In the first part of this article I laid down some foundational principles to guide me as I move from philosophical beliefs and metaphysical suspicions to more speculative ideas on consciousness and free will.
Here, as I approach the tricky subject of phenomenal conscious experience (or as I’m about to call it from here on out, just plain consciousness), I carry with me two central beliefs. Firstly that the Universe is amenable to explanation by science (a weak form of positivism), and secondly that whatever we find at the smallest scale of reality should inform us about what will emerge at the larger scales (a weak form of reductionism).
A third uncontroversial belief is that our scientific understanding of foundational physics is incomplete.
Additionally, I adhere to three speculative but mainstream scientific ideas about how the Universe works.
Firstly, that our current best-fit theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics will eventually be superseded by a better-fit theory of quantum gravity. Secondly that space and time will be shown to be emergent properties of an underlying sub-Planckian realm. And thirdly, that this entails that reality at the most fundamental level consists in a non-spaciotemporal all-possibilities-present block universe of some sort.
Whatever wild and wacky ideas I have in regards to consciousness, they must at least adhere to these principle beliefs and fit with the theories described that I suspect have merit. They’ll be no god-smuggling or wizardry here, despite how it may appear to some.
I say this because some physicalists appear to regard any deviation from the that position to be veering inexorably towards belief in the supernatural, and I’ll start this discussion with a negative thesis defending non-physicalist accounts of both consciousness and free will from that accusation.
The physicalists I’m talking about are not the likes of “A-Team captain” Dan Dennett or his fellow philosophers with similar opinions. Despite any metaphysical preference, all of them are all no doubt well aware of the problems with each position.
Rather I’m mostly referring to various science popularisers (many of whom are scientists themselves) who have an anti-theist agenda. They would appear to want to stamp on any ideas of consciousness being anything but a part of our current physical ontology, or free will being anything but an illusion in a “deterministic” universe, because they believe those concepts to be central to theistic belief.
(I put determinism in scare quotes because the framing of the free will debate in terms of determinism is actually a good hundred years out of date. Since quantum mechanics came on the scene, the likelihood of any truly deterministic system is increasingly small, although the random element introduced doesn’t automatically help those on my side of the argument.)
Although I sympathise with the motives of these individuals, I am highly dubious that theistic belief plays any necessary role in either consciousness or free will. Both are metaphysical concepts that reach far wider than that, and neither appear to say anything about the existence or otherwise of any god or gods, or the supernatural generally.
This is because unlike those concepts, neither consciousness nor free will make any claim to be immune to the laws of physics. One may will to fly unaided, but not even theistic accounts deny that gravity will have the last laugh. The only theistic claim on consciousness and free will is that they are divinely granted, and that the latter is uniquely granted to humans.
And here lies the true problem I think. Theism is seen as inexorably linked to anthropocentrism, and free will (and thus by association non-epiphenomenal consciousness) is seen as part of that discredited tradition. Yet in truth there are all sorts of abilities and traits that have uniquely evolved in humans, yet are not seen in the same light. One might as well blindly deny the existence of complex language because that uniquely human adaption is portrayed as divinely granted in the Biblical tradition.
Just because we now know we have an insignificant place in the cosmos, doesn’t mean that we are not contextually ‘special’. On this planet at least, we are indeed so, as evidenced by you’re reading and comprehending this article, whereas no other creature nor system can. That’s not anthropocentrism, it’s just the facts.
Although some of these science popularisers might understand the philosophical arguments that show that physicalism is far from certain, I doubt many of the people who follow them do, because it’s something rarely discussed outside of philosophical literature. This gives the general impression to the thinking person that science has closed the door on these issues, which is certainly not the case. To claim otherwise – whatever the merit of the motivation – is nothing more than unscientific presumption.
So while some expect that free will can be explained using our current physical ontology alone, others like me suspect that we need to understand reality at the sub-Planckian scale before we get a grip on these concepts. However, there is actually no good evidence either way, and various problems for both options.
The evidence offered by most physicalists – that provided by neuroscience – is unsatisfactory in the extreme, because as worthwhile and useful as that venture is, it completely misses the target of this discussion. Neuroscience investigates the neural correlates of consciousness, but not phenomenal consciousness itself. In layman’s terms it investigates the brain, not the mind, and to claim the two are the same is simply begging the question.
If our subjective experience is somehow illusory, then neuroscience misses the target because the target is not there and physicalism is true. If on the other hand our subjective experience is non-illusory, then it misses the target because mind and brain are not identical.
Neuroscience is as far away from explaining subjective conscious experience as the computing field of artificial intelligence is away from creating it, and of course, the two problems are probably related. What seemingly magic ingredient do we need to add to make our computers ‘spark into life’ as it were? What clock speed, instructions per second, number of transistors, or logical connections will be required before a computer wakes up and says “who am I?”?
To move on to a positive thesis regarding consciousness and free will I will now need to make the assumption that they are not illusory. Of course, this in no way prejudices the debate as to whether that is actually the case, but it is necessary if one is to try to find a place for them in the natural order, and is justified by virtue of both being – at first sight at least – universally experienced phenomena.
I have already written a short piece on what I consider to be the most promising class of mainstream theoretical phenomena in physics and cosmology for finding a physical basis for non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will. The particular examples I gave were seemingly ex nihilo particle creation at black hole event horizons in the form of Hawking radiation, and the same result in accelerated reference frames via the Unruh effect. Although the former seems completely off the table insofar as occurring within the brain, the latter might not be (although I am speaking from ignorance here rather than insight!). And more importantly (since the latter remains unlikely) the very existence of such a class of what I’ll call boundary phenomena suggest that there might be more examples to be found in the future.
Non-epiphenomenal consciousness is dependent on (phenomenal) consciousness, and free will is dependent both of those and also on cognition, so it might seem odd to start with an idea on free will rather than for example, qualia. But it seems best to start my search here, since if boundary phenomena is free will’s hook into the otherwise deterministic/random super-Planckian realm, then that would provide a clear signpost as to where we should look for the other phenomena on which it depends.
This is not a case of simply picking those phenomena to begin the search because it conveniently leads to areas I already found ripe for picking at consciousness itself. Rather, I know of no other mainstream process could account for the ‘uncaused causes’ required to sustain the notion of non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will.
Additionally, situating some aspects of consciousness at this scale is no longer prohibited by quantum effects being too fragile and fleeting for use by warm wet macro-biological systems. As I’ve touched on elsewhere, the field of quantum biology is blossoming, both in areas already supported by experimental evidence like photosynthesis and bird navigation, and more speculatively with ideas on DNA mutation. If there is evolutionary advantage to be had by the brain utilizing the sub-Planckian realm via quantum effects, then there’s a good chance nature will have done so. I will explore ideas on what such an advantage might be later.
So the next step for me in this series of posts is to try to integrate, or find suitable locations (really just scales, but I will say more on this, also later) for the two sets of fundamental phenomena we take as constituting reality. The first are those identified by objective scientific data; i.e. the properties of fundamental particles, their fields, and their relata or governing laws. The second are those identified by the evidence of the subjects who directly experience them, with their virtue being assessed by their universality, i.e. cognition, phenomenal consciousness, and free will.
In the next part, I’ll begin to tentatively make suggestions for the above project. I’ll try to find any aspects of the phenomena I’ve identified that might provide constraints and clues as to where they might reside and how they might function and interact. At the same time I’ll be sure not to resort to using any theory or phenomenon outside of mainstream speculative science.
Wish me luck, I’ll need it!
[last updated 14 September 2013)