Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Who is Responsible? You or Your Neurons?

Do you deserve credit for your honest achievements and blame for your failures? No, say an increasing number of philosophers and scientists. They say that everything you do is commanded from your unconscious mind, which you can't consciously control. The conscious "you" is just a superfluous observer. Free will is thus regarded as an illusion (Fig. 1). My new book, "Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will" (Academic Press), challenges the science used to justify these counter-intuitive ideas.

Figure 1. Illustration of the concept that free will is an illusion. In this view, the actions that your brain commands come from the mechanical gears of an unconscious mind. Conscious mind is informed after the fact, creating the illusion that one's conscious mind commanded the act.

How free will is defined affects the conclusion about whether humans have any free will. As defined here, free will exists when a person generates thinking and behaviors that are neither stereotyped nor predetermined, and yet not random. My book identifies and explains many actions of brain that are unlikely to be performed solely by unconscious thinking. Reason and creativity are obvious exemplars of such free will.

More fundamental is the issue of just who the conscious you is. My book presents the argument that consciousness is not just a state of observation, like a movie fan passively watching a film in which participation is not possible. Rather, consciousness may be a distinct being.

I argue that consciousness can do things because the neurons that create consciousness are part of the over-all global brain workspace. The outputs of their firing cannot be isolated from the command centers of brain. Indeed, we should realize that these neurons are part of the neocortical executive control centers. When those firing patterns enable consciousness, they enable capability for explicit observation and executive action at the same time.

Our human beingness exists as the firing patterns in the neural networks of brain. The patterns are obviously different when we are unconscious, as in sleep or anesthesia. When those patterns change in certain measurable ways, they create consciousness. Compared to the unconscious state, our beingness during consciousness is more amenable to change and more able to initiate thought and action. In that sense, we are a different being when conscious, one that can influence its own nature through explicit thought. Explicit awareness can be attributed to a being acting like an avatar on behalf of brain and body that can command action in the present, facilitate formation of memories, and program circuitry for the future.

Freedom of action in these firing patterns comes from several sources. One is the enormous amount of statistical degrees of freedom in neural networks. Every possible choice has a certain probability that it will be made, and no one option is inevitable at any given moment of choice. A more direct kind of freedom comes from the inherent self-organizing capacity of neuronal networks. The book explores the mechanisms by which neural circuits make choices and decisions and proposes chaos dynamics as one way the brain can generate free will.

Conscious choices are indeed influenced by unconscious biases, but we can be aware of predilections and countermand them. Choices are not necessarily pre-ordained, and thus they manifest the kind of free will that is most relevant to everyday life. The issue of free will is not so much whether we have any, but how able we are to develop and use the free will capacity we have.

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