Are we just fleshy automatons? From an empirical view, we breathe, digest, grow and die on autopilot. But it feels like there's something a bit special about being human, no?
It was once thought that life could not be reduced to a nuts-and-bolts explanation by science. Yet that's exactly what happened - scientists ditched the notion of a mystery life force when it became clear that our existence arises from biological, physical and chemical origins.
Now, the same revolution is occurring with the science of consciousness.
While most people - theists, atheists, and agnostics alike - still believe in an ethereal mind or spirit, neuroscientists are gathering increasing amounts of evidence for consciousness as a physical property of the brain.
Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain's simulation of the world becomes so complex that it must include a model of itself.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
This self awareness is what creates the confusion. It makes it harder to intuit the conclusion of empirical evidence: that our bodies actually run on autopilot. Self awareness steps in the way, if only perceptually, of our so-called free will decision making, problem solving, and personalities.
The Frontal Cortex
It can help to examine the functions of the frontal cortex. This is the biggest and most recently evolved part of the brain. It allows us to selectively focus our awareness and attention.
So while many automatic biological functions are taking place in other parts of the brain, conscious decision making takes part in the frontal cortex which generates a perception of freedom and independence. It suggests free will.
In the animal kingdom, humans have evolved the biggest frontal cortex, giving us the broadest range of high functioning abilities. This not only suggests animals with a larger cortex have a greater capacity for conscious awareness, but that this kind of consciousness emerged gradually, following a continuum alongside brain evolution.
In other words, there was no single point at which our ancestors evolved higher forms of consciousness, the same way night doesn't turn to day in an instant. It was a gradual effect.
Pursuing this line of enquiry, perhaps simple life began by following rules of molecular cause and effect, but evolution gifted complex life with the capacity for conscious free thinking. This is the most rational approach we can take to the development of actual free will.
But can science support this hypothesis?
Now the question lies in the nature of consciousness. Does it really outrank our biology, allowing us to control elements of our experience in meaningful ways which aren't predictable given our biological needs? Is consciousness the supplier of free will?
Neuroscientists look at human consciousness in two ways:
- Automatic arousal arises in the brain stem. Sleep-wake cycles, cardiac and respiratory rates are examples of passive, automatic systems.
- Deliberate awareness arises in the frontal cortex. Memory retrieval, problem solving and decision making are examples of active, deliberate systems.
During anaesthesia, both forms of consciousness shut down.
Indeed, propofol, a common general anaesthetic, was this year discovered to disrupt presynaptic mechanisms, stalling chatter between neurons across the entire brain.
This is why waking from anaesthesia feels so different from waking from a big sleep. In many respects you are dead to the world. Time has no meaning. Consciousness is gone.
So the first piece of evidence we have against a spiritual or ethereal mind is that it relies on the brain to function.
This is important. To be conscious, you need a physical brain.
Problem Solving is Procedural
Now let's do an experiment involving a significant part of consciousness: problem solving ability.
Problem solving depends on many factors like genetics, brain structure, experience, training, intelligence and age. All these variables are all measurable and therefore predictable.
So in this example, problem solving can be shown to be a pre-determined calculation based on established biology and past experiences.
Find the next number in this sequence.
Most of us are exposed to this type of maths problem in school. A common solution is to systematically work through the numerical relationships and seek the pattern between those.
This doesn't seem to help us figure out the next number. So we try a different method.
Problem solved. You used active conscious awareness to reach this conclusion. But you also used knowledge of numbers and multiplication and systematic problem solving.
These skills were handed to you through past experiences. So this ability is actually pre-programmed into your brain.
It's a direct result of cause and effect. A series of biological executions. A fine example of determinism within our conscious brain processes.
Are we more than biological machines? In the example of this problem solving example, you're simply a human calculator.
Where is Consciousness in The Brain?
Another way to tackle the consciousness problem is to study it in action - or inaction. This observational study on consciousness from UCLA used fMRI scans of 12 healthy brains to conclude:
"When we lose consciousness, the communication among areas of the brain becomes extremely inefficient, as if suddenly each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another."
Monti et al., UCLA
The findings suggest that consciousness isn't a single point in the brain but is more like how the brain talks to itself. Which is extremely useful when your "self" is scattered among billions of neurons and you're trying to pool that resource into something useful.
If the billions of neurons in your brain are like all the websites in the world, then your consciousness is simply the internet protocol that connects them.
The connecting technology doesn't produce or direct the content of websites. But it does allow the user to skip between many different sources of information to reach a larger conclusion.
Here, the puffy blue clouds are your automatic thoughts and ideas. This is not consciousness. These are memories and ideas set out by past experiences.
Instead, consciousness is represented by the lines joining these thought-clouds. It's a network of interconnectivity, like a spaghetti junction, which simply facilitates movement of vehicles so they can reach a destination.
