Consciousness and Free Will

In this puzzle, there's LESS than meets the eye . . .

Recently, the book club of the SHSNY has been running to books about the human mind. Last September we discussed Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. Early this year we moved our meeting place to a church on East 35th St. Then this June, we met and talked about a new Sam Harris work called Free Will. From my notes on Consciousness Explained: There is no specific central “I” in the brain. There is no module that sits on top, observing and editing. No homunculus. Several trains of thought are going on at any given time. Whichever of our many trains of thought has at any given time recruited the most circuitry, that is the one that rises to be our conscious thought.

In part the illusion of the homunculus is caused by the way we create a model of our world in our mind. As part of that model, or internal map, we include a model of ourselves. We attribute consciousness to that representation of ourselves.

From my notes on Free Will: we also attribute free will to our model of self, which forms a key part of our consciousness. To that extent it is a flawed, or false, model. According to Harris free will is illusory, but the illusion serves a useful purpose – the super-ego. We act as if someone is watching over us.

Sociopaths are missing that component. Without that component, our baser drives are given precedence. Prime example: a serial rapist. With that component, we behave more socially, friendly, co-operatively. The useful illusion of free will helps us arrive at what sort of behavior we can expect of ourselves and of others. We expect other people to act responsibly.

Other aspects of the free will discussion: According to Sam Harris we don’t have free will. We make conscious choices that affect our behavior. But these choices may be dictated by inputs from our environment combined with our genes and our learning. We are not conscious of all the influences on us. Some of these come from way down in the brain – the primitive part, near the brain stem.

Things seem random at the micro level, as quantum randomness. Conceivably, at times, that gets amplified all the way up to the level of observable behavior. So the lovely thing is that behavior can never be fully predictable; it can always surprise us.

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