Consciousness and free will – Part 1

Like most people, it seemed obvious to me that we have free will and up until about three years ago, I had not thought about it much or questioned it. Then I read Sam Harris’ small book Free Will (2012, Free Press) which made the case that we do not have free will. In my previous posts on consciousness, I noted that Annaka Harris, David Chalmers and Anil Seth all had some discussion of free will in their books. So I re-read Sam Harris’s book, now with a much deeper understanding of its relationship to consciousness, and came away largely convinced that he is right in seeing free will as an illusion.

Free Will is a very short book, 66 pages of main text amounting to around 15,000 words. It is very well written and jargon-free and makes a very strong case that free will is an illusion. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. Well worth reading, whatever your views on free will.

For most people, consciousness not only involves a sense of self but also the feeling of being in control of your actions, of being the author of your thoughts. In other words, you have free will, the ability to consciously choose among potential decisions or actions. I refer to this as free will in the ordinary sense. This idea of free will emerges from a felt experience, and most people do not question it. That included me until relatively recently.

Three main positions on free will

Harris notes that in the philosophical literature we find three main approaches to the problem: determinism, compatibilism and libertarianism. Determinists believe that our thoughts and actions are fully determined by internal and external background causes and free will is an illusion. Compatibilists accept determinism and redefine “free will” as being free from any outer or inner coercions that would prevent the person from acting on his actual desires and intentions.

Libertarians (no relation to the political philosophy) believe that free will occurs outside of physical causation, whether as the causal action of consciousness on the physical brain or perhaps via metaphysical entities such as a soul. While both determinists and libertarians believe determinism and free will are incompatible, I will refer to libertarians in this review as incompatibilists to avoid confusion with the extreme right-wing political libertarians. Harris notes that our modern understanding of brain and behaviour strongly supports a determinist view and that “today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist”.

David Bourget and David Chalmers surveyed 931 philosophy faculty members at 99 institutions in many countries and found that 12% of philosophers were determinists, 59% compatibilists, 14% incompatibilists, and 15% had other views. Leaving other views aside, this means that 71% of philosophers do not believe in free will in the ordinary sense and only 14% do. This means that almost three quarters of philosophers agree with Sam Harris’ case that (ordinary) free will is an illusion, except that some are quite angry with him for not accepting their redefinition of free will as the freedom from coercion (more of this later).

Objective evidence

Harris’s case rests on objective, scientific observations on the one hand, and subjective evidence from introspection and meditation on the other hand. The scientific evidence includes:

  • Observations that brain activity occurs a significant time interval before conscious awareness of the intention to do something.
  • Given the right experimental manipulations, people can be led to believe that they consciously intended an action, when they neither chose it nor had control over their movements.
  • Hypnotized people who are asked why they have done things that were suggested by the hypnotist will confabulate reasons for their actions that have nothing to do with the actual reason.

To this I would add the experiments done with split brain patients, where an action is requested to one side only of the split brain. When the patient is asked via the other side of the split brain why they did that action, the other side will invent a plausible reason that it believes.

Subjective evidence

Sam Harris devotes more of his book to discussion of our subjective experience, arguing that free will is not only an illusion, but it doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us. Introspection soon shows us that thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. As an experienced meditator, I am well aware that my thoughts appear spontaneously in my mind, and I can no more decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises in my mind. To directly observe this is to understand that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose. You might respond that you can think connected chains of thought, but meditators know that these arise and cease for reasons outside our conscious control.

Part of the felt experience of free will is to feel that you could have chosen to do something other than what you did, to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever you did do. But it is not possible to go back and make a different decision. This is an untestable belief. The perception that you could have, is actually an understanding that you could make a different decision if similar circumstance arose in the future. And that is likely true, particularly if what you did do last time had undesirable consequences. Read Harris for a fuller discussion of this.

What do the authors of the other books on consciousness that I have been reading think about free will? Anneka Harris agrees with Sam Harris and summarizes the same case, probably just as well since she is married to him. I briefly discuss the views of the other authors below.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennet is a compatibilist who agrees with Sam that we do not have free will and our choices are determined, not free. But he redefines free will as the freedom to do what is determined and is very aggressive about attacking Harris for claiming there is no free will (even though Harris is talking about the type of free will he agrees is an illusion). Einstein expressed this compatibilist view very clearly as follows:  In a 1929 interview in The Saturday Evening Post, he said: ‘I do not believe in free will. I believe with Schopenhauer: we can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must.’

