Emergent Properties of the Human Brain (continued)

In these discussions about self-determinism, some hard determinists dismissively parade opinion as fact. Their conviction trumps their rational integrity. We all need to be mindful that just about everything to do with free will and determinism is, thus far, a matter of opinion.

Almost 400 years ago, René Descartes claimed that, unlike the human body, the mind has no physical properties or spatial dimension: thus it can not be examined in the same way as the physical body. Today, we think of self-aware human consciousness as an emergent property of the brain but we still don't know how or why it emerges.

Unless you've been living in a cave, without access to media of any kind, you've probably noticed increasing numbers of news stories about consciousness and its associated properties (like intelligence and free will). The neurosciences have taken an interest in what was, until recently, a philosopher's pastime.

Thanks to modern imaging technologies like fMRI and CAT scans, scientists now have ways to observe certain limited kinds of brain activity without having to open the skull of a living person. Although cleverly designed experiments have led to many theories about consciousness, new facts have been slow in coming.

Given the near-total mystery of consciousness, it is foolish to think we know much about its many properties, such as: self-awareness, intelligence and decision-making. No matter what your position on "free will", it consists mostly of conjecture. The point being that almost everything about consciousness is a matter of opinion. Anybody claiming to know the answers is, in fact, confusing opinion with knowledge.

As I've tried to convey, I believe that self-determinism offers an explanation for how we make choices and pursue purpose in a mechanistic, deterministic, universe. The key points of self-determinism address the usual objections of hard determinists. In the list, below, I first cite the hard determinist's objection, then follow it (in parentheses) with self-determinism's answer . . .

  • Causality means the inexorable cascade of all events is inevitable. (Not so! Animate beings and inanimate matter have different modes of response to causality. The law of causality: "Every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause" does not dictate a single, monolithic, mode of response -- nor a single potential future for animate beings.)
  • Because all events are inevitable, free will is an illusion. (That's a false dichotomy assuming a single mode of response to causality. There are other alternatives such as dynamic, intelligent, interaction with causality.)
  • Consciousness is entirely driven by deterministic, electro-chemical processes in the brain. (That's a myopic, reductionist, point of view attempting to address a subject better suited to complexity theory. Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. Thanks to mental feedback, we think about what we think about. This intelligent process is transformative and makes us self-aware, future-aware, manipulators of events.)

Now, for the final time, I will flesh out these key points of self-determinism.

Causality's cascade of events is NOT inevitable when intelligent human beings get involved with those events.

"Every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause" does NOT necessarily mean that a cause must have one and only one effect or that it is inevitable. The universe is not perfectly deterministic. The indeterministic quantum realm exerts an influence on the classical realm. The subatomic release of photons , the rate of radioactive decay, the quantum fluctuations that make up most of the mass of the universe (including your body), the workings of lasers and electricity . . . all these things involve quantum uncertainty. Yes, they're highly consistent and reliable, overall, but not perfectly so at all points of time. Hell, even the universe itself began with a quantum fluctuation and was entirely chaotic in its earliest stages. The point is that the universe, while highly predictable, is not perfectly deterministic. For example: photons exert predictable pressure upon impact (think of solar sails) but their initial subatomic release was entirely random. Their effect on interstellar dust and gas is predictable in general but not perfectly deterministic.

Secondly, the law of causality does not mean there's only one possible mode of response to events.  Inanimate matter responds to events mechanically and very predictably but animate beings are complex systems that respond to events in individual, unpredictable ways. There's a huge difference between a rock and a brain.

Also, it occurs to me that maybe Descartes had a legitimate point. I'm not sure about this but if every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause, what about abstract effects? How material is an abstraction like consciousness or choice? How "physical" is it? If consciousness is an emergent property of the brain and it must exist before intelligent self-awareness can emerge from it, then self-awareness is at least twice abstracted from the brain. How does abstraction affect causality? Self-awareness is certainly not the same tangible, material stuff as the brain -- yet we know it exists. Intelligent mental feedback, it seems to me, has all the transformative properties (self-awareness and abstraction) one would imagine is necessary for the emergence of choice and purpose: of self-determinism.

I don't know what free will is, so I can't say whether or not it's an illusion. But I do believe that self-determinism is not an illusion.

I claim that human civilization is jam-packed with purpose -- despite causality's utter lack of purpose. You and I and social groups of all sizes have both unique and shared purposes. It comes from somewhere other than causality. It comes from us. We interact with causality and deliberate and decide what is important to us. We pursue purpose in almost everything we do. That's empirical proof of choice.

Just because "consciousness emerges from deterministic, electro-chemical processes in the brain" does not mean that choice is equally deterministic.

Emergent properties are transformative phenomena that result in properties not shared by their constituent parts. Animate beings are made from inanimate matter. Life is an emergent property of organic compounds. Minds are made from neurons that are not conscious. Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. I believe choice and purpose -- self-determinism -- are also emergent properties of the brain concomitant with self-awareness.

If you think about it, "self-awareness" and "mental feedback" are practically paraphrases of each other. Mental feedback is the mechanism by which we become self-aware. We are self-aware because we think about what we think about. I believe this is the transformative process by which we deliberate and make choices . . . it's where the emergent property of self-determinism emanates from.

Is self-determinism a fact? I don't know. Maybe it fits reality well or maybe it doesn't. It's just an explanation for the observable fact of human purpose. The problem with hard determinism is that it takes another observable fact -- causality -- and turns it into a false dichotomy by placing unnecessary restrictions on it. Animate beings do not respond like inanimate objects. With self-aware intelligence, it is possible to proactively interact with (recognize, understand, anticipate and use) causality instead of merely mechanically reacting to it. Instead of explaining human purpose, hard determinism simply denies it and dismissively labels it an illusion.

Human purpose and causality are both observable facts. They must, therefore, be compatible. Hard determinists simply side-step the philosophical challenge with false dichotomies. They've managed to talk themselves out of ownership of their desires, purpose, choices and actions. They've taken the simple concept of causality and, by placing unnecessary restrictions on it, made it even simpler. As Einstein once famously stated: "Everything should be made as simple as possible: but not simpler."

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Tags: animate, causality, choice, consciousness, conundrum, deliberation, determinism, dichotomy, free, illusion, More…inanimate, self-determinism, will

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