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Hume’s is/ought problem is a famous problem in moral philosophy. It’s basically the question, “Why should I be moral?”. In more detail, suppose that you see someone suffering (maybe drowning or something), and it’s clear you can help them. You say, “Come on, we ought to help that person!” to your companion. However, your companion says “Why?” What answer can you give? Is there any way to convince your companion to help? Can you rationally convince someone to be moral?
Hume noticed that when people wrote about morality, they would always state things like: “People are suffering here”, or “Anne is drowning”, or something like that. These are statements of what is. Then the writer, after stating what is, then moves to what people ought to do. How is this move justified? How can you logically and rationally justify the move from ought to is? In a nutshell, why should I be moral?
The reason people act morally is, for the most part, because they care about others. There are psychopaths out there of course, that only seem to care about their own welfare, and nobody else. However, it seems like the majority, even the vast majority of people, at least care about the welfare of friends and family, and most of these people also care about strangers as well. Without going into the issue of what exactly makes people selfish or not, it seems that if you care about others, then you have a motivation to act in the interests of others. However if you are truly selfish, then you have no motivation to act in the interests of others, unless your own welfare is affected if you don’t help others.
Thus a truly selfish person will act in the interests of others only if it suits their own interests. They will throw a drowning person a floating ring if people are watching, because they don’t want to reveal their selfish nature. However, if nobody is around, they will not, or will have no interest in, throwing a life preserver to a drowning person. Those selfish people who additionally hate people, or enjoy watching death, will chuckle as the person drowns to death. In contrast, a person with normal sympathy and empathy will throw a life preserver regardless if anyone else is watching or not.
This seems to provide an answer to Hume’s question. Why ought one to be moral? Because you care about others. Simple as that. Notice that people who care about others don’t need to be convinced to help others, they will simply do it, without thinking or hesitation. If for some weird reason a person with sympathy and empathy forgets that they care about others, they only need a simple reminder that they do care about others, and they will be off and running to help a drowning person. Thus these people need no convincing.
Can you convince a selfish person to act morally? Short of them perceiving that their own interests are threatened when someone else needs help, the answer is no. If a selfish person is threatened, or browbeaten into helping others, or they think their own welfare will be affected, then they probably will act morally. If there is no threat, they have no reason to help others, and won’t. You can’t rationally convince someone to have a desire they don’t have. You might be able to brainwash them, but this is besides the point.
You can even give a rational reason for someone to act in the interests of others, even if they don’t care about others. However, it won’t work. You could argue from consistency. If the selfish person cares about their own welfare (it’s a rare person that does not, though it’s not impossible to hate yourself to a great extent) then why do they care about their own self? It’s hard to articulate, but they must see themselves as a beautiful thing. Thus something worth caring about. There is no real difference between the selfish person and any other person. They are both human beings with emotions, bodies, minds, etc. So if it makes sense to care about one (oneself) it makes sense to care about others. They are all the same beautiful things. Thus one is being inconsistent in not caring about all beautiful things (humans) equally.
The only problem with this argument is that it will convince nobody, even though it is sound. Why should someone care about being consistent? You cannot create desires to help others in someone through rational argument. The desire is there or not.
So it seems that, for the vast majority of people, there is a reason to help others, basically the reason is that they already have a desire to help others. For those that don’t, there is not much of a reason you can give, short of threats.
But hold on. Why should I do what I desire? This takes the question into philosophical la la land, and it’s what I want to look at with the following dialogue. The question now being asked, is: “OK, people who care about others will act more or less act morally, and they have a reason, or at least a desire, to do so. However, why is it that anyone should follow that desire, or any desire for that matter?”
One answer is that there are some desires we should follow (good ones) and one that we shouldn’t (bad ones). A bad desire for oneself would be to take addictive drugs, a good desire for oneself would be to eat healthy. But this misses the point. Why even eat healthy? Why should anyone follow any desire at all? Is there a reason that can be given?
To help with this, let’s look at a dialogue between Anne and Dave, who are stranded together on a tropical island, following a shipwreck. They have not eaten in five days, and are starving.
Anne: Oh look, a grove of pineapples! and I see wild chickens, we’re saved!
Dave: Oh good, I guess.
(Pineapples are gathered, chickens are killed and roasted, Anne and Dave sit down to eat.)
Anne: Why aren’t you eating?
Dave: I don’t know if I ought to.
Anne: You are hungry, aren’t you?
Dave: Yes, very. I’ve never been more hungry in my life, I want to eat this pineapple very much. It’s probably the strongest desire I’ve ever had, but I don’t see the reason I ought to.
Anne: If you don’t you’ll die.
Dave: Yes, and I love life, and I have children, and I want to live for their sake and also my own. However, why should I act on this desire?
Anne: You think it’s a bad desire to want to live?
Dave: That’s not the point, those seem like good desires if there is any such thing as good desires. The question is why should I act on these desires?
Anne: Because you want to?
Dave: I do want to, but that’s not enough.
Anne: You’re crazy. You’ve gone too far into philosophical la la land.
Dave: I probably fit the definition of crazy, yes. What I want is a rational, logical, reason to eat.
Anne: Even if I can’t give you one, you’ll probably eat anyways.
Dave: Yes, it is taking all my willpower to not eat this pineapple.
(Anne thinks a bit)
Dave: Why what?
Anne: Why are you not eating the pineapple?
Dave: Because I want a rational reason to eat it.
Anne: Ah, but why do you want a rational reason?
Dave: Because I want to act rationally, and if I don’t do this for a rational reason, I don’t want to do it.
Anne: There you go, you are actually acting on a desire right now. You have this stupid idea that you should act “rationally”, and you stupidly think that unless you can see the reason to eat, you should not eat. However, your desire to act rationally is, in itself, a desire. So tell me this Dave, why should you try to act rationally?
Dave: It seems like a good idea?
Anne: Doesn’t it also seem like a good idea to eat right now?
Anne: So why not eat?
Dave: (Munch) Good point.
There you have it. Human beings are not robots, we are not rocks. We have desires, and we will act on desires no matter what we do. In fact we always do what we value the most. Dave valued “acting rationally” more than his desire to stay alive (at least for a bit), thus he was doing what he valued the most at that time. We are helpless in this respect, we must do what we value the most. Whatever we end up doing, that is what we desire the most.
So when someone wants a reason to act on their desires, they are still following their desires, in this case their desire to act “rationally”. This is no different than any other desire, so it makes as much sense to follow this desire as any. What should we do? Follow the desires that seem to make the most sense, and a desire to help others seems like it can lead to a fulfilling life, not only for the people you help, but yourself too.
To conclude, Hume’s is/ought question, if he intended it to mean “why follow any desire at all?” is answered. Not only are you going to do what you desire no matter what (making his question pointless) but the stance that I should “act rationally” and “give me a reason before I do anything” is based on a desire as much as anything, so it makes no sense to question acting on desires in the first place. You will act on desires and you are acting on one when you ask. We are helpless.
One might complain that I have not given a reason to act on any desire. It’s true I haven’t. But why do I have to? You will act on desires no matter what. Further, why is it rational to ask for one? It can only be from a desire itself, in this case curiosity. Tell me why you should act on your desire to be curious. You can’t, and it doesn’t matter. Rationality is built on desires, without them, rationality and maybe even logic don’t exist.
It’s interesting to consider the logical breakdown here, or rather, the fact that logic breaks down here. Another way to put Hume’s question is to ask for a sort of scientific reason to act morally. People who like Hume’s is/ought question think that there should be a reason to act morally, whereas people who care about others don’t need a reason. The charge is that there is no compelling logical reason to help others. Well, there is no compelling logical reason to follow any desire at all. Rationality comes from desires, not the other way around.
Logic is the study of good arguments, it studies what makes some arguments good and some bad. The argument here is
(1) I desire to eat.
(2) Eating is an OK thing to do in this situation.
(3) I should do what I desire when it is an OK thing to do.
(4) I should eat.
The argument is valid, and Hume’s (if this paraphrasing is correct) charge is that there is no reason to accept:(3) I should do what I desire. This ignores not only that you will do what you desire no matter what, but also that we are not rocks. Humans have an additional but subtle trait, not included in the argument, we only take action if there is a desire in the first place. Thus asking for premise (3) to be justified makes no sense. It is literally irrelevant.
The point to life is to have a good life. This is also the meaning of life. Though all of us seem to have a good sense of what a good life is, it is oddly difficult, if not impossible, to directly phrase what a good life is. The reason for this will be talked about.
That’s basically the answer to the most famous and fundamental questions in history (the meaning of life is to have a good life). You already knew this, more or less, anyways. The rest of this essay is basically commentary to clear up some ambiguities.
The question “What is the meaning of life?” has several different equivalent phrasings, and a few slightly different meanings. The different equivalent phrasings include: “What is the point to life?”, “What’s it all about?, and “Why are we here?”. The answers are, of course: The point to life is to have a good one. It’s all about having a good life. We are here to have a good life.
For those that doubt that this simple answer is a (or the) correct answer to this “ultimate question”, ask yourself if you would rather have a bad life, or a mediocre life, or no life? Except for suicidal people, who might actually want no life, I can’t imagine anyone else truly wanting a bad or mediocre life, given the chance to have a good life. Suicidal people of course are having such a rotten time they’d rather be dead, so they are not contradicting anything being said here. So philosophically and logically speaking, as long as it is rational to want anything at all for oneself, it makes no sense to want anything except a good life for oneself, thus the point to life is to have a good one. For those of a strange philosophical bent who want to explore the thought that it’s not rational to want anything at all, have fun with that.
Due to Douglas Adams, a popular answer to the meaning of life is 42. Obviously this answer (to have a good life) is a little more informative, if you were having trouble thinking of it yourself.
Of course, this simple answer, though correct, does not tell you what a good life is, which is probably partly what we meant by the question in the first place (this is the first slightly different meaning, I’ll get to the rest of the meanings as we go on).
What constitutes a good life? This seems impossible to phrase directly and well. We can say that a good life has something to do with being happy, feeling good a lot, probably something to do with being successful at what you do, finding love, being healthy, living to some sort of code, and so on. Notice that, first, this is pretty vague, and second, none of this tells you, in particular, how to be happy, how to feel good a lot, how to be successful in your particular set of activities you engage with over time, and so on. Other thoughts along this line that I have come across over the years include meditating so much that you control how you feel all the time, or rather you surrender to how you feel so successfully that you feel good all of the time, and cultivating patience (advice from someone who eventually became Shogun of Japan).
I think part of the reason all of this is so vague and that none of it tells you how to attain any of these things in your own life, is that everyone’s particular circumstances are unique. You can’t give a general answer to something that is situation specific. For instance, one component of a good life, for the vast majority of people, seems to be to not be lonely. Being alone is not good for us. This is why solitary confinement is considered torture. However, there are probably a few people out there that are an exception to the rule, some sort of extreme hermits, who find it much better to have no social interaction for the rest of their life. If so, then you can’t say in general that social interaction is necessarily part of a good life for all people, even though it seems like a good candidate. Further, it’s not even clear that something like happiness is part of a good life, as you can be far happier most of the time than most people, but be a drug addict. Human being seem to differ enough that what is a good for most of us (like social interaction) may not be good for all of us. Food seems to be the exception, everyone seems to need it.
Further, you can’t really say what will be better for me: to go to university and become an engineer, or to take chemistry, or to even go to university at all. Not only are my particular tastes unique to me, such that it’s hard to tell if I’d enjoy being a chemist more than an engineer (even I can’t tell), but also it’s impossible to predict the future. I can’t tell beforehand what will happen to me if I make either life decision. This applies to much of life: everyone has unique needs and wants, and you can’t predict the future implications of major decisions. Thus there is much that is situation specific in our lives, and you cannot give a general answer to what to do with your life : you have to figure it out for yourself. Nor can we describe a good life in more specific terms than general platitudes like try to be happy, seize the day, that sort of thing, again this is due to the problem of situation specificity.
Nevertheless, this hardly spells disaster, for we all seem to have an amazing capacity to detect what is a good or bad state for ourselves, and others, despite the fact that none of us can phrase in general what a good or bad state actually is. All of us make many decisions every day aimed to achieving a good life. We don’t jump off tall buildings, we do what we can to get enough food, we try to make sure we don’t get lonely, we try to be successful in what we do, we try to be healthy, and so on. Of course, we don’t all succeed at getting these things that we all seem to need, but we are all perfectly capable of detecting what will make our lives better in a great variety of circumstances.
Thus we get sort of a paradox, we all know a great deal about what a good life is, but none of us can phrase what a good life is. Again, part of the reason seems to be situation specificity. The other reason is that though we can readily identify what a good state is, it is something that we seem to sense, and thus too fundamental to describe. It’s the same problem as describing the color brown to someone, what else can you do except point to the color? If they can’t see it, you can’t describe it. The same problem holds with describing what it’s like to experience happiness. There is very little or nothing you can say to someone who asks you to describe it. This holds for any good state, it seems.
However, as above, we are all quite good at detecting good or bad states for ourselves or others, even if nobody can describe them in other terms. They are too fundamental to language, and our thoughts, to phrase directly. Couple this problem with the problem of situation specificity, and we can now understand how we can all know a great deal about what a good life is, but cannot say what a good life is beyond mere platitudes.
In fact, there seems to be a sort of perfect, 100% agreement on what are good or bad states. The only reason anyone would describe getting a broken leg as a good state would be a circumstance where your broken leg led you to finding a horde of gold, or taught you a valuable lesson, or something like that. If you eliminate these sorts of possibilities, nobody on Earth (except for a liar) would describe getting a broken leg as a good state. That is, if you describe a broken leg in specific situation, such as you getting a broken leg and it messes up your life, then you must get agreement on it being bad for you in that particular circumstance, or people are just plain lying to you, or don’t understand what a broken leg is.
Of course there does not seem to be agreement on other issues, beyond simple broken legs. For instance, in some parts of the world, women are treated quite badly, in some cases like property, and have less rights than men. In the part of the world I come from, “the west,” the ideal is, at least, to get rid of this idea that women are less than men, which has more or less historically oppressed women ever since civilization began. This leads to some drastically different evaluations about how women should be treated. Where I would be horrified to see a woman stoned to death (for the reason that she was raped), in certain parts of the world many men see this as a good idea. Nevertheless, if questioned, these men would admit that being stoned to death was not a good state of being for the woman in question. The whole reason to stone her is to put her in a bad state, after all. However, they don’t care, for various reasons. Thus there is no disagreement that she was put in a bad state, there is disagreement about the overall good of her being put in such a state. Presumably these men think it helps their society become better overall to see women who offend god punished. If so, they are making the case that sometimes it is overall better to sacrifice some for the good of the whole. This is a principle hardly anyone denies. However, I and many others would say it is grossly misapplied here.
The point is, though, that even though there are vast cultural differences, differences in moral reasoning, and differences in empathy and sympathy here, there is no disagreement that the poor woman is being put in a bad state. So, even here, there is no disagreement on what is a good or bad state for someone. If it’s true for this example (where there is an extreme moral divide), then this seems to be true for any evaluation of a good or bad state for someone, no matter the cultural divide.
This is something nobody I’ve met yet agrees with me on, so I’ll do a further example. Suppose I learn Japanese, and travel back through time and meet a medieval samurai warrior in Japan. Samurai warriors had an authoritarian tradition where they would not only obey their master, but also kill themselves if simply asked to by their master. I can’t think of someone with a different set of cultural values than mine. So I get friendly with this samurai, tell him about myself and where I come from, enough so that he understands my way of life (that of a 21st century “Western” male), but probably doesn’t approve of it. Time goes by, and one day this samurai receives an order to kill himself. I talk to him about it, telling him about freedom, the beauty of personal choice and liberty, give a beautiful speech on anti-authoritarianism, and state that he should ignore the order, and come to the future with me or I can take him to another country of this time era instead. Of course, he refuses and prepares to kill himself.
The question here is: do we value the same things? No. He has come to value living to a code above all else, I value things like liberty, both because of our upbringing, and our lives up tot this point. However, can he understand that if he were to experience my upbringing, then he would value the things I do? Yes, and I can understand that if I were to be raised like him, I would kill myself too. So while we do not agree about what is more important in life, living to code or personal freedom, we can still understand, at least intellectually, the point of view of the other. I can even think of an experiment to settle the issue of which leads to a better life. If one could construct a virtual reality and speed up brain processes so that you could live a simulated life of a samurai in a day, then also live a life like mine over a day, then you can ask which is better after having lived both.
There is a right or wrong answer to the question of which leads to a better life on average, all else being equal. The matter of what sort of life is better (one based on personal freedom or one based on living to a code) is an empirical question. There is a right or wrong answer, depending on what actually transpires in one’s life. There is no disagreement on things that potentially lead to a good life (living to codes and liberty), it’s just that it’s very hard to tell which leads to a better life in empirical reality.
There is no theoretical disagreement, to try to put this subtle point another way. I can grasp the idea that living to a code (like is emphasized in the life of a samurai) could be rewarding as well as any other person, despite that such a thing was not emphasized in my life. I can sense that this could be potentialy rewarding, the same as anyone who understands the meaning of the word combination “living to a code”. Whether or not it would be for me is an empirical question, and that is where the disagreement starts. Someone might find “living to a code” disagreeable, another might thrive on it. To say it again, there is no theoretical disagreement about this, just a possible empirical one.
With the case of the woman being stoned to death, there is no theoretical disagreement that sacrificing one might be best for the whole. This idea appears across cultures. The difference is that, to me, this is a terrible attempt to justify such horrible behavior, and I reject that it makes society better to treat women so badly.
If two people from such different cultures and backgrounds have the same theoretical ideas about what constitues a good life, then the theory is the same across cultures. Theory of good or bad states of being must be the same for all humanity. What is a good or bad state for each person will be situation specific, due to everyone having unique characteristics, either intrinsic or developed, but the theory is universal. This is a subtle point, and I hope I am putting it well. Just as I have never encountered the answer I am giving to the meaning of life question, I have never encountered anyone saying this before either, so I hope it’s comprehensible.
What is good for a particular person, or even a group of people due to their upbringing, will be relative to the situation. Not to opinion, but to the situation. Suppose coffee is good for me, but gives you an allergic reaction. However, once that situation is defined, then what is good for you and for me becomes perfectly clear. It becomes absolute. Once I know that coffee gives you an allergic reaction, then coffee is bad for you due to your unique situation. This is an absolute fact. If you were constituted differently, then coffee could be good for you, but since you are not, it isn’t. Once the situation is defined, there are facts about good or bad states, before the situation is defined, what is good is relative to the situation. That coffee is bad for you is not relative to opinion, it is a fact, but is relative to the situation. Once we define the situation, such as defining that nothing imaginable good comes from the broken leg in a certain situation, we can then pronounce absolute judgement on the broken leg for that situation.
Once we see what sort of person the samurai is, and his upbringing, we then can understand why he wants to live to his code. We can even understand that it might be the best thing for him, due to his unique situation. The situation becomes defined, the answer becomes absolute. The theory is understood and accepted by all, how it applies to each person, and the thought that everyone ought to be exactly the same as me, is where disagreements develop.
Thus there is broad (theoretical) agreement on what a good life is, even perfect agreement, when you look into it.
Finally we come to the issue of another way to interpret the meaning of life question. It would seem that if we know the meaning of life, we should be able to use this knowledge to have a good life, be happy all the time, be in a good state perpetually, and all that. I don’t know why anyone thinks such a magical state is possible, but it seems to be another interpretation of the question, “What is the meaning of life?”