Dennett has written a book Freedom Evolves (2003) in which he defends his compatibilist view that that the concept of free will should be redefined so that it no longer involves a free choice among alternatives but rather refers to our freedom to do that one thing that we must wish to do, in other words our freedom from coercion. I think even this definition is incoherent, since if there is external coercion, it is just one of the external determining factors in the determination of our choice (either to change it because we are coerced, or to not change it and suffer the consequence of the coercion). As Eyal Moses’ 2010 review of his book stated:

“For Dennett, the significance of free will is that it is the basis of morality and moral responsibility, of engaging in moral judgment and holding people responsible for their actions. His thesis is that while free will in the ordinary sense is an illusion, these consequences of free will are real and compatible with his deterministic model of the universe, so free will should be redefined to refer to these consequences. Dennett suggests that calling an action “freely chosen” should not mean that the person had some other possible alternative action (which Dennett claims is never true), but rather should mean that we are justified in holding the person morally responsible for that action.”

Dennett has written a long, condescending and incoherent review of Sam Harris’ book. Harris has responded to this here, and Daniel Miessner has written a devastating critique of Dennett’s arguments and examples in his review of Harris’s book. Miessner summarizes Dennett’s position as (1) We have free will because we feel like we do and (2) It’s useful to hold people responsible for their actions, so we must tell people that free will is real.

If you want to dig a little deeper into the issues around understanding the true nature of free will, I can recommend reading Dennett’s review, Sam Harris’ response and Miessner’s detailed critique.

David Chalmers

Chalmers made a fairly strong case in his book that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of mental functioning and itself has no causal role. But he resisted drawing this conclusion, saying he is agnostic and hopes to find some subtle role for consciousness in causing behaviour.  Annaka Harris identifies such a potential causal role for the behaviour of someone who is reporting on their experience of meditating on their empty consciousness (formless awareness). Its hard to imagine how a zombie could exhibit such behaviour.

Chalmers examines a number of potential strategies for avoiding epiphenomenalism but concludes that none of them justify rejecting the conclusion that consciousness is mostly epiphenomenal, perhaps with some subtle exceptions.  This clearly is fundamental to the issue of whether or not we have free will, and I find it odd that Chalmers does not discuss free will directly. He is on record as saying he does not have strong feelings about free will. For some reason, he appears to act coy around expressing a view on free will, though he is clearly sceptical and tending towards compatibilism, saying in the Scientific American interview that “If it just means you can do what you want to do, then, well, that seems pretty straightforward. If it’s the ability to do something completely non-deterministic, well, I don’t know if we have that.”

Anil Seth

Anil Seth also comes down very clearly on the side of no “spooky free will” (free will where consciousness causally intervenes in the flow of physical events). He discusses in some detail how intentions are formed in the brain before we become aware of making a decision and the very strong feeling that our “self” has made the decision and is causing the action. He is also a compatibilist, also quoting Schopenhauer in slightly different words “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

But Seth, somewhat like Dennett, is clearly unwilling to state that free will is an illusion.  Indeed, he says that the conscious experience of volition is as real as any other conscious perception, such as a visual experience of colour. I find it somewhat difficult to take him seriously after he has just reviewed at length all the neurological experiments showing brain activity a significant time before a conscious volition is experienced and that people will experience volition if they are fooled into thinking they are controlling a series of events or the real cause is hidden from them.

What Seth actually means by saying the experience of volition is “real” is that it is indeed an experience we have, even though it does not reflect a reality in which our “self” makes choices from a range of options, any of which the self could have chosen. Seth argues that the reason we have this experience of volition is that it is indispensable to our survival and assists us to realize that we can learn from our previous “voluntary” actions, to possibly make a different choice next time. He may well be right.

In conclusion

The objective evidence, well discussed in some detail by Anil Seth, and the subjective evidence, well laid out by Sam Harris, and which I have also examined in some depth, together make a strong case that free will in the ordinary sense, is an illusion, or as Sam Harris puts it more strongly, even the illusion of free will is an illusion. It seems to me very likely that not only are free will and the sense of a conscious self illusions, but that consciousness is largely along for the ride, and plays at most only a limited causal role in behaviour and thought.

