That is, does the reported time sequence (choice after the fact) fall into place only when observed? (This would explain why advaita posits non-causality on the one hand and causality on the other. One is apprehended in "higher" consciousness while the other is seen in a normal state.) * (See Schrödinger's Cat, 2 January below.)

  • Of Roger Penrose, Bernard Baars says that " The really daring idea in contemporary science is that consciousness may be understandable without miracles, just as Darwin's revolutionary idea was that biological variation could be understood as a purely natural phenomenon. We are beginning to see human conscious experience as a major biological adaptation, with multiple functions. It seems as if a conscious event becomes available throughout the brain to the neural mechanisms of memory, skill control, decision-makings, anomaly detection, and the like, allowing us to match our experiences with related memories, use them as a cue for skilled actions or decisions, and detect anomalies in them. By comparison, unconscious events seem to be relatively isolated. Thus consciousness is not just any kind of knowledge: It is knowledge that is widely distributed, that triggers off widespread unconscious processing, has multiple integrative and coordinating functions, aids in decision-making, problem-solving and action control, and provides information to a self-system." (Bernard J. Baars, "Can Physics Provide a Theory of Consciousness?: A Review of Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose," in Psyche: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Research of Consciousness, May 1995)

    Baars refers to Penrose's efforts to find a consciousness counterpart to wave function collapse in physics, the central modern mystery, and the one that has caused "new-agers" to invoke Eastern mysticism as an explanation, although in some ways apples are being compared to oranges.

  • The problem lies with observations that cause wave function collapse. The observation itself seems to cause the collapse. By the act of perceiving, the observer changes that which is observed. In double slit experiments, somehow waves become particles in specific places, despite abstract probability that they should be distributed across a target. Physicist and mathematician Roger Penrose has argued that wave-function collapse within brain microtubules alters consciousness so that we observe events at the quantum level that we can't explain. Microtubules are tiny enough to fit at the quantum level while neurons belong at the level of classical physics. Within neurons, cytoskeletons form the structures that are the "glue" for cells. Inside them are microtubules, only 25 nanometers in diameter, which control synapse function. This suggests that our time-bound perception distorts whatever the case might be.

    The brain does not seem to be wholly alienated from quanta. Evidence indicates that it is capable of consciousness at the quantum level. Adjusted to darkness, an eye can detect a photon. These single photons, though, do not involve wave function collapse.

    The full article can be found at Borderland: The Last Frontier of Science, 23 January 2004.

  • For quantum observations, John A. Wheeler proposed a delayed choice experiment with profound implications. Assume a galaxy many light years away with light emitted billions of years ago. In brief, it implies that as we observe the light we alter its path. The paradox is that our observation changes the path of light that billions of years ago had already reached the point of our observation. How can the light have been emitted before observation, if the observer can alter what happened before it was observed? At the quantum level, the experiment has yielded results largely as Wheeler expected them.

    A detailed article is at John Archibald Wheeler, Delayed Choice, & Time, 11 January 2004.

  • We are indeed time-bound, and time appears to be necessary for the way we apprehend "reality." All theories of volition include time, cause and effect, in their explanations as this is how the classical world is experienced. But is it a final truth to say one thing follows another? Or is it descriptive of a perception mechanism? (See 20 November on Peter Lynds and time.) Julian Barbour: "Most physicists have a deeply rooted notion of causality: explanations for the present must be sought in the past. . . This instinctive approach will be flawed if the very concept of the past is suspect." (The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics) For more of Barbour on time, see Déjà Vu & Physicist Julian Barbour, 13 January 2004.

  • For Articles on Libet see Benjamin Libet & Free Won't, 15 March 2004, and 28 December 2003, Balsekar, Goswami, Libet as well as Looking For Self: Yogi Berra, Forks in The Road, & Free Will, 8 November 2003.

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    Descartes' Error: Antonio Damasio, Somatic Markers, As-If Loops, & Moral Decision-Making

    ,: Antonio Damasio, Somatic Markers, As-If Loops, & Moral Decision-Making

    In my 12 March 2004 article, Evolutionary Psychology & Moral Dilemmas, 12 March 2004 I discussed the relationship of morality to emotions. I presented evidence of evolutionary psychology and brain research, which suggest that morality is often based on what feels good rather than on what is right. Moral judgements tend to be emotional rather than rational. I cited Eighteenth Century Scotsman, David Hume, who said people call an act good if it makes them feel good, not necessarily because it is rationally good. In that article I explained the findings with Magnetic Resonance Imaging of brains, which indicate that people turn away from difficult moral issues, and turn to moral choices that they are emotionally hard wired to handle. For example, when surfing TV channels, they might see an African child, belly swollen, and starving from hunger. They change stations rather than consider the moral implications of the scene, which might arouse troubling emotions and guilt if dwelt upon.