How could a certain piece of knowledge enable you to feel good all the time? How could a certain piece of knowledge enable you to predict the future so that you know the consequences of any decision? It seems impossible.
The closest thing that a human could achieve that compares to this magical requirement for the meaning of life answer is to somehow change one’s personality (through meditation or something) so that one trains oneself to feel good all or most of the time. This seems very difficult. We’ve all had those moments in life where we’ve had an “epiphany”, and the feeling one gets from that and the insight can be quite something. However, as we all know, these experiences are fleeting, and do not last. To attain this state all the time seems impossible, but it seems to be the point of some religions, like Taoism and Buddhism. Perhaps it can be done, I certainly haven’t tried as hard as I can to attain such a state more.
If such a state can be attained all the time, then one would “know” the meaning of life in a way beyond the “intellectual” manner of knowing the meaning of life. The answer that the meaning of life is to have a good one is surely correct, but is only an answer in an “intellectual”, factual, sense. If one could live in the state of constant epiphany, one would have knowledge of a good life in a different sense of the word, “knowledge”, i.e. one would live it and “understand” it in that sense.
As above, I have no idea if this is possible. Notice that this “answer” to the meaning of life cannot be given to anyone, it must be earned through lots of dedicated effort. Further, this would lead to a good life in an emotional sense only, it does not mean one would be successful in the tasks one gives oneself in life, does not mean one would be healthy, or in any other sense one might judge a good life.
Now, we get to another possible interpretation of the “meaning of life” question that I can think of. It’s a variant of “Why are we here?” in the sense of “does the universe have a plan for me, or us?” Probably not if God or some powerful Gods do not exist. What else can you say about that? No matter what the universe’s plan for you is, the point to life is still to have a good one, and you still have to work to understand and get things right for yourself. Life is work, no getting around that.
Even another possible interpretation of the “meaning of life” question is a variant of “What’s it all about?” which is kind of asking “how does the universe work?” Scientists have taken a good stab at this, but there is still a lot we don’t know. Further, even if we achieve a physical theory of all measurable things (i.e. matter), it seems we will still be faced with the question of how this relates to our conscious emotional states, one component of a good life. Even if we someday gain an understanding of the universe at this level, it seems doubtful that this will help us attain a good life. As always, you have to put in some effort.
That’s about it. I’ve always found it weird that I had to figure this out by myself. It doesn’t seem likely that I was the first person in human history to figure out the meaning of life, it’s really quite simple. Nevertheless, nobody told me this, I had to come up with it all. I suppose someone could reply that I didn’t really figure anything out that we didn’t really know already, I just managed to phrase it correctly and unprofoundly (I agree). Or that I didn’t figure out how to have a good life. I also agree. However, as I’ve already pointed out, aside from hard work, nobody can figure out how to have a good life – it’s not a question of knowledge in that sense, it’s a question of how much effort you’re willing to put out.
That science has difficulty explaining consciousness seems, in many circles, to be a definite truth. Even those that claim that science will one day explain consciousness do not seem to have any idea how this will be done.
The chief problem science seems to have with consciousness is that, despite our certain knowledge that we have conscious experiences, we do not need to postulate the existence of consciousness when researching how the brain (which we know to be associated with our human consciousness) works. The scientific story for our actions is that we sense things due to our sense organs, which then send neural signals through a complicated and changing network of neurons, which then leads to our actions of bodily movements, talking, and so on.
Nowhere in this story does one need to talk about or postulate consciousness. This leads to all sort of difficulties understanding something we know to exist, yet science seems to not touch.
In this essay I will argue that the reason why science seems to have such difficulty with consciousness is due to the causal nature of consciousness coupled with the causal structure of science. Physics (the most basic of the sciences) seems to have two categories of causal entities in it: physical laws and things which follow physical laws (i.e. measurable quantities like mass, charge, time, etc).
Simply put, consciousness is implicitly thought (by everyone) to be some sort of measurable quantity. However, we can’t seem to measure it, and thus problems ensue in understanding it. The other option, never explored, is that consciousness might be more like a physical law of nature. If this is assumed, the problems science has with consciousness seem predictable and understandable. Indeed many problems go away, and a seemingly less confusing theory of consciousness comes forth that agrees with much of our intuition on consciousness. This essay will try to make this distinction and possibility more clear.
That consciousness is implicitly thought to be akin to some sort of measurable quantity seems evident with a cursory examination of the major schools of thought on consciousness. For instance, take materialism, the doctrine that consciousness is ultimately “physical.” Obviously, consciousness is thought to be a measurable quantity here, perhaps like an electric field or something. Or take panpsychism, the doctrine that mind is fundamental feature of the world that exists throughout the universe. Here, again, it seems that we are to assume that the mind is akin to something measurable, pervading the whole universe, it does not seem to mean that mind is something like a physical law. Or take dualism, where it is supposed there is a physical realm and a mental realm. In this mental realm, thoughts supposedly exist, floating around or something. Again, it seems to be assumed that thoughts are like bodies, hence measurable quantities, in this realm. Finally, take emergentism, where it is assumed that consciousness “emerges” from the complicated action of the brain, just as macroscopic phenomenon, like liquidity, emerge from microscopic phenomenon of atoms binding and colliding in space. This also seems to assume that consciousness is some sort of measurable quantity.
Can we be sure that none of these theories of mind treat thoughts and consciousness as something akin to a physical law? Yes, we probably can, since nobody has ever come out and said so before as they advocate for one of these theories.
Whatever consciousness is, it has a component that seems to cause things to happen. It does not appear to be causally inert at all. It is a determining thing – a thing which determines other events. I decide to water my garden tomorrow. I remember this decision the next day, and water my garden. Everyday experiences like this lead to an unshakable belief (among most of us) that our conscious decisions have some sort of a causal role. What this causal role is, is not clear, but there is some sort of causal role, it seems certain.
It is difficult to incorporate this causal nature of consciousness into science, simply because this sort of causal nature (that consciousness provides) seems to come under the category of a physical law when properly looked at with the lens of science. Hence we should categorize the effects of consciousness like we categorize the effect of a physical law. We don’t recognize this, and assume that consciousness is like a measurable quantity, and hence are having a difficult time incorporating consciousness into science.
The Causal Structure of Physics
The causal structure of physics (the most basic of the sciences) is simple. There are physical laws (rules), then there are things which follow the rules (physical laws). Physical laws are things like conservation of energy or momentum, or Snell’s law, or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, etc.
Then there are the things which follow these rules (physical laws), such as mass, time, length, displacement, momentum, energy, forces, number of atoms, etc. These things which follow the rules are measurable quantities. Some of these measurable quantities, like position and time, are directly measurable through devices, hence are fundamentally measurable. Other quantities, like energy, are constructed though a two or more fundamental measurements. These measurable quantities change over time (or change over other variables than time, like position), and how they change is calculable (or at least partially calculable) through mathematical descriptions of physical laws.
Both physical laws and measurable quantities have a causal nature to them in the causal structure of physics. Measurable quantities like forces cause events to happen in the sense that one value of a force can cause a box to move or not, if it can overcome the force of static friction on the box. The distance from the Earth will affect the rate at which an object will fall to the Earth. And so on. So there is some sort of causal nature to the things which follow the rules.
There is also some sort of causal nature to the rules (physical laws). Strictly speaking, it seems wrong to say that a physical law, like conservation of momentum, causes anything. Conservation of momentum is a mathematical description of some sort of process in reality, and a mathematical description does not cause anything. However, there is something (some process) in reality which makes it so that the mathematical description called conservation of momentum works. There is something in reality behind the conservation of momentum. Whatever this “process” is, this process has a causal nature as well. For without this “process,” momentum would not be conserved.
What sort of causal nature does each thing (whatever is behind the laws of nature, or a measurable quantity) have? It is difficult to articulate, however, physical laws seem to make future values of measurable quantities come out in a certain way, rather than another. Snell’s law is based on refraction of light, and whatever is behind refraction of light makes the angles which light enters or comes out of some substance come out the way they do. Light rays come out related to the sine of the angle, not the tangent of the angle. Hence there is something in reality making the light come out of a substance the way it does. Our name for this is Snell’s law.
In contrast, values of measurable quantities seem to to something different. They are the inputs into the physical laws. Forces and distances can be said to cause things to happen, surely, however, they can’t be properly said to be the things in nature which makes measurable quantities come out the way they do. That role seems to be given to what we call physical laws.
This procedure as categorizing everything as either measurable quantities or physical laws has been, of course, enormously successful. With it, our science has progressed to explain much of reality, the only holdout being consciousness and things related to consciousness, like love, politics, beauty, and such things.
Thus consciousness, whatever it is, when investigated by science, is either categorized as a physical law or a measurable quantity. The consensus appears to be that consciousness, whatever it is, must be a measurable quantity. The massive difficulty that then ensues is that we can’t measure it. Hence difficulties in explaining consciousness with science.
I am no great scholar, but it seems to me that the other possibility, that consciousness is akin to a physical law, is never considered nor investigated. However, when one assumes that the effects of consciousness are similar to the effects of whatever is behind a physical law, then all the difficulties that science has with consciousness make a lot of sense.
If consciousness were somehow part of the laws of nature, then what would one expect to happen? For one thing, we would not be able to measure consciousness as a quantity like mass or time, or length. This is exactly what seems to have happened. It seems a truism that if we were to shrink people so that they were very small, and these people were to walk around a human brain, they would never see or measure a thought go by. They would measure electrical impulses, but the relation of the impulses to thoughts would be unclear.
We do not measure the conservation of energy with physical instruments. Rather, it is something we came up with as an explanation after (or before) looking at many observations of energy over time. It works very well, of course, but it is not a measurable quantity, just like consciousness does not appear to be a measurable quantity. Conservation of energy does however, accurately describe an important aspect of reality.
Another thing one would expect to happen is that consciousness would not be needed to explain anything. If consciousness is somehow part of the laws of nature, and one deliberately goes about excluding this possibility, then one goes about trying to explain how humans and animals process information and subsequently perform actions, what sort of explanation are you going to end up with? It will be a story (a correct one, of course) about how measurable quantities involving nerves and diffusing ions, and so on, obey physical laws and send signals all about and through a complicated network. Through this, decisions are made.
This story is undoubtedly correct, and helpful to understanding our own nature, but it sheds no light on why these neural signals are producing consciousness (if “producing” is the right way to phrase it, and it probably isn’t). Since we are assuming that there are all these measurable quantities in our brains following the laws of physics, and we are not acknowledging the possibility that these laws of nature are, in some way, the same thing as consciousness (and this idea is true), then of course consciousness will never be mentioned in this story. The word will never come up, even though it is somehow “embedded” in our description of physical laws.
Consciousness will not be needed in this explanation. Then, since nobody is considering the possibility that consciousness is somehow part of the laws of nature, consciousness will seem a great mystery.
These two predictions seem borne out by the current puzzlement over consciousness, indeed the puzzlement that has been there for many years. That alone is suggestive that this essay is on the right track. Nevertheless, the suggestion that consciousness is, in some way, part of the laws of nature, needs some explanation. What could this statement even mean? Further, what reason do we have to give up on the idea that science can somehow measure consciousness as a measurable quantity?
I will answer the first question first.
How Consciousness Might be Part of the laws of nature
The only way that I can see how consciousness might be part of the laws of nature would be to formulate the following hypothesis: every time a particle of matter (like an electron) changes state, a calculation must be made, and this “calculation” involves a moment of consciousness, a qualia. Also, whenever a molecule (a collection of bonded atoms) changes state, a qualia for this interaction would occur as well. Basically, whenever a wavefunction for an object “collapses”, a qualia is produced (or used?) in order for nature to “calculate” what will happen next.
Thus, in this conception of reality, there are innumerable qualia occurring all the time, in every piece of matter, as particles in matter change state. It is like there are little “souls” popping up everywhere, all the time, that quickly die forever. The vast majority of these qualia are not much like the qualia that we humans experience, however there are a few that occur in living cells that make up the sort of experiences that humans and animals have. The difference between these few particle interactions in living cells that constitute animal experiences and the vast majority of other particle interactions (including many in living cells) is that some particle interactions in living cells can access memories, a sense of self, and sense data from outside and inside the organism.
It is usually assumed that particles interact and change state “automatically,” with no need for a “calculation”, much less a moment of consciousness. However, what if this is not necessarily true? What if a calculation is needed? There should be no contradiction to the laws of nature if a calculation is needed. Hence the idea in this theory is to assume that a calculation involving qualia is needed, and to see where it leads.
The details of how this all might work I explain in my other essay that explores this idea. The idea is just introduced here to show how it might be possible that consciousness is somehow part of the laws of nature. In this scheme, consciousness is, in a sense, everywhere. It is a similar idea to panpsychism, but also a little different (because in this theory consciousness is akin to a physical law rather than a measurable quantity) at the same time.
This idea gives consciousness a role in nature – it is the thing which calculates in nature. It is a sort of “calculation mechanism”, if it can be said that when nature “figures out” what to do next, it “calculates”. It might be that this sort of calculation is not much like our conception of a computer calculation. Consciousness is the means by which nature figures out what to do next. It is a determining thing, it helps determine what will happen. It has a causal role in nature in this view.
This potentially solves the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 1995) in a “functional” sense. The hard problem of consciousness asks why do experiences – moments of consciousness (qualia), exist at all? What we know of nature from science doesn’t seem to to require consciousness, we don’t need it when we figure out how the brain processes signals. So why is consciousness there? What does it do? Why don’t we not have conscious experiences?
Here the answer to the hard problem is that consciousness is needed by nature in order to “figure out” what to do next. This gives it a role in nature, and answers the hard problem by what consciousness does – answers it in a “functional” sense. Why do we have conscious experiences? Because that is how nature figures out what to do next for some molecular processes in our brains that access past states, a sense of self, and sense data from the organism (as well, nature needs to figure out what to do next for all particle interactions everywhere).
The other way to answer the hard problem of consciousness is in a comparative sense. That is, figure out what consciousness is in comparison to other things, like space, mass, charge, electric fields, etc. This hypothesis also provides an answer to this question, but it is less clear and has to be reasoned out. If it is true that consciousness is a calculation mechanism, then, since we can’t see it or detect this mechanism, it must be an “immaterial” calculation mechanism, whatever “immaterial” means. It must permeate all space somehow, as well. If I were to speculate, it might be related to the knowledge a particle has about the entire rest of the universe (the qualia represents this information), and thus the contact that the particle’s wavefunction has with the rest of the particles in the universe, but this is just speculation. As before, consciousness is, in a sense, part of the laws of nature.
This hypothesis, right or wrong, at least shows how, not only the hard problem of consciousness might be answered, but also what it means to say that consciousness is akin to a physical law. With that clarified, let us see if we can find some reason in favor of this idea.
The Causal Nature of Consciousness
As above, a physical law (or whatever is behind it) plays the causal role in nature of a determining thing that makes things come out in a certain way, rather than another. Events proceed over time in such a way that momentum is conserved, not sometimes conserved, or partially conserved.
What do we know about the apparent physical effects of consciousness? All we know is that we make decisions, and much of the time bodily actions (physical movements) are taken due to these decisions. Thus the effect of consciousness can also be said to be a determining thing that makes events come out in a certain way, rather than another. If I decide to water my garden today instead of tomorrow, that makes events come out in a certain way, rather than another.
This parallel is another reason to think consciousness is more akin to a physical law than a measurable quantity.
Interestingly, this makes consciousness a determining thing, and seems consistent with a version of free will where what we do may be predictable and even inevitable, yet still free. My decision to water my garden might be inevitable, but it still has to be done, and is still the cause of my action. This is just like how two billiard balls bounce off each other in a way that conserves momentum. How the balls bounce off is inevitable, yet it is still caused by whatever is behind the law of conservation of momentum. Inevitability does not rob things of causality. If you can predict what the conservation of momentum will do, and it is inevitable, that does not rob it of causality. Your correct prediction does not make balls bounce a certain way, whatever is behind the conservation of momentum does. If my decision to water my garden is inevitable, that does not mean it is not caused by my consciousness (a.k.a. me).
This discussion does not conclusively show that consciousness is more akin to a physical law than a measurable quantity, however, it does show that such a thought is possible, and perhaps a better model than what is usually assumed.
To conclude, if one assumes consciousness is somehow part of the laws of nature, the difficulties science has explaining consciousness seem predictable. Further, the causal nature of consciousness seems to place consciousness as something that makes things come out in a certain way over time, rather than place it as measurable quantity.
Chalmers, D. (1995) Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(3):200-19, 1
Table of Contents
Definition of the Will
(1) Are we being Impeded?
(2) Do our wants cause things to happen?
(3)Are we determined by physical causes? Can we do things beyond physical laws?
(4) Predictability and Quantum Effects on the brain?
(5) Can we choose what we value?
(6) Could we have done otherwise?
(7) Do we determine ourselves?
(8) If we do not control our unconscious, do we control anything?
What is the proper question, what is the proper answer?
The most definite thing I can say about the free will question is that it quite ambiguous. The question “do we have free will?” is murky, unclear, and open to multiple interpretations. Worse, it seems that when one debates this with others, what form of the question of free will is being debated is so unclear that one person could be talking about one interpretation and the other might be talking about another interpretation. Hence they will be talking past each other.
Here is a list of the possible interpretations to the free will question that I have seen:
(1) Are we being impeded?
(2) Do our wants and needs cause our actions?
(3) Are we determined by physical causes. Can we do things beyond the laws of physics?
(4) Are we predictable?
(5) Can we choose what we value?
(6) Could we have done otherwise?
(7) Do we determine ourselves, or does something else do it?
(8) Are all our thoughts and actions unconscious?
The questions are not all the same. They are asking different things. Many of them seem related, but all are not necessarily the same thing.
For instance, the answer to (2) (Do our wants and needs cause actions?) seems to be obviously yes. If I happen to want to throw my coffee cup out the window, it will happen, unless I am stopped by something. If this is all the question of free will means (and it might be all it means) then obviously we do have free will. However, the answer to question (5) (Can we value what we don’t want?) is also obvious, but the answer is no, we can’t value what we don’t want. If this is all the question of free will means, the answer is no, we don’t have free will.
So what is the proper question? Is there a proper question? Is there a proper answer?
Definition of the Will
In order to get a handle on this question, it might be helpful to know what the word “will” means.
As humans, we want things, and the will seems to be the thing that translates this into action. I want a pizza means: I will to have a pizza. My will would be the thing that makes me go to the telephone to order a pizza.
A person that does something that is hard is said to have willpower. A person determined to succeed at a career works very hard, very late, studies very hard, does things that are difficult, like foregoing pleasure and time off in order to succeed. Likewise, a person with a broken leg manages to crawl out of a forest to civilization, where someone else without the same “willpower”, the same will to survive, would have perished.
So the will must be described as the faculty that translates what we want into action. A person with strong “willpower” will overcome their base desires and do things to get what they want, despite the fact that their body, their emotions, their wants to do easier things, their fears, are fighting against what they want. They do it anyways. So when we rally against our fears, we are using our will. This seems like the most important use the of the word “will” in everyday life.
Hence the will must be that which translates what we perceive we want into action. I say “perceive” because we may be mistaken about what we really want sometimes. It’s a faculty that we have to put thoughts into action. I want something, it is attempted, and the will is that which causes the actions in the attempt. Whatever this thing is, (and we have no idea what it is) it must exist, given that we have thoughts, and these thoughts almost certainly lead to action.
