Friday, 18 January 2008

A logical proof that we all have free will

I want to present what I consider to be a proof that ones consciousness in and of itself causes at least some of our thoughts and some of our behaviour (1). In other words I want to present what I consider to be a proof that we have what many people would term “free will" (2).

We tend to think of our behaviour as being a result of our desires and intentions. Thus, for example, in waking up in the morning I might have the choice of having either porridge, or eggs and bacon for breakfast. I am immediately aware of having the power to choose which to have. I might choose eggs and bacon because I prefer the taste. Or I might choose porridge,maybe not because I prefer the taste, but because I am concerned with my weight or health. But whatever I choose it seems for all the world that it is my choice, and it is ultimately my choice even though I might be heavily influenced in making one choice or the other. Thus I may have no problems with my health and weight, have no ethical problems with eating meat, and vastly prefer the taste of eggs and bacon. Therefore it would seem I have no reason to choose to eat porridge for breakfast and every reason to eat eggs and bacon instead. Yet, notwithstanding all of this, I nevertheless still appear to have the power to choose to eat porridge. This power to choose between alternatives is what most of us tend to refer to as free will.

However, on the face of it, there is a difficulty here. An implicit assumption of science is that all physical processes and events follow physical laws. By physical laws we are simply referring to the regularities that we observe in nature. A boulder rolling down a hill; the Earth moving around the Sun; the various interactions of subatomic particles – all these processes follow physical laws and these laws can be described using the language of mathematics. Likewise it is implicitly supposed that the physical processes in our own bodies, including our brains, follow physical laws too. But this means that the entirety of our mental lives, plus everything we ever do, is simply a result of physical laws playing out. Thus, assuming that the neuronal processes underlying consciousness are distinct from consciousness itself, then the seemingly inevitable conclusion is that it is these physical processes rather than consciousness per se which is responsible for our thoughts and behaviour.

I want now to present my proof that, contrary to the above, consciousness in and of itself must play at least some role in our thoughts and behaviour. It is a Reductio ad absurdem (Latin: "reduction to the absurd"). In other words I will assume that science is correct in its supposition that all physical events follow physical laws, including those physical events occurring in our brains. I will then show that an absurd consequence is entailed.

So to reiterate: the implicit assumption of science is that all physical processes and events follow physical laws. If this assumption of science is correct then all the physical processes occurring in my brain follow physical laws too. It follows then that, according to science, everything that a person ever does, and indeed everything a person ever thinks, is wholly caused by determined events in the brain which form links in a chain of physical cause and effect.

So all the thoughts I have ever entertained have their immediate cause in particular physical events occurring in the brain. This also includes the thought and conviction that I am in fact conscious!

Now the following is the crucial contention. I maintain that each and every one of us has incorrigible certainty of their own consciousness. I would further maintain that we cannot possibly be in error in this conviction. After all it requires consciousness to believe anything at all. So when I believe that I am conscious it is not something I could possibly be in error about (3). Or, to put it another way, if I am not in fact conscious, I cannot possibly believe I am, because, not being conscious, I cannot believe in anything whatsoever!

However, since according to science it is not consciousness in and of itself which is responsible for the complete certainty of our own consciousness, but rather particular physical events in the brain, then it is at least logical possible that someone might think that they are conscious, and yet not be! But, as I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, this is an absurdity. So we have our refutation. In other words science is in error in its supposition that it is not consciousness in and of itself which is responsible for the complete certainty of our own consciousness.

Moreover, if it is consciousness per se which plays a direct role in our conviction of our own consciousness, then presumably consciousness also plays a direct role in many, if not all, of our beliefs and hence behaviour.

(1) I have presented the essence of my proof on various discussion boards. Not one person appears to understand it! Possibly this might have something to do with the fact that the discussion boards I participate in are predominantly peopled by philosophical materialists. Or it could just be the case that my argument is hopelessly flawed! However, I don’t think it is :-)

(2) I am aware that many people would regard “free will” as amounting to more than the notion that our consciousness is causally efficacious in its own right. But, for the sake of this discussion, I shall be using the term “free will” in this minimalist sense.