    The disjuncture between morality and emotions has been studied by Antonio Damasio, a University of Iowa neuroscientist. Taking a different approach, he has examined the relationship of emotion to reasoning. He puts the lie to Rene Descartes' famous axiom, I think therefore I am (Cogito ergo sum) and demonstrates that logic is not independent of emotion, contrary to how Descartes would have it. Instead, in Descartes' Error, The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio asserts that rational decision-making cannot be done without emotions.

    He cites instances of people who have dysfunctional emotional response. These are people who experience a stroke, or brain tumor that somehow affects emotion-processing brain areas such as the amygdala, involved in emotional response. They speak well, and score high on logical problem-solving, but have trouble choosing. In Descartes' Error he describes a patient who tried to select one of two dates for the next appointment--"For the better part of a half-hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates . . . . He was walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences."

    Because such patients scored well on logical aptitude tests, only two conclusions were possible. Either the tests were wrong, or something more than pure logic is needed for rational decisions.

    Enter: somatic markers. This is Damasio's term for bodily responses that arise unbidden. They emerge in forms such as tears, smiles, or a knot in the stomach because of fear. These markers help people make decisions. Without them, decisions are difficult, if not impossible.

    Damasio developed the concept of as-if body loops, which he posits as helping speed up the processing of somatic markers. Because the body's response can be slow, these loops allow quicker action by residing largely in the frontal lobe or basal forebrain. They provide associations based on past body experience. The brain responds to them as if it were receiving emotional signals from the body, and more quickly. As an example, as-if loops omit the need for hormones to find their way to muscle tissue. They also allow us to sample possible decisions. A man can "try out" the feeling of asking a woman for a date without actually doing it, and thereby summon, then weigh, somatic-marker associations with previous embarrassment or success.

    Modern life has created problems for somatic markers. The brain registers events and emotions, but emotions take much longer, sometimes more than a second. Meaning, especially moral meaning, depends on both event perception and emotion.

    Somatic markers provide it, as they involve past emotional experiences that serve to explain current cognition. The problem is that although parts of the brain can keep pace with observations, the emotional part cannot. As-if loops build up though emotional responses from the body, but if events happen too quickly then they disappear before emotions can be associated with them.

    As an example, think again of TV images of the starving African child, or, consider a Marine wounded in combat in Iraq. The nature of modern media (and of general information overload) is such that, no matter how awful, images are so brief that we have no time to react emotionally to them. Damasio puts it this way: "The image of an event or a person can appear in a flash, but it takes seconds to make an emotional marking so it stands to reason that we're going to have fewer and fewer chances to have appropriate somatic markers. . . ."

    This has important consequences for children, who risk becoming deprived of somatic markers that promote both moral intelligence and general decision-making. As Damasio puts it, this means that "we're going to have more and more events--particularly in our early years--that go by without emotional grounding. Which means that you could potentially become ethically less grounded. You'd be in an emotionally neutral world."

    Some years ago, Alvin Toffler wrote a book, Future Shock, in which he described human societies as affected by increasingly rapid rates of technology change. Information and concepts have exploded so that many experts can no longer communicate with others in different areas of their field. As recently as two hundred years ago, some highly intelligent individuals took all knowledge as their province and set out to learn it, which they did. Today, achievement of this ambition is impossible.

    Apart from knowledge, though, the real issue lies with humanity's ability to emotionally cope with the rate of change. Damasio fears that acceleration will produce people who have responses similar to the brain damaged individuals he has studied. Like those with brain damage, they would have diminished ability to make moral or ethical decisions. The only difference would be that such a situation involves no neurological dysfunction, but instead becomes part of a new normalcy. People would cognize the difference between good and evil, but without somatic markers or the as-if loops that depend on the markers. Only time will tell the moral distance between these people and current or past generations who munched popcorn while watching movies such as Natural Born Killers.