It’s fairly confusing to consider the question of what it is that translates thoughts into action. We have no idea what thoughts are, and we only have this idea that thoughts are translated into action, but we have no idea how this really works. Without knowing what thoughts are, how they relate to bodily actions like moving and speaking is a total mystery. Perhaps modeling the will as something that grabs a thought in the ethereal realm, and transports it into the physical world, is a terrible way to envisage the will and thoughts, leading us to all sorts of errors. However, I think this is what we envisage. However, maybe it is legitimate, who knows? It seems quite possible that the free will question cannot be resolved until we understand the mind and its place in nature.
One thing that should be clear is that conscious acts appear to have two parts. We sense things, we act. The “acting” part comes from the will, whatever the will is. Another way to put this is that consciousness has two components, (1) A sensing/experiential part, and (2) A causal/acting part. We experience a sensation of something, this appears to allow it to be compared to what we perceive we value, then a decision is made as we sense what we value, often translating into a bodily action. The decision may not necessarily lead to a bodily action, it could simply lead to a change in mind, however it still leads to a change.
So what we do is experience a sensation, do an action. Experience a sensation, do an action. Experience a sensation, do an action. Over and over again. It is an interesting question as to what part of this process we can claim ownership of? Surely we can claim ownership of our experiences, as they are our experiences, not some else’s. I experience redness, that’s my experience of red, I “own” it if I own anything. Of course, I do not create the fact that experiences happen to me, nor do I create what role experiences play in nature. So the sense that these experiences are “mine” is only in the sense that they happen to me, whatever “I” am. As to what “we” are, that seems a total mystery.
Do I own my will? Is it “my” process? This question, it seems to me, can lie at the heart of many people’s disputes over free will. If our will is “ours” and part of us, then it seems we have free will (since we are the causal thing, the determining thing), if it is not ours, then there is no chance we have free will. Of course, as with experiences, we do not create the fact that our will translates thoughts into actions, whatever our will is, neither do we create the fact that we have a will. So in what sense do we “own” our will? Well, it is our will, not someone else’s. It’s our choosing faculty, not someone else’s. Also, in some sense, we “are” our will. We are the part of us that pursues what we perceive we value, just as we “are” our experiences.
Whatever “I” am, whatever, “we” are, our identity must be “in” our experiences and our will somehow. It must be in our consciousness, and our consciousness has two parts, so we must own them both, in some sense. We view ourselves as a force of nature somehow, something that is capable of causing things. Our will is capable of causing things, so we are our will, in some sense. However, in what exact sense we own our will still seems unclear.
So then, if the will is that which causes us to pursue what we perceive we value, is it “free”? What can this mean?
(1) Are we impeded?
The most obvious meaning of this question is whether or not we are being impeded in what we are trying to do. I may choose to throw my cereal bowl out the window, but what if someone stops me? What if I can’t get to the window because of some heavy boxes?
However, this seems like a trivial problem, sometimes we are impeded, sometimes we are not impeded. Sometimes we are free to do as we wish, sometimes we have a gun to our head, and have no choice (unless we want to die).
This seems to be the legal interpretation of free will. A person with a gun to their head does not give money to a robber “of their own free will”. There is a sort of impediment on their actions. Giving your life savings to a robber was not how you freely planned to start your day, it wasn’t your choice to get a gun pointed at your head, given your inclinations. Most people value their lives a lot, so giving away money to a stranger is not something they would normally choose to do, but they do it because they don’t want to die.
So, do we have free will in the sense of being not impeded? It depends on the situation, but, often we do have free will in this sense. If this is all the question of free will means, then, yes, we can often have free will.
However, from what I can gather, the philosophical question of free will goes beyond the question of impediment.
It seems fairly obvious that our wants cause things to happen. If I happen to want to throw my cereal bowl in the trash, it will happen, unless there is someone or something in front of the trash. At the very least, there is a massive correlation between what we want and what we attempt to do. We don’t always get to do what we want, but if we want it, we attempt it.
Correlation is not causation, so even though there is a massive correlation, our wants might not be the cause of our actions, even though they seem to be. For instance, for the last hundred years, the human population of Earth has been steadily increasing. At the same time, the distance between our Galaxy and the distant Sombrero Galaxy has been increasing. There is a correlation between these two things. However, there is no causation between human population and distance to the Sombrero galaxy. If, tomorrow, there is a large nuclear weapon exchange, the population of the Earth will decrease, but the distance from the Sombrero Galaxy will still increase.
Is it possible that the correlation between our wants and our trying to do things is all coincidence, as with the Sombrero Galaxy and human population? It seem highly unlikely. For some reason we do not know, consciousness exists in nature. We experience things, want for things, and we don’t know how this phenomenon relates to the rest of nature. As far as we can tell, consciousness exists to figure out what to do next for us. We use it to process information, and the processing of this information leads to actions.
So why would nature make all this happen just to fool us? Nature doesn’t appear to need consciousness, from what we understand of nature through science, yet there it is, we use it to process information. If it is truly useless and doesn’t do anything, just seems to correlate to what we do, but has absolutely no causative role, then why would it exist? Why would nature do that?
This doesn’t seem right, nature wouldn’t do that. Hence we must conclude that our wants do help cause, in some way, what we do.
Therefore, whatever our wants are, whatever consciousness is, it must play some role in the actions we take, otherwise nature is really, really weird. Hence, if the free will question is asking if our wants determine what we do, the answer seems to be a pretty clear yes. If only we knew what consciousness was in the first place.
It should be noted that many find the idea that consciousness is “causally inert” an attractive one. They say, yes consciousness exists, but it is a useless by product that does nothing. They appear to say this because this seems to be the picture science gives of consciousness. The things we identify with science, like forces, mass, charge, and physical laws, are in charge of reality (this is a pro science stance) and so consciousness (which is none of these things like forces or physical laws) must be a useless by product. While I think science gives a wonderful explanation of reality, I must note that consciousness is a complete unknown. We have no idea what it is and how it fits in with the rest of reality. Hence we have absolutely no reason (even in the face of the wonderful success of science) to relegate consciousness to a causally inert role. You cannot conclude things like this about something that is basically a complete unknown.
It seems undeniable that we are determined by physical laws. Our brain is a physical system and there is nothing weird going on in there. As long as there are not unpredictable quantum systems determining what the brain will do, then the idea that the brain operates in a potentially predictable, deterministic manner seems beyond a doubt.
The idea that we could do things beyond physical laws doesn’t seem very likely. Granted we don’t know what consciousness is, but consciousness must be a part of nature, and whatever it does, how could it do things beyond physical laws, when the brain is clearly a physical system? The blood that goes into the brain comes out, conservation of energy applies to the brain. Whenever these and other things are measured, no exceptions to physical laws are found.
So if the free will question is asking if we can do things beyond physics, the answer seems a very clear no.
However, this brings up the question that, if what we do is determined by physical causes, how can it be that our wants determine what we do? Our wants and physical causes are not the same thing at all, it seems, so how can our wants really do anything?
This seems a conundrum. However, as noted above, we really don’t know what consciousness is, so we don’t know what role it plays in nature, and its role of processing information, however this is achieved, should be a part of the physical causes of the brain somehow. We have just ruled out the idea that our consciousness can do anything beyond what physical laws do, so whatever consciousness is doing, what it does must be consistent with physical laws.
So when we look at the brain we see a physical, causal chain of events, and we do not see the workings of consciousness. Despite this, somehow, within this chain of physical events, consciousness must also be at work in a manner consistent with physical laws.
I personally think the only way around this conundrum is to say that physical laws and our will are, in some weird sense, the same thing. Whatever is operating behind the scenes to make physical laws (like the conservation of momentum) do what they do, this thing takes on a the causal role of a determining thing. The thing(s) behind physical laws determine what happens next. Consciousness, in the form of our will, also determines what happens next. Hence maybe they are the same thing in some sense. This idea leads to a picture of nature where, whenever a particle is about to change state, a calculation of sorts must be made, and this “calculation” involves qualia, or a moment of consciousness. More on this theory can be found in my essay.
The alternative to this view is that consciousness must be a superfluous, useless, byproduct to the chain of physical causes. However, since we have no idea what consciousness is, this idea is not warranted. When you have no idea what something is, to assume it plays no part in something you don’t understand does not seem rational. Rather, we simply don’t know. It is possible that consciousness is superfluous, it is possible that it is not.
Is what we do predictable? Given that the brain is a physical system composed of cells called neurons, it seems most likely that it is predictable.
Of course, one might question this by asking if quantum effects influence neurons, and thus influence brain states. Quantum events do not have predictable outcomes. If quantum effects happen in the brain, then what the brain will do will be unpredictable, and so shall our behavior.
Quantum events, of course, happen in the brain, just as they happen in a piece of steel, or a computer, or any collection of atoms. However, when there are collections of many atoms bound to each other, as in a piece of driftwood, the object does not behave as a quantum object, whose future states can only be given probabilities, it behaves as an object whose future states can be predicted by classical physics. There are many quantum phenomena that make semiconductors behave in the way they do, yet what a semiconductor will make a computer do is predictable. There is a sort of “averaging out” to quantum events in big objects, making them subject to predictable, classical laws. There is a limit to how much precision we can predict the future states of large objects.
However, since neurons are relatively large collections of atoms, with large molecules that interact, and use signals sent by ion diffusion, what a neuron will do in a given instance is probably predictable. We should be able to predict what it will do without having to worry about quantum uncertainty. The brain is too “wet and warm” to support phenomena like entanglement. Though there are many quantum phenomena in a neuron, the behavior of a neuron ought to be predictable, just like a semiconductor is predictable.
However, there is recent evidence that quantum phenomena is exploited in animals. The sense of smell of humans, photosynthesis in plants, the way birds detect magnetic fields, all use quantum phenomena to work. Therefore, though it is unlikely, perhaps the behavior of neurons could be influenced by random quantum events, making them unpredictable.
Therefore, we can conclude that, since our behavior is determined by the actions of neurons, who are in principle predictable (probably), our behavior is also predictable (probably). Therefore, what we will for is predictable (probably). One would need a very powerful computer plus some very powerful measuring devices to do this, but it is probably possible in principle. If the free will question means “Are we predictable?” then is the answer is: we do not have free will, since we are predictable.
However, it seems dubious that predictability has much, if anything, to do with “free will”. Whatever “free will” is supposed to mean. Predictability is coherent with the idea that we determine ourselves. If we determine what we do, not something else, what does it matter if an outside observer can predict what we can do?
As an example, imagine a car salesman who is really good at his job. He’s seen so many people and sold so many cars that he can predict, with good accuracy, what car a person will buy and how much they will buy it for from the way the person is dressed, the way they talk, and so on. Suppose he sees a woman come into the car dealership and does not interact with her at all, one of his colleagues handles the sale. But from what he overhears, and how she looks, he successfully predicts what car she will settle on, and the final negotiated price.
Does this mean she has no free will? He did not interfere with her in any way, and she chose the car she wanted unencumbered. So she had free will in the sense that she was unencumbered. She also has free will in the sense that if we are determining things, she was also a determining thing, even if what she did was predictable.
Therefore, it seems that perhaps predictability does not have much to do with “free will”. To investigate a little further, though someone else might know what we are about to do, we ourselves do not. Suppose there was a machine that could sense my brain states and use a powerful computer to successfully predict what I was going to do minutes before I do it. Well, even though it knows what I am going to do, I don’t, and I still have to do it. Therefore, predictability does not affect causation.
It is analogous to knowing what will happen in a collision of two objects on an air track in a high school physics lab. Through the law of conservation of momentum, one can predict what speed the objects will have after the collision. Yet what caused the velocities to come out the way they do? In some way, the thing behind the law of nature we call conservation of momentum is responsible (the law of conservation of momentum is a description of reality, so there must be something in reality behind it making to do what it does, and this “thing” can be assigned a causal role). It causes things to happen as they do, the fact that the results of the law are predictable does not take away from it causing events to unfold in the way they do.
So predictability does not mean we do not cause things to happen. If the free will question is about causation, whether or not we cause things to happen, our predictability has nothing to do with it. We can cause things to happen and still be predictable.
If we are unpredictable, does this matter for free will? It doesn’t seem to matter either. If what we do is not predictable to something else, does that mean we are not causing what we do? It does not follow.
What is clear from quantum mechanics is that quantum events are not predictable. What is not clear is if this implies that events are not caused by prior events. If it truly means that events are “uncaused”, then this would mean we have no free will, since we behave deliberately, not randomly.
Therefore, if our decisions are up to random quantum mechanical events, and these events are uncaused, then we have no free will. Our view of ourselves as acting deliberately would be false, somehow. If the question of free will means “Do we make deliberate decisions?” and if it is true that quantum events rule the brain and are also uncaused, then we have no free will. However, this is not known at this time.
It seems a truism that we do what we value. If we do something we apparently don’t value, then obviously we must have actually valued it. Hence we actually did something we valued, even though we were unaware of it.
This seems inescapable. If we try to do something we don’t value, like sticking a knife in our arm, we would do it to prove that we are capable of doing something we don’t value. However, all that would mean is that we valued being right about this issue over pain and injury. Hence the knife sticking would be done because it is what we value the most.
Hence, though we can do what we want, we cannot choose what we want. Our desires seem built into us. However, we can choose between desires, like when an alcoholic decides to put down the bottle and leave the bar. In such an instance, one is doing what they perceive they value the most.
Thus, if the free will question means “can we choose what we value?” The answer is no, we do not have free will, at least in the sense of choosing our base desires.
This seems clear, but is muddied by the fact that our choices over time probably influence our mind, and hence influence what we value. An alcoholic perceives he has troubles, and keeps trying to quit, but is unsuccessful for a long time. He quits, but then starts drinking again after awhile. He does this over an over again. Eventually, he gives up the bottle for good. He now completely values being sober over being drunk.
Did the former alcoholic choose what he valued? It certainly seems one can make a case for it. His conscious choices eventually influenced his behavior. He eventually beat it into his head, so that the rest of his being accepted this idea. It seems that, in saying that we do not choose what we value, we may have been too simplistic. We cannot do things we don’t value, true (if the alcoholic hadn’t valued the life one can lead without alcohol, he never would have stopped), but what we actually choose out of competing desires seems up to us, even if it is very difficult. As long as we can perceive an option, we can attempt that option. We cannot choose our base desires (such as enjoying being drunk or enjoying a sober life, these are base desires) but we can choose between them.
Once a person performs that option, we can say (in retrospect) that that person valued that option the most. Thus if we only knew what they valued the most beforehand, then we would know what someone will do. However, an observer of someone cannot know what the agent values the most in many circumstances, further, the agent performing the action doesn’t know what hey value beforehand either.
However, is that what the free will question means (i.e. can we choose what we value)? Even accepting that we cannot choose what we value is no denial that we are a causative agent – that we are a determining thing. Our wants still cause things to happen, at least that’s how it seems, but we cannot decide what our basic wants are, only choose between them. Is this a big deal to our notion of free will? We still deliberate over choices, mull over decisions. We do this unimpeded. We ourselves might not know what we value the most, we still have to mull over decisions and figure out what to do. This process does not go away because we cannot predetermine what we value (in a basic sense).
Though it is undeniably true that we cannot will for what we don’t want, it’s not clear what this is saying about our will and its freedom. It could be that all it is saying is that we are predictable based on what we value. If that’s all, that does not seem to imply that we have no free will, as above.
It could also be saying that “freedom” should mean we should be able to choose what we want, rather than choose what we will do based on what we already value. However, why is this what “freedom” means? I mull things over, I consider options, nobody is doing this for me. I am not impeded, this mulling is a cause of what I will do. Just because we can’t choose every last thing that occurs regarding ourselves does not mean there is no “freedom”.
This fact that we cannot choose what we value can lead to the following line of thinking. Since we always do what we value most, we can look upon ourselves as following an “automatic” process. If we are following an automatic process, then it would seem that we are determined by something that is not us, something that is otherworldly and has nothing to do with us.
It is like there is an invisible Demon making us to what we value most automatically. The Demon is what does everything, since it makes sure that we do what we value most. However, instead of a Demon, it is more like the laws of nature that determine that we will automatically do what we value the most. If there really is something else, not “us”, doing things, then it would seem very definite that we have no free will.
However, just because this can be looked upon as an automatic process does not mean that this is the correct way to look at this process. Yes, we will always do what we value most, but we don’t know what we will value most until we actively figure it out. We have to mull it over. The process is not “automatic” in the sense that it doesn’t involve any conscious experience that is actively doing things. It does involve conscious experience that actively does things. We don’t know the outcome beforehand. Someone else might, but we don’t. It’s like saying that whatever is behind the conservation of momentum does nothing because we know what it will do.
This issue of whether or not we are an “automatic” process seems to me to be the crux of the issue of freedom of the will. More will be said on it in a bit.
If the possibility of quantum mechanical phenomena determining what we will do in an “uncaused” manner is ignored, then we are determined by past physical events that occur according to the laws of physics. This is probably a good assumption, since there are good arguments from special relativity that make the case that everything that happens is predetermined, even if it is not predictable. Penrose’s Andromeda argument involving special relativity and an alien attacking force from another galaxy seems particularly strong.
Determinism is a bit of an ambiguous word, and care must be taken when using it. While it is probably true that everything is predetermined, that does not mean that everything is “determinable”. That is we cannot expect to be able to determine what will happen in quantum events, even if the quantum events are determined. They are not determinable, they cannot be predicted.
Saying quantum events are determined, but not determinable, means that the prior events led inevitably to the event one is considering, but we don’t and cannot know what that event will be beforehand, we can just give a probability of what it will be. Research into Quantum mechanics has made it very clear that there is no way to predict what will happen with knowledge of these prior events, it is simply impossible. However, whether this implies that the event is still determined by prior events, or is actually uncaused, is less clear. As above, with Penrose’s argument, there seem to be good reasons for thinking the event is still determined by prior events, but is not determinable from prior events.
Saying the event is determined by prior events does not and should not give complete causal power to the prior events. We can certainly say that the prior events helped cause the event, but there are other things we can assign causal powers to as well. For instance, when two object collide, we can determine what will happen using conservation of momentum and energy beforehand. There is something in nature that causes momentum to be conserved. Whatever it is, it seems correct to give this “something” causal powers. We can also attribute cause to the prior events, and at the same time attribute cause to the “something”. So there are a few things to attribute cause to, not just prior events.
For arguments about free will, it seem that a common fallacy is committed when one claims that “everything is determined” (probably true) to “everything is determined by something else other than ourselves”. There is no justification for this move, other than to claim that physical causes and mental causes have no relation to each other. However, this is not justified, because, as mentioned previously, we have no idea what consciousness is and how it relates to the rest of nature. It seems very possible that mental causes and physical causes work together to make things happen according to the laws of physics. How else could they coexist? We know the laws of physics work in the brain.
This line of thinking is very similar to saying that everything we do is an automatic process, as discussed above.
In other words, if we are determined by something else, what is it? What is it that is determining us? It is not enough to say “we are determined” one must say what it is that is determining us. Physical laws? Prior physical causes? Those are legitimate answers, but what reason do you have for saying that consciousness (which we know very little about) is not working hand in hand somehow with prior physical events and physical laws?