This is the essence of Passive Frame Theory, which states that consciousness is like an interpreter connecting up many tiny pockets of brain activity. However, also like an interpreter, consciousness merely presents existing ideas - as opposed to creating its own.
Consciousness is a middle-man of automatic thought processes.
In this light, consciousness is no more separate from the brain than the flow of water is separate from a river. And so it falls under the remit of determinism - of fundamental cause and effect.
Free Will vs Biological Machines
Many people believe that free will gives us mental independence from our biological machinery. The notion that you're eligible to make personal choices and take ownership of your life impacts everything from the mundane to the sublime.
Buddhist philosophers have countered this hypothesis for millennia. They say there is no self, and free will is an illusion. Now scientific evidence is mounting to support the idea that free will is indeed a trick of the mind.
Two decades ago, the psychologists Wegner and Wheatley proposed that our sense of free will is a rapid-firing afterthought that justifies why we make certain decisions. But this feeling or justification has no causal role in our decision making.
What will you eat for your next meal? Is it a free choice, or is it a deterministic decision making process based on many factors?
Consider the availability of food, cultural influences, nutritional requirements driving cravings, and taste preferences based on the genetically and experientially programmed intricacies of your taste buds.
Is free will an additional factor, uninfluenced by these deterministic causes? If such a thing exists, no-one has yet identified where it comes from and how it works.
How do you choose your next partner?
This is arguably driven by factors like the availability of mates, society and culture, biological attractiveness, personality type (shaped by the nature of your genetics and the nurture of your parents), biological pheromone cues, and sexuality (thought to be pre-programmed by epigenetics in the womb).
Is there any room for free will as an additional factor?
In any part of the human experience, can free will be relied upon to overcome our animalistic urges and our innate psychological need to seek pleasure and avoid pain?
What does your will desire that isn't already explained by your human biology?
The Deterministic Solution
Determinism claims that the entire universe is a predictable, mechanical unfolding of events.
Atoms were born behaving to consistent physical laws, which accumulated to create complex life. Then humans came along and began playing the game as if we ourselves created it, assuming impossible command over outcomes beyond our control.
Determinism is explored in Isaac Asmiov's Foundation series, where mathematicians predict the future based on deterministic law. The series was a favourite of Elon Musk's when he was a teenager, and prompted him to dedicate his grown-up life to helping humanity.
The existence of free will isn't only explored in philosophical debate. It has a history in experimental science too.
Neuroscientists and psychologists have sought empirical evidence for free will for decades. We have nothing yet. Instead, we find physical brain processes and psychological treatments capable of creating the illusion in its entirety.
Of course, absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence. I can't prove a negative, such as "free will does not exist". Just like I can't prove there isn't a chocolate teapot orbiting the Earth. I can look for it, and come up empty. But that experiment doesn't definitively prove it's not there.
Fortunately for rationality, science takes a proof-positive approach. The burden of proof falls on those making the claim that "free will does exist".
Without the proof, the claim lays fundamentally vulnerable to doubt. The default response should be scepticism.
I can't believe in your delicious orbiting teapot. What if you just made it up?
Acceptance as A Biological Machine
If there's no evidence for free will, why do most people defend it so aggressively?
Many reasons are illustrated in the book Free Will by Sam Harris.
Free will touches almost everything that human beings value. We can't think clearly about law, politics, religion, public policy, relationships, and morality without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions.
Without free will, the traditional rules of society break down. That's a tough pill to swallow. We just don't know how to deal with such destruction of our long-held world view.
And so it goes. The free will debate flies in the face of the scientific principle of determinism, yet even critical thinking scientists put it in the unknowable-for-now box without really examining the evidence against it.
We often feel safer to stick with the gut feeling that free will exists, even though it belongs in the same box as optical illusions. Stories that our brains tell us to make sense of reality.
This is a dangerous idea. The evidence suggests we are biological machines by nature, who create explanatory patterns and narratives to feed our psychological need for control. All traits brought about by the frontal cortex. How can we understand our own motivations and needs when every decision is justified by a retrospective, goal-oriented narrative? Aren't we just lying to ourselves?
Ditching the apparent illusion of free will would force massive societal reforms, as well as enabling us to become more lucid philosophers. It resolves feelings of hatred and revenge towards others, who simply aren't responsible for their choices, while still allowing us to make clear decisions around criminal prosecution (we still need to identify and isolate with the serial killer who threatens our community).
To paraphrase Sam Harris, you don't hate a hurricane, but you can still fear it and take measures to protect yourself from it. We can do the same with harmful members of society, all the while empathising with their pain and turmoil.
Perhaps the death of free will is liberating. It also provides a path to shedding other limiting misconceptions, such as the existence of the self.
This strange new philosophy leaves us with the uncomfortable idea that we are just biological machines. But viewed from a braver perspective, it could be the exciting jumping-off point for our next evolution in awareness.