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    Free Will & The Sense Of Control

    When you ride a bicycle, do you decide to balance? Or, so to speak, does balancing balance? When you drive a car, do you decide to drive, or does the act of driving take over? When you come to a fork in the road, do you decide to take the right fork as distinct from the left? Or do you find yourself having gone one direction rather than the other?

    British psychologist Guy Claxton has a different view of self control. He has said that what we assume as self control is often a successful attempt at prediction. We say we did this or we meant to do that, and by this means we mask our inability at control. It is masked because we can infer from patterns of our behavior what we can expect to happen next. When things don't go our way, we don't question our lack of self control. Instead, we explain away the failure.

    Claxton provides examples such as these: "I meant to keep my cool but I just couldn't. I'm supposed not to eat pork but I forgot. I'd decided on an early night but somehow here we are in Piccadilly Circus at four a.m. with silly hats and a bottle of wine. . . . If all else fails--and this is a truly audacious slight of hand--we can reinterpret our failure of control as an actual success! ' I changed my mind,' we say." *

    Claxton maintains that consciousness is "a mechanism for constructing dubious stories whose purpose is to defend a superfluous and inaccurate sense of self." ** Claxton calls self control an illusion and he describes the effect on people of thinking about giving up the illusion. "The thing that doesn't happen, but of which people are quite reasonably scared, is that I get worse. A common elaboration of the belief that control is real . . . is that I can, and must control 'myself,' and that unless I do, base urges will spill out and I will run amok." He says this is an erroneous view. "So the dreaded mayhem does not happen. I do not take up wholsale rape and pillage and knocking down old ladies just for fun." *

    Zen roshis attempt to get students to lose this sense of control. They know that it is rigorously defended, although unconsciously so. To nudge students over the edge and into discovery, roshis pose koans such as this one:

    What was your face before your parents were born?

    Today, consciousness research reveals various interpretations of the sense of self. This blog has addressed some of them. For other articles on the issue, see Free Will in the right hand sidebar. Among these are Daniel Dennett & Compatibilist Volition, 15 December 2003; some of my thoughts on the matter can be found at My Comments in the article The Illusion of Free Will, 28 December 2003. On the religious aspect, another article is located at Losing Control, 9 December 2003. Related issues are listed under Ethics & Morality in the sidebar. For partial insight into my perspective, see In Memory of Carlie Brucia, 7 February 2004.

    * (Claxton, Guy, ed. Beyond Therapy: The Impact of Eastern Religions on Psychological Theory and Practice. London: Wisdom, 1996.)
    ** (-----------------------, Noises From The Darkroom. London: Aquarius, 1994.

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    Learned Helplessness

    In Learned Optimism, cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman recounts an experience he had as a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania. When he first entered the lab of Richard Solomon, he met a fellow graduate student who explained that a behavioral study was in trouble.

    "It's the dogs," Seligman was told. "The dogs won't do anything. Something's wrong with them. So nobody can do experiments."

    Over the past several weeks the dogs had been subjected to Pavlovian conditioning, daily exposed to two kinds of stimulus, high-pitched tones and brief shocks, which "weren't too painful . . . [like] a minor jolt . . . on a dry winter day." The experimenters wanted the dogs to associate the neutral tone and the shock, so that when the animals later heard the tone, they would react as if shocked instead--they would register fear and avoidance.

    That part of the experiment concluded, the dogs were taken to a "two-compartment shuttlebox," each compartment separated by a low wall, which the dogs could jump over. The intent was to see if the dogs would react to the tone by leaping the wall to get away from it. If they did, they would provide evidence that emotional learning transferred to different situations. The dogs needed only to jump the low barrier, easy for them to do.

    The fellow graduate student told Seligman that they did not. Instead, they lay on the box floor, whimpering. They had given up. They had learned helplessness.

    In the first stage of the experiment, they found they could do nothing to escape the shock, so that in the second stage, the box, they did nothing.

    Later, in his own experiments with canines, Seligman let some dogs escape the shocks. Not surprisingly, when these animals were individually subjected to stage two, they leaped over the wall to avoid the jolt. They had learned control of their environment, unlike the other group of dogs, which, predictably, lay on the floor and whimpered.

    Yes, the experiment was cruel, even with a slight shock akin to static electricity upon touching a door handle, but the findings also have far-reaching implications for individuals, society groups, and entire nations.