I have not touched on the implications of this for moral responsibility. Sam Harris spends quite a bit of time discussing this in his book, and Daniel Dennett sees moral responsibility as necessary and that it justifies redefining free will so people can be told they have it. There is quite a body of empirical evidence around this issue and I will examine it, as well as evidence on the free will beliefs of the general population and specific groups, in Part 2 of this post on free will.

The “real” problem of consciousness: a review of Being You by Anil Seth

In my fifth post in this series, I review Anil Seth’s 2021 book Being You. See here, here, here, and here for the previous posts. I read a Guardian review of this book in August 2021 which raved about it, as did various other reviewers. So, I went out and bought it, and when it came, I started to read it. It annoyed me so much (see below) that I put the book aside until recently. Seth is a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Surrey, highly cited for his publications, and also a prolific popularizer of his views on consciousness (New Scientist, Scientific American, TED talks etc).

Seth starts well in the Prologue, with the comment that “consciousness is a mystery that matters. For each of us, our conscious experience is all there is. Without it there is nothing at all: no world, no self, no interior and no exterior.” But he continues with “For me, a source of consciousness should explain how the various properties of consciousness depend on, and relate to, the operations of the neuronal wetware inside our heads. The goal of consciousness science should not be ‑‑ at least not primarily ‑‑ to explain why consciousness happens to be part of the universe in the first place.”

The book is divided into four parts. In the first, Seth describes his approach to the study of consciousness. He also deals with attempts to measure the presence and level of consciousness. The second examines how the brain produces the contents of consciousness, and the third examines the sense of self and conscious selfhood. The fourth and final part, examines what his approach to the study of consciousness has to say about animal consciousness and the possibility of sentient machines.

The hard problem of consciousness

Seth defines consciousness as “any kind of subjective experience whatsoever. …. Whenever there is experience, there is phenomenology; and wherever there is phenomenology, there is consciousness.” He quotes Chalmers’ description of “the hard problem” before going on to say that his preferred philosophical position, and the default assumption of many neuroscientists is physicalism (synonymous with materialism, the view that consciousness is an emergent property of arrangements of physical stuff). At the other extreme to physicalism is idealism, the idea that consciousness or mind is the ultimate source of reality and matter emerges from mind. Seth then notes that various forms of dualism “sit awkwardly in the middle” and few philosophers or scientists now sign up for dualistic views. He doesn’t explicitly mention Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism, though he does describe functionalism as an influential form of physicalism. Functionalism is the idea that consciousness does not depend on what a system is made of, but only on what the system does, on the functions it performs. Chalmers is actually a functionalist, though not a physicalist.

Seth also mentions panpsychism and mysterianism. Panpsychism is summarily dismissed as not leading to any testable hypotheses, and mysterianism as unjustly pessimistic.

He then defends physicalism through an attack on so-called `zombie’ thought experiments. He argues, in my view fairly correctly, that the ability to imagine a philosophical zombie is an extremely weak argument that may have no bearing on the actual possibility of such a creature.  However, he does not mention any of Chalmers’ other four arguments for the non-supervention of consciousness on the physical. To my simple mind, Seth just assumes that consciousness is an emergent property of physical brains without argument and ignores completely the mystery of how a first-person subjective experience can emerge from an arrangement of physical things, by their nature objective and third-person. How can an interior emerge from exteriors: the hard problem.

The `real’ problem of consciousness

Seth then explains that his aim is to address the “real” problem of consciousness, not the hard problem. According to the “real problem”, the main aims of consciousness science are to explain why a particular conscious experience is the way it is, in terms of physical mechanisms and processes in the brain and body. Why does a particular pattern of brain activity map to a particular kind of conscious experience? 

This is of course an interesting question, but for me Seth is essentially avoiding the hard problem. He recognizes it exists (unlike Dennett) but simply decides that science should be about what seems tractable to him, and that is mapping and understanding the correlations between the brain activity and the conscious experience. As Chalmers also recognized, of course consciousness is systematically associated with physical structures and functions (see previous post). Seth is dismissive of the hard problem, saying: “the real problem is distinct from the hard problem, because it is not, at least in the first instance, about explaining why and how consciousness is part of the universe in the first place. It does not hunt for a special sauce that can magic consciousness from mere mechanism.”

