Brian Greene: We don’t have free will: one idea in a wide-ranging book

July 8, 2022 • 9:20 am

Physicist Brian Greene published the book below in 2020, and it appears to cover, well, just about everything from the Big Bang to consciousness, even spiritually and death. Click image to go to the Amazon site:

Some of the book’s topics are covered in the interview below, and its breadth reminds me of Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. I’ve read Sean’s book, which was good (though I did disagree with his free-will compatibilism), but I haven’t yet read Greene’s. If you have, weigh in below.

I’ll try to be brief, concentrating on Greene’s view of free will, which is that we don’t have it, we’re subject only to the laws of physics, and our idea of free will is an illusion stemming from our sense that we have a choice. The interview with Greene is in, oddly, the July 1 issue of Financial Review, and is paywalled, but our library got me a copy. (Judicious inquiry may yield you one, too.) You might be able to access it one time by clicking below, but otherwise ask or rely on my excerpts:

Greene also dwells on the fact that we’re the only creatures that know that we’re going to die, an idea that, he says, is “profoundly distressing” and in fact conditions a lot of human behavior. More on that below. Here are a few topics from the interview:

Free will:  Although Greene, as I recall, has floated a form of compatibilism before (i.e., our behaviors are subject to natural laws and that’s all; we can’t have done otherwise by volition at any given moment, but we still have free will), this time he appears to be a rock-hard determinist, which I like because I’m one, too. Excerpt from the interview are indented:

What’s more, beyond thoughts of death, my colleagues, according to Greene, are mistaken in their belief they are making their own choices to change their lives. Thoughts and actions, he argues, are interactions between elementary particles, which are bound by the immutable laws of mathematics. In other words, your particles are doing their thing; we are merely followers.

“I am a firm believer,” he says, “that we are nothing but physical objects with a high degree of order [remember these words, “high degree of order” – we’ll circle back to that], allowing us to have behaviours that are quite wondrous, allowing us to think and feel and engage with the world. But our underlying ingredients – the particles themselves – are completely, and always, governed by the law of physics.”

“Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”

So then, free will does not stand up against our understanding of how the universe works.

“I don’t even know what it would mean to have free will,” he adds, “We would have to somehow intercede in the laws of physics to affect the motion of our particles. And I don’t know by what force we would possibly be able to do that.”

Do you and I have no more options than say, a fish, in how we respond to the world around us?

“Yes and no,” says Greene. “All living systems, us included, are governed by the laws of physics, but the ways in which our collection of particles can respond to stimuli is much richer. The spectrum of behaviours that our organised structure allows us to engage in is broader than the spectrumof behaviours than a fish or a fly might engage in.”

He’s right, and there’s no attempt, at least in this interview, to be compatibilistic and say, well, we have a form of free will worth wanting. 

Death: From the interview:

“People typically want to brush it off, and say, ‘I don’t dwell on dying, I don’t think about it,”‘ says Greene via Zoom from his home in New York, where he is a professor at Columbia University. “And the fact that we can brush it off speaks to the power of the culture we have created to allow us to triumph over the inevitable. We need to have some means by which we don’t crumble under the weight of knowing that we are mortal.”

. . . Greene believes it is this innate fear of death twinned with our mathematically marching particles that is driving my colleagues to new horizons, and driving my decision to write this story, and your choice to read it, all bolstered by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Greene’s view appears to be that a substantial portion of human behavior is driven by a combination of two things: the “naturalism” that deprives us of free will, combined with our learned (or inborn) knowledge and fear of death. The death part is apparently what, still without our volition, forces us into action. I’m not sure why that’s true, as the explanation’s not in the interview but perhaps it’s in the book. After all, some people argue that if you’re a determinist doomed to eternal extinction, why not just stay in bed all day? Why do anything?  If we do things that don’t enhance our reproduction, it’s because we have big brains and need to exercise and challenge them. Yes, we know we’re mortal, but I’m not sure why this makes me write this website, write books, read, or do science. I do these things because they bring me pleasure. What does mortality have to do with it?

