Free Will of the Consciousness Gap



(artwork by Diana Zanfirache)

Some people challenge the posit that consciousness is a product of the brain. They claim that if we do not know exactly how inanimate material can produce consciousness – how the complex interactions of billions of individual neurons actually produces self-awareness – then basing our experience in the brain is an unfounded claim. Furthermore, people are apparently being too hasty in referring to the material basis of thought when arguing that free will is an illusion. What if there is something else, entirely unbeknownst to us, that actually spawns consciousness? Some assert that free will could exist there.

Before I continue, I will devote a quick moment to explaining what I mean by free will, and why it is an illusion. (The subject deserves a lot more attention though, and I plan on expanding on this in a future essay). Free will⁠1 is the notion that we are free to choose our thoughts and actions at any given moment. In turn, it implies that we could have done differently in the past – not due to some random occurrence, but because we as the conscious authors chose differently.

However, with the discovery of the scientific method, we have come to realise that we live in a universe dictated by pervasive physical laws. Indeed, the knowledge of these laws has allowed us to predict and manipulate our environment, and the idea that our minds are truly free suffers when one considers that we, humans, are part of this environment. There is no reason to believe that the laws of the universe do not govern our brains, and thus human thought, behaviour and actions. Nothing we know about neuroscience, biology, chemistry or physics can make any coherent sense of the idea of free will.

There is no inclination of a ghost in the machine, and we as conscious beings cannot step outside of the causal stream of events of the universe. At every instant the state of your brain, and thus mind, is dependent on prior states that preceded it. We could trace this chain of events back, through each moment to moment occurrence – to yesterday, last month, last year, to your birth, and beyond. And whether the universe is truly deterministic, or inherently involves indeterministic behaviour of particles at the quantum level, no amount of indeterminism results in free will, for how could we claim responsibility for truly random processes?

With these points in mind, many are forced to refer to our gap in understanding between matter and consciousness as a place for free will to exist. This reminds me of the well known god of the gaps argument – the attempt made by some to explain a phenomenon unexplained by scientific enquiry by saying ‘god did it’, thus proving his existence. This is not only an intellectually lazy strategy, it is ultimately futile, as we’ve witnessed this gap shrink smaller and smaller with scientific advancement. Lightning, disease, planetary motion and the origin of the diversity of life were all once part of this gap. Similarly, to say that there may be something else that explains consciousness in a way that allows free will to survive is a free will of the consciousness gap argument.

Consciousness has not been coined  ‘The Hard Problem’ for nothing.  For something as important as, ultimately, the only thing that can be important, we know embarrassingly very little about it.  The only evidence we really have of conscious experience is the experience itself. Furthermore, as the philosopher Rene Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am” entails that our consciousness is the only fact we can assert as an absolute truth about anything at all. All of what you experience could be a dream, a projected holographic universe, or part of a Matrix-type world whilst you’re living in a vat hooked up to wires. The only thing you can be sure about however is that you alone exist, in some sense, somewhere.

Sitting around and mulling on this point is no doubt intriguing, however it does not appear to achieve much more than that. In a universe in which we are conscious creatures, we cannot yet step outside of reality (or our consciousness) and peer in. Instead, we must work within our perspective. Stephen Hawking and Leonar Mlodinow tackled this issue in their book ‘The Grand Design’, as a prelude to diving into questions such as the fabric of the cosmos itself. Here they coined the term “model-dependent realism”, which reminds us that if we observe the universe from our perspective, make predictions based on those observations, and these predictions hold true, then this is as real as we can achieve. Laws of basic motion will appear differently to a fish within a curved glass bowl looking outwards to the world (due to the bending of light through the glass), but those laws will remain as real as they are to us. Neither perspective can be said to be more ‘real’.

So what observations and predictions can we make about consciousness? Well, firstly we must ask ourselves another question, a deceptively difficult one to answer – what is consciousness? One account, is that consciousness exists if there is ‘something that it is like’ to be that thing. Your current state of subjective experience is consciousness, whereas a rock is not conscious, because there is nothing that it is like to be a rock.

For the moment, we cannot step into another’s mind to study it – so how do we learn of the contents of another’s consciousness? The simplest way is by verbal report – what you tell me about your perceptions, memories and intentions. You can describe what you see, what event you are remembering, or your emotional state. Obviously there will be occasions where such reporting is not perfect, but, in general, the method works well. Such reporting is the basis of most human communication, upon which our relationships and wider society can function. I validate my understanding of your report by matching your description to my experience. The practise of psychiatry largely relies on verbal reports of subjective experience. If someone reports hearing the devil in the corner of the room, and I cannot see it, I ascertain that the patient is likely experiencing an auditory hallucination.