In the rest of this first part of the book, Seth sets out to identify various neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). He first examines the search for NCC to identify how conscious someone is, on a scale from complete absence of conscious experience (eg. in a coma or under anaesthesia) all the way to “vivid states of awareness that accompany normal waking life”. No mention of altered or non-ordinary states. A chapter follows in which Seth describes various advances in using EEG, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyse brain function and identify levels of consciousness in terms of a measure of the “algorithmic complexity” of certain brain waves./i

Seth describes meeting the psychedelics research Robin Carhart-Harris and applying his “algorithmic complexity” measure of consciousness level to the brain scans of people who had taken psychedelics. He found that the level was increased relative to the baseline level of waking rest. Seth describes several similar measures of brain order-disorder and says none of them work very well. I’m not surprised, the theory itself is misguided and probably has little or nothing to do with consciousness.

In the next Chapter, Seth reviews an even more elaborate information-based measure Φ (phi), which is supposed to be the additional amount of information generated by the system as a whole, over and above the information generated by its parts. Apart from the fact that Φ cannot be calculated or measured for a brain (which Seth admits), its proponents make the claim that Φ (or integrated information) is identical to consciousness. This claim is completely unbased in any evidence, theory or argument and strikes me as typical of people who want their science to be “physics-like” and simply borrow concepts such as entropy and claim they explain something else.

This is the point I got to in my first attempt to read the book where I got so annoyed that I put it down for over a year. This sort of idiocy could only be dreamed up by the one third of people who simply don’t think the hard problem really exists, and that of course includes most neuroscientists.

Creating the contents of consciousness

On my second reading, I pushed past the Φ nonsense into the second part of the book, which how the brain creates the contents of consciousness. In brief, Seth argues (correctly) that the contents of consciousness are essentially controlled hallucinations, in which the brain generates predicted perceptions about the causes of sensory inputs, and continually corrects and updates these perceptions as new or clearer sensory inputs become available. What we perceive is tied to, controlled by, causes in the world, but is not just a reflection of “things out there”.

Seth examines how this occurs for various senses, including a few beyond the traditional “five senses” such as proprioception. I found these chapters very interesting.

A brief aside now. He discusses our sense of time and states categorically that we have no internal pacemaker, our time perception comes from a “best guess” about the rate of change of sensory signals, without any need for an inner clock. He quotes a number of experiments that he thinks confirms this. But my direct experience contradicts this.

My first example is a time when I was had a fairly large garden project and used self-hypnosis to give myself a command to wake at 5 am each morning to do a couple of hours work on it. I did not want to use an alarm clock so as not to disturb my wife. I actually woke within a minute or two of five o’clock almost every day for over two months. My second example is an experience I have often had when using an alarm clock to wake each morning for work. Every now and then I experience a period of several days, sometimes more, where I wake each morning one minute before the alarm goes off. I either have an accurate internal clock or while asleep my brain is able to tap into sensory signals of some sort and very accurately predict how much time is passing, to the minute. I mention this because it seems to me a typical example where neurologists extrapolate unjustified conclusions from fairly primitive experiments on limited samples and do not think to review the broader experiences of large numbers of people or identify individuals who may have outlier abilities.

This second part is well worth reading, and I agree with most of it, but it has little to do with the hard problem, though Seth thinks it makes the hard problem a non-problem. I am guessing that like the philosophers Seth has no experience with meditation, or of consciousness when its contents drop away. As I described in my previous post, it is possible to eventually turn your conscious attention away from other sensory contents and thought and back on itself. To sit simply aware of awareness. That is the fundamental essence of the hard problem: how does that awareness arise. It simply cannot be an emergent property arising from the brain and its production of perceptions because the awareness that experiences those perceptions is not those perceptions and remains when perceptions of everything except first-person awareness drop away.

The illusion of the self

In the third part of the book, Seth examines the sense of a “self” that we usually feel is what is experiencing consciousness. He notes that Buddhists have “long argued that there is no such thing as a permanent self and through meditation have attempted to reach entirely selfless states of consciousness” though he does not seem to understand that many meditators do reach such selfless states, albeit usually only for a short period of time. It’s the selfless stage of consciousness that is rarely reached.  The experience of selfless states is empirical evidence, albeit first-person data not the outside observer data that Seth is more comfortable with as a scientist. Seth also notes that psychedelics can result in experiences of no-self (and in my experience, also in drastically altered senses of self).