Natural selection:  According to the writer and interviewer Jeff Allen (an art director), Greene thinks that the promulgation of our mortality, as well as much of our communication, comes from storytelling, which has been instilled into our species by natural selection. Things get a bit gnarly here as the interview becomes a bit hard to follow. I’m sure Greene understands natural selection better than Allen, but Greene’s views are filtered through the art director:

Natural selection is well known for driving physical adaptation, yet it also drives behavioural change, including complex human behaviours such as language and even storytelling. Language is a beneficial attribute that helps us as a species succeed, as is the ability to tell stories, which prepare the inexperienced with scenarios that may benefit them in the future.

“Evolution works by tiny differentials in adaptive fitness, over the course of long timescales. That’s all it takes for these behaviours to become entrenched,” says Greene. “Storytelling is like a flight simulator, that safely allows us to prepare ourselves for various challenges we will face in the real world. If we fail in the simulator, we won’t die.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution is one of the recurring themes of Greene’s book.

Note in the first paragraph that evolved language and storytelling “helps us as a species succeed”. That’s undoubtedly true—though I’m yet to be convinced that storytelling is anything more than an epiphenomenon of evolved language—but whatever evolved here was undoubtedly via individual (genic) selection and not species selection. Traits don’t evolve to enable a species to succeed; they evolve (via selection) because they give their bearers a reproductive advantage. I’m sure Greene knows this, but Allen balls things up by throwing in “species success”.

Consciousness: If you’re tackling the Big Issues that deal with both philosophy and science, it’s consciousness, defined by Greene (and I) as both self-awareness and the presence of qualia, or subjective sensations (Greene calls it “inner experience”).  I’ve written about this a lot, and don’t propose to do more here. We have consciousness, we don’t know how it works, but it’s certainly a physical property of our brains and bodies that can be manipulated by physical interventions. The two issues bearing on Greene’s piece are where it came from and how will we figure out how it works. (Greene implicitly rejects panpsychism by asking “”How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality?”. That will anger Philip Goff and his coterie of panpsychists.)

I’m not sure about the answer to either., We may never know whether consciousness is an epiphenomenon of having a big brain or is partly the result of natural selection promoting the evolution of consciousness. I suspect it’s partly the latter, since many of our “qualia” are adaptive.  Feeling pain is an aversive response that protects us from bodily damage; people who lack the ability to feel pain usually accumulate substantial injuries. And many things that give us pleasure, like orgasms, do so because they enhance our reproduction. But this is just speculation.

Greene also thinks that natural selection has something to do with human consciousness, but it’s not clear from the following whether he sees consciousness as an epiphenomenon of our big brain and its naturalistic physical properties, or whether those properties were molded by natural selection because consciousness enhanced our reproduction:

“My gut feeling,” says Greene, “Is that the final answer will be the Darwinian story. Where collections of particles come together in a certain kind of organised high order ‘brain’, that brain is able to have particle motions that yield self-awareness. But it’s still a puzzle at this moment.”

Where Green and I differ is in what kind of work might yield the answer to how consciousness comes about. Greene thinks it will come from work on AI, while I think it will come, if it ever does, from neurological manipulations. Greene:

“That’s perhaps the deepest puzzle we face,” says Greene. “How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality? Where does inner experience come from?”

Greene’s suspicion is that this problem will go away once we start to build artificial systems, that can convincingly claim to have inner awareness. “We will come to a place where we realise that when you have this kind of organisation, awareness simply arises.”

In June this year, Google engineer Blake Lemoine said an AI he was working on, named LaMDA (Language Models for Dialogue Applications), got very chatty and even argued back.

I suppose this is a version of the Turing test, but it will be very, very hard to determine if an AI bot has “inner awareness”.  Hell, I don’t even know if my friends are conscious, since it depends on self-report! Can you believe any machine that says it has “inner experiences”?

With that speculation I’ll move on. Greene also muses on the origin and fate of the universe, and whether it might “restart” after it collapses, but cosmology is above my pay grade, and I’ll leave you to read about that yourself.

h/t: Ginger K.