    I refer to explanatory methods, the ways in which people interpret what has happened to them. Take, as an example, the classic distinctions between pessimist and optimist. If anything bad happens, the pessimist thinks it will last long. He accepts that the event extends into the nooks and crannies of his life to undermine everything. He thinks that somehow he is at fault. On the other hand, the optimist regards it as temporary setback or defeat. She regards it as having only local application, not universal. She may accept some of the blame, if that be the case, but also realizes that there is plenty of blame to go around.

    These explanatory styles determine life courses--success, failure, happiness, misery--and one can see them in population segments.* For example, a segment may have been victimized and exploited and, just like the dog, they have learned helplessness, inability to rise above circumstances. One could extend this perspective to cultures with fatalism as a deep heritage-belief or with endemic poverty as a cause of fatalism. He then could note differences between them and societies with more emphasis on personal responsibility and choice. As a concept, learned helplessness would help yield greater understanding of such peoples. *(In contradistinction to the individual pessimist blaming himself, an accounting must be made for victim mentality in groups of people--the tendency to totally blame other groups, not one's own.)

    The findings have been developed in terms of applications for individuals and as for extension to cultures and nations, to my knowledge that remains to be done, although existing evidence points the way.

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    Determinism or Fate (Predeterminism) ?

    The Terrorist, He Watches

    The bomb will go off in the bar at one twenty p.m.
    Now it's only one sixteen p.m.
    Some will still have time to get in,
    some to get out.

    The terrorist has already crossed to the other side of the street.
    The distance protects him from any danger,
    and what a sight for sore eyes:

    A woman in a yellow jacket, she goes in.
    A man in dark glasses, he comes out.

    Guys in jeans, they are talking.
    One seventeen and four seconds.
    That shorter guy's really got it made; and gets on a scooter,
    and that taller one, he goes in.

    One seventeen and forty seconds.
    That girl there, she's got a green ribbon in her hair.
    Too bad that bus just cut her off.
    One eighteen p.m.
    The girl's not there any more.
    Was she dumb enough to go in, or wasn't she?
    That we'll see when they carry them out.

    One nineteen p.m.
    No one seems to be going in.
    Instead, a fat baldy's coming out.
    Like he's looking for something in his pockets and
    at one nineteen and fifty seconds
    he goes back for those lousy gloves of his.

    It's one twenty p.m.
    The time, how it drags.
    Should be any moment now.
    Not yet.
    Yes, this is it.
    The bomb, it goes off.

    by Wislawa Szymborska

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    Ramesh Balsekar's Inconsistencies

    Former general manager of the Bank of India in Bombay, Ramesh Balsekar studied under Nisargadatta, often translating as Nisargadatta's native language was Marathi. After the sage's death in 1981, Balsekar held speaking enagements in countries such as Germany, the United States and India. The author of many books, he is retired in Bombay, recently still meeting with visitors almost each morning although he is favored mainly by Westerners rather than by Indians. A good summary of his teachings can be found in the anonymous Consciousness Writes, a title styled after Balsekar's own book, Consciousness Strikes.

    Having read his accounts of the enlightened life, I find his explanations are sometimes contradictory as well as self-gratulatory. These two items provide an example.

    Item. Here he aligns against mechanistic determinism. "Sir Isaac Newton's physics assumed that the future of the world was precisely predictable from the state of the present. However, the new physics of quantum mechanics has come to the confident conclusion that the future is not determined totally by the past [my emphasis]. In other words, quantum mechanics says that the Source, or Consciousness, has a causal influence on the future. At any point in time, we are told, out of the thousands of probabilities, one probability collapses into an actuality in the present moment. The scientific conclusion is precisely what the sages have been saying for ages." (The Ultimate Understanding)

    My comments: In the wave function collapse of quantum physics, the observer begets one observation out of all probabilities allowed by Superposition Theory. One interpretation is that the experiment seems to be a function of its intersection with consciousness. Balsekar means that the present moment contains within itself the probabilities of Superposition Theory until human consciousness "collapses reality" into a deed or thought upon "observation." (For Superposition Theory see Schrödinger's Cat, 2 January 2004.) Balsekar also means that with wave function collapse this situation is indeterministic. Balsekar indicates that "sages have been saying for ages" that the present moment is indeterministic. What does indeterministic mean here? Note his phrase, "the future is not determined totally by the past." He means that randomness in the present moment creates a situation undetermined until the outcome is observed.

