Consciousness, Free Will and the Paranormal
Just a few years ago, while researching Fringe-ology, I found the chapter I wrote on “consciousness” provoked the most quizzical looks. The reason is that the issues involved—really, the central riddle—isn’t like ghosts or UFOs or any of the other topics in Fringe-ology. Ghosts carry a certain romance—the whiff of the grave and some hope of a new existence beyond. UFOs trail entire worlds and galaxies in their wake. But consciousness, for most people, hasn’t traditionally suggested the same realms of mystery.
Consciousness— that inner monologue; the sensation of eating a steak or drinking red wine—is something most people have taken for granted. But the fact is, the source of consciousness is a mystery: How do the mechanistic processes of chemical secretions and neural impulses, these materialistic operations in our brains, produce something as non-physical as thought? We don’t know. And in the years since I first began work on Fringe-ology, more people seem to recognize this fact.
Certainly, topics like consciousness and general neuroscientific research have gained a lot of traction in recent years. The term “Neuroplasticity” has entered the lexicon, cluing people in to how they can change the shape and function of their own neural circuitry. More people are meditating, investigating their own consciousness. And there has been a boom in meditation research. Of the 2,289 articles on meditation available on PubMed this winter, the National Institute of Health web site, 676 of them, or 29.5 percent, were published since January 2009. (By way of comparison, in the three prior years, of 2006-2008, just 405 articles were published.) But the topic that saw the most surprising uptick in exposure is free will.
Most of us take the idea that we make voluntary choices or decisions for granted. I have the sense that I could finish writing this post, or just quit and go buy an X-Box (believe me, I’m tempted). But within neuroscientific and philosophical circles, this vision of ourselves as free agents, sifting through our various choices—vanilla or chocolate, sandwich or salad, steal the company stationary, or buy your own—is a hugely contentious issue. And in recent times, free will has taken something of a beating in the popular media.
Author David Eagleman, in his book, Incognito and the Atlantic, argues that we need to begin rethinking our legal system because current findings in neuroscience do not support free will. As an example, he cites a man who developed a brain tumor—and an urge to molest children. When the tumor was removed surgcally, his urge to commit this particularly heinous crime went away. The reason for this massive change in the man’s desires and behavior is purely mechanistic, in Eagleman’s formulation—beyond his choice or control.
More infamously, atheist blogger and biologist and Jerry Coyne recently argued in the incredibly mainstream publication USA Today that free will is incompatible with everything we know about the brain and physics. I’ll quote Coyne extensively because I find it so incredible that heartland Americans, waking up in Holiday Inns all over the country, saw this with their coffee:
“You may feel like you've made choices,” writes Coyne, “but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your ‘will’ had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.”
This already seems likely to turn the casual reader’s coffee to bitters. But Coyne really only hits his nadir here:
“We are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the ‘choosing.’ ...Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics. True ‘free will,’ then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because ‘we’ are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous ‘will’ on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program. And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.”
Coyne’s vision strikes me as bleak, but of course the truth is sometimes nasty, so that can't be counted against him. In his estimation, we (and presumably him) are “simply meat computers,” which lack even the dignity of being “real” computers. And yes, there are potential problems with his argument that can be spotted at a great distance.
Avid meditators, skilled in directing their awareness for long periods of time, show remarkable changes in brain function. Most notably, fMRI scans of long-term meditators show a dramatic reduction of activity in their amygdalas and greater activity in the left-frontal cortex, rendering them better able to focus. Similar structural changes begin in short-term meditators, too, after mere weeks. Further, this change seems to be based on what we think about, as opposed to the physical act of sitting through long stretches of silence or chanting. (For instance, nuns who focus on the centering prayer have brains similar to monks but reflect a greater emotional response, presumably as a result of focusing on a sense of communion with God.) In short, then, there is a well-developed line of research that appears to represent the exact phenomenon Coyne claims can’t happen—the brain modifying its own workings, the computer reaching “inside itself” to “change its program." But Free Will, nonetheless, remains on the run.
Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that Free Will is a kind of non-starter. Near as he can tell, there seems to be no place in the brain for it to exist. (He expands on all this in his 13,000-word e-book, Free Will.)
Harris remains, for me, the most fascinating character among all the new atheists. An avid meditator, he professes that he sees room for at least a broadly defined spirituality; he has argued that the paranormal gets a "unfairly stigmatized;" and he acknowledges that consciousness is a mystery. But as I read him, there was one person I particularly wanted to hear respond to his thoughts: Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician and researcher who has now published five books on neurotheology, the study of the relationship between religious experience and the brain. It is Newberg, in fact, who performed the studies on nuns and meditators I mentioned above.
Like Harris, Newberg makes multiple appearances in Fringe-ology. Though I portray them both in a (mostly) positive light, I characterize Newberg, in particular, as a curative figure: In a media landscape where each new scientific finding, no matter how tangential or tenuous, is portrayed as groundbreaking and definitive, Newberg always seems to play the responsible adult, reminding us of the limited conclusions we can draw from the data at hand. Given this, it seemed to me that where Harris sees an exclamation point—we have no free will!—Newberg would likely spy a question mark. And that is precisely how he responded. "He's got an interesting perspective," said Newberg. "But I don’t feel his sense of certainty. I think whether or not we have free will is an open question."
Newberg went on to cite the difficulty of defining what we mean by free will, the challenges to testing it in some authoritative way, and the findings already present in neuroscience that seem to grant us some sense of self-direction. For example, Harris (and Coyne) both trot out the findings of Benjamin Libet, who famously demonstrated that activity in the brain's motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move—in this instance, to lift a finger or wrist.