66 thoughts on “Brian Greene: We don’t have free will: one idea in a wide-ranging book

  1. In HBO’s interesting series Westworld (which is largely devoted to the debate over the question of free will/determinism and is now in its fourth season), a character who has committed numerous indefensible deeds states that his choices were entirely his own; in response to this assertion comes the query “Are you free and evil or blameless and helplessly enslaved”?

  2. Looks like an interesting book! I love the following statement from the interview—probably because it comports so well with my view on the topic. 🙂

    “I don’t even know what it would mean to have free will,” he adds, “We would have to somehow intercede in the laws of physics to affect the motion of our particles. And I don’t know by what force we would possibly be able to do that.”

    Free will would seem to require that:
    (1) The laws of physics temporarily come to a screeching halt.
    (2) With the laws of physics suspended, a mind decides what to do—the “free will” part. (Without suspending the laws of physics, the mind would not have the freedom to decide; it would just be buffeted around by the particle motions that were already taking place.)
    (3) The workings of that mind—still outside the laws of physics—in some way adjust the state of the universe, so that…
    (4) When laws of physics are turned back on (however *that* happens) the universe in its changed state carries out what that mind decided to do when the universe was in suspended animation.

    Steps 2 and 3 (in my scenario) are what Greene calls “interced[ing] in the laws of physics.” To me that needed intercession invalidates free will.

    The “death as motivation” idea seems oddly unnecessary to me, but maybe it becomes clearer in the book. I don’t know why Greene would single out fear of death as a motivator that requires special status. Lots of things motivate our behaviors. Maybe his position is that fear of death is strong enough to be our prime motivator.

    Fascinating stuff.

          1. Yes, I agree that the “free will” in legal documents is not necessarily incoherent. But surely Green was discussing the “magical version”.

            1. Yes, I’m sure he was. I have a problem with such attacks on free will. While some people certainly have such magical thoughts, it is a strawman argument to assume that this idea is so dominant that it must be fought with such ferocity. Obviously our legal system doesn’t suffer this problem. I would also suggest that most people don’t either. The standard “Could you have chosen otherwise?” is a trick question, or at least a tricky one. When I mention that I drank coffee at breakfast and someone asks if I could have chosen tea, I would say “yes”. But I’m not imagining that the instant in time when I made the decision can be repeated, duplicating every physical state in the universe, and my decision could come out differently. My slightly longer answer would be, “Yes, if I wanted to.”

              1. Yes, I see your point. That’s why it’s always a good idea to define what type of free will one is discussing. If the magical one, referring to it as “libertarian/contra-causal free will” should suffice to avoid any confusion. But I think that far more people than one would expect are ready to defend that libertarian free will is not an illusion, and that we certainly have it. If I’m not mistaken, Jerry has made this same point before.

              2. Yes, there are a lot of people that believe the mystical stuff but I believe that it is difficult for all people to wrap their heads around what happens in their brains. Those same people also believe that consciousness is magical. Central to all this belief in magic is the difficulty thinking of about what the brain does as a mechanical process that takes time and has parts. They think of a decision as something that arises in an instant from nothing, which is pretty much how we all experience it. It feels like magic.

                Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments have show that decisions are made well before we realize it. That alone should tell people that decision making is a process and our introspection of it isn’t going to be reliable. Still, the many flawed interpretations of those experiments indicates that the magic is still very strong.

    1. I’m a compatibalist. IMHO, the “laws of physics” don’t preclude some mechanism allowing live organisms elective choices and agency. That agency seems likely to be much different from conscious perception of free will. I believe that at some level of neurological complexity, the survival instinct includes the ability to make elective choices.

    2. But #2 is conceptually impossible. If a mind decides what to do, it must do so because of some pre-existing reason (its constitution, say) or at random. Neither option involves libertarian free will.

  3. …but whatever evolved here was undoubtedly via individual (genic) selection and not species selection. Traits don’t evolve to enable a species to succeed; they evolve (via selection) because they give their bearers a reproductive advantage.