Seth identifies several types of selfhood that we experience: the embodied self (our experience of our body) the perspectival self (our first-person perspective), the volitional self (our perception that we have free will), the social self (how I perceive that others perceive me) and the narrative self (our remembered past and anticipated future). Seth argues (convincingly to me) that these diverse elements of selfhood are normally bound together in a unified experience, together with a perception (not really accurate) that our selfhood is enduring and little changing. He argues that the brain has evolved to produce this sense of selfhood in a similar way to how it produces predicted perceptions as a tool to enhance the survival of the individual. The self is another controlled hallucination that operates to support the fundamental biological drive to survive and reproduce.

Seth appears to think that losing the sense of the reality of the self is bodily regulation gone deeply awry, a severe psychiatric problem. That may be the case in some specific psychiatric conditions but is certainly not the experience of meditators who taste the no-self state, quite the opposite.

This part of the book finishes with yet another chapter on a pretend-physics theory of living organisms and a chapter on free will. The free will chapter is excellent and thought-provoking but I will leave that topic for a later post.

Animal and machine consciousness

The last part of the book examines the issue of whether other animals are conscious and whether machines can be conscious. The animal chapter is a fascinating read. Other than mammals which Seth argues likely mostly have some form of consciousness as their brains are so similar to ours, Seth explores the very alien consciousness of the octopus and this is indeed a fascinating read. Highly recommended.

The chapter on machine consciousness makes the very valid point that intelligence and consciousness are not the same thing and many make the assumption that achieving artificial general intelligence will automatically bring consciousness. Seth is sceptical and also is agnostic on the requirement of functionalism, the idea that consciousness depends only on function not on the material from which a system is made. Another excellent discussion, which I mainly leave for a separate post on machine consciousness.

In summary

Anil Seth is one of the one-third of people who simply don’t “get” the hard problem of consciousness. He thinks progress on his “real” problems will not solve but dissolve the hard problem. The parts of the book where he delves into pretend physics theories of consciousness are annoying and silly. But the rest of the book where he addresses the way that the brain produces perceptions via “controlled hallucinations” and that the sense of self is one of these controlled hallucinations is an excellent and enjoyable read. I learnt a lot about how visual and other illusions provide evidence of how the brain produces perceptions adjusted for its best guesses of the errors in the sensory inputs.

Seth has looked at some aspects of psychedelic experiences, though he largely ignores the very large body of subjective first-person evidence of non-ordinary states of consciousness and the theoretical work to develop maps of states and stages of consciousness.  He also completely ignores first-person evidence from meditative experiences, and indeed seems to see the Buddhist insight that the self is an illusion as a belief not as a result of empirical observations.

A book well worth reading but try not to let the sections on pretend-physics grand theories put you off completely. Take them lightly or skip them; the rest of the book is full of fascinating information and arguments.

Annaka Harris on the fundamental mystery of consciousness

In my previous post on consciousness, I noted that the 2019 book Conscious: a guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind, by Annaka Harris, was a superb discussion of the various issues, evidence and theories about consciousness. Of the seven books on consciousness I listed in the previous post, hers is the only one to take into account insights derived from meditation, use of psychedelics, and of altered states of consciousness more generally. It is also the only one to review, fairly honestly as far as I can tell, most of the major approaches to understanding and explaining consciousness and to discuss their pros and cons rather than making a partisan case for one approach.

Harris starts by explaining what she means by the word “consciousness”. She basically takes the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s definition in his famous essay “What is it like to be a Bat?” and posits that an organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.  She says:

“Consciousness is experience itself , and it is therefore easy to miss the profound question staring us in the face in each moment : Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious ? We look right past the mystery as if the existence of consciousness were obvious or an inevitable result of complex life , but when we look more closely , we find that it is one of the strangest aspects of reality”

How does conscious experience arise out of non-sentient matter?  This is the problem that the Australian philosopher David Chalmers famously termed the “ hard problem ” of consciousness. Harris also points to a related question: at what point do the “lights turn on” for some collections of matter in the universe?  Presumably there is nothing that it is like to be a fertilized human egg cell, but at some point in the development of the foetus and its brain, experience apparently ignites.

In the second chapter Harris explores two related and important questions about consciousness:

  • In a system that we know has conscious experiences—the human brain—what evidence of consciousness can we detect from the outside?
  • Is consciousness essential to our behavior?

These questions lead Harris to the conclusion that (a) that both conscious and non-conscious states seem to be compatible with any behaviour and (b) that it may just be prejudice that makes us think that non-human living systems cannot be conscious. In the following Chapter she delves more deeply into the question of the extent to which consciousness plays a role in our behaviour.