Verbal reporting provides a platform on which we can make observations and predictions about consciousness upon. An elegantly simple example involves the retina and the subjective experience of sight. Anatomically and developmentally, the retina is an extension of our brain, and physical perturbations of the retina produce predictable and reproducible alterations to the conscious experience of sight. This can be shown easily with an Amsler Grid – a card containing several rows of horizontal and vertical straight lines that is utilised by ophthalmologists to test your vision. By gazing on a dot in the centre, one can screen their central visual field for any defects. Not only does the experience of curved lines indicate a physical aberration of the retina (say for instance, a cyst underneath the retina causing a bump), but the location and degree of the curving correlates with the position and severity of the physical distortion of the retina. Here we have a simple phenomenon showing a clear relationship between the specific arrangement of neurons and consciousness.

Other types of damage to the brain also cause specific alterations in conscious experience. One way of conceptualising this is picturing your brain as a house, with each room representing an anatomical section of the brain. Rooms in this house are illuminated by lightbulbs, but these can burn out and blow. If the light in the room representing your parietal-medial-temporal lobe goes out, you will notice your ability to experience memories will suffer. Alternatively, if the light for the fusiform gyrus turns off, you lose the ability to recognise faces (known as ‘prosopagnosia’). Despite this, lights to nearby rooms may remain on, leaving other aspects of visual processing (such as object discrimination) and intellectual functioning completely intact.

Of course it is not always as simple as this, the circuitry of the brain is quite complex. Some defunct switches may control lights in multiple rooms⁠2, doors left ajar can capture light from nearby rooms⁠3, and inhabitants (or ‘functions’) of a darkened room can move next door and share with their neighbours⁠4. But what I’ve tried to illustrate is that through alterations of the brain, components of the mind can be identified, separated, and individually affected. Furthermore, it shows the absurdity of the notion that the mind could survive the death of the brain. It implies that we could walk through the house of a brain, turn off the lights to each room, but as soon as the very last light goes out, the entire house immediately reilluminates in some other, completely non-physical, sense.

One of the most profound examples of the physical basis of consciousness involves instances where the brain is dissected at the corpus callosum, the area that connects the right and left hemispheres of your brain. This was done in the past as a means to treat severe medication-resistant epilepsy, by constraining the seizure activity of the brain to one half. Amazingly, this procedure left patients with what can be described as two separate consciousnesses. Studies into this phenomenon took advantage of the fact that each half of our visual field is processed by the opposite, or contralateral, side of the brain. If an experimenter flashed the command “DRINK” to the right hemisphere (by keeping it in the part of the visual field that only the right hemisphere could see), the person would comply and drink the glass of water in front of them. But when the  person’s left hemisphere was asked why they drank the water, they will say, in all sincerity, “because I was thirsty”—rather than “you told me to”, “I don’t really know” or “the urge just came over me”. One half of the brain was consciously aware of reading the instructions, whilst the other was not.

Through all these examples, it is clear there is a relationship between the physical brain and consciousness. As I’ve outlined above, alterations to the brain such as trauma, surgery, medications and tumours can directly affect consciousness. Although we may not yet know exactly how individual neurons – when plentiful enough and connected in the right ways – produce self-awareness, it seems that for every state of consciousness there is an associated neural state. Indeed, there has never been any evidence of a change in mental state occurring without a corresponding change in neural state.  So consciousness appears to be dependent on the brain.

But isn’t it possible that something else is involved in the gap between neurons and consciousness, something that we have never considered? Yes, but the possibilities would be effectively infinite. What’s worse, is that invoking something else entirely to explain consciousness, such as an immaterial or abnormal substance, complicates the matter further without providing any solution to the problem it claims to solve. For what is the evidence that this ’something else’ exists? What anchors it to particular bodies and brains? What property would allow this ’something else’ to think whilst brain material cannot?

Grounding our mental lives in the physical brain could easily be falsified. Our scientific concept of the brain and mind would immediately be thrown into disarray by any respectable evidence of ghosts, auras, the afterlife, or reincarnation, but alas this has not eventuated. (For those tempted to refer to the widely popular book “Proof of Heaven” by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, please read this wonderful critique by neuroscientist and author Sam Harris).

By contrast, those who assert the existence of ‘something else’ to fill the gap between brains and consciousness cannot say what would count as evidence against their views, resulting in an uncanny similarity with religious faith. What would count as evidence of a supernatural being? Many things. What could prove its non-existence? Nothing. We must remember that a non-falsifiable argument is a sign of its weakness, not its strength. If free will exists, it cannot exist within the bounds of this reasoning.