    Jerry, does evolution only operate on an individual level? Are ideas regarding group selection totally crazy?

    1. I’m not Jerry, and I didn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn last night. But I can say that the level at which natural selection occurs, sometimes called the unit of selection, is still somewhat of an ongoing dispute. There are experts, even prominent ones, that argue that selection takes place at the level of groups. However, from what I understand, there is not any solid evidence to support that.

      The most successful view is that selection takes places at the level of genes, an even lower level than individual organisms. This is the view that Dawkins (in)famously explained in his record* setting book The Selfish Gene. By most successful I mean that mathematical models based on genes as the unit of selection have been far more successful at accounting for observations than any other models. There have been models based on a higher level unit of selection that have successfully described an observation but in most (all?) such cases a gene based model that was simpler also did.

      It’s still a contentious issue for some, as usual. Among experts there is another level of conflict to the issue as well, which of course spills over into the general population. Among experts that think that selection operates at levels higher than genes there are a relative few that think that this is a huge theory shattering deal that the orthodoxy is suppressing and that gene level selection is entirely wrong, while most think that while it could be true and important that it is merely an additional feature to add to the TOE in company with gene level selection, not in place of it.

      *Record for most misunderstood metaphor of all time, even though there was an entire book explaining it in thorough detail attached directly to it.

  4. interactions between elementary particles, which are bound by the immutable laws of mathematics.

    That gets it backwards. Laws of mathematics would not be laws of elementary particle nature, if they did not match the behavior of actual electrons etc. If electrons don’t follow Maxwell’s Equations, does that mean electrons are in trouble – Mother Nature is going to throw them in jail? No, it would just mean Maxwell’s Equations were wrong. Math does not make physical things – including humans – do stuff, It only describes how they do it.

    In other words, your particles are doing their thing; we are merely followers.

    And this makes a completely untenable distinction between a large collection of (or a process involving large numbers of) elementary particles, “versus” us. There’s no daylight there!

    For a quick, excellent read on this, I recommend Thou Art Physics by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

  5. Too bad about the headline: “Think you’re in control? This scientist says you have no free will.” We’re pretty effective and reliable self-controlled systems and there’s no one separate from the system being pushed around by the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. To think so lands you in the dualism that comes out here: “In other words, your particles are doing their thing; we are merely followers.” Nope. Determinism doesn’t render you a passive victim of your nicely organized particles since that’s who you are as an agent with lots of causal powers.

    As for the causal role of consciousness, if consciousness is identical to a set of physical processes, it can’t add to their causal power, so we don’t need to talk about qualia in scientific accounts of behavior. And indeed we don’t. You won’t find pain in a flow chart of aversive responses at any level of detail (see Dennett’s “Why you can’t make a computer that feels pain”). If it *isn’t* identical, we need to come up with a story about how qualia add causal power to their neural correlates, which seems hopeless. Clearly the neural processing associated with consciousness was naturally selected for, given the cognitive work it does, but it isn’t clear (to me) that qualia per se are adaptive.

    1. Thanks for the reference to the Dennett paper. I don’t remember reading that one. Since he wrote it in 1978, I wonder if he still believes that a computer program can’t feel pain. I haven’t read the paper yet but, from what I know of his work, I suspect that he no longer believes this.

    2. Right, if my particles are doing their thing and I /am/ my particles, then I am doing my thing.

    3. if consciousness is identical to a set of physical processes, it can’t add to their causal power, so we don’t need to talk about qualia in scientific accounts of behavior.

      This argument proves too much. A biological organism is identical to a set of physical processes and can’t add to their causal power, but we definitely do need to talk about organisms in science. For example, in predicting the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, we need to consider organisms in the soil and the oceans, among major influences. Doing a molecule-by-molecule analysis and bypassing all talk of organisms is simply out of the question. I’ll see your Dennett and raise you his “Real Patterns”.