She reviews experimental evidence which suggests that, at least for some types of behaviour and actions, the body-brain system has started the action before we are consciously aware of having to act. She concludes that our consciousness does not actually appear to be involved in much of our own behaviour, and this leads straight into the question of whether we have free will. The argument that conscious will is an illusion is further strengthened by the fact that the illusion of free will can be intentionally triggered and manipulated in experiments where there is not actually free will.

Harris then turns to the question of our experience of a “self” that is the subject of everything we experience. Is it possible to simply be aware of perceptions, feelings, thoughts etc without the sense of being a “self” who is aware of these things. Such an experience is not uncommon in meditation and in psychedelic experiences, and I can attest to this from personal experience, as can many other people.

In fact, research on brain functioning in people having psychedelic experiences has identified areas of the brain known as the default mode network which plays a key role in the sense of self. Researchers have found that during the psychedelic state there is significant deactivation of the default mode network, and this is strongly correlated with the experience of ego dissolution, or no-self.

Given that consciousness is the first-person experience of awareness, it seems obvious to me that first-person tools of investigation such as meditation and psychedelic experiences must be taken into account along with third-person observations of human functioning.

Harris then reviews “split-brain” studies, arguing that they shed light on both the concept of the self and on the malleability of consciousness. Split-brain experiments show that the part-brain without knowledge of the reason for a behaviour will invent a story to explain why the person is doing something. This suggests that maybe our sense of free will and decision making is a brain construct. Other experiments appear to show that each split brain has a separate centre of consciousness. There is not a single centre or “self”. Harris speculates that perhaps consciousness is not a “unitary” phenomenon but there may be flows of consciousness distributed across the brain and perhaps elsewhere in the body, and that these are “bound” into an apparent unitary “self” rather like disparate patchy sense inputs are bound into an apparent unitary experience.

Harris concludes that we can’t actually find reliable external evidence of consciousness, nor can we conclusively point to any specific function it serves. She raises the question of whether consciousness is “along for the ride” rather than playing a causal role in our functioning?

She then returns to the question of how and where to draw the line between conscious and non-conscious matter and suggests that perhaps consciousness is embedded in matter itself, as a fundamental property of the universe.  This is a form of panpsychism and in Chapter 6 she explores the arguments for and against this.

Like many scientists, I have tended to dismiss panpsychism as hugely implausible, and this was one aspect of Ken Wilber’s view of reality that I found impossible to accept. Harris lays out an argument that it should at least be considered and does offer simpler solutions to important questions about consciousness.  She finishes the chapter by saying:

“And, of course, the false conclusions drawn from a misunderstanding of panpsychism—that individual atoms, cells, or plants possess an experience comparable to that of a human mind, for instance—are often the very thing used to argue against it. Unfortunately, it seems quite hard for us to drop the intuition that consciousness equals complex thought. But if consciousness is in fact a more basic aspect of the universe than previously believed, that doesn’t suddenly give credence to your neighbor’s belief that she can communicate telepathically with her ficus tree. In actuality, if a version of panpsychism is correct, everything will still appear to us and behave exactly as it already does.”

I like Anneka Harris’ open-minded stance about these questions. Unlike many philosophers and neuroscientists who decide they know the answers and everyone else is wrong, Harris says:

My own sense of the correct resolution to the mystery of consciousness, whether or not we can ever achieve a true understanding, is still currently split between a brain-based explanation and a panpsychic one. But while I’m not convinced that panpsychism offers the correct answer, I am convinced that it is a valid category of possible solutions that cannot be as easily dismissed as many people seem to think. Unfortunately, it remains difficult for scientists to join the conversation without fear of jeopardizing their credibility.

She goes on later in the book to say:

Although I’m defending panpsychism as a legitimate category of theories about consciousness based on what we currently know, I am not closed to the possibility that we might discover, by some future scientific method, that consciousness does in fact exist only in brains. It’s hard for me to see how we could ever arrive at this understanding with any certainty, but I don’t rule it out. Nor am I discounting the possibility that consciousness is something we will never fully grasp.

In his article “Conscious Spoons, Really? Pushing Back against Panpsychism,” Anil Seth expresses a common view among neuroscientists that consciousness science has “moved on” from grappling with Chalmers’s “hard problem,” and thus from such “fringe” solutions as panpsychism. Unlike Anil Seth and Daniel Dennett (whose book I am reading now), Harris takes seriously the question of the nature of consciousness per se, the various hard problems, whereas they both duck these questions preferring to study the neural correlates of consciousness and the contents of consciousness.