A common thing to say about the free will issue is that everything that we ever do, everything we will ever do, was determined the moment the big bang happened. This is probably true, but it has no bearing on the issue of what it is that determines us. Everything was determined in the Big Bang, so what? The issue is whether or not we help determine things or not as events unfold after the Big Bang. Are we like the “something” behind the conservation of momentum, or not?
Therefore, if everything is determined, this does not imply that something else is determining us. Of course, if something else is determining us, then we have no free will, but what reason do we have to believe this?
A common question in free will debates is whether or not we could have done otherwise. Given some circumstances, a person makes a decision. Could that person have chosen differently?
This question itself is ambiguous. Does it mean (A) was it inevitable that the choice the person made would happen the way it did? Or is it (B) asking what phenomenon is in charge? (meaning that if that phenomenon of consciousness decided something different, then something different would have happened.)
For question A, the answer, assuming a deterministic universe (supported by special relativity and probably consistent with Quantum mechanics, as above) the answer is obvious. The choice was inevitable, and it could not have come out differently. If this is what the free will question means, then we have no free will.
However, as always, is this actually what the question means? For we can say, yes, it was inevitable, but what determined it? If our consciousness is part of the process that determines what actions we perform, then, even if it is predictable by some means beyond us, we still have to do it (and as always, we ourselves will not know what will occur before it occurs).
Thus we could have done otherwise if we had happened to decide otherwise. Note that our decision was still inevitable, given the particular circumstance involved in the decision, but still, as long as part of the determination process involves “us”, involves our consciousness, then it is a determining thing, it is “in charge”.
When I decide to water my garden tomorrow, instead of today, the question of whether to water the garden occurs when I look at the garden. I don’t appear to summon the question. Likewise the thought that it would save water and the garden will be fine for another day also appear to come unbidden into my mind.
What I do appear to do is to weigh these options (“look” at them, even though I can’t actually see them) and settle on the option that seems best.
In any event, there seems to be alot of things happening in my “unconscious” to summon up thoughts like questions on whether to water the garden, and also summon information pertaining to what I am thinking about, like plant survival, and I don’t appear to be in control of this. To be clear, it seems that in some sense these “unconscious” processes are a part of me, but they are not part of my self awareness, and we often identify “I” (ourselves) with our self aware processes. It would seem that our self awareness is the thing that decides when to water the garden, based on the information sent to it.
However, one can continue along this line and even question whether or not the decision to water the garden was really arrived at by our “self aware” process, since we are only aware of what we decide, perhaps this decision process is automatic, and we only experience what we decide, and something else makes the decision. If this is true, then we have no free will.
However, as always, is this what the question really means? As it is claiming that something else, not us, is determining what we do, it’s probably quite close to what the question is asking, however, that claim is probably not correct, there are a few things to say about it.
First there is the question of what our “unconscious” is. There seems to be good reason to think that “unconscious” processes are in fact conscious ones with qualia and are evaluations of some sort, but are not part of our self awareness, and are not remembered by our self awareness. For instance, there are things that make people angry. For whatever reason, we perceive some sort of unfairness, and we get angry as a result. Our self awareness does not seem privy to the evaluation that anger is now a good idea, the feeling sort of comes into our self awareness, indeed, when we are angry, we might not be aware if we are angry at all.
So it seems that this feeling of anger comes from outside of “us”. However, it seems likely that the decision to trigger anger is a similar process to me deciding to water my garden tomorrow, in that it was an evaluation, and probably involved a quale. It was not part of our self awareness, and the decision was not recorded by our self awareness, nevertheless, it was probably a “conscious” decision in that involved qualia and was an evaluation.
If this is true, then the thoughts that come unbidden into our minds, like the question of when to water my garden, also come from evaluations with qualia when stimulus triggers these evaluation. For instance, when I look at my garden, an evaluation process with a qualia is triggered, and the thought “should I water it today?” comes into my head.
Therefore, if I can claim that my decision to water my garden is an act of free will, as I can choose among options and sense which one appears a better option, then these “unconscious” evaluations that probably also have qualia are acts of “free will” in a sense as well, as they are evaluations with qualia that happen “outside” of my self awareness.
Can I claim that my decision to water my garden is an act of free will? Everything hinges on that. Well, as above, it seems reasonable that this decision is a determining thing, it causes action. It does not seem right to deny this, so then a free will denier is then reduced to saying that I do not “own” the decision, I am just experiencing the decision, the causal process that leads from my experience to the decision to hold off on my watering is not a part of me.
The reason that it is not a part of me could be claimed to be because it is a physical process, and not a mental one, but we have gone through this above already, and it is simply not clear what the difference between mental processes and physical processes is, so we have no reason at this point to accept that physical processes and mental ones are utterly independent and unrelated to each other.
though I am not sure that I understand the “unconscious” argument above, I think the argument is an attempt at denial of our ownership of the causal process that leads from experience to evaluation, since we can’t see it for unconscious processes. However, it seems we can “see it” for conscious processes. As above, our conscious decisions are active, not passive acts. We do not just experience the results of our decisions, we also strive to look at options and “see” the right one to do.
Thus we have no reason to accept that we cannot claim ownership of the process that leads from experience to decision. Further, what does “ownership” mean in this context? I have no idea…
Throughout analyzing all these questions, the one idea that appears to perhaps survive, no matter how one manages to doubt that we have free will, is that we appear to be a determining thing.
The crux of the issue of free will appears to be whether or not “we” are determining things, or something else is. Are we a determining thing, or not? The issue does not seem to be about obstruction of what we want to do, which is how the term is most commonly used. It should not about whether or not we can make choices outside the laws of physics, because we can’t. As best as I can tell, it seems to be about who or what is in control?
It seems that the main reason to doubt that we have free will is whether or not our choices are actually making things happen. Though it seems obvious that our wants cause us to do things, this is called into question by some observations:
(1) We don’t choose what we value (in a basic sense).
(2) Everything we do can be chalked up to physical causes.
(3) We can’t claim ownership of certain mental properties.
Reason (2) does not seem to be legitimate, as has been said repeatedly, since we simply don’t know what consciousness is, so we have no reason to believe that it does not work hand in hand with physical causes.
Reason (1) has already been discussed, and does not contradict the idea that our wants cause things to happen.
Reason (3) was just discussed.
All in all, there does not seem to be a knock down, compelling reason to deny our free will, but there are things that we need to understand better.
From all of this, it seems to me the main thing to do is figure out what consciousness is, how it relates to the rest of nature, what it does in nature. This is an interesting question. Regardless of whether or not we can truly be said to have free will, and in what sense we can say this, and what the question means, even if we don’t have free will, we still need to understand consciousness and its role in nature. Surely this will settle the issue.
The problem: How do we know we are in a good or bad state? By extension, how do we know we are doing the right thing? What is the criterion for good or bad states of being? What does morality mean?
The solution: It is argued that a concept I call the “form of living” serves as a criterion for good or bad states of being. The “form of living” is a sequence of actions and events that occur by and to a person over time. We value certain sequences over others. Each form of living is situation dependent, meaning that what we states of being we pursue or avoid is situation dependent. A moral act is defined as one that contributes to the good/best state being for all beings involved in the act, and some issues are investigated.
Table of Contents
The Problem to Solve
Overview of the Central Argument
Definition of a form of Living
Arguments for the criterion
Using the Criterion
The Meaning of Life
Definition of Morality
Application of forms of living theory
Forms of living and Consequentialism
Ought From Is?
The problem to solve
What body of information do we consider when we pronounce an individual state of being “good” or “bad”?
Note that I am not asking (yet) for the criterion for moral good or bad states of being, just individual ones. The idea is to figure out the criterion for pronouncing someone’s individual state of being good or bad, morality being put aside for the moment. For instance we might ask what makes losing my job bad for me? This is not a moral question, as I am not asking if someone should fire me or not, rather, I am asking in the sense of personal well being. What body of information do we look at when we assess my losing my job, and pronounce it “bad” for me, as most people would? What makes it bad for me?
At the very least, the criterion for individual good or bad states of being is related to morality. If we can figure out what it is we “measure” or “sense” when we pronounce a state of being as good or bad for someone, then we should be on our way to answering questions about what morality is. Of course the words “measure” or “sense” might not be the best description of what we do, but I do not know better words to describe what we might do.
If we do “sense” or “detect” or “measure” something, that then allows our minds to then judge a state to be good or bad for a person, then we might ask, what is this thing that we “sense”? Another way to put this question is: what is the criterion for good or bad states? What collection of information (what “thing”) do we attend to when we judge a state of being? For example, when I am beaten during a mugging on the street, I am obviously in a bad state, both during and after. How do I know that I am in a bad state? What is it I sense or measure to know that being mugged in this manner is a bad state? How do I know that falling in love is a good state for me?
Supposedly, if we can figure out what the criterion is for a good or bad state of being, we can do several things. First, we might be able to clarify some situations where we find it hard to judge the welfare of persons and the moral circumstances they are in. We might be able to “calculate” what is good for people. Second, we might be able to discover how to “measure” good or bad states independently of a person’s judgment, that is, measure it with machines. Third, it should settle some debates in moral philosophy, for, at the very least, good or bad states of being are very related to morality. Whether any of these possibilities can happen is something to be seen.
However, it should be obvious that even if we find a single overarching criterion that one can reference for any good or bad state of being, it will be useless from a practical standpoint. When we are in pain, we are going to try to stop being in pain. It’s not as if we think “Oh, I’m in pain, what should I do again? Or right, try to stop the pain…” We do these things automatically, we don’t need to know the criteria to look at, we will look at whatever the ultimate criterion is regardless of what we know. When we miss a train, we know we are inconvenienced, we don’t have to figure out it’s bad by referencing some criterion. When we get fired from a job that we need, we know this is bad, we don’t have to reference something and figure it out. The ultimate criterion will explain what happens, but it cannot be used.
There are only a few uses that I can think of for the ultimate criterion. First, it will help explain what we do, and why, but, as above, it won’t be much help. Second, this explanation might be useful in making a device with artificial intelligence. If a computer is told what to measure, then it can figure out whether or not someone is in a good or bad state, understand meaning, things like that.
The question of the criterion for good or bad states of being is, of course, an old question in philosophy. I will attempt to answer it here. Here it is assumed that, though it is possible that we use the wrong criterion for good or bad states, we actually use the correct one. Assuming we don’t use the correct one seems like extreme skepticism. It is assumed that a single criterion for good or bad states is possible to formulate, rather than having multiple criteria. It is also assumed that, though we can use the criterion successfully in many cases, it is possible that in some cases, we cannot “measure” the criterion correctly, or it is very difficult to tell the right answer.
The criterion is a thing I call the “form of living”. A hard thing to define, and I will do my best to define it clearly below. Armed with this criterion, I will then apply it to a kind of “consequentialist” definition of morality. The definition is : A moral act is one that contributes to the good/best state of being for all beings involved in the act. Also, the agent performing the act is affected by the act, thus the state of being that the agent enters into is also a relevant consideration. Further, it does not seem correct to say that an act with an outcome that is good for others that is done for entirely selfish reasons should be called “moral”. Neither should it be called “immoral”, so it seems one must add a caveat to the definition of a moral act, that it must stem from a concern about others, otherwise it cannot be called moral. More on all this later.
Overview of the Central Argument
The central argument throughout this essay is as follows:
It will be argued that any state of being we wish to call “good” or “bad” (for a person) is reducible to a sequence of actions and events that happen to a person over some period of time. I call these sequences, “forms of living”.
If it is true that what we call “good states” is reducible to these sequences, then, since this is a physical sequence of events over time, this is in turn, reducible to changes in energy states over time for all bodies involved in each state. This implies that it is likely reducible to a thermodynamic quantity.
If “good” and “bad” states are reducible to a thermodynamic quantity, then these states are measurable. If measurable, this settles some debates about morality. For instance, it indicates that whether or not I am in a good or bad state is objective, since it is measurable. As long a physically measurable quantity implies objectivity, that is.
However, though these states are potentially measurable, they are not measurable today, and since this is such a complicated thing to measure, they might never be measurable by a machine. The only thing that can measure these states currently are human beings, and this is likely to continue into the future.
As a further argument to the fact that these states are measurable, this is equivalent to saying that one day we will be able to build a device, an artificial intelligence, that will be able to measure this special thermodynamic quantity. If a machine can reliably measure good or bad states, then we will find it to be an intelligent machine. To say that these states are not measurable is equivalent to saying it is impossible to building an artificial intelligence.
Measurability also answers the question of relative morality. Any dispute about what is moral to do between two people who are motivated out of concern for others, can be chalked up to a “measurement problem”. For many simple things, like issues of whether or not humans need food and shelter, everyone measures the same and gets the same answer. But for more complicated scenarios, disputes arise. Two humans are measuring something differently, be it what the future will be if such an action is done, or what to value more given a hard to imagine situation. This is the cause of moral disputes, but no solution can be offered, because no better measurements can be made, as humans remain the only things that can measure these states. More on this below.
Phrasing the criterion for good or bad states of being as a sequence of actions and events also leads to a clarification of consequentialism. A definition of morality (i.e. that a moral act is one that contributes to the good/best state for all beings involved in the act) is used in conjunction with “the form of living” to show how it can answer classical challenges to consequentialism.
Thus the central idea of this essay is that good or bad states for a person are measurable, and this has many implications for debates in morality.
Definition of a form of living
Humans have an amazing ability to pick out aspects of a complicated situation and identify which parts of it are “good” or “bad”. For instance, consider two situations that are very similar physically, but different from a moral perspective.
Situation 1: A boy is throwing a baseball back and forth with his father in a park. Suppose a woman is walking nearby and a boy throws the ball and unintentionally hits her leg. She is surprised but uninjured. Physically we might describe this as: a biological body of mainly water, held together by bones and various proteins, moved by protein folding in the muscular regions of her body, is hit by a 0.145 kg baseball. Another smaller but similar body (the boy) propels the 0.145 kg baseball in a parabolic trajectory that impacts the larger biological body.
Situation 2: A woman walks through the park, the boy throws the ball, this time deliberately aiming for her, and hits her leg. She is surprised but uninjured. Physically we might describe this as: a biological body of mainly water, held together by bones and various proteins, moved by protein folding in the muscular regions of her body, is hit by a 0.145 kg baseball. Another smaller but similar body (the boy) propels the 0.145 kg baseball in a parabolic trajectory that impacts the larger biological body.
Morally speaking , the two situations are different. The second seems more serious than the first, as it was done on purpose. In the first situation, the boy would probably be in less trouble, supposing the parent divined the boy’s intentions in both cases. Physically speaking, they are at least quite similar, with the second situation only differing by some neural activity in the boy’s brain, and some eye movements, where he deliberately targets the woman. How do we pick out the relevant details and pronounce the second situation as morally serious? How do we prioritize one set of actions and events, and discard the irrelevant ones? We don’t know how we do this, but we know that we do it, and do it easily. How do we know? The only answer we have is that “we just know.”
What information we use to judge a state good or bad, the criterion for good or bad states of being, is not clear. Here I am talking about a good or bad state for a person, i.e. their welfare, not whether they are evil or nice. If one is evil, that is bad for other people, but not for the person that is evil, they probably enjoy it.
Historically, emotionally positive feelings, i.e. pleasure, feeling good, was tried as the criterion for good or bad states of being with the ethical theory called utilitarianism. If an act maximizes pleasure, it was proposed, then it is the best thing to do. However, this was found wanting bey many commentators, for good reason. Whose pleasure matters? What about situations where many get pleasure, but some get pain? And so on.
The interesting thing about “feeling good”, is that in pretty well every situation (maybe all situations) where one is in a good or a bad state, there is an emotional component to it. When we fall in love, we feel good, when we break a leg, we feel pain, if we are a slave, we feel powerless over a long period of time, and so on. In many situations, we use how we feel to judge the situation as good or bad. After the death of a loved one, people feel awful, and that seems to be what is bad about that situation. Hence, it seems natural to see if emotional states work as a means of judging all states of being.
However, feeling good or bad seems to fail as a criterion that works for all situations. When we break a leg, we feel pain, but we also have a loss of mobility, something bad that is beyond what we feel. Also, though people addicted to heroin feel great pleasure, many feel it is a bad life and do not want to pursue it. Feeling pleasure is not enough. Further, suppose we could live as a brain in a vat in a simulated reality where life is great, we feel good all the time, but it’s a fake reality. Many people, if given the choice, would choose to live in reality, rather than a great, but fake, life. Further, would you choose to live as a slave and have as many good and bad feelings over the course of your life as a free person? Probably not. Hence, feeling good or bad seems to fail as a criterion for all good or bad sates of being, but it does seem to be all that’s important in some situations, such as losing a loved one. It also seems omnipresent, and might be a factor in all states of being considered good or bad.
What are other things we seem to value beyond emotional states? Certain biological states like being healthy seems to be something we might value. However, one can always argue that the only reason we want to be healthy is to feel good. This seems disingenuous though, as having a broken leg is not only painful, but also hinders mobility, which seems bad for other reasons. Hence, there seems to be some reason to think that being healthy is a good in itself, regardless of how one feels. However, health is not always considered in evaluating a state of being good or bad. The moment you fall in love has little, if anything to do with your health, yet it is a good thing regardless.
Another interesting thing we seem to value beyond emotional states might be mental states. Do we value those occasions when we understand things well, when we have a clear mind, for themselves, or because of how we feel? Granted we feel something, but it seems to me that I value having a clear mind and understanding things regardless of how I feel.
The last thing I can think of that might be a candidate for the criterion for good or bad states of being is what we are existing like, the sort of thing we are, the sort of person we are. Many seem to value being honorable, or being virtuous, or living to a code, and so on, regardless of how much good or bad feeling we get from it. We can also value being an athlete in our youth, being a good mountaineer, being a good salesman, and so on, as well. In all of these things, there is of course an emotional component to it, but saying that the reason we value being honorable is so we can feel good seems disingenuous. Further, people can choose to pursue a course of action even though they will likely be tortured and killed for it, because that’s the sort of person they want to be, the kind that stands up to oppression, or whatever. There is also the fact that we would choose to live in reality instead of being a brain in a vat. We would rather be the sort of person that lives a real life than a fake life.
The common element in these things we value, being honorable, being a good husband, being virtuous, etc. seems to me as being the sort of thing we exist as when we do this. We can exist as a virtuous thing, exist as a good mountaineer, exist as a slave, exist as a hero, etc. When we do the sort of things that are required to be considered a hero, we exist as that sort of thing. We exercise our will so that we take certain actions, rather than others.
This seems like a pretty major criterion for good or bad states of being. It seem to trump emotional states. It was basically all the ancient Greek thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle, seemed to care about. However, it also falls short of being the ultimate criterion for good or bad states of being. Sometimes we care about existing as a certain sort of person, other times we don’t. For instance, after the death of a loved one, all we seem to care about is how we feel. We can be dignified or bawling and collapsed in a heap, but who really cares? The important thing is to start healing, start feeling better. Further, how important is it to be honorable? How do you tell?
So we have several candidates for things that seem good in themselves: positive or negative emotional states, health, mental states, and the sort of thing we are existing like, but none of them seem to be an adequate criterion on their own. They seem to be the major things we consider when we evaluate a state as good or bad, particularly emotional and what we are existing like. Sometimes we only care about emotional states, sometimes we only care about what sort of thing we are being. It would be nice to find something that we could always look towards when we evaluate a state of being as good or bad.
