Caveat: Apologies for this overlong post, which random visitors (nearly the only kind I have besides the spambots) may find rather challenging.
The puzzle of consciousness, mind, identity, self, psyche, soul, etc. is an extraordinarily fascinating subject. We use various terms, but they all revolve around a unitary property and yet come from different approaches, methodologies, and philosophies. The term mind is probably the most generic; I tend to use consciousness interchangeably and more often. Scientific American has a entire section of its website devoted to the mind, with subsections on Behavior & Society, Cognition, Mental Health, Neurological Health, and Neuroscience. (Top-level navigation offers links to these sections: The Sciences, Mind, Health, Tech, Sustainability, Education, Video, Podcasts, Blogs, and Store.) I doubt I will explore very deeply because science favors the materialist approach, which I believe misses the forest through the trees. However, the presence of this area of inquiry right at the top of the page indicates how much attention and research the mind/consciousness is currently receiving.
A guest blog at Scientific American by Adam Bear entitled “What Neuroscience Says about Free Will” makes the fashionable argument (these days) that free will doesn’t exist. The blog/article is disclaimed: “The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.” I find that a little weaselly. Because the subject is still wide open to interpretation and debate, Scientific American should simply offer conflicting points of view without worry. Bear’s arguments rest on the mind’s ability to revise and redate experience occurring within the frame of a few milliseconds to allow for processing time, also known as the postdictive illusion (the opposite of predictive). I wrote about this topic more than four years ago here. Yet another discussion is found here. I admit to being irritated that the questions and conclusions stem from a series of assumptions, primarily that whatever free will is must occur solely in consciousness (whatever that is) as opposed to originating in the subconscious and subsequently transferring into consciousness. Admittedly, we use these two categories — consciousness and the subconscious — to account for the rather limited amount of processing that makes it all the way into awareness vs. the significant amount that remains hidden or submerged. A secondary assumption, the broader project of neuroscience in fact, is that, like free will, consciousness is housed somewhere in the brain or its categorical functions. Thus, fruitful inquiry results from seeking its root, seed, or seat as though the narrative constructed by the mind, the stream of consciousness, were on display to an inner observer or imp in what Daniel Dennett years ago called the Cartesian Theater. That time-worn conceit is the so-called ghost in the machine.
Like the rest of us, scientists subscribe to any of a number of metaphors to contextualize and explain reality. Perhaps the most fundamental metaphor sees the world and the human body as an extremely elaborate clockwork, or more broadly, a mechanism (a/k/a the clockwork universe). Another understands the body as an elaborate chemical works; yet another uses molecular, subatomic, and quantum physics as a substrate underlying everything else, the universe and everything within it a whorl of particles with (unexpectedly) quite a lot of emptiness between all the bits and the really, really small bits popping in and out of existence continuously. Unlike philosophical, psychological, and religious explanations of consciousness, neuroscientists tend to zoom in on minutia — the machinery — but fail to assemble their findings into a coherent, holistic view of the organism. That’s the forest and the trees.
By analogy, the mind’s inability to track experience accurately in milliseconds and its correlation of thoughts arriving in consciousness with subconscious perceptions and processing is like pointing to the dial of a clock and concluding that it doesn’t tell or track time because, well, the dial and two hands are just the apparent result and aren’t the springs, gears, and other inner workings doing the true tracking and time-telling. My analogy is probably imperfect, but so, too, is the materialist approach. Bear even admits that what neuroscience often describes as a bug (faulty timing and sequencing) may actually be a feature:
A more speculative possibility is that our minds are designed to distort our perception of choice and that this distortion is an important feature (not simply a bug) of our cognitive machinery. For example, if the experience of choice is a kind of causal inference … then swapping the order of choice and action in conscious awareness may aid in the understanding that we are physical beings who can produce effects out in the world. More broadly, this illusion may be central to developing a belief in free will …
I would go even further to suggest that the idea of mechanism, proceeding from step A to step B to step X in causative links, is a woefully misapplied metaphor when it comes to cognition. Certainly, when one looks under the hood, the engine driving cognition can be observed with some precision. There are discernible structures, regions, and billions of tubes and conduits providing connections between the electrochemical sparks of thought. But the metaphor breaks down upon consideration because the mind functions symbolically, is heavily intertwined with emotion, and is quite unlike the mechanistic causality we associate with, for example, calculators and computers. It’s also a mistake to conclude that the brain/mind behaves the way it does by design, as Bear mentions clumsily, calling forth by implication a designer. Better to simply chalk it up to the brain’s structure built up over millions of years of evolution.
I’ve never understood why neuroscience concludes that something unobserved must account for what is observed. Inference of that sort is very much how other sciences work, but life sciences in particular require appreciation of functions of the whole, not merely the parts. Rather than treating the postdictive illusion as error, why not conclude that there is no illusion at all, that what is observed is simply and more directly the way the mind works, the emergent property of consciousness and associated free will being how we organize our experience and self-awareness? Well, I have my suspicions. We secretly but mistakenly feel that mental error is weak or even sinful. Unlike the computer, which is designed for accuracy and indefatigable repeatability, the mind/brain possesses a high quotient of error. It’s built in. In contrast, machines (mechanisms) possess enviable qualities of predictability and reliability, very high purist values for scientists and misanthropes alike.
In conclusion, Bear attempts to relate his arguments focused on the minute scale of the millisecond to normal human scale (still not seeing the forest, maybe just a small woods). Yet he never drops his preferred term (e.g., illusion) despite its being debatable:
It remains to be seen just how much the postdictive illusion of choice that we observe in our experiments connects to these weightier aspects of daily life and mental illness. The illusion may only apply to a small set of our choices that are made quickly and without too much thought. Or it may be pervasive and ubiquitous—governing all aspects of our behavior, from our most minute to our most important decisions. Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in between these extremes. Whatever the case may be, our studies add to a growing body of work suggesting that even our most seemingly ironclad beliefs about our own agency and conscious experience can be dead wrong.
Consider these phrases: remains to be seen, may only apply, mostly likely, suggesting, seemingly ironclad, and dead wrong. Is Bear hedging about what the research shows? Or is he just a sloppy writer with those last two words? Considering that consciousness has been one of the most impenetrable religious, philosophical, and scientific puzzles for millennia (if not the most, considering how in some traditions it’s synonymous with the soul), to presume that neuroscience has solved it in the space of a few decades, despite the faulty assumptions, is astonishing. Had he some humanity, Bear might also realize that attempts to convince the lay public that there’s no there there is barking up the wrong tree (speaking of forests and trees). The conclusions of science, even the obvious ones like evolution and climate change, are flatly denied for a variety of reasons even by those familiar with science. Talking someone out of believing in the self or free will is akin to disabusing someone of his or her faith. It’s cruel and pointless even if — if! — it’s correct.