    Item. In this interview he says the opposite: "If you analyze any action which you consider to be your action, you will find that it is the reaction of the brain to an outside event over which you have no control. A thought comes--you have no control over what thought is going to come. Something is seen or heard--you have no control over what you are going to see or hear next. All of these events happen over which you have no control. And then what happens? The brain reacts to the thought or to the thing that is seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched. The reaction of the brain is what you call 'your action'."

    Elsewhere in the same interview, he is asked this: "Are you saying that everything is predestined? That everything is preprogrammed from birth?"

    Balsekar: "Yes. I use the word "programming" to refer to the inherent characteristics of the body/mind organism. "Programming" to me means genes plus environmental conditioning"
    [my emphasis]. (What is Enlightenment magazine interview, "Close Encounters of The Advaita Kind," no date.)

    My comments: In one instance, he says that indeterminism is the case while in another he argues for determinism and this second instance is clearly counter to most quantum theory. The difference between him and Ramana Maharshi is that Maharshi spoke from what he understood and had no interest in intellectual discourse. Maharshi: "There is neither freedom nor destiny. This is the final truth." In his own teachings, Ramana kept the conceptual to a minimum, and by this freedom/destiny statement he again regards concepts as pointless in matters of Consciousness.

    On the other hand, Ramesh Balsekar perhaps appeals to people of the West, analytic by culture, because he reflects the analytic tendency in some of Hindu discourse, as distinct from Zen Buddhism's resistance to excess analysis. With his penchant for intellectual explanations, Balsekar reveals a notable inconsistency for somebody who hangs a "guru" shingle outside his shop window.

    Admonishing against a desire for explanations, an old Zen parable has a student asking Master Ichu to write something of great wisdom.

    With his brush, Ichu stroked "Attention."

    "Is that all?," asked the student.

    Ichu stroked "Attention. Attention."

    That seems shallow, said the student.

    Ichu wrote three times, "Attention, Attention. Attention."

    The frustrated student asked, "What does this word mean?"

    Putting down his brush, Ichu turned to him and answered, "Attention means attention."

  • For more on problems with Ramesh Balsekar's explanations, see Two Sages & A Taoist, 9 January 2004 and The Illusion of Free Will, 28 December 2004. Also see Some Notes on Enlightenment, 17 December 2003.
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    Daniel Dennett,Shakey, Beavers, and Cartesian Theater

    In my 1 February article I make this comment: "So Consciousness may indeed be all, and I have no doubt it is. But I don't regard this situation as leaving Eastern thinkers with an I-told-you-so smugness. They have wrapped their teachings in doctrine, dogma, and ignorance, and have remained satisfied with ancient explanations for the enlightenment experience. They project an aura of beatitude over somebody who has experienced it. Its initial stage, the discovery of no-self, need not be wrapped in some mystical ballyhoo, however liberating the revelation. Some modern scientists and philosophers of consciousness accept it as a given and have quite good and well-reasoned explanations for it." (In a web article, "Beyond Belief," John Horgan quotes Stephen Batchelor, (Buddhism Without Beliefs) who says, "The scientific descriptions of the world generate to me a much deeper sense of awe and wonder than these Buddhist and religious sorts of fantasies." I agree with this.)

    The traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism hold the discovery of no self as a religious experience, but it need not be decked out in ritualistic finery. In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett does not deny that we think of an ego inside us; he grants that he, too, does so from time to time. Instead, though, he regards the sense of self as a deeply entrenched mental habit. He uses various approaches to illustrate his argument, each approach demonstrating it from a different angle.

    Case 1: In this instance his subject is a robot, about which I should make one disclaimer. I don't regard artificial intelligence as explaining away consciousness.* Rather, the robot example provides a simple and straightforward analogy for thinking about the phenomenon of ego.

    First, since Dennett uses the term Cartesian Theater, here is an explanation of what he means. He refers to Descartes' implicit idea of an intelligent homunculus, a little man, controlling things. In this theater the homunculus operates all the levers and switches, controlling operations between mind, body, and outer world. He is ego, or self.

    Shakey illustrates one approach to Dennett's arguments. A robot of the late 1960s, Shakey was invented by Nils Nilsson and colleagues at Stanford Research Institute, a think tank in Menlo Park, California. The robot was a box with wheels and a television camera. Its brain too big for transport, Shakey used a radio transmitter to share data with a central computer. Scientists typed commands such as "push the box off the platform," and Shakey explored the room until it found the box, whereupon it located the ramp, then pushed the ramp to a platform. It then rolled onto the platform and pushed the box off the ramp.