Looking at the same data, Newberg says the Libet study is intriguing but does not necessarily eliminate free will: Libet was observing only a small fraction of his patient’s brains. Further, since the experimental subjects knew their task was to decide when to lift a finger, it seems reasonable to expect that their motor regions would demonstrate preparatory behavior. And their conscious awareness of a decision to act did precede the actual movement by 150 milliseconds.
This last bit, the lag between the conscious awareness of an act and its occurrence, might actually rescue choice. Libet himself thought so, and the form of free will he described is now commonly typified as “free won’t.”
As Harris writes, our brain is a fount of automatic thinking—thoughts and impulses that urge us along certain courses of action. But as Newberg points out, our rational frontal lobes do gain awareness of this information; and a feedback loop forms between these unconscious and conscious parts of our brain. Imagine free won’t, then, through the use of a baseball metaphor. The catcher, (your brain), gives signals to the pitcher (your consciousness). Just as the pitcher can shake off a signal and ask the catcher for another option, we constantly receive impulses from the brain. Some of these impulses, like quick motor reflexes, get processed and acted upon automatically. When I see a car drifting over into my lane, I register no choice to honk the horn and move to the shoulder of the highway. I even begin the actions involved before I have full, conscious awareness of the danger. But in other situations, when I have the impulse to eat a peach, or a slice of pie, I would retain the ability shake that off—the pitcher telling his catcher-brain “no” and receiving another suggestion.
The writers assaulting free will are so confident (add the Churchlands to this list) one might expect that, well, there really is no place to look. Our own conception of ourselves as free agents is doomed. But in addition to the meditation and prayer research I mentioned earlier, free won’t has received some serious, scientific backing from researchers Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who began teasing out what they call the “neural signature of self-control.”
A solid discussion of their work and releated research is available here.
Now, I think the presence of all this research supporting free will raises a serious question: Namely, what are Harris and Coyne thinking?
I’m not alone in asking this question. Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the city university of New York, questions why Libet’s work is trotted out as an argument against free will—at all.
“Not even Libet himself took his experiments to show that people don’t make conscious decisions,” Pigliucci, “in part because reporting awareness of an urge (in this case, of pushing a button) hardly qualifies as a conscious decision. The latter is the kind of reflective deliberation that Jerry and I engaged in while composing our respective essays, and it is simply not measured by Libet-type experiments. Indeed, it is not surprising at all that we make all sorts of unconscious decisions before we become aware of them, as any baseball batter, or anyone catching a falling object on the fly, will readily testify. Furthermore, there is ample empirical evidence that we do engage in conscious thinking (largely catalyzed by the prefrontal cortex)… and in [a] continuous feedback loop with our subconscious processing of information.”
In the end, Pigliucci accuses Coyne of not practicing science at all, but metaphysics. And, for me, this is the crux of the matter.
When confronted by the topic of consciousness, or free will, even the most rational among us push—seemingly against our will—beyond the bounds of science and into philosophy and metaphysics. And so I think Harris and Coyne both wind up blind to the moves they have made—the shift from describing scientific findings, to interpreting them. But it’s a shift that makes all the difference.
Though I have just described a long, ongoing intellectual conflict, I think there are some wonderful takeaways from this current state of affairs.
First, the mainstreaming of the free will debate can only serve to convince people that neuroscience, and the battle to interpret its findings, are fundamental to how we view ourselves. Are we robots of a kind—meat puppets, to recall the raucous band of the same name? Or are we the causal free agents we have always taken ourselves to be?
With this much at stake, following developments in neuroscience, at least through the press, seems a matter at least as important as keeping up with the political news of the day. But most importantly, I think delving into these realms forces us to get comfortable with an aspect of life we usually avoid or explain away: Mystery.
How deep is the mystery of consciousness? Well, first, let me refer you to the work of Colin McGinn, a leading philosopher who advances five possible explanations for consciousness in this New Statesman article—and quickly demolishes them all. For McGinn, the mystery of consciousness is fundamental and must be acknowledged. And so, in this context, consider that when Harris says there seems no place for free will in the brain, that this observation may reveal nothing about our ability to choose and everything about our ignorance, everything about the mysteriousness of consciousness.
As I said at the outset, there is an explanatory gap between materialism and consciousness itself. Just how is it that the physical firing of neurons and the secretion and absorption of chemicals produces something so incredibly nonphysical and comparatively ephemeral as the subjective experience of thought?
The answer, again, is we don’t know. And it is our lack of understanding, I think, that actually offers up the greatest riches of all. In short, our current inability to explain consciousness should even have ramifications for the way we think of the word “paranormal.” As I write in Fringe-ology:
"The word 'paranormal' is itself a kind of victim of human psychology, too often conflated with 'supernatural:' of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil. 'Paranormal,' conversely, can be and often is defined in far broader and, I’d argue, more scientifically useful terms: of or pertaining to events or perceptions occurring without scientific explanation. …If we take these definitions, the supernatural seems to force us toward religion, while the paranormal merely forces us to say, 'I don’t know.' There should be no shame in that, but I think the faithful too often want to equate their belief with knowledge; while the skeptic fears admitting we lack a final answer opens the door to all manner of hoo ha, including God. The skeptics also tend to view the words 'supernatural' and 'paranormal' as if they are easily interchangeable, but whereas the supernatural seems to lie firmly beyond science, the paranormal waits patiently for the technology and the willing scientists necessary for its discovery."
My position, then, is that if we can set aside all worry about being declared proponents of “woo” or New Age nonsense long enough to look at the true nature of our understanding, consciousness might itself be understood as “paranormal,” as consciousness occurs—to this point—“without scientific explanation.”
No, we don’t generally equate consciousness to ghosts. Or UFO’s. But it is a deep mystery—one we encounter all the time. And in this last year or so, we encountered it more than ever.