The one thing I can find that all of these candidates have in common is that they all involve sequences of actions that people take and events that happen to people, but only, of course, while you are alive. Emotional states involve a sequence of feelings over time. Mental states involve a sequence of thoughts over time. Healthy states involve a sequence of physical states over time. Existential states (existing as a certain sort of thing), like being a monk, involves many actions that someone takes and events that happen to a person over time.
When one feels happy, what is this but a sequence of emotional states over time? When one understands something, has mental clarity, what is this but a sequence of thoughts over time? When one sprains an ankle, what is this but a sequence of events over time? When one is honorable, what is this but a sequence of actions and events over time?
Hence, it seems that we can reduce any good or bad state to a sequence of actions and/or events over time. Since this is a common element of all the major things we use to evaluate a situation, we should be able to use sequences (somehow) as the criterion for good or bad states of being. The question is : which sequences?
Well, for one thing, these sequences are only relevant when they happen to a living person. Also, we pursue certain sequences rather than others. Hence we can call the ultimate criterion for good or bad states of being something like a “form of living”. When we are doing one thing, we are alive in a certain way, a certain form. When we do something else, we are alive differently, in a different form. If it’s OK to say that we can be alive differently at different times, then one can say we are alive in a certain “form”, meaning a certain sequence of events are happening and a certain sequence of actions are being taken. “Form” means “sequence”. One could also say “way in which one is alive”, or “what you are living like”. “Living in a certain form” seems like a good way to phrase the idea that a person is going through a certain series of actions and experiencing a certain series of events.
To be more precise, the form of living should be viewed as the summation of the sequence of events and actions that one goes through in a particular situation. This is, of course, not a mathematical summation, but the idea is similar.
When one goes through a similar situation, the form of living should be similar. For instance, when someone gets mugged, the sequence of actions and events that happen to them, their form of living, should be similar to another person getting mugged. It is not exactly similar, but it is similar enough to call it the same thing, a “mugging”.
A form of living is somewhat an extension on the phrase “way of life”. But it is more general. You can have a way of life as a cowboy, or a businesswoman, or a monk, or a hockey player, etc. This is the sum of your actions and typical events that happen to you over a long period of time. The way of life is one that you have (hopefully) chosen. But my term is of a broader scope. The form of living can refer to short time intervals, and not just the type of person you are.
As an example, suppose I am walking down the street eating an ice cream cone. Biologically, I am swallowing, chewing, my heartbeat is slightly elevated, my muscles are working, using energy. Biologically speaking, I am alive – like that (swallowing chewing, heart beating, using muscles). I could be alive differently, I could be not moving, overheated, etc. But at this point in time I am alive “like that” so that a certain sequence of biological events and actions are happening, which I somehow can “sum up”. Mentally speaking, my mind is wandering, not really focused. Maybe I am remembering something that, if you asked me later, I couldn’t recall. Mentally speaking I am alive – like that (wandering). Notice this too is a sequence of mental events over a time interval that can somehow be “summed up” by us. Emotionally, I am enjoying the ice cream, and it is sunny, the landscape is nice to look at, so I feel sort of good, but not overly so. Emotionally speaking I am alive – like that (sort of good, notice this is a sequence of feelings over a time interval). Existentially speaking, I am an ice cream cone consumer, an eater of dairy products, I am alive existentially – like that (ice cream eater).
Sum all these together, biological, existential, mental, emotional, and you get a sense what I am “alive like”. You get a sense of my form of living. Interestingly, that’s all you can get, a sense of the form of living. Then you can pronounce it as undesirable or desirable. It’s something we seem to sense. I can describe my state of being in this sort of detail, and someone else can sense what I am living like – my form of living. I can’t say it directly. I can only describe a situation and then a mind can sense what the form of living is, and then seems to automatically evaluate it. I can only sort of “gesture” towards it.
A form of living is the sum of one’s actions and the events that happen to a person over some time interval. We seem to pick out the relevant time interval with ease. There are lots of events that happen to me as I walk down the street. We have the ability to pick out the important things (enjoyment of the ice cream, exercise) and discard the unimportant stuff (the rocks 10 meters away, the houses nearby). We can sum this up to get a sense of what I am living like (the important stuff). From this sense of the form of living, our minds seem to evaluate our state of being.
Let us try another example. What is my form of living if I am teaching a class? Physically, I am walking around, uttering noises, pointing to the chalkboard. Physically, or biologically, I am alive – like that. Mentally, I am thinking about what to say to help the students understand. Emotionally, I am worried if I am doing this right, I might get embarrassed a bit in the middle of the class for saying the wrong thing. I also might be tired. Emotionally speaking, I am alive – like that. Existentially (the sort of thing I am) I am a teacher.
All these sequences of actions and events sum up in a unique way to give us a sense of what I am living like as I teach a class. It seems one can do this with any situation. Again, I cannot phrase directly what the form is like. I can sense the form from the description, just as I believe anyone can do. But that is all I can do. It is not something I can directly phrase, rather it is something that people sense when given a proper description of a situation. We miraculously pick out relevant details, sum then up and get a sense of the form of living. One will be inclined to pursue or not pursue some state based on our sense of the form of living.
If progress can be made, we might be able to measure this “form of living” by looking at the biological and physical states of a person (including those of the brain) or animal over time. This is all we can measure about a person, we can’t directly detect emotions or mental states. This would be a very hard task, but possible in principle. If we can consistently measure a form of living and interpret it with a machine, then we would have a machine that could duplicate our ability to evaluate whether we or someone else is in a good or bad state. Thus we would have a science of evaluation.
What might a science of evaluation look like? I do not pretend to know, but I can propose a rough theory, most likely wrong. The only utility would be to consider this as a clarification of what I am proposing. First, since we cannot measure mental or emotional states, we must look at biological sequences, things we can measure. Assume that for every emotional, mental or existential state, there is a corresponding physical or biological state. We would look at sequences of movements (arm, leg, body, lips, etc), sequences of blood flow, sequences of neural activity, sequences of temperature states, etc. Probably we would consider things relevant when certain quantities, like blood flow, temperature, movements, etc. start to change from normal values. Then we might apply some physical principle, like minimization of energy, or how much entropy is fought against, or efficiency, or some other concept that relates to what living things try to accomplish in order to stay alive in the way they wish. These concepts of efficiency or what have you also relate to sequences of states the organism goes through. Then you try to calculate how possible sequences would adjust such a quantity. If say, efficiency goes up, or energy is minimized, or the opposite of entropy is achieved, or whatever physical quantity is appropriate, then it would be declared a good state.
Life then would have a solid definition. Right now we might define life as something that uses energy in a certain “way”. Right now if asked, “What way?” I have no answer, other than to gesture at the “form of living”. If you can’t tell, I can’t explain it to you (but everyone can tell). But if we could sum up sequences with a computer as our minds do, then I might be able to point to sequences that minimize energy (or a similar physical principle that works well). Then we would have a solid definition for life. We would say “life is some body that uses energy so that energy is minimized (or whatever)”. Where “used” means energy is released so that this energy can lead to realizing energy minimization (or whatever). There are a lot of difficulties. One is time scales. Over what time scale should one try to measure a sequence? What are the thresholds to use for saying that an arm movement occurred or did not? The computing needed for this also seems monstrous. Even if all this could be solved, will there be a physical quantity (like minimization of energy) that will calculate results that we agree with? How could we tell if we were on the right track? Presumably if what we were calculating started to agree with our evaluations, we might be on the right track. Also, if we can recognize patterns in our theory of evaluation that seem to match up to our common sense notions of recognizable states, like happy or sad or whatever, then this would also be an indication that we are on the right track. It seems, at the least, very, very difficult, but maybe possible.
Arguments for the criterion
What is being claimed here is that whatever we call a good or bad state is correlated to a sequence of events/actions that someone experiences. I’m not sure how this could be doubted. The information that we reference when we call a state good or bad must be in the sequence somehow. Where else could it be? The issue is: can we narrow this down a bit? Is the “form of living” an adequate phrasing of the important part of these sequences?
What I am stating is that good or bad states are “summations” of certain sequences of actions and events that happen to people and/or are caused by people. When our mind is clear (a good state), what is this but a sequence of thoughts and understandings over a time interval? I understand some scientific concept, and how it relates to others. This understanding is a sequence of thoughts. When I feel good, is this not a sequence of emotions? For instance I win a lottery, I get excited, I think about the possibilities. Is this not a sequence of feelings? I exist as a good skater, is not this a sequence of actions (sliding and pushing in various directions) over a period of time? In some instances, it might be a sequence of one thing, such as a sudden epiphany. This we can still call a sequence, it is a sequence of one. This one instance in time is a good thing, just as sequences over time are good things. Even with an epiphany, it seems that an epiphany can perhaps be broken down into some sequence of thoughts, you see how one thing connects to others, then to others. Also, even an epiphany is a physical sequence of neurons firing. We seem to have a natural ability to find the right time interval to look at these sequences over. How do we know the right time interval? We just know.
Fine, you might say, good states must be somehow “in” the sequence of actions and events, but what aspect of these sequences is good or bad? The only answer is that we seem to be able to tell which aspects to look for. This is simply our state of knowledge at this time. It might be possible to measure sequences of movements and get a computer to pick out what we pick out, but we don’t know how to do that. We can pick them out. The trick to propose a criterion for good or bad states of being that is the right word combination, so that it that points us in the right direction. It’s as if I am going to be deliberately stupid. I can easily pick out what is good or bad from a description, but I want you to point me to what I can pick out with a set of words or a word. Does the phrase “form of living” do this?
As was mentioned in the beginning of this essay, this criterion for good or bad states of being is useless, even though it is probably correct. We will know what is good or bad about a situation automatically, we do not have to figure out that pain is bad for us, we already know. Hence my task in arguing that this is the proper criterion for good or bad states of being is to show that it correlates with any good or bad states of being, and that it gives nothing superfluous. If it meets these two criteria, then it must be accepted as, at least, one way to phrase the criterion for good or bad states of being. What’s really being checked here is if it’s a proper phrasing, nothing else, since it is useless in any event.
Well, first, the phrase “form of living” captures within it anything else we might want to use as a criterion. It captures anything that seems well correlated to good or bad states. How we feel, what we are existing like, what our mental state is, the state of health, even our spiritual state (which I would define as how we use our will, how we act like a force of nature, causing things to happen) seems a sub category of the form of living. What we are living like includes all of these things. Any one of them seems like it might be always correlated to our welfare, but none of them are adequate. We always seem to feel something when we are in a good or bad state, but this is just one aspect of a good state, emotions are not everything. We can always be feeling good, but this is not good for us overall if we are a drug addict. Physically and existentially a drug addict is in a bad state, which trumps her or his emotional state. The form of living tells us this. If you look at a drug addict, describe what they are living like, your mind has the necessary sense of the situation to judge. Conversely, it isn’t enough to exist well. Being a liar is bad, but sometimes lying might save a life. Biological states cannot cover everything, as we do not know how to translate brains states into emotions and mental states.
Correlation is not causation. Though good or bad states are often or always correlated to how we feel, we do not consider positive emotions to be the last word on our state of being. Forms of living seem correlated to good or bad states, but do they fall prey to the same thing that emotional states do? This would seem unlikely, as the form of living seems to supersede all other possible criteria, and has them as sub categories (i.e. existential, emotional, mental and physical).
Consider that a living thing has certain qualities that a non-living thing does not. We breathe, have neural activity, feel and experience things, a rock does not. Any change to any of these living qualities (to our form of living) could be bad, but also could be good. A change in a rock is not good or bad unless that rock affects some living thing. Thus, all we care about are living qualities, nothing else. If all we care about are living qualities, the form of living seems to capture all things we care about, and nothing extraneous.
Does the form of living lead us to irrelevant things? It does not seem to, at least I can come up with no example. If I am standing on asphalt, the asphalt may be or may not be relevant to the form of living engaged in. If my head is about to hit it, then it is obviously relevant to the qualities that make me alive. At the very least, a great change in my living qualities will be partly due to the asphalt. If I am witnessing a fire in a restaurant, and I am scared, my heartbeat is elevated, and I am wondering if I should go inside and try to rescue people, (I am living like that (scared, wondering)) it is not relevant that I am standing on asphalt, it is barely a part of my form of living, if at all. It does not affect any of my living qualities. If it does, it is a slight affect, and the asphalt does not affect my evaluation of what to do either.
One might say that in some instances, perhaps the emotional aspect, or another sub category, of the form of living is irrelevant, thus the form of living is pointing to irrelevant things. Suppose I am sitting and listening to news on the radio, I feel nothing. I am passive. The question is: what am I living like? In this instance, the only emotionally relevant thing to my form of living is that I feel numb, emotionless. Thus, in this case, though my emotional state enters into consideration for my form of living, it seems to be a minimal consideration. I have pointed to these things as a means to describe the form of living, as they seem often correlated with it and are often a consideration. That is not to say they are necessarily always a consideration. The mind decides what to consider as important.
The question then is: if some sub categories of the form of living are sometimes irrelevant, is it the wrong criterion? Probably not. The problem is that I have no idea how to “calculate” or “measure” the form of living independently of a mind. Nobody does. Our minds just seem to know what to do. If some things that are sometimes relevant are not at other times, then presumably if we could figure out how to calculate the form of living as our minds do, then our calculation would tell us which things are relevant, independently of our minds. For instance, perhaps the relevant thing is that certain living qualities are about to change or are changing, such as blood flow or certain neural activity. A complete theory, whatever it looks like, would tell us this, thus tell us the relevant things, independently of our own judgment.
Another issue is that of situation dependence. What is good in one instance, such as feeling good, might be detrimental in another instance, as when one is a drug addict. It depends on the specific situation. If there is so much situation dependence, how can one be more specific than the form of living? What sequence we are after will depend on the situation at hand, it’s impossible to specify beforehand. Hence what else can we do?
In any event, all we can ask for is the right word combination to point us in the right direction to consider the relevant things. We will consider the relevant things regardless. The point is to find an agreeable word combination that points us to the right sequences. In this sense the term “form of living” is superior to “state of being”, as “state of being” would point us to all things, such as irrelevant asphalt. Another candidate, “happiness” is too ambiguous to work. Happiness is not all we want all the time, it seems, as it is an internal state, ignoring what might be happening externally, such as we might be a happy brain in a vat. “Freedom” does not work, as freedom should start to be curtailed when it impinges on the freedom of others. Other words and word combinations suffer the same fate, as above. Thus this is probably the best word combination we can have for our purposes, it captures anything we might wish to use, and nothing extraneous. The real issue is that we seek certain sequences of events and actions, not what we call these certain sequences.
Using the criterion
If indeed this is the right criterion for judging whether or not we are in a good state of being, how should we use it?
Ostensibly, the procedure would be the following: one would attempt to describe the form of living, then we would let a mind evaluate whether or not someone is in a good or bad state. The answer will be right, as long as the person doing the evaluating can “measure” things correctly (more on this later). We do not have a machine to do this, and must rely on people.
This brings up the subject of relative morality. Which will be dealt with in a bit.
Suppose a bank robbery is happening. How do we evaluate the state of being of an innocent bystander using forms of living? One asks: what is the bystander living like? She is scared, confused, wondering what will happen. Physically her heartbeat is elevated, she feels anxiety in her stomach. Existentially, she is a victim. Our mind takes that description and evaluates it to be a bad state of being. You can do this with any situation.
Let’s do another one. Suppose someone is living their life playing computer games, they rarely go outside. What is their form of living? Are they in a good state? Well, they are living in an unhealthy way, they get little exercise, eat unhealthy food (physically). They are an addict, not interacting with others (existential), they probably have low self esteem (emotional), and are mentally less stimulated than they might be. When the mind gets this description, this state is evaluated to be “bad” or less desirable than most.
Notice that in some situations, various aspects of the form of living seem more important. When someone is a drug addict, their emotional state (which may have lots of pleasure) is less important than their existential state (being an addict). When someone’s loved one has died, their emotional state seems paramount, and the sort of person they are being (existential) just after their loss, be it brave, strong, or weak, does not seem to matter as much as their suffering. They are not judged for being weak. The same goes with any other sub category of the form of living.
Once again, what’s interesting is that knowing the criterion for a good or bad state of being is fairly useless. We do the same thing knowing it or not. We evaluate without it, and (this is probably in favor of my theory) using the form of living, we do practically the same thing we always do, except we pretend to be stupid. The great, age old mystery is solved, and it seems useless.
However, though forms of living seem useless, it might be possible to figure out just what aspect of these sequences we measure, and measure them without a human. Then we would have machines being able to evaluate states of being like we do, which might be useful.
The meaning of life
What is a good state for a person is identified with living – in a certain way. To touch on a related issue, the point of life (or the meaning of life) is to have a good life. This is something seldom phrased, though it seems obvious. Why are we here? To have a good life. What’s it all about? Having a good life. What’s the point? To have a good life.
Of course the answer to what is supposed to be the “ultimate” question does not help. Everyone knows that the point of life is to have a good one, even if they cannot phrase it when asked, but the question still remains “what is a good life?” The answer is that we can all tell what a good life is, we just need some details. We all seem to have an equal ability to evaluate good or bad states of being, providing we understand what is going on. This is entirely situation dependent, thus we have difficulty sating what a good life is in general. We have a rough idea that it has to do with emotional satisfaction, with existing well (having a satisfying job, being a good father or mother etc.) with being healthy, not being dead, etc. For advice on a good life, it is hard to go beyond platitudes like “live every day like it is your last” and “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses”, “be happy”, “cultivate patience”, etc.” for the simple reason that unless you specify circumstance, you can’t evaluate your life or anyone else’s. When we get specific, though, we can regret things we have done, like breaking up with partner, or wish that we had made a different decision, like taking engineering instead of chemistry in university. Once life events are specified, we all seem to be able to say what was good or bad about our lives.
This situation dependence, for some reason, leads to great dissatisfaction among people who want a simple answer to the meaning of life. The human mind craves a simple answer that, if you just heard it and remembered it, you would always be happy. There is no such thing, due to the fact that each life is situation dependent. It would be nice if we could take solace in the fact that we do know a great deal about what a good life is, once we look at it in detail, but for some reason it is hard to take this solace, and we seem to be ever searching for the reason we live and die, and constantly ask “what’s it all about” even when actually know the answer. It’s about having a good life, and we know it when we see it. Unfortunately this might not help.
Nobody seems better at evaluating than any other person, which is probably related to the fact that the only way we can tell is through asking humans. You tell someone the details of some one’s life – their form of living- that they were successful in their job, they had a loving family, found love and married, found support, etc. and most of us say that that sounds like a good life, but there might be more details to consider. We can all judge it. We can have trouble judging certain things, most people in the western world do not worry about their honor, whereas in some cultures and in the past, honor was very important to a good life. How can we judge how important it really is? There seems to be no way to tell (probably due to the situation dependence problem), which is OK, we cannot assume our ability to measure forms of living is perfect. One trick seems to be applying what we all know about having a good life, to our actual actions and decisions. This is not an easy task.
To be clear, when I say that we all have an equal ability to evaluate good or bad states, it is kind of like saying that we all have the same ability to evaluate math or logic. Some people can understand the subtleties of math better, but nearly everyone can understand the correctness of at least simple mathematical statements. We can all do it, and nobody seems better than anyone else in this sense. We all possess the faculty to understand math, and in this sense nobody is better than anyone else – at having the faculty. You cannot be better at simply possessing a faculty, though your faculty can be more developed than others. The ability to understand human welfare seems far more evenly distributed than mathematical ability, everyone seems pretty good at it, the trick seems to be achieving an understanding of what is actually going on, in the face of cultural prejudice, inaccurate information, lack of pondering subtle concepts, not having experienced some situation yourself, etc.