    It navigated by using software designed to recognize signatures--of boxes, pyramids, and other objects. These signatures registered on the electronic retina of its video eye. It rolled across the room and as an object came within video range, Shakey's computer measured gradations in illumination, detecting edges and corners. It processed these gradations according to algorithms that specificed how various objects looked from different vantages. Through this processing it determined if it detected the plane of a pyramid or the slope of a ramp.

    Nilsson and colleagues could observe Shakey's behavior on a video monitor as it registered a dark blur, then traced the edges before declaring the thing a box.

    But Shakey didn't need this monitor. It had no little man inside watching the screen. With the monitor unplugged, Shakey still went about its business. It had no impressions in its circuitry, no fleeting images of boxes and pyramids. It simply processed binary code, ones and zeros: 000000111010100101011111010.

    It had no need of a Cartesian Theater, a homunculus, although it acted as if it had one.

    Case 2: Dennett uses examples from nature. When a beaver builds a dam, it doesn't have to understand what it is doing. Nature has provided its brain with the necessary routines for the engineering. If it hears the sound of water running, leaking, through its dam, it will plaster everything around the sound. In one experiment, it pasted mud all over the loudspeaker from which the recording of gurgling was emitted.

    Likewise, each human being makes a self. "Out of its brain it spins a web of words and deeds, and, like the other creatures, it doesn't have to know what it's doing; it just does it." Elsewhere: "Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not . . . building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others--and ourselves--about who we are." (To awaken is to understand that nobody tells the story. It tells itself. Nobody needs to tell it, and therin lies a great sense of freedom.***)

    Among many examples, he cites Multiple Personality Disorder, in which people claim more than one self: "The normal arrangement is one self per body, but if a body can have more than one, why not more than one under abnormal conditions?" His point is that the self is a construct.

    My comments: * I differ from Dennett in that I regard consciousness as accessible from a separate vantange, the kind implied by Stephen Jourdain** or Ramana Maharshi. Just as quantum physicists are discovering, Dennett's approach will ultimately reveal itself as a kind of infinite regress. It will continue to expand boundaries of research rather than finally explain consciousness. Still, he and others like him have done very good work, which is much needed. It helps remove the smoke and mirrors by which religions have held people in thrall. Because of the halo-effect projected on gurus, even some individual seekers remain relatively naive about their quest. **( Jourdain awakened at age sixteen after pondering Descartes' cogito ergo sum--I think therefore I am.)

    *** To remain morally engaged with the world, we must slip into the story, try on a sense of self now and then. But is the world itself a story? Perhaps, even probably, but the situation is like taking a soothsayer to a horse race. One's sense of the world as story may be rather like the prophet's ability to predict. Consider this from 25 November, Yoruban-, Sport- , & Zen-consciousness:

    "[Even if he can prophesy future events,] would I take a Yoruba tribesman to a horse race to help me pick a winner? No. Not that I doubt his ability to predict but that, as a scientific experiment, it could not be repeatedly verified. Assume that such prediction has hits and misses, with probability greater than chance that predictive hits outnumber misses. That is good, but not enough to place five grand in the Trifecta on Whodunnit and other thoroughbreds."

    The point: One can sit in lotus position and watch the world go to hell in a handbasket because he believes nothing can be done, or he can take the perspective of Zen from which ultimate knowledge cannot be claimed. ( People like Ramesh Balsekar claim we have no choice, regardless. All is predetermined. They make claims that even Buddha avoided. Why can it not be said that Choosing chooses? That is, just as potentia exist before observation collapses the wave function of quantum physics, why can't potentia exist before "choosing chooses"?--before consciousness processes a history of intentions into a fait accompli ? See "My Comments," 28 December, under an article about Balsekar or Daniel Dennett and Choice Machines in the reference immediately below.)

    (For Daniel Dennett, also see Daniel Dennett and Choice Machines, 8 January, as well as Daniel Dennett and Free Will, 15 December. Also see On Perception, 8 December, and biologist Francisco Varela & the emergent self, 6 January.)

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    Borderland: The Last Frontier of Science

    Our everyday world of classical physics makes sense. If we drop a pebble in a pond it causes waves and sinks to the bottom. At the quantum level the pebble itself would not only initiate the action, but would become a wave. What happens at the borderland between classical physics and quantum physics? Why can we not connect the two in our understanding? On the one hand, we have a ball going where we toss it. On the other, we have balls "tossing" everywhere at once at the quantum level. Is something missing in the way we think?