1 Libertarian free will.

2 e.g Multiple Sclerosis.

3 Cognitive compensation.

4 Neuroplasticity.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Philip Mosley says:

    Hi Steve. Nice post! A couple of quick thoughts. Are you making the point that the brain instantiates consciousness or are you arguing for phenomenal / material identity? There are various philosophical arguments against the latter – e.g. David Chalmers and ‘qualia’, John McDowell and singular thoughts / intentionality and John Searle and the Chinese room thought experiment. I would be interested in your perspective on these at a later date! Also, even if there was a 1:1 materialist identity – would this necessarily mean free will is an illusion? I think there’s a difference between materialism and determinism.

  2. Philip Mosley says:

    And of course I should add Saul Kripke to that list.

  3. Warren Ward says:

    Hi Steve. I love the way your blog is evolving. Excellent and thought-provoking essay.

    I can’t help but finding myself asking the following questions, however:

    Does that mean the essay you wrote was an inevitable consequence of totally predetermined electrochemical reactions in your brain?

    Or, alternatively – and for me even more implausibly – was your essay due to nondeterministic random quantum processes.

    I’m suspicious of the reductionism that seems to be implied in your essay.

    I agree consciousness is a ‘hard problem’ and don’t propose to have the answers by any means, but I wonder whether a more fruitful approach to these issues is to appreciate that different levels of reality require different concepts to understand and explain and appreciate them. For me it makes sense to explain brains in terms of neurones. But more complex and larger phenomena can be validly explained using different conceptual building blocks.

    For example when discussing a person rather than a brain it makes sense to talk about personal attributes such as honesty, intelligence, generosity, thoughtfulness, wit, and charm.

    Also when talking about a piece of literature (a novel), I think its totally valid to break it down into theme, setting, characterisation, style, voice, structure etc. To talk about a novel as being made up of only paper and ink (which is materially true) misses the point of what a novel is (the creative work of an author), and for me is a similar error to try breaking down a mind, person, or culture or society for that matter down into brain chemistry.

    Enjoying the opportunity for ongoing discussion and reflection on this fascinating topic.

    Thank you.

  4. william Balthes says:

    as has been mentioned its not clear by essay that the author is clearly reductionistic- he seems to claim that the brain causes the mind (that the mind is a product of the brain) rather then BEING the brain. Other than that, i think the main problem with free will is whether it even has a coherent definition

  5. Matt Benton says:

    Hi Steve,

    Some interesting thoughts and I like your writing style – it’s punchy and well structured. I actually found this post searching for articles using the term ‘consciousness gap’ as I’ve written a post with a slightly different meaning for the phrase.

    I’m not about to make a huge defence of free will. The triumph of the heroic individual is so much a part of our culture. But equally I think some scientists feel the need to demystify free will as something long associated with religion, possibly becoming a bit evangelical themselves. To me free will is only ever a philosophical, legal and moral construct and no more or less real than aesthetics or fiscal responsibility – all are concepts which have a certain value in a certain context. So yes illusory in a sense, but also not something that can really be disproved by neuroscience, because free will being a societal construct means it wouldn’t exist as a module inside the brain anyway. Actually my post on the consciousness gap is about the unexplained gap between the unconscious material world around us and our own conscious existence.

    I have a question on consciousness. Like you I do not believe there is a “something else, entirely unbeknownst to us, that actually spawns consciousness” because that leads to dualism, or theism or supernatural forces. So dis-regarding these, as a materialist scientist do you believe there is a threshold to be crossed where the unconscious material world somehow becomes conscious? That once biological matter passes a certain threshold of complexity, i.e brain tissue, this somehow will generate consciousness? That appears to be the philosophical assumption behind most explanations for the origin of consciousness.

    I have always believed ‘threshold’ explanations are unsatisfactory and based on assumption rather than something for which there’s real evidence. I would also argue science has partly inherited that standpoint, without really being aware of it, because it is part of the religious traditions in the west that our science has developed under.

    A ‘threshold’ approach leads to questions – how complex does a biological system need to be to become conscious? Where does this generated consciousness go after death? How can consciousness spontaneously appear unless there’s a reservoir of consciousness somewhere to draw on? etc, etc (The last is something I definitely do not believe in!). My understanding has always been somewhere between current materialist thinking and panpsychism, a view I’ve outlined in my post.

    Unfortunately no matter how carefully I chose my words the idea will still look to many a bit ‘New Agey’. Still, it’s worth trying. I really think a threshold explanation of the consciousness gap is a logical dead end.

    Regards from Pommie-land

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s