In the final Chapter, Harris discusses how the mystery of consciousness is also intimately bound up with the mystery of time. That is something that has been very apparent to me from my experiences with meditation and grappling with the Buddhist understanding that the past and future do not exist here-now.  Is there nothing but the present moment, does consciousness “move” through time, is time movement an illusion?

If you are looking for an easy-to-read book which does an excellent job of examining the major questions, the evidence, and the pros and cons of various views on the nature of consciousness, I highly recommend Anneka Harris’s short book. It has certainly opened my mind to a wider range of possibilities, and a realization of how the mystery of consciousness is intimately bound up with the mysteries of time, of free will, and of the nature of reality.

What is consciousness

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more about the nature of consciousness. My Zen meditation practice basically involves letting go of thoughts, letting go of the self, and simply experiencing consciousness without content. I have direct experiences from my meditation practice, as well as a reasonably wide reading of Zen and Buddhist masters and their experiences and understanding of consciousness, self and reality.  At times, I feel like I have had openings to experiences which have “enlightened” me about the nature of self, consciousness etc, but I have not really integrated these tastes of non-self into any sort of stable or mature understanding of reality.

I had read a few articles by philosophers who have explored the nature of consciousness, particularly the so-called hard problem of consciousness and last year read a review of a new book by Anil Seth which led me to think he had made advances from the neuroscience perspective.

Apart from my direct explorations through Zen meditation, breathwork and psychedelics, I also have worked with several Zen teachers and read extensively on consciousness in Buddhist literature and in the works of Ken Wilber, who has explored and mapped states and stages of consciousness in his writings. More recently, I read and reviewed Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, which also discusses the nature of consciousness and self.

So I decided I would read some of the key books and articles on consciousness from the philosophers and neuroscientists, to complement my experience and understanding gained from meditation and psychedelic explorations.

I bought the following books:

Anil Seth is a neurologist, Peter Godfrey-Smith a biologist and philosopher of science. Annaka Harris is a science writer (fun fact: also the wife of Sam Harris). Lewis-Williams and Pearce are both archaeologists. The final three are all philosophers. I guess the other relevant discipline I am missing is artificial intelligence research. I’ve read a little in this area and have found it mostly irrelevant to the issues relating to consciousness that I am interested in, and tedious reading to boot.

I browsed Chalmers book on consciousness and discovered the entire book ignores the entire knowledge base on states of consciousness, meditation, nondual states, etc. As if it’s irrelevant. So I quickly browsed the books by the other two philosophers, and the book by Anil Seth the neurologist. Not a single mention of meditation, altered states, psychedelics. I had bigger problems with Seth’s ideas, but will leave that to a separate review.

My initial reaction was to dismiss the philosophers as inhabiting a limited sterile corner of academia ignoring large parts of human experience. But then realized if I did that, I would be no better than them.

Ken Wilber has gone down this same path of integrating Western psychology and philosophy with Eastern first-person methods and understanding and has been largely ignored by academia and philosophers.  In part, because he does somewhat go over the top, and despite his focus on empirical methods, does seem to uncritically accept aspects of Tibetan Buddhism at more or less face value. Such as rebirth.

Sam Harris seems to get it more right. And his conclusions are very much aligned with mine. And even he gets dismissed by Western commentators as being arrogant. By telling them they cannot just critique from the outside, without trying the methods for themselves. So much for open-mindedness to all the relevant evidence.

For consciousness per se, which is a subjective experience, its clear that the objective methods of science are going to be at best marginally relevant. What is most relevant is the actual massive domain of experiences of consciousness. Particularly those focused not on the contents of consciousness (as the psychologists and neuroscientists like to do) but those focused on the exploration of consciousness per se when the contents are out of the way. The recent book by Anneka Harris is the only other one on my list above which examines what meditation tells us about consciousness.  And when I started reading it, I found it a superb discussion of the various issues and theories about consciousness.  So my next post will be a closer look at Harris’ book, and then I will dive into the philosophers.

Links to my later posts on consciousness are given below:

Anneka Harris on the fundamental mystery of consciousness Oct 6 2022

Consciousness Explained…..or Consciousness Ignored? Oct 16 2022