      1. Physically instantiated real patterns play causal roles for sure but it isn’t clear to me what the causal role of qualia is that isn’t already played by their physical correlates. In doing cognitive neuroscience we need to refer to organisms and brains and other physical things when explaining behavior, but not qualia. That said, consciousness conceived of as phenomenal representational content reliably supervenes on its neural vehicles, so in talking about how pain makes me wince, that’s a content-based explanation that runs in parallel to the physicalist, causal explanation of my wincing, about which see section 7 of this 2019 JCS paper,

        1. As an identity theorist, I don’t distinguish between phenomenal content and the neural processes that embody it. Yes, I know identity theory is out of fashion, but that’s for bad reasons.

  6. “I do these things because they bring me pleasure.”

    Implying that you consciously choose to do those things, no?

  7. Brian Greene can’t possibly know that humans are the only animals that know they are going to die. They are certainly the only species that can write about it. Possibly we are the only ones that can talk about it but we don’t really know that for sure. After all, what DO dolphins talk about?

    1. That was my take as well.

      I suspect that other species like chimps, dolphins, whales, crows may share this attribute to some extent with humans.

      You can certainly see other primates showing what appears to be grief upon the death of another member of their group.

    2. I agree. Animals see birth and death all the time, especially active on the death end are the carnivores. They certainly understand that death will come someday, they just don’t consider the possibility of an afterlife. GROG

      1. We can’t be sure they have no concept of an afterlife. A creature that knows life and death and can plan its future, may also attempt to come to grips with what happens after. Since it is difficult to imagine what it is like to be dead, a belief in an afterlife must come easy.

        1. For there to be an afterlife there needs to be a place where where it exists and continues. Do you think that animals might create/imagine a spirit world? The delusion of the existence of the supernatural realm makes it possible for humans to believe in an afterlife. GROG

          1. Well, certainly an animal afterlife won’t be something we would invent. It just seems natural that some animals believe that life goes on in some form after death simply because they can’t imagine not being alive.

        2. Of course, since we can not (yet) communicate with animals concerning the question, about the only way I can think of to address the possibility are methods used by archaeologists and anthropologist, namely, to look for signs that the still living are preparing the already dead for this afterlife. This might involve food offerings, tool or ornamental offerings, placement of the body in certain places, treatment of the body in certain ways, all intended to help the deceased in the journey to and during life in the afterlife. And as far as I know, this has not (yet) been observed in any animal species other than homo.

  8. I suspect we will have an AI that can do a reasonable version of consciousness before we understand how consciousness works in the brain. I guess I agree that achieving this will take a lot of the mystery out of the problem. I predict that it will break consciousness into pieces, each of which will be easier to understand and test. Of course, many will claim that AI consciousness is not like human consciousness which is much “better” in some ineffable way. Still, it will be progress to get to that point.

    1. I suspect that the consciousness of an AI will be as unpenetrable and mysterious as our own consciousness, not that this makes AI consciousness any better or worse.

      Should an AI exhibit what we deem to be consciousness there is no reason to expect that the underlying mechanisms will be in any way similar to ours.

      1. Sounds like you believe in the AI singularity. I do not. I think it is pure science fiction. The few theories that seem to include it also accept it as a premise.

        We will understand AI consciousness because we (some of us anyway) will have created it. It won’t be a stochastic parrot like GPT-3 and its ilk but will build models of the world that it will use to construct its own behavior.

        As you suggest, the AI’s mechanisms involved in consciousness won’t necessarily do things the way the human brain does, just as airplanes don’t fly exactly like birds. But airplanes do have to follow the same laws of physics as birds and, therefore, many of their characteristics do match. For example, a bird’s tail controls direction in a way that is analogous to how an airplane’s tail and its control surfaces work. I’m sure that AI consciousness will inform our understanding of the brain’s consciousness in a similar manner. Both mechanisms have to solve many of the same problems and generate similar behavior.

  9. On the subject of qualia, in a recent AMA podcast physicist Sean Carroll was asked why he seems to avoid using that word. His answer was that he found the concept too vague.

    This certainly makes sense to me. Some spend time arguing over whether qualia are “real”. What can that even mean? Perception clearly is a process that transforms some kind of raw input: light, sound, etc. Where would you find qualia in a process? Makes no sense to me. Clearly what we experience has already been processed and it often doesn’t match what our scientific instruments tell us about the raw input. So what? Why would it?