    Some physicists don't like such questions and prefer established investigation patterns, world paradigms which allow acceptable communication between community members. The eminent physicist and mathematician Roger Penrose is asking questions that are on the fringe. He says something is being overlooked in physics. We need a new way of understanding how the mind works. He lays out his ideas in Shadows of The Mind.

    Artificial intelligence, or computing, is a current model for thinking about consciousness. Penrose regards it as inappropriate. Using Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, he argues that computational models of intelligence are inadequate to understand mind. Physics itself, says Penrose, is noncomputable. Even the most mathematically inclined people spend far less time than computers do in crunching numbers. Indeed, most of their insight come in leaps of intuition. With Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Penrose argues that Alan Turing's Intelligence Machine* cannot do what people can. Computers will not know when to stop computing a noncomputable operation. The human mind will recognize when to stop. Penrose points out that a computer will continue its operations searching for an answer to Gödel's Theorem.

    * ( Is this human/artificial intelligence test empirically irrelevant? That is, does it belong in the same category as Zeno's Paradox, which is empirically irrelevant? (See 20 November, Brain in A Vat, Peter Lynds, etc.) We know that despite what Zeno demonstrated, people in fact do reach end points. We also know that despite artificial intelligence theorists' arguments, machines do not demonstrate love, compassion, intuition, or longings for God, mystery, and deceased kin.)

    Kurt Gödel aside, the big problem is wave function collapse, which occurs when a quantum event is measured. Penrose posits that the human mind itself is subject to wave function collapse and supposes that brain microtubules allow it. Microtubules are tiny enough to fit at the quantum level while neurons belong at the classical physics level. Within neurons, cytoskeletons form the structures that are the "glue" for cells. Inside them are microtubules, only 25 nanometers in diameter, which control synapse function.

    In an interplay between the quantum cytoskeletal state and classical neurons, consciousness is manifested: anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff's findings support part of this description, but not Penrose's interpretation of it--that consciousness is manifested in the interplay.

    When a human makes a quantum observation, wave function collapse occurs. Penrose assumes it results from human consciousness. Until the observation, the quanta are in a superposition of all possible states. (See Schrödinger's Cat, 2 January) Observation causes the quantum system to reduce (collapse) to a specific state.

    Penrose argues that a corresponding collapse occurs in consciousness, and within certain microtubules. They self-collapse and each time they do, they correspond with a discrete consciousness event. Sequences of these events give rise to our sense of time,** and a stream of consciousness. Unlike computers, this collapse is non-algorithmic and is what separates us from machines. **(See Peter Lynds, Einstein, Time and "block" universe, 20 November--time as points rather than flow)

    Perhaps most outrageous to the scientific community is that Penrose is led to believe in a Platonic scenario. With Plato, for every chair we sit on, its ideal counterpart exists metaphysically as a Platonic form.* For Penrose, conscious states exist in a world of their own, which our minds access. Unlike Plato, his world is physics rather than metaphysics. (Some of his opponents doubt this :-) *(See Julian Barbour and Plato, 13 January.)

    With the correspondence between wave function collapse in mind and the objects of mental observation, he seeks to rescue the world of macrophysics (in some instances like the common sense world we experience) and make it compatible with quantum physics. Einstein's gravitational world up to now has been undermined by Superposition Theory (See Schrödinger's Cat, 2 January). Penrose wants to resolve quantum paradoxes to make them "fit" with Einstein's view. He argues that it makes no sense to use the term "reality" for only objects we can see.

    Penrose has enough stature that he can risk his reputation on this book, which many consider as wild-speculation. He follows a long line of risk takers, including Copernicus and Darwin. He has stirred up debate, which is good. This could also be science's future. In his last sentence, he says, "These are deep issues, and we are very far from explanations. I would argue that no clear answers will come forward unless the interrelating features of all these worlds [mental, physical, Platonic/mathematical] are seen to come into play. No one of these issues will be resolved in isolation from the others. I have referred to three worlds and the mysteries that relate one to another. No doubt there are not really three worlds but one, the true nature of which we do not even glimpse at present."

    (Also see John Bell's Inequality Theorem and Alain Apect's experiments, 10 November, as well as John Wheeler and delayed choice, 11 January.)


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