(3) When I say I cannot possibly be in error in my belief in my own consciousness I mean it is logically impossible I could be in error – I do not mean it is merely naturally impossible. In other words it is conceptually incoherent to think I am conscious when I am not. This can be contrasted with natural impossibility such as not eating any food whatsoever yet not losing weight. Clearly this is impossible. But the impossibility here is due to physical laws – that is it is a natural impossibility. It is not conceptually incoherent to suppose I could fail to lose any weight even though I do not eat food. For example it would merely require that the physical laws describing the Universe had of turned out differently. But no matter how different the Universe might have turned out to be, I still could not think I am conscious and yet not be.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ian has indeed presented this proof many times. Each time with a different conclusion tacked on to the end. Perhaps that is why nobody understands it.

I should point out that major scientists and philosophers of science have explicitly rejected the assumption that everything follows physical laws for at least 170 years now.

Robin

Ian Wardell said...

Hello Robin,

Your first comment is not relevant to my essay, but I'd like to just say it's completely untrue. I assure you that my conclusion has never varied. But there is a problem here in my ongoing failure to communicate effectively with skeptics/materialists.

This is evident with your 2nd comment. My suspicion here is that you are getting confused by my use of the word "follow" believing that I am stating that physical processes are governed by physical laws rather than merely described. But my use of the word "follow" was quite deliberate. I intended it to be neutral between these 2 possibilities.

But I won't elaborate on this issue at this moment, suffice to say that I do not believe that the issue over the metaphysical status of physical laws negates my proof. If you believe otherwise then by all means explain your reasoning (but please no more disparaging comments. Failure to comply with this request will ensure that I will not permit your comment to be published).

If however there is no such confusion on your part and you are genuinely holding the position that "major scientists and philosophers of science have explicitly rejected the assumption that everything follows physical laws for at least 170 years now" I can assure you that you are mistaken. Indeed it is one of the fundamental suppositions of science that the phenomena of physical reality exhibit patterns which can be subsumed under what we label physical laws.

Ian Wardell

Andrea Runyan said...

Hi Ian, I am impressed with your response to the anonymous comment.

I am just getting started writing about unconventional topics, and when I get comments like Robin's, I tend to apologize and assume that they're right and I've failed in my writing.

But your example is encouraging. Even against harsh rhetoric, it DOES seem to work to refute arguments based on the actual claims and evidence. Thanks for providing this example of a dispassionate and effective response.

Ian Wardell said...

Hi Andrea,

Thank you for your kind comments :-)

Abe said...

“According to science it is not consciousness in and of itself which is responsible for the complete certainty of our own consciousness, but rather particular physical events in the brain, then it is at least logical possible that someone might think that they are conscious, and yet not be! But, as I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, this is an absurdity. So we have our refutation.“

*

I cannot follow this logic.

That’s how I understand the issue:

Materialistic science maintains (a) the presence of consciousness depends on conditions, and (b) these conditions are exclusively physical events, and (c) physical events are identical with their descriptions, that is, not metaphorical but 'real' (= independent from consciousness).

It follows that these conditions are either present or absent. If these conditions are present, we have consciousness, otherwise not. You are conscious because these conditions are present.

That's all.

It doesn’t matter for the sake of this argument whether the presence of a consciousness is an “incorrigible certainty” for this selfsame consciousness, that is, how consciousness feels / thinks / perceives itself.

So far materialistic science; and that’s how I see it:

The presence of ‘you’ is a product of consciousness but not identical with the presence of consciousness per se. It is not ‘you’ who has consciousness but consciousness has you / gives rise to ‘you’. Therefore it is not entirely correct to say: ‘I am conscious’, because the sense of ‘I am’ is not on equal footing with ‘consciousness’. Consciousness is the source of the presence of the ‘I’. It follows that consciousness can exist without being self-conscious, that is, consciousness can be present without the presence of an ‘I’. The absence of an ‘I’ or ‘self’ does not equate to the absence of consciousness.

Materialistic science demonstrates that the presence of an ‘I’ or ‘self’ (a) depends on conditions and (b) that these conditions are physical events.