    1. May I just add that Carroll’s ‘Mindscape’ podcast is so good, and I am addicted to the monthly AMA.
      His blend of physics, philosophy, and personal conjcture is great listening.
      (The recent chat with Dawkins was really good too, and the one with Smolin…)
      Okay, back to regular programming now…

        1. I gathered he was only moonlighting at Santa Fe, but keeping his ‘day job’ at CalTech.
          How cool to be on the ‘fractal faculty’ and explore ‘fundamental physics and cosmology, quantum gravity and spacetime, philosophy of science, and the evolution of entropy and complexity.’
          I could not BE more jealous…

          1. I believe he’s left Caltech and taken a position at Johns Hopkins. He recently announced he’s physically moved. According to Wikipedia: “He is going to be Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from the summer of 2022.”

  10. I always thought that storytelling, like music, was considered an evolutionary spandrel. Though I know some scientists regard language itself as a spandrel. I was reading some of Lewontin from the Hili dialogue this morning; maybe I’m bringing up spandrels because of that. The mind works in mysterious ways. 😉

  11. It is true that the laws of physics imply that the universe evolves deterministically (with some randomness) and that therefore there is no free will.

    But, saying that the universe is deterministic does not imply that we will *ever* be able to calculate the state of the universe even one second into the future.

    Therefore, as a practical matter, there is no consequence to “free will” vs. “determinism.”

    Perhaps a more interesting question is why people care about this issue?

  12. He assumes that humans are the only animals aware of their mortality. This is just an assumption for which he has no evidence. Some of the behaviors of other animals, such as corvids and elephants around their dead suggest that he may be wrong. We have a long history of assuming our own uniqueness, which been proven wrong many times before.

  13. Selection works mostly on individuals, individual genes, as Dawkins made clear.
    (Now comes the ‘but’) But it is undeniable that some species are better suited to a particular environment, ‘fitter’, or more reproductively successful, and elbow other species out. If not, we would not have ‘invasive alien’ species.
    Darwin already pointed out that groups with high social values and cohesion would almost certainly have the upper hand in competition with less socially cohesive populations. I’m less sure than he appeared to be that would qualify as ‘natural selection’, say ‘group selection’, but it certainly explains why we don’t like ‘cheats’.

    1. I think what you are describing is an aspect of the species’ environment, which is the “filter” that is doing the selecting. But the selection operates at the level of genes, or at least that’s what the evidence and models to date indicate.

    2. I can imagine situations in which genes can encode certain behaviors that are beneficial for group survival while being neutral for individual survival. However, the survival of the group means that the genes get passed on to the next generation rather than dying with the group.

      As an example, what about the ants that form floating colonies when there is a flood, and the whole colony can be transported from one place to another. What are the evolutionary pressures in this case?

  14. Steven Pinker (in his book The Blank Slate) discusses the notion of free will within the context of how difficult it would truly be to have the freedom to do anything one desires – meaning that none of the societal/environment inputs into our mind which produce feeling of guilt, shame, deterrence etc would influence our behavior (weak illustrative analogy of it being a bit like a psychopath on steroids) and that anything short of complete non-impact of external inputs cannot then be called free will.

    Part of the illusion of free will is our ability to forecast and model the future while forever stuck inside our present (what should I wear tonight at dinner, it’s a buffet, so maybe need casual shoes rather than stilettos, but that means I cannot really wear the new dress that I want to wear….), and creating our own external inputs (feedback loops?) of influence via this type of if-then forecasting, and then seemingly sending top-down directions to our bottom up mechanism that drives our decision (stilettos it is!). And the post hoc reasoning that “I could have done otherwise” then relies on this same ability to both envision and manipulate an alternate future of our past – the illusion could be a feature rather than a bug that smooths this contradiction.

  15. “Greene also dwells on the fact that we’re the only creatures that know that we’re going to die, an idea that, he says, is “profoundly distressing” and in fact conditions a lot of human behavior.”