Now let us see how this criterion applies to morality.
I define a moral act as one that contributes to the good/best state of being for all beings involved in the act. The phrase good/best refers the instances where there is no good thing to do, rather only the best. For instance there is the fairly contrived example of when a train will go down one of two tracks. If it goes down the left track, it will kill a hiker trapped in a narrow canyon, if it goes right, it will kill five hikers trapped in a narrow canyon. The train cannot be stopped. Someone who can see what will happen has the choice of flipping a switch, making the train go left or right. Since there is no alternative, it seems the best thing to do is flip the switch so only one person dies. This is far from a “good” outcome, rather it is an awful outcome, but is the “best” choice.
There are a host of other issues related to this definition, such as: what motivation should people have in doing an action to consider it a moral act? What about when people differ in what they think is good for people? I will address these issues in a bit.
This is an empirical definition of morality, meaning that whether or not people are in good states is not a thing that depends upon what people arbitrarily think. Rather, it is supposed that there is a right answer to whether or not people are in good or bad states.
It is confusing that the only source of information we have on whether states of being are good or bad is what we think, there is no independent way to measure it. Just because we are the only source of information, what is good or bad for someone is not up to our random thoughts, rather there seems to be something empirically real.
In this definition, what is good is relative to the situation, not to what people think or to culture. It is not a rule based morality, where things like lying or murder are never allowed, what is moral to do is relative to the situation. Obviously, examples where lying or murder are the unfortunately the best thing to do are easy to think of. Lying to save a life, or killing to save millions are a few examples. Whether moral judgments are absolute or not will be dealt with shortly.
Application of forms of living theory
Now let us take this definition of morality and combine it with the suggested criterion for good or bad states of being (the form of living), and see what results.
Obviously this definition for a moral act works very well for many instances of ethical problems. Should a company be allowed to pollute the water? Polluting the water puts people in bad states. So no, you should not. Should I stab my sister with a fork? That would hurt and injure her, not a good form of living. Etcetera, etcetera. It is easy to come up with examples of where this definition works well. We want, however, to see what happens in situations where the definition or criterion does not seem to work well.
A good response to this definition of morality is the situation where a man cheats on his wife, and his wife is ignorant of his infidelity. Is this an immoral act? Nobody is getting hurt. In fact two people are seemingly benefiting from the situation, and the wife, who has no knowledge, is not hurt or helped. If she never finds out, is it an immoral act? Many would say it is immoral, and this seems to contradict the above definition, as nobody is getting hurt, yet it seems immoral.
However, what “form of living” is the man engaging in? He is living as a dishonest person, as a sneaky person. This is not a “good” state. We seem to regard this situation through the above defined “existential perspective”. He is living a lie, he lives in a way that disrespects his wife, even if she never finds out. This is a “bad” state to be in. This also seemingly explains why we find this act to be immoral even though no one gets hurt. Applying the above definition of morality, coupled with forms of living theory, pronounces this an immoral act, as long as being a lying and sneaky person is a bad state.
There are separate questions to this scenario, namely does the man care or not that he is living in a cheating sort of way? Is he in a “bad” state if he does not care? Obviously no, if he doesn’t care if he is a cheater, if he doesn’t feel bad about it, he is in fact in a good state for himself. However, he is not a morally admirable person, hence he is living is a “bad” way in that sense (bad for other people). This points to an ambiguity in the word “bad”. If he does care about being a good person, and thus feels bad about his behavior, then he is in a bad state in another sense of the word “bad”. So now we can ask, is this an objectively “bad” state? Perhaps there are cultures that do not care about cheating on your spouse? Even if there are cultures like this, according to the standards of this man’s culture, whose values he has absorbed, and whose norms he is defying, disrespecting the norms his wife would wish for him to live by, he is not engaging in praiseworthy activity. Further, it is hard to see lying and cheating as something good to do, except in extraordinary circumstances, regardless of one’s culture. Even if is it simply cultural bias, forms of living theory still explains why we find such behavior immoral, why we would call it “bad” behavior (even if he does not care), even if we are biased towards our culture. Even if people are somehow wrong to dislike someone being a liar, even if it is OK, the above explanation involving forms of living is still valid to explain our feeling that it is wrong to cheat on your wife, even if she will never find out.
Forms of living and Consequentialism
Let us see how this criterion, coupled with the definition of morality above, answers some of the common criticisms of consequentialism.
According to Scheffler, there are three big problems facing consequentialism. (1) Consequentialism seems to allow for some people to live very well and for a few to live badly, or in poverty. Since good states for some are so high, then this balances out any bad states for a few. This is obviously immoral, and consequentialism is somewhat unclear on this, it may allow for such things. (2) Consequentialism seems to allow for someone to do a horrible act in order to do some good. For instance allowing the murder of one to save five others. (3) Consequentialism is an excessively demanding theory, in that it seems to demand a great deal from one who accepts it, such that they may have little time to enjoy their own life.
Let us see how forms of living theory, coupled with the above definition of morality fares in the face of these influential objections.
Looking at the first objection, we must first note that things like thoughts, good or bad states of being, concepts, etc. are not very quantifiable. We often talk about them as if they are, since we must use analogies in language. When we “fall” in love, there is no pot of love that we trip in to. When we are “depressed”, we are not being squashed by a wheel, and so on. When we “weigh” between two or more options, according to forms of living theory, what we must really be doing is to decide which sequence of events and actions we would most like to see. In some situations, this is much like balancing scales, but in many other situations it is not. For instance, in the example above involving trains where one is forced to make a choice between killing one person and saving five, though the situation is very horrible, quantities of life seem to be the deciding factor. Though notice we can ask the question in another way, given no other options, would we like to see five innocent people live and go through the sequences and actions of their lives or one person to live? On the other hand, when one considers the wishes of a pregnant woman that does not want to be a mother, who is considering abortion of her one month old fetus, where does quantification come into the decision? This is not an easy decision for the mother, where she is asked to “weigh” a potential person, who is not yet fully developed into a human, versus her very real problems. There are no quantities involved in this hard decision, rather one is choosing between two forms of living.
Now that we have noted that good states are not really quantifiable, what does forms of living theory, coupled with the above definition of morality, say about the issue of allowing many people to live richly and well, while others live in poverty? The answer is simple, what form of living would we rather see, one where the economy works in such a way that no child (or adult) goes hungry, and everyone has enough to live comfortably on? Or would we rather see many living very well and a few in poverty? I certainly know what I would rather see people live like, the one where nobody goes to bed hungry. I want everyone, for their sakes, to live like that, as people above the poverty line. Apparently many agree with me. I know which sequence of actions and events I would like to see. Quantity of “good” does not seem come into this decision, at least for forms of living theory. Again, as with the above case of cheating on one’s wife, this case is judged through the existential perspective of the form of living. We do not wish to see people existing as poor people, if there is something that can done about it, and especially if others are existing as wealthy people, when all could be existing as moderately well off people.
Now let us look at the second question. A famous example that seems to illustrate the problem consequentialism faces here is the following: if we are only concerned about good or bad states of being for people, why not take the major organs: the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, whatever we can, from a healthy 25 year old man (without his permission) who is delivering vending machine supplies to a hospital, killing him the process, and put them in five other people in the hospital, also in their 20’s who have just been in a terrible accident, and who need these fresh organs so that they may live? One person is put in a bad state (death) but 5 people are saved and can live out many years. One can argue that, though common sense morality objects strongly to such a terrible act, a consequentialist theory seems to endorse it, as more people are being put in good states.
How does forms of living theory react to this? In this instance, one asks, what are people “living like”? One young man is living (dying) with his essential rights violated. The agent who harvests his organs is living as a murderer, and the people who benefit are living as beneficiaries of a murder. Hence, forms of living theory does not seem to endorse such an action. Again we look at this through the existential perspective. Again the question is: how would we rather see people living, given we are concerned about their welfare? Here my mind balks at the thought of murdering a person in such a way, violating his right to determine his own life, treating him as an organ farm. I would rather see him continue on with his life unscathed, even though the five people might die. From what I gather, many other people’s minds react the same way when faced with this choice.
The final objection declares consequentialism too onerous. It demands that people be constantly trying to help others, even if this negatively affects the agent. For instance, my shoes are old and wearing down, and I want a new pair for $100. However, they are still good for awhile, so perhaps I should give my $100 to a good charity instead. In fact, why stop there? Why not give all my excess money, beyond what I need to have a Spartan existence, to charity? Why not spend all of my spare time doing good works for others? I could go read books to the elderly at an old age home, join an anticapitalist environmental group and knock on doors all day. Etcetera.
The forms of living answer to this is simple: why live in a way that disrespects your right to determine your own life? Even if you care about the welfare of others a great deal, it does not seem rational to totally disregard your own needs and desires. You are worth something, and you are the only one who can take care of yourself in a unique manner. The form of living engaged in seems to disrespect your own freedom to live your own life. You are existing as an unfree thing (again the existential perspective). This assumes one is in ordinary circumstances, and not in a remarkably powerful position to change the world for the better.
I personally think that the vast majority of us could stand to do more for our fellow humans, and am dubious that there is much of a limit on how much energy and time we “should” spend on helping others. I personally have trouble seeing this as a real objection to consequentialism, as I for some reason think I should do more to help people. The limit on how much one does for others seems to relate to how much they care about others, and there are many that seem to care more than me. Those that do either become a dedicated political activist, or a volunteer doctor in a third world country, or something of the sort. Nevertheless, I can understand why someone, who doesn’t care about others to excess, might feel that they should be allowed to live their life too, and forms of living theory provides an answer, as above, even if it might be wrong.
The common theme in these objections to consequentialism seems to be an assumption that factors such as the sort of person one is living like, the existential subcategory of the form of living, has been traditionally seen as not a “consequence” of moral action. For instance, when the young 25 year old is treated as an organ farm, the sort of person he is living as, a victim, is in this theory seen as a “consequence”. Traditionally, it is not viewed as a consequence, and thus consequentialism is deficient in not accounting for it. However, the existential component of his form of living is a state that results from actions of people. What else can we label this except as a consequence? Why what I call the existential component of the form of living has not been viewed as a consequence of action is a mystery to me. If I do an action such as lying, the fact that I am living as a liar is surely a consequence of this action. It’s a bad thing to live as a liar. It’s a bad thing to exist as a murderer. Why this cannot be viewed as a consequence is beyond me.
One can ask if forms of living theory, coupled with the above definition of morality is a “consequentialist theory” if it takes into consideration the existential component of the form of living. This idea does not seem to me to respect the English language, as consequences are states that result from action. The existential component of the form of living is a state that results from action. Hence this is a “consequentialist” theory, even if it does not fall victim to considerations that consequentialist theories are traditionally thought to fall prey to.
Thus it appears I have shown that a consequentialist definition of morality, coupled with the criterion phrased as a “form of living”, handily answers some serious challenges to consequentialism.
It is a common position that what is right or wrong is relative. Relative to what? Culture? To what people think? To the situation? It’s not clear what exactly such thinkers believe morality is relative to, just that it is “relative”, and one cannot definitely say whether something is right or wrong.
As an example, some cultures eat their dead as part of their funeral rites. Other cultures will never consider such a thing. Who is right? Are they both right?
The position forms of living theory must take is that what is good or bad for a person or group of people is relative to the situation, but when that situation is defined precisely, we can pronounce the state as good or bad, or even take the position that we don’t know. In any situation, though, it seems that there is a right answer. Differences in opinion on what is good or bad for people stem from differences in measurement.
I can measure speeds of cars over a bridge well or badly. If I have a stopwatch, but do not know how long a bridge is, but only have a rough idea, then my measurements of car speeds will be fairly uncertain. They will be wrong measurements. Likewise, for moral situations, there will be a right answer, but we will not know if anyone at all is making the correct measurement.
Measurement problems of good or bad states of being stem from a few possible factors. One is whether or not what we think will happen will actually happen. I can think that declaring war on some country will be the best thing to do because the war will be short, very few will die, a horrible dictator will be overthrown, a democracy will be established and everyone will live happily ever after, and there will never be a war again. However, if I am wrong about these details, which is very possible, then the war is not worth fighting. Evaluating what should be done depends a lot on what will happen because of what one does.
Another factor is valuing things mistakenly. I can think that taking a certain drug is great, I feel great when on it. So I evaluate the drug to be a good thing. However, I become an addict, so I valued the drug mistakenly.
Another factor is one cannot live through certain situations, and thus cannot tell if they are good or bad until they are lived through. Some things are beyond our experience. Would it be better life to live as a medieval Samurai in Japan, living to a Bushido code, or as myself, living a life in the modern western world? Who can tell? I would have to live both lives somehow before I could decide which was better.
That each form of living is situation dependent is obvious. What affects our living qualities in one situation might not affect it in another. Hot coffee spilling on me affects me a great deal in one instance, but hot coffee sitting on the table when I receive bad news is irrelevant. It is not possible to build up a general law about hot coffee, just as it is not possible to give general statement that killing a person or lying is never acceptable, since we can come up with situations where these things must be done for the greater good.
Though what should be done is relative to the situation, this does not mean that there is no definitive answer for the situation.
First, there are many instances of situations where we do not differ in our evaluations. For instance, torturing me (in particular) at this point in time would not be good for me. By torture, I mean, real torture, flaying, the rack, beatings, waterboarding, that sort of thing. One cannot disagree if they know me at all and my life circumstances as they are right now, not in some hypothetical world where I am Clark Kent. One might not care if I am tortured, or think it is overall a good thing, but all must admit that it is not good for me. If they do not admit it, they are lying or delusional. It seems like this is an absolute fact. We can find lots of well defined situations where people do agree on whether a situation is good or bad for someone.
It is bad for someone to get robbed. Here you can object that maybe if they are rich it isn’t, they will not suffer, and come up with lots of other things that might make it acceptable. However, if the situation is one where a hard working middle class person who really needs the things that were taken from them is the victim, then nobody can honestly say it was a good thing for them to be robbed, as long as the situation is described precisely enough. One might not care if the person was robbed, another might find enjoyment in the fact that another is suffering. However, even these people will admit that it was not good for the victim to be robbed, but they just don’t care.
So for many precise situations, there is agreement. Our “measurements” agree, and it seems very likely that we are all correct, and not all wrong. Remember that even if we all agree that me burning to death is not good for me (and nobody would disagree unless they are lying), there are people that might want to burn me to death, even though they would agree that it isn’t good for me, they just don’t care about me.
However, we can differ in evaluations, such as a hypothetical medieval Japanese samurai, who is going to kill himself because he dishonored his master. For the Samurai, honor is all important, whereas for me, I don’t really care about honor, at least not like he does. In such a case, even though we differ greatly in what we consider important for a good life, each of us is capable of understanding each other. I can imagine myself thinking that honor is all important, thus find the Samurai’s desire to cut out his intestines logical, though I would never do such a thing. Likewise the Samurai can come to understand my thinking that obeying your master is silly, as hierarchy is abusive, etc. He will never agree with me and I will never agree with him. Even so, our minds are capable of coming to the same conclusion, though our respective societies have given us different priorities for what constitutes a good life. If we are capable of coming to the same conclusion, then the problem lies in identifying what actually constitutes a good life (honor or freedom or whatever). The problem is in actually measuring it right. However, our evaluation mechanism must be exactly the same, it is identical no matter how you are raised, since we are capable of seeing how the other thinks.
If our evaluation mechanism is the same, then the procedure for using the form of living is to describe a situation for a person, then let them evaluate it. The answer will be right as long as their life priorities are right. As to what life priorities are right, this is an open question. It’s a “measurement” problem. This open question does not make forms of living the wrong theory, rather it is simply an open question. This is OK, we cannot expect that our ability to measure forms of living to be perfect and give us the ability to see what should be our priority in life to perfect precision, we are human, we don’t know everything.
If our evaluation mechanism is the same, then it is not true that whether or not someone is in a good state is relative to culture, nor is it relative to what we think. One can imagine an abused wife who has come to see her regular beatings as a good thing, since she thinks she is bad, and needs correction. However, no matter what she thinks, her beatings are not good for her. Thus whether or not someone is in a good or bad state is not relative to what we think. We are the sole source of information about what is good or bad for people, but that does not mean that we always get it right. We have to measure it right.
I recall a story that a Persian prince asked some ancient Greek ambassadors if they would consider eating their dead. They Greeks were horrified at the thought, and said no. The Prince asked them how much money it would take for them to eat their dead. The Greeks said no amount of money would be enough, they would not do it.
Then the Prince asked some other ambassadors in, whose custom was to actually eat their dead. he asked them if they would consider burning their dead, as the Greeks do, and they were horrified by this suggestion. Then he asked them how much money it would take for them to burn their dead, and they said no amount of money would be enough.
A relativist would look upon this as evidence that morality is all relative to culture. However, the forms of living answer would be that both parties consider their funeral rites to give meaning to death and respect to the dead. For the Greeks, eating their dead might lead to widespread cannibalism, which is an unthinkable thing to encourage. For the other culture, burning their dead would rob them of their opportunity to send their dead to the afterlife in a proper way, and they would not be able to respect the dead without eating their flesh. For both, there are potentially huge consequences if they change their funeral rites.
Whether or not these huge consequences would actually come to pass if they changed their funeral rites is an empirical question, it is not up to what somebody thinks. Hence it is a measurement problem. It also appears to not be a big deal, as long as the other culture are not killing on purpose just so they can cannibalize, there is no way to judge who has the better funeral rites, and they are probably pretty close in value in terms of helping people to deal with their loss.
Another issue often raised in discourse about the philosophy of morality is the issue of moral motivation. Why should I be moral? What are proper reasons to be moral? Is everything we do selfish?
Motivation to do moral actions seems to stem from a concern about the welfare of others. If one is moved to help when they see suffering, or if they feel concern for others and this moves them to act in the interest of others, then they are concerned about others and will do what they can to help. This seems to be what we praise people for. Actions that benefit others that do not stem from a concern for others are not generally praiseworthy. I think the reason these are praiseworthy is that concern for others is what other people generally want to encourage in others, rather than selfishness. You can trust a person that is moved to help others in need, you can’t trust people without this motivation.
Suppose a man is walking through a forest on a cold winter day and sees some children playing on a sheet of ice in a river. They cannot see him, but he can see them. Suddenly the ice breaks and the children fall through, screaming in terror. The man’s first impulse is to make no effort to help, rather he thinks it will be fun to watch them drown. Then he realizes that rescuing the children will likely make him a hero in his community, and help his bid to become mayor, which he has been thinking of doing. So he rushes in to pull them out of the river, warms them up and saves their lives.
Nobody who knows how this hypothetical man’s mind works would ever call him a “moral man”. Is what he did a moral act? I do not see how it could be called so, it was a selfish act, not a moral one. It was done for the man’s own benefit, not for the sake of others. It is not an immoral act either, because it benefits some people. So it is not a moral act and it is also not an immoral act.
Therefore it seems that one must add a caveat to the definition of morality used in this essay. A moral act is one that contributes to the good/best state of being for all beings involved in the act. Also, it must be motivated by concern for others, otherwise it does not make the grade to be called “moral”.