Yet materialistic science neither knows the ontological status of physical events (are they real or metaphorical? are they indepedent from or dependent on something else that gives rise to them?), nor is materialistic science in a position to make any claims as to the presence or absence of consciousness per se, nor is it in a position to make any claims as to what consciousness is in itself!

Best,

Abe

Ian said...

Hello Abe,

You said:

“I cannot follow this logic”.

Fair enough. Let’s see if I can make myself any clearer.

You said:

“Materialistic science maintains (a) the presence of consciousness depends on conditions, and (b) these conditions are exclusively physical events, and (c) physical events are identical with their descriptions, that is, not metaphorical but 'real' (= independent from consciousness).

It follows that these conditions are either present or absent. If these conditions are present, we have consciousness, otherwise not. You are conscious because these conditions are present.

That's all”.

This is what the materialist metaphysic holds, yes.

You said:

“The presence of ‘you’ is a product of consciousness but not identical with the presence of consciousness per se. It is not ‘you’ who has consciousness but consciousness has you / gives rise to ‘you’. Therefore it is not entirely correct to say: ‘I am conscious’, because the sense of ‘I am’ is not on equal footing with ‘consciousness’. Consciousness is the source of the presence of the ‘I’. It follows that consciousness can exist without being self-conscious, that is, consciousness can be present without the presence of an ‘I’. The absence of an ‘I’ or ‘self’ does not equate to the absence of consciousness”.

Again you are stipulating what the materialist metaphysic holds. I am in entire agreement with you regarding what materialism stipulates regarding the self. There can be no proper enduring self under materialism (as my other 2 essays in this blog make clear . . . ok maybe people might dispute that I make it clear, but you know what I mean!). Personally I (or “I” if you prefer!) think that materialism is ludicrous, but that’s unimportant since my argument does not rely upon the existence of a self.

A self might be regarded as the metaphysical “glue” which unites various perceptions and experiences so that they can meaningfully be said to belong to a particular person. Now when I say (or “I” say if you prefer!) that “each and every one of us has incorrigible certainty of their own consciousness. I would further maintain that we cannot possibly be in error in this conviction” it’s not relying upon such a notion of a self. At most I am simply assuming that there at least exists a train of thought; namely a direct introspective apprehension of consciousness followed by the feel of certainty, or the thought of certainty, of the existence of that very consciousness.

Now “materialistic science” holds that it is particular physical events in the brain which gives rise to all conscious thoughts, including the thought or feel that “it is absolutely certain that there is a conscious thought occurring now”. Assuming physical events in the brain are distinct from the correlated conscious thoughts (i.e not one and the very same thing), then the feel of certainty or the thought of certainty of the existence of that very consciousness does not then have its genesis in the direct introspective apprehension of consciousness, but rather by the appropriate particular physical events in the brain. But if this is so then it would be at least logically possible for that conscious thought whose contents are “there now exists a conscious thought” to exist without being conscious. However this is a direct contradiction in terms.

Mark said...

Ya know, you complain about other people's "disparaging comments." You need to practice what you preach. But anyway, you said:

"Assuming physical events in the brain are distinct from the correlated conscious thoughts (i.e not one and the very same thing), then the feel of certainty or the thought of certainty of the existence of that very consciousness does not then have its genesis in the direct introspective apprehension of consciousness, but rather by the appropriate particular physical events in the brain."

I think this is the core of your problem. Materialists think that "consciousness" and "physical processes in the brain" are one and the same. There is no distinction between the two. It might seem that there is, but this is (according to materialists) an illusion. I think that this is what they mean when they say that consciousness is an illusion. They don't mean that there aren't real life-forms that really are conscious, they just mean that any idea of consciousness that is separate and distinct from a physical "brain" (whether it be biological or some other physical mechanism) is illusory. I mean, they might be wrong, but I think that this whole essay very subtly (and perhaps unknowingly) misrepresents the materialist position of what consciousness is.

Ian said...

Hello Mark,

I assume that physical events in the brain are distinct from the correlated conscious thoughts because I simply do not understand what could possibly be meant by saying they are one and the very same thing. I could discuss this, but it is not my intention in this essay to attack materialism, rather it is to show that necessarily consciousness per se has at least some effect in the world.