    I don’t think we find the prospect of dying profoundly distressing (except perhaps in those fairly rare moments when we really stop to think about it); it certainly doesn’t condition a lot of human behavior.

    I suspect that natural selection has in fact made us nearly oblivious of our mortality in our day-to-day, as too keen a frequent awareness of it would probably result, due to the consequent psychological distress, in a Darwinian-fitness disadvantage.

    1. Indeed, most teenagers, especially males — sorry, ejaculators — act like there’s no possible way they could die.

  16. “After all, some people argue that if you’re a determinist doomed to eternal extinction, why not just stay in bed all day? Why do anything?”

    I think those people are quite misguided. Anybody inclined to stay in bed all day upon realizing that we’re all going to die and that everything, including our thoughts and actions, is preordained, will nonetheless jump out of bed to get something to eat the minute his hungry stomach will have had enough of that nonsense.

    But the matter of what the consequences would be if everybody rejected the notion of libertarian free will is perhaps more interesting than the debate on whether any such thing exists. Daniel Dennet is among those who think there’d be terrible consequences (staying in bed all day being one of them). I don’t want to make this into a lengthy post, so I’ll just link to some further thoughts here if anybody is interested:

  17. “Feeling pain is an aversive response that protects us from bodily damage; people who lack the ability to feel pain usually accumulate substantial injuries. And many things that give us pleasure, like orgasms, do so because they enhance our reproduction.”

    That’s an excellent argument against consciousness as an epiphenomenon. William James made a similar one:

    “If pleasure and displeasure have no effects, there would seem to be no reason why we might not abhor the feelings that are caused by activities essential to life, or enjoy the feelings produced by what is detrimental. Thus, if epiphenomenalism […] were true, the felicitous alignment that generally holds between affective valuation of our feelings and the utility of the activities that generally produce them would require a special explanation. Yet on epiphenomenalist assumptions, this alignment could not receive a genuine explanation. The felicitous alignment could not be selected for, because if affective valuation had no behavioral effects, misalignment of affective valuation with utility of the causes of the evaluated feelings could not have any behavioral effects either. Epiphenomenalists would simply have to accept a brute and unscientific view of pre-established harmony of affective valuation of feelings and the utility of their causes.”

    1. Neural processes, both those associated with consciousness and those not, have physical effects on behavior. The question is: what causal role does the phenomenal, qualitative aspect of those processes associated with consciousness have that isn’t already played by the neural processes themselves? That people who don’t feel pain get injured can best be explained by their not having the neural processes *associated with* pain, not that they don’t *feel* pain. Indeed, that’s the default neurological explanation of their problem since pain per se doesn’t appear in any physicalist explanation of behavior.

      To answer William James’s challenge to epiphenomenalists: the alignment of pleasure with what’s advantageous to us is explained by the fact that that qualities associated with what’s advantageous to us are felt as pleasurable, not that they play a causal role in giving us such advantages, see

      1. I suspect that this apparent conundrum of how consciousness can have a causal role if we could in principle explain our behavior from our brain neurochemistry alone arises from using certain concepts outside their proper domain—an issue that Sean Carroll has covered in his writings.

        It would make no sense (nor would it be necessary) to discuss the role of consciousness in the domain of particle physics, but it’s useful and valid to discuss it in the domain of human psychology and behavior, even if in theory we could predict everything a human will do just from the state of every particle in its body as it interacts with every other particle within and without it.

        We could see consciousness as being analogous to a light sensor that reacts in different ways according to the varying intensity of light it detects. At the level of particle physics, we could in principle predict how every particle composing the sensor will behave as it interacts with other particles in its environment, without having the least knowledge of the higher-level light-sensor mechanism. Yet it would be misguided to conclude that the light sensor device is not needed for the particles to behave as they do. At the same time, realizing that the light-sensor device is key shouldn’t make us think that it has strong emergent properties inducing downward-causation effects (that is, effects that couldn’t be predicted, even in principle, from the underlying physics of the sensor).