If one is not concerned about others, it is difficult to imagine why one would be motivated to do anything for others, except in a circumstantial way. A truly selfish person has no reason to help others, except to hide her or his own selfish tendencies from other people so that she or he can function in society and not be condemned. One might do actions considered moral out of a sense of honor, and this sense of honor might stem from concern about others, or it might not. Motivation to live to a code of conduct seems to stem from a wish to respect oneself. This would seem a selfish motivation, not a moral one. Motivation to do moral acts might also come from a sense of duty to a religious figure, like the Christian God. If the sense of duty comes from blind obedience to a God, then I do not see how this is a moral motivation. One is acting morally because they are afraid of God. Doing things out of fear is not a moral motivation. Likewise, if one does moral acts because one is afraid they will not go to heaven, I do not see how this is a moral motivation. As above, these do not seem to be motivations that others would want to encourage in people in general (probably not trustworthy), hence I do not see how they can be considered moral motivations.
Turning to the issue of: why be moral? There is no rational argument that can be given to make people moral. They either care about others or they don’t, and giving them a rational argument will not change their mind.
One might try to argue with a selfish person in the following manner. The selfish person values themselves. They think they are worthy of respect and care, but other people are not. They find themselves to be a sort of “beautiful thing” (for lack of a better term), worthy of being cared for. Now, one can point out to the selfish person that, in not caring for others and caring only for oneself, the selfish person is being inconsistent, for other people are basically the same sort of thing as the selfish person. They have thoughts, feelings, a body, can be in good or bad states, etc, just like the selfish person. Hence, by not caring for others, the selfish person is being inconsistent.
This is probably a good argument, but it will convince nobody, simply because the selfish person does not care about being inconsistent. Even if the selfish person does care about being inconsistent, she or he will not feel concern for others, thus will have a very weak motivation to help them in times of need. A wish to be consistent cannot compare to the desire to save one’s own life in times of distress, and the selfish person will save their own skin.
Note that it is possible to not find yourself a “beautiful thing” in the sense used above. Some people hate themselves. They mutilate themselves, they punish themselves, and even kill themselves. They do not find themselves to be something worthy of taking care of. Hence, though it is a common belief that everyone is basically selfish, note that it is possible to not find yourself to be worthy of respect, and to do things against your self interest.
Is everything we do selfish? One can argue that even a person who sacrifices her or his own life to save others does it because they don’t want to deal with their guilty conscience after. They know they will feel terrible if they do not help, thus they willingly risk their own life to save others to avoid anticipated feelings. Hence the action is selfish.
It is probably true that some people might not be able to live with themselves if they forego an opportunity to help others, due to feelings of guilt. Is this a motivator to help others? Probably.
However, a selfish person would not have any feelings about letting others die. They would not feel guilty, they will be happy to save their own skin. So there is a real difference between the selfish person and the moral person, though you might argue that the moral person is somehow “selfish” in trying to avoid feelings of guilt.
The only way to explain this is that you cannot develop enough of a concern for others (so that you feel guilty) unless you are capable of seeing them as “beautiful things” (like yourself) in the first place. Once you see people as things worth caring for (like yourself) you cannot help but aid them when they are in need. Hence you develop emotions, like guilt, if you fail to help them. Thus you will do things for them, even if it hurts you, such as talking to a depressed friend at length, even if you would rather do something else. Is this selfish, since it was done to avoid feelings?
While it might be true that people might be motivated to avoid feelings of guilt, it is also true that they do not want to see others suffer, hence are doing it for the sake of the other. Hence, at best, you can say it was partially motivated for the self. The other part is motivation for others. These two motivations can (and do) coexist, and it does not make people “selfish” since the motivation behind it (the original cause, and part of the existing motivation) is for the sake of the other. To call such people “selfish” seems to be an abuse of the term, as selfish people are quite different. They have no guilt.
How do you get people to act morally? The only way I am aware of is to raise them in a loving environment where they have a person that loves them unconditionally that they can bond to. Perhaps some people are genetically sociopathic, but if there is any chance that we can avert such a tendency by raising them in a loving environment, we must do this to our utmost.
Ought from Is?
A classic question in morality is: how do you get ought from is? A woman has fallen and has severely broken bones and might die if she does not get to a hospital. Many would say that nearby people “ought” to help her. But why should they help her? She is hurt, why ought I, or anyone, help her? The woman is hurt, how do we get to the fact that most of us think she should be helped? Why should she be helped? Why ought I to help her?
The question was first proposed by Hume in book III, part I, section I of his book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
It is not quite clear what he is asking here. To me there seems to be two possible questions:
(1) What reason can you give to people to be moral?
(2) If you can find a good reason can you justify it?
Let us answer both.
The way you get “ought from is” (in a moral sense) is through caring about others. If you want to eat a cookie, you ought to open the cookie jar. Similarly, if you care about the welfare of others, you ought to help them when they are hurt.
Now this problem gets lots of philosopher’s knickers in a knot, so let me explain as carefully as I can.
If I am an Olympic sprinter, and I want to win a race, I ought to run as fast as I can. I don’t see how anyone could dispute the logic of this.
Now, one might question whether or not I should want to win the race. Which seems a harder question. However, it is answerable too. If I win the race, it will be great for me. I have been training hard for years for this race, if I win I will fulfill a lifelong dream, get endorsements, etc. So, as long as it makes sense for me to do things to make myself happy and successful in life, then I ought to try to win the race.
Now, to move on to morality. If I love others, care about their welfare, then if someone is in trouble, not only will I be distressed and unhappy and feel guilty if I do not help, but also, one of the things I fundamentally care about will not be fulfilled. Hence, if someone is in trouble, I ought to help. Both for my own sake and their sake (which I value too).
To put this in argument form:
- Mary is drowning.
- If you help she will not drown.
- You ought to help Mary.
Hume would look at this and say that it seems there is a missing premise. It is not logically sound. Why ought I to help Mary?
So let us put in the missing premise.
- Mary is drowning.
- If you help she will not drown.
- You care about Mary.
- You ought to help Mary.
Now, this is still, I think, not quite logically sound. However, it is now entirely convincing. If you do care about Mary, then you will help her.
Note that this is all pretty silly. The majority of people out there do care about others. Normally, if someone is drowning, the majority of us need no prompting, we will automatically help out, no convincing needed. This argument is only for someone who has, for some reason, forgot who they are. They need reminding, for some weird reason, that they are someone who cares about others. Perhaps they are just coming off some serious drugs or something. In any event, if they do care about Mary, then they have no choice but to help.
It would make more sense to put this premise into the argument:
- People in Africa are starving and suffering.
- If you donate, it will alleviate some suffering.
- You ought to donate.
- People in Africa are starving and suffering.
- If you donate, it will alleviate some suffering
- You care about others.
- You ought to donate.
Someone who was wishy washy about donating will now feel guilted into doing it, upon reminding that they do actually care about others, and others in Africa are just like others close by. Anyways, the argument is now convincing. If donating to Africa famine relief really is a good course of action to help Africans, and you do care about others, now you have no choice.
Now, in order to make this logically sound, it has to make sense to do what you care about. We need to know that it makes sense to do what you value. You value others, but should you value others?
You have a choice between eating cookies for dinner or rice. Since rice is healthier, and you like rice anyways, it seems you ought to eat rice. So the word “ought” is about what you should value, as opposed what you might happen to value. You ought to do what you truly value (should value) rather than what you might mistakenly value or value out of weakness. Now, is there any reason that you should value others?
Such a question seems ridiculous. For most of us, caring about others is a fundamental part of our being. This question is in the same category as “I love life, I am having a great life, I would love to keep living for another 40 years. But should I want to…?” We must assume that fundamental things to value, like our own life, or others, make sense to value. To do otherwise would be questioning whether or not it makes sense to want to be human. Further, what reason do we have that not valuing these fundamental things is a more flourishing life? It seems like we have evidence to the contrary, in fact.
Thus, we ought to do what we truly value, what it seems like we should value, rather than eating cookies all the time.
So to complete the argument:
- People in Africa are starving and suffering.
- If you donate, it will alleviate some suffering.
- You truly value others.
- We ought to do what we truly value.
- You ought to donate.
This now seems logically sound.
It should be noted that not everyone cares about others. A psychopath would find it boring and trying to help an old lady who has fallen down to the hospital, and might find it more entertaining to kick her. What “ought” he to do since his objective is to serve his own needs? Unfortunately, he “ought” to kick her, I guess. I am not recommending he kick her, of course, but since the psychopath does not care about anyone but himself, different things are going to give him a good life than things that give me a good life. As long as it makes sense for the psycopath to try to have a good life, there are certain things he ought to do (and maybe it doesn’t make sense). This unfortunately means that the psychopath should be locked up so she or he is not a danger to the rest of us.
Just to be clear, the above argument that I have called logically sound is a “personal argument”. The reason I call it logically sound is that if you accept all the premises, you have to accept the conclusion. While this is true, not everyone will accept all the premises. A sociopath will not, for instance. But if you do accept the premises, you will accept the conclusion. So for that reason, I call it a “personal argument”. It will not work for everyone, but it will work for a great many people.
So this solution to the “ought from is” problem does not work for everyone, because not everyone cares about others. The idea that you can get a reason for everyone to ought to help others is fantasy, because some just don’t care. You can only give a reason to those that already care about others, and ironically, they don’t usually need a reason, because they will help others anyways.
So in that sense, the “ought from is problem” was never a problem at all. Most people care about others and do not want to change. This will make them, for the most part, act in the interests of others.
So, getting back to Hume, and acknowledging that this whole “ought from is” question was not all that clear in the first place:
(1) What reason can you give to people to be moral?
Most people don’t need a reason to be moral, they already care about others. However, if they forget what sort of person they are for some weird reason, you can remind them that they care about others, then they will act in the interests of others if they indeed do care about others. This is not say that people who care about others will always act in the interests of others. Sometimes people get angry and so on, and act selfishly. However, for the most part, they will act morally.
So, this is an explanation as to why people will act morally (for the most part). It seems like a good explanation. It is also a reason you can give to people to act morally (if they somehow need it). It also seems like the main reason for people to act in the interests of others, why else would they?
Why should you act morally? Because you care about others. What else could the “ought from is” question be asking?
(2) If you can find a good reason can you justify it?
Given the above, this is a pretty weird question. Given we are human beings, what reason could you give to show it makes sense to care about others? It’s like saying “I will now pretend I am not a human being, now prove to me it makes sense to care about others”. Well, you are a human being, so it makes no sense to ask this. As above, it is in the same category as saying “I love life, now give me a reason to keep on living.”
This is non sensical. We must trust that our sense of what is fundamental to human flourishing makes sense to pursue. Living in a certain manner is what is good for us, and we must assume we can sense at least the fundamentals of it. There is no evidence to the contrary. In fact, it seems like there is evidence to support this, for what sort of life will you have if you deny what is fundamental to you? A miserable life, I would think.
Is Morality Objective?
There are aspects of morality that are subjective, such as whether or not one cares about others. This is unfortunately, basically a matter of taste, most do, some don’t. It is up to how the subject (person) feels about others that will give them a motivation to be moral. Hence it is subjective.
There are other aspects of morality that seem objective. The actual state people are in, dead or alive, in pain or happy, about to die or not, Fired from their job or not – seems objective. Whether or not being pushed out of a plane will kill you if you hit rocks and have no parachute seems like an objective fact or not. These sort of things are not up to the subject. What Alice knows about or whether she cares about Ben’s pain does not matter, Ben is still in pain.
Then there are aspects of morality that seem neither objective or subjective. It seems like an undeniable fact that torturing me in particular is bad for me. An absolute fact even. It is true. It is not up to opinion. If someone thinks that torture is good for me (me in particular) then this seems ridiculous. If they are not lying, then they have no idea what sort of creature I am and what torture entails. Their opinion does not matter. Hence it is an empirical fact.
Yet calling this an objective fact seems wrong, as the source of this knowledge comes from us, and we have no other way of measuring whether states are good or bad. It also seems wrong to call this a subjective feeling. Me being tortured to death is bad regardless of what some silly person thinks. If there is someone out there that thinks that, I and the vast majority will dismiss their opinion as crazy.
However, I like hot chocolate, and if someone else out there does not like hot chocolate, I might be amazed, but will accept their opinion. This is a subjective feeling, and is not similar to torture being bad for me.
So perhaps the subjective/objective distinction is not a very good one, as some aspects of morality seem to be neither. In any case, the question “Is morality objective?” seems to be highly ambiguous, as it does not specify which aspect of morality it is talking about, and there are objective aspects to morality, and subjective ones, and some that seem to be neither. Hence the question is a bad one, and is not answerable as it is too ambiguous.
As a final note, though good or bad states of being are neither subjective or objective, but seem true or false, and are not measurable by machines right now, this does not mean they are not measurable in the future. In the future, if humankind invents a true artificial intelligence, this will be able to measure good or bad states of being as reliably as a human, if it is truly intelligent. If it can measure good or bad states through some reliable means, would this be an “objective” measurement? It would seem so, as it does not require the input of a human. Hence perhaps these things are “objective” after all.
 This definition and that morality stems from concern from others was proposed to me by my former professor, Rodger Beehler. I am not aware he published a work that used it.
 Mill, John Stuart (1906). Utilitarianism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
 Taken from Judith Jarvis Thomson. “The Trolley Problem” The Yale Law Journal Vol. 94:1395, 1985
 Example taken from Peter Railton: Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality, in Consequentialism and its Critics (Oxford university Press, 1988).
 Taken from Samuel Sheffler The Rejection of Consequentialism. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1982.
Table of Contents:
Consciousness in Living Things versus non Living Things
-Consistency with Quantum mechanics
-What is Consciousness?
Can Computers be Conscious?
The central hypotheses in this essay are (1) When fundamental particles, such as electrons or quarks (or bound combinations thereof: like atoms and molecules), change state, what will happen must be “calculated” (information must be processed in some manner, somehow) by the particle(s) (or something associated with the particles), and (2) A conscious experience (a “quale” (plural qualia)) aids in this “calculation”. After this “calculation via qualia” is complete, the particle then changes state, as when an electron in the orbital of an atom jumps to a higher orbital after being hit by a photon.
Thus, this theory postulates that there are uncountable qualia (which are not much like our own human experiences, it is probably better to call them something like “primal” qualia) being generated in matter all the time, everywhere, as particles change state . However, certain of these qualia, associated with certain molecules interacting in living cells, account for the conscious experiences of living things.
A proposal for how experiences that living things have might differ from those of non living things will be explained in detail, but basically some interactions in cells (probably when large molecules inside the cells interact) can reference past states (memories), a sense of self, and sense data from outside the organism. Ordinary particle interaction cannot access any of these things while they happen, making them quite different from our experiences. These rare particle interactions, that happen in living cells only, differentiate qualia like ours versus qualia that occur in ordinary matter, and also differentiate life from non life. This solves the “combination problem” for panpsychism.
In this theory, consciousness is more or less part of how the laws of nature work. Consciousness has a causal role in nature, it is the means by which particles calculate what to do next. It is a sort of “calculation mechanism”, a natural means of information processing. If true, this solves the “hard problem” of consciousness in a functional sense, i.e. the reason we have conscious experiences is because that is how some particles in our brains (as well as all particles everywhere) “figure out” what to do next. This also gives insight into answering the hard problem in a comparison sense, i.e. what are conscious experiences are compared to other things like mass and charge? In this theory it would appear to be some sort of “immaterial” calculation mechanism. More on this below. Philosophical arguments for this idea will rest on the idea that consciousness is not causally inert, and if it is not, then this idea seems to be the only way to reconcile the causal nature of consciousness with scientific fact. Further, this idea appears to be testable.
A major difficulty with theories of the mind, or theories of consciousness, whatever it is best to call them, is that there appear to be two contradictory requirements. (A) The proposed theory of the mind must be compatible with science, particularly physics. The theory cannot contradict any of the predictions of the laws of physics. In short, whatever consciousness is, it cannot do something outside of physical laws. (B) It is also desirable that the theory of mind gives consciousness some sort of role in nature. Our intution about consciousness strongly suggests that our decisions play some sort of causal role, and that we, or our consciousness, is a determining thing.
Is it possible to come up with a theory of mind where consciousness has a role in nature, where consciousness is not epiphenomenal, is not a useless by product, is not causally inert, and at the same time the theory does not lead to new behavior of particles that is different than what the laws of physics predict? The hypotheses of this essay ((1) When fundamental particles change state, what will happen must be “calculated” (2) A conscious experience aids in this “calculation”) appear to be able to give consciousness a role in nature (make it do something) at the same time as being consistent with physics.
Panpsychism is a case in point for the problems (A) and (B). One possible theory that falls under the category “panpsychism” is that fundamental particles, like quarks and electrons, have some sort of rudimentary “mental properties” in addition to their mass, charge, spin, and so on. Somehow these rudimentary mental properties combine to form human and animal type experiences in suitably organized matter, like brains. If true, these “mental properties” cannot be a determining factor in what makes fundamental particles interact as they do. If they were a determining factor, then they would cause new behavior in particles, which there is no evidence for. The current laws of physics appear complete for the energy regime that we humans live in (but certainly not for things like black holes, i.e. extreme energy environments, where the laws of physics are not well understood), and to assume that there is behavior that we are not detecting that cannot be explained by things like mass, charge, spin, wavefunctions, etc. seems very unlikely and simply not true.
Thus, if panpsychism is true, it seems that these proposed “mental properties” must be causally inert, or epiphenominal, a useless by product. Of course, panpsychists can dispute this with arguments, but it seems a major problem that panpsychists have to address. The problem is not confined to panpsychism, it seems to also be a problem for Cartesian Dualism as well.
Though theories of the mind such as materialism and emergentism do not have the problem of proposing causally inert, or epiphenomenal, mental properties to matter, these theories have the problem of seemingly denying mental properties exist at all, and face a massive problem of explaining how consciousness (which seems very different from the physical world) comes out of seemingly “dead”, non-conscious matter. Of course emergentists and materialists do their best to deal with this.
One of the goals of this essay is to show that the two following hypotheses serve to add something to physics, and at the same time do not contradict any of the predictions of physical laws, and also give consciousness a causal role in nature. If true, this provides a way the apparently contradictory requirements (A) and (B) can be reconciled (supposing any reconcilement is neccessary, and of course not everyone believes it is neccessary).
The two hypotheses are:
(1) Every time fundamental particles, such as electrons or quarks (or bound combinations thereof: like protons, atoms, and molecules), change state, what will happen must be “calculated” (information must be processed in some manner, somehow) by the particle(s) (or something associated with the particles), and
(2) A conscious experience (a “quale” (plural qualia)) aids in this “calculation”. After this “calculation via qualia” is complete, the particle then changes state, as when an electron jumps to a higher orbital after being hit by a photon.
The point of this essay is to assume the above (possibly outlandish) hypotheses are true and to explore the ramifications of this idea. Once explored, and the ramifications are reasoned out, it seems to generate a plausible, and testable, way to explain what consciousness is in nature, at least to this ignorant and flawed writer.
Of course, a great number of questions ensue from these two hypotheses, such as:
(1) Is it OK to assume this in light of what we know of physics, does it contradict any physical laws? (2) Does it help physics any to assume these hypotheses. Why do we need to assume this? Isn’t this just a superfluous and useless assumption? (3) How do the conscious experiences – qaulia (singular “quale”) of simple fundamental particles differ from those that humans and animals experience? Surely our experiences are richer and different from those of fundamental particles (if this idea has any merit), but how can we know this? (4) What are the philosophical implications, and arguments for this view? (5) Are computers conscious in this theory? (6) Is this idea testable? (7) Do we have free will in this theory? (8) What exactly is the role of consciousenss in nature in this theory? (9) How does consciousness compare to things like mass, and charge, and space, and forces, etc. in this theory?