Supposing that conscious thoughts are one and the very same thing as physical events in the brain clearly doesn't offer an escape from my proof. I have argued that mental causation necessarily exists, at least in some limited form. But if consciousness is not distinct from physical events in the brain it also means that mental causation is not distinct from physical causation. That is to say that mental causation is one and the very same thing as physical causation.

Thus since presumably materialists do not deny the existence of physical causation, then necessarily they believe in mental causation which is all I mean by "free will".

Anonymous said...

Hi Ian
membership ran out. But reading this i am way way out of your league

founf it very interesting but must admit didnt understand it

Ingrid

Ian said...

And I'm way *way* out of your league when it comes to popular culture! Indeed I'm probably out of anyone's league when it comes to popular culture :-O

Don't really want to communicate with you on here. You can still contact me on the site without paying. Or email me on interesting.ian@gmail.com. Would very much appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

Hi, interesting... but I need to read it again as I got a little bit lost.
Amanda

Don said...

Ian there's a much simpler response to the production theory. Except for 'stalwarts' like the Churchlands, virtually all cognitive scientists agree that we have absolutely no clue as to how the brain produces the subjective qualia that make up all that we know of the universe (or as Jerry Fodor so colorfully puts it, we don't even have an idea how to have an idea about how "matter" produces consciousness. and I don't think I need to tell you that these days, you can hardly find a scientist who can even tell you what matter is). Even Blakemore and Dennett will occasionally - grudgingly - admit that qualia are inexplicable from a materialist/physicalist standpoint (sometimes Dennett and Blakemore claim qualia don't exist, or they do and they're not what we think they are, or Lockwood comes along and says qualia exist in a purely objective fashion!!!). So, no qualia (that is, no subjective consciousness) no universe! Try offering that turning-everything-upside-down view on your next materialist challenger. And be sure you add that you're not supporting idealism, because he/she will throw that at you rather than address your comment. The fact is, the best scientists of the last century have been honest saying, we have no clue as to what it is that lies beyond the percepts and concepts we construct (and this does not have to be a positivist, instrumentalist or anti-realist view - it just acknowledges that at present, we don't know, not that we can't know). please write me at donsalmon7@gmail.com if you have more questions on this. I'll be posting a paper soon that goes into much more detail on this

Don said...

Hi Ian:

Somehow my post - which was in response to another post of yours on transmission theory (transmission fo consciousness, not of VWs) ended up on this page. So I guess I should add I like your proof of free will. But I don't think any materialists are going to "get" it. It's the same problem, I think, in understanding why qualia are inexplicable in a materialistic framework. What you might want to do is to look at the overwhelming majority of materialist philosophers (not kim or Dennett, as far as I'm aware) who DO admit that there is something to David Chalmers' "hard problem" - that is, the fact that science is currently completely unable to account for the subjective "feel" of consciousness. Then before you present your thesis on free will (whicih I think is basically a very clever restatement of the hard problem, in regard to free will this time instead of just the subjective feel of consciousness), check to see if the skeptic you're communicating with accepts that there IS a hard problem. If they don't, then I would say its going to be a completely fruitless conversation. For others reading this, please note I'm not saying anything negative about materialists. There are many - most, I think - materialists who acknoweldge the hard problem. All I'm saying is that someone who doesn't acknowledge it is not likely to be interested in Ian's proof about free will.

Good work, Ian, I like your approach very much. I'll post a note when we get our blog up about science and ockham's razor.

Mark said...

Your reduction to the absurd doesn't prove that consciousness doesn't exist because it fails to consider the scientific principle of emergent properties.

Large quantities of small items can have emergent properties that are not predictable at the item level.

You can't predict the flow of water from any one molecule. Yet the emergent properties of hydrodynamics are well documented.

You can't predict what will happen in the universe based on any single quanta. Yet gajillions of them result in the emergent physical laws of Einstein and Newton.

The same is true of the neural network of the brain. You can't predict consciousness or free-will from the firing of an individual neuron. Yet both are emergent properties.

Lastly... some things are only describable in the context of the a particular "level" of science. Consciousness not only can't be predicted... it has no meaning and in fact doesn't exist at the level of a single neuron. Emergent properties only exist and have meaning at the appropriate contextual level.