        1. So long as we analogize consciousness to something playing a functional role like a light sensor, then there’s no difficulty thinking of it as causal, but in this case that causal role is already occupied by the neural correlates of qualia. In the domain of human behavior, what’s the causal role of the qualitative feel itself, which is how we conceive of consciousness? It isn’t obvious, which is why philosophers such as Jaegwon Kim worry about overdetermination when trying to solve the problem of mental (phenomenal-physical) causation. I suggest that the solution is to conceive of consciousness as phenomenal representational content that, although not causal, runs reliably in parallel with the causal workings of the neural vehicles carrying such content.

  18. “He’s right, and there’s no attempt, at least in this interview, to be compatibilistic and say, well, we have a form of free will worth wanting.” – J. Coyne

    Why isn’t compatibilist free will (i.e. the agential ability to do what one wants, wishes, desires, or likes to do) “a form of free will worth wanting”? I for one want to have it, and I am glad that I do have it. And my gladness isn’t spoiled by my knowing that there is another form of free will which I do not and cannot have: non-deterministic, libertarian free will, which would enable me to voluntarily cause actions or events the causing of which by me is itself neither caused by prior events nor completely random.

    “For hundreds of years it has been thought by some philosophers, and not by others, that determinism in the natural world is incompatible with freedom of the will. If everything that happens in the world is causally determined by what went on before, then one’s actions, in particular, being events in the world, are causally determined from time immemorial, and there is no scope for freedom of action. I count myself among the others. One is free, in the ordinary sense of the term, when one does as one likes or sees fit; and this is not altered by the fact, if fact it be, that what one likes or sees fit has had its causes. The notion that determinism precludes freedom is easily accounted for. If one’s choices are determined by prior events, and ultimately by forces outside oneself, then how can one choose otherwise? Very well, one cannot. But freedom to choose to do otherwise than one likes or sees fit would be a sordid boon.”

    (Quine, W. V. Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987. pp. 69-70)

      1. Yes, it’s a fine quote. “But freedom to choose to do otherwise than one likes or sees fit would be a sordid boon” is a great summation.

  19. “We may never know whether consciousness is an epiphenomenon of having a big brain or is partly the result of natural selection promoting the evolution of consciousness.”

    I think that a key objection to the consciousness-as-a-byproduct idea is that it is not associated with most brain processes and that it seems precisely “designed” to serve very specific functions under very specific circumstances. It’s anything but a sort of random thing floating up there that somehow appeared spontaneously with no particular purpose.

    Of course, at some point in the distant past, an incipient form of basic sentience must have spontaneously appeared (similar to the first rudimentary light sensor, say), but ever since it’s been subject to evolutionary forces, just like any other phenotypic trait, to end up in the amazingly sophisticated self-awareness we human have (just like a rudimentary light sensor led upon eons to the magnificent eyes we find in nature today).

    1. Well said. I also (like you, in another comment) like Jerry’s point about the function of pain, which seems like an obvious and parsimonious explanation of the phenomenon.

  20. Around 1790 Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote, “We know with much greater clarity that our will is free than that everything that happens must have a cause. Could we therefore not reverse the argument for once, and say: our concept of cause and effect must be very erroneous because our will could not be free if our idea of cause and effect were correct?” The conflict between free will and an ordered universe has long been discussed. I can remember the sense of exhilaration from feeling free. I grew up in a homogeneous community in which conformity was demanded. Not long after high school some friends and I created a rule that required us to stop the car whenever a Freddy and Dreamers song came on the radio. We had to get out of the car and “do the Freddy” until the song stopped. Freedom was exhilarating. We spent a lot of time seeking the excitement of freedom. The sense of freedom, the feeling of power from choosing the next action, the relief and power of freedom, the allure of choice are real. This seems as inexplicable as knowing free will is an illusion. Getting discharged from the army felt like freedom. Getting out of jail after a short stay with no charges filed or court appearance required felt like freedom. Being young felt free. Now being old feels free. Yet I don’t think that I have free will but asserting my freedom felt necessary at times.

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