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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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