This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but the above are what I will try to answer. First, in this introduction, let me answer questions (1) and (2), and make some more remarks.
Usually, of course, it is assumed that particles change state “automatically”, according to the laws of physics, and there is no need for the particle to “calculate” what to do next. Change of state of particles (such as when an electron in an orbital around an atom is struck by a photon, and jumps to a higher orbital) just happens, end of story. However, there is no real reason to believe this “automatic” hypothesis, as it seems nature could work as it does if a calculation of sorts (some sort of information processing, somehow) had to happen every time, as long as the calculation is quick enough. Assuming that a calculation of some sort (involving qualia) needs to happen every time a particle changes state should not be any contradiction to the laws of physics. This seems to answer question (1). Notice that this strongly implies, if true, that these “calculations” appear to use no energy, might even take no time to happen, and do not seem to be detectable (are not measurable), since we don’t observe them.
The only candidate I can propose (with my limited knowledge of quantum physics) that serves as the physical mechanism for this proposed calculation would be the wavefunctions of particles. As wavefunctions interact and evolve as particles change state, surely “information” of some sort is processed, thus some sort of “calculation” must be made. When wavefunctions “collapse”, particles change state. Of course, the additional proposal here is that before this collapse happens (or perhaps during) a quale (an experience of something, – what exactly it’s hard to say) is used to assist in this calcualation (somehow). The hypothesis is that this is a necessary process in nature that must occur before particles change state. They cannot proceed without considering a quale (which is an information carrying “thing”) first.
Please note that I am not claiming, as some do, that consciousness collapses the wavefunction. This is sometimes speculated, because the only time we really know for sure that the wavefunction collapses is when a measurement is made. There is a possibility that only when conscious creatures (like humans) perform a measurement that wavefunction collapse occurs. The more plausible scenario is that wavefunctions are collapsing all the time, all over the place, whenever a large object comes near a wavefunction. It is this more plausible scenario that will be assumed here, that wavefunction collapse occurs due to the presence of macroscopic objects. The connection to consciousness is that qualia and decisions occur to help the particle “decide” what to do next.
Of course, this would be a sort of “primal” quale for simple particles, not like the ones we experience. The qualia we experience, such as nausea, anger, the color red, the taste of pineapple, loud sounds, etc. involve memories, a sense of self, and sense data from bodily organs, like our eyes or taste buds. The quale that an electron would experience when hit by a photon (which causes it to go to a higher orbital) would not reference any memories, or a sense of self, or sense data from a bodily organ, and thus be quite different. More discussion on this issue, and how molecules in living cells might access memories and a sense of self (whereas the vast majority of particle interactions do not), will occur in the next section.
The natural reason for this assumption – that particles calculate via qualia, is that this is what we do – we “calculate via qualia”. Or rather we figure out things via qualia, or information process via qualia, or decide things via qualia, or evaluate via qualia, however one should say it. We use qualia as pieces of information, which is then used to make decisions. From the perspective of pursuing what we value, our minds – our consciousnesses – exist to figure out what to do next, so that we then pursue what we value. Consciousness is our means to know what we value. So if this role is to be somewhat similar for all particles in nature, not just us humans, then particles must use qualia to “figure out” or “calculate” what to do next, just as we do. What do particles value? Probably something like finding the right “harmony” out of all the options the particle has, which makes it end up following the laws of physics, but more on this later.
Getting back to question (2) Does it help physics any to assume these hypotheses. Why do we need to assume this?
A good response to the two central hypotheses of this essay is to say: Why is this needed at all? Physics works fine assuming that particles proceed to new states automatically, with no need of a “calculation”, let alone a calculation via qualia. Why assume this?
It is indeed true that we should accept the simplest explanation for things, and on the face of it, it does seem simplest to assume that particle interactions happen “automatically”, between fully “dead” particles, without any need for a “calculation” of any sort, and proceed to new states automatically, much less a calculation via qualia. However, this is only the best (and simplest) assumption if one seemingly ingnores a part of reality with know with absolute certainty to exist: namely consciousness. Occam’s razor does not support an explanation that leaves out part of reality.
If assuming “dead” particles that “automatically” interact leads to no explanation of consciousness (and there are numerous reasons for accepting this, such as Chalmers philosophical zombie argument), then it is not the best assumption to make. If instead, assuming that particles must calculate via qualia before proceeding to a new state leads to an actual explanation of consciousness (instead of a denial, which appears to happen), then it should be accepted, as it appears to be consistent with physics, and hopefully, fully compatible with what we know of consciousness.
It would take too much time here to argue fully that theories of the mind, such as emergentism and materialism, do not provide an adequate explanation of consciousness. The common arguments for this view are (as mentioned) Chalmers philosophical zombie argument, and the fact that experiences of qualia seem so far removed and different from physical states. I refer readers to these arguments. Let us proceed in developing this theory and suppose these arguments have something to them.
At this time it seems right to talk about the “hard problem of consciousness”. Chalmers (1995) rightly tries to ask the question we are really seeking in the philosophy of the mind: Why do we experience anything at all? Why do we not experience things?
When I experience nasuea, the physical explanation of what happens is that nerves near my stomach are triggered, which then conduct a signal to my brain, (via ion diffusion conduction – not the same as electrical conduction in metal wires). This signal goes through a complicated and changing network of neurons in my brain, resulting in me uttering the phrase “I feel sick”, accompanied by some bending over. If we could trace this signal precisely, and had a map of my brain at the time, we could predict with our scientific knowledge that I will utter these words and bend over before I actually do it. Such is the power of science.
What is missing from this story is any need at all to postulate (scientifically speaking) that I actually felt a sensation of nausea. In order to predict my actions, one does not need to use the fact that I actually felt a horrible sensation (experienced a qualia) as a hypothesis. All we have to assume is that the particles that make up my body will automatically follow physical laws, measure things really well, and make our prediction.
This of course begs the question: why did I actually feel nausea? Where is the scientific explanation of why this happened to me?
Thus, I hope, we see the truly hard problem of consciousness. Why do experiences of qualia occur? Why do they not occur? Why are they not needed by science? How can we get science to account for them?
In a nutshell: I have experiences of qualia – explain why!
In the theory presented here, the reason is that all particles experience some sort of quale as they change state. It is a fundamental component of how nature works, because it is part of how particles “calculate” what to do next, and qualia is a necessary component of this calculation. Consciousness is a sort of “calculation mechanism” in nature that is universally used. It is the means by which particles “figure out” what to do next.
If this idea can be used to give an account and prediction of the actual nausea I feel (and I will try to give a hand-wavy story of how I imagine this might be accomplished in the next section) and how and why it differs from the supposedly “primal” qualia most particles experience, then this theory would seem to be on the right track.
If successful, what sort of answer is this to the “hard problem”?
It is a “functional” answer to the hard problem of consciousness. Basically, it explains what consciousness does. It gives it a role in nature, explains what it is for, and what it does so nature can proceed through time.
It is less of an answer to the hard problem in a “comparison sense”. That is, what is consciousness in comparison to things like mass, space, forces, charge, spin, etc? Basically, the hard problem is asking two things (1) Why does consciousnes occur? (in the sense of what does it do, what is its role in nature?) and (2) What is it in comparison to what else we know exists, like space and mass, etc? i.e. is it an immaterial thing or what? What does “immaterial” even mean?
For the “comparison” question, the answer is less clear, but a few things can be reasoned out. As above, if consciousness is truly a “calculation mechanism” of sorts, as is being proposed, it is not a “physical thing”. What that means is that anything measurable (such as length, time, forces, spin, charge, temperature, Energy, mass, etc. – all of which can be roughly defined as a “physical thing”) is like an input into this calculation mechanism, and the next state of a measurable thing is an output. Measurable things (physical things) are changed in part because of the calculation mechanism, and since it has this role of changing measurable things, it is not a measurable, or physical thing, itself. This is quite similar to the role of a physical law in physics. A physical law itself is not a physical thing either, since physical things, or measurable things, are subject to the law. Again, a physical law is like a “black box” with inputs (measurable or physical things) and outputs (changes in measurable things).
The similarity between this “calculation mechanism” (if it exists) and a physical law is quite close. Both take in measurable things as inputs, and both output a change in these measurable things. Both have, at least, a “nonphysical” aspect to them, since physical things are subject to them. That which governs physical things should not be “physical”, one would think. That which makes measurable things change is not a measurable thing itself, it can only be deduced.
However, though performing a similar role, this proposed calculation mechanism is not a physical law, as it is not a rule (physical laws are rules). Rather, if it exists, the rules that measurable (physical) things follow come from (in part) the actions of the calculation mechanism. Not all the rules, to be sure. For instance, Newton’s first law (that things in motion or at rest will stay in motion or at rest until acted upon by a force) cannot be a consequence of this proposed calculation mechanism, since the calculation mechanism only comes into play when an object changes state. Other laws that deal with objects changing state, as in wavefunction collapse, would be the way they are due to this calculation mechanism getting the same result or close to the same result for similar calculations. The actions of consciousness are regular and predictable, hence physical laws are regular and predictable.
To say it differently, a rule cannot be said to really “do” anything. Other things “do” things, and we slap rules on these if we can see a regularity to what something is doing. So the combination of physical (measurable things) changing (in part) due to this proposed calculation mechanism is a regular phenomenon that we can slap a rule onto, like the conservation of energy and momentum.
Now, physics really only has two components, rules (physical laws) and things which follow the rules (measurable things). To what then can we assign causation to, given the structure of physics? We could try to assign causation to the past states of the measurable things, but this is unsatisfying, for something should act upon the measurable things to change them. We could try to assign causation to the laws, but it seems nonsensical to assign a causation to a rule, we assign rules to the regularities of something going through cause and effect, not the other way around. Even though we cannot and should not assign causation to physical laws, it is tempting to do so, since it seems intuitive to assign causation to something that acts upon measurable quantities. However, we cannot assign causation to rules. In short, there is “room” in physics for more than just rules and things which follow the rules. There is room for a causal mechanism. There is room for a calculation mechanism, and this will take on the same role as physical laws: (if we could truthfully assign rules a role in nature) that of changing the measurable things.
So when we ask something like “Why is momentum conserved?” (a physical law) The only answer is: it’s the law. The cause of this phenomenon is “something” in nature that makes things come out the way they do. The only thing we can do is chalk up the phenomena to a rule, and we cannot explain it further.
When we ask why an apple falls, the answer is: gravity. Which is not much of an answer. One can elaborate that by saying “gravity” we mean that we have discovered that all objects with mass attract each other through a measurable force, and we can predict how this force behaves, and use this knowledge to understand other things. If asked “why do all things with mass attract each other?” We can then say that it is actually because of General Relativity, where all of space and time together is a sort of field, and mass makes this field bend, or warp, and when space warps, things sort of “roll down” with the warping. It’s like a cannonball on a trampoline, the trampoline warps due to the heavy cannonball, and if you put a tennis ball on a the trampoline, it will roll to the cannonball.
Which is all well and good, but now ask “why do things ‘roll down’ warped space?” Now there is no answer other than : that’s just what things do – it’s the law, or the rule. We have nothing else to say, no further explanantion. We might say there is “something” in nature that makes things “roll down”, but that is basically the same things as saying: it’s the rule.
Notice the similarity between the “calculation mechanism” being proposed here, and the “something” : they both make particle interactions come out the way they do, and they are both basically “immaterial” (not physical or measurable).
The upshot is that there appear to be things in nature that are not measurable, not detectable, use no energy, seem “immaterial”, whose existence can only be inferred, but still do things. This “something” I talk about that is behind physical laws surely exists and surely has a role to play, and saying that a “calculation (via qualia) mechanism” is part of it is just an added detail if true.
So that is the best I can do in answering the hard problem in a “comparison sense” with this theory. This “immaterial” calculation (via qualia) mechanism I propose has some physical processes associated with it (such as wavefunction interference), but it is also something beyond that (it is part of the “something” behind physical laws), and its existence is not all that strange, at least to me.
Perhaps one way to think about it is that there is a sort of substrate to all space, which is a sort of basis for qualia, and when a wavefunction collapses, a quale erupts out of this “substrate”, like a bubble erupting out of a liquid. The quale is used to help calculate what the partice should do next, then the quale disappears, the bubble pops, and the change of state happens.
A few more remarks, and then the question of how human type experiences can come out of this theory can be discussed.
It should be noted that though this theory is similar to panpsychism, and though people might want to call it panpsychism, there appears to be an important difference. In physics, particles have sort of “tags” on them, which include mass, charge, extension, etc. These “tags” determine what the properties of the particle are, and thus what the particle will do. Panpsychism wishes to add another “tag” of some sort of “mental properties” to the particles, except it seems that these mental properties have to be causally inert, or epiphenomenal.
No extra “tags” are being proposed in this theory, rather it is proposed that there is a “calcuation mechanism” in nature. This is associated with particles, of course, but is not a “tag” that will determine what the particle will do. However, it is still something that will determine what the particle will do. This subtle difference seems to make this theory not a form of panpsychism. In fact, it is not dualism, materialism, emergentism, or any previously proposed theory of the mind. It seems to be an entirely new theory.
This is, of course, somewhat similar to ideas already put forth by Penrose (1989) and Penrose (1994), and some inspiration is owed to the ideas in those books. However, though Penrose proposed some loose associations between the collapse of the wavefunction and consciousness, he did not propose a fundamental and universal calculation mechanism (that is consciousness) like I am proposing. I feel he did not take it far enough. Further, he proposed that consciousness gives humans abilities greater than that of computers, as our consciousness allows us to decide undecidable mathematical statements. Basically, he was trying to find something that consciousness does that lies outside of physics, which I am not trying to do. In contrast, I am proposing that there is nothing outside of physics, but physics gives an inadequate description of nature.
Further, the idea in this essay is not explicitly quantum, it could work with classical physics (if we actually lived in a classical world). However, the wavefunction seems a convenient idea to tie this calculation mechanism to.
The issue of free will will be talked about later, but notice how this theory answers the question of free will. In this theory, with consciousness as a universal calculation mechanism, we have free will in the sense that our consciousness does soemthing in nature. It is a determining thing, something that determines. What might happen when particles interact might be inevitable, completely determinable, and predictable. All that is fine, but the calcualtion via qualia still has to happen, still has to do its role in nature, and it does not know what is inevitably going to happen, so it still has to do its duty. Thus we have free will in this theory, as our consciousness has a role in making things come out as they inevitably do, even if these events are predictable, inevitable, and determinable. The key question here is: what determined the outcome of the particle interaction? The answer: consciousness did (partially). Hence we have free will in these sense that we are a determining thing, we are part of the cause.
So in this theory, the conservation of momentum in the instance of two electrons bouncing off each other is accompanied by a qualia and a predictable decision. The qualia and the decision are added detail to the manifestation of the law of conservation of momentum. This means that many “decisions” are predictable, at least for many particle systems, where quantum effects are not noticeable, and classical, deterministic physics is the way to figure out what happens next. Nothing in this theory should contradict the known laws of physics. It is an add-on to what we know about physics, it should be consistent with physics.
As an analogy, consider aliens analysing a game of poker. Poker is played according to rules, and the humans that play poker may or may not adhere to those rules. Suppose the players adhere to the rules. Further suppose we feed the information about the beginning cards, final cards, who wins each hand, and so on to a computer, do this for many poker games, then transmit the results to some alien scientists far away that know nothing about us. The aliens analyze the many games of poker and figure out the rules of poker, and also create elaborate mathematical models to predict which hands will be folded, who will win given certain hands, etc. They create a science of poker, and can predict what will happen in a poker game to some arbitrary extent, let us suppose these predictions are quite good.
Now, let us ask how well these aliens understand poker? They do not know humans play it as a game, they do not know how humans feel as they play, they do not know the motivations that humans have when they play poker, they may not even know about bluffing, they would not know that people play it for money, they may not understand various strategies in poker, etc. They may not even know that it is a game, because we can just transmit the information to them, and their job is to predict the next set of data, the next character in the data. We basically give them a long array of symbols, and they figure out a way to predict the next symbol or set of symbols that will occur. In fact, one might say they know very little about poker. When they try to understand what the data is about, their explanations vary from it being about agriculture yeilds to weather data.
Yet, even though the aliens have a very impoverished knowledge of poker, they have a good knowledge of who will win, and can predict what will happen probably better than the players themselves. All they have is a science of poker, which though it may be a very good science, isn’t much in the way of knowledge about poker in this case.
The thought here is that perhaps our knowledge of nature, gotten through science, is a bit like the knowledge these aliens have about poker. They know nothing about what is going on “behind the scenes”, and perhaps we don’t either. We know the rules of nature (the laws of nature), but we don’t really know what is making these laws “tick”. The proposal here is that, “behind the scenes,” consciousness is at work making particles do what they do, and what consciousness does to each particle obeys mathematical rules. Hopefully, perhaps, it is time to “lift the curtain”, maybe only a little bit, on the goings on of physical laws.
Supposing the central idea of this essay is true, it remains to be explained how qualia and decisions differ in ordinary matter versus the matter of living beings. One assumes that qualia in a rock would be “unexciting” with no memories or understanding of classical music or deep thoughts about how rocks should behave, whereas qualia in a living being should be more “exciting” somehow. This is the combination problem of panpsychism, more or less, though as above, this theory differs from panpsychism. One would also like an explanation as to why it seems we make deliberate, non-random decisions, and wavefunction collapse produces seemingly random values. First let us deal with how living matter creates the sort of experiences we are accustomed to.
Ordinary particle interactions, though they would have qualia and experiences associated with them, should not be able to reference memories or a sense of self, or sense data from outside a body. Whereas some interactions in a living being (living cell) ought to be able to reference memories, a sense of self, and sense data from outside a body.
What would it be like to be a particle in ordinary matter, like a rock? An atom of Silicon bound to other particles changes state in a rock. What is this like? Firstly, there are not a great variety of experiences to choose from, as there is not a great variety of particle interactions, as there are in a living cell. Secondly, since non-living things cannot record memories, as organisms can, each experience in an atom in a rock would reference no past states. Hence, in this theory, there would be countless experiences happening all the time in a rock, as particles change state. However, when the particles change state, there are no memories encoded in the interaction, and no sense of self. Each experience would be on its own, like the first thought an animal ever has when it is born. Also, perhaps like a baby just being born, there is no context for its first thought, as it knows nothing. In fact, it would be worse than the first thought a baby has, since babies have innate knowledge of some things due to the structure of their brain, and a particle in a rock would have nothing.
Thus, roughly, for a lone particle or a collection of bound atoms (such as a molecule) in non living matter, it would be something like experiencing grey, then nothing, then a different shade of grey, then nothing, over and over again as the particle changes state, interacting at different energies. The experience of grey would be entirely novel each time, no past shades of grey would be known when the particle experiences grey for the millionth time. The shade of grey would occur within no context, it would not be able to compare it to any other experience, as it has no memories. This is just an assumption, but it seems reasonable, given that there are no memories and a smaller variety of qualia that can occur, and no coordination of information to get a different sort of qualia. This would seem to hold for all non living matter, be in a star, or a rock, or salt water, etc.
Thus, if this theory is true, it seems reasonable that the sort of qualia experienced by particles is not “exciting” compared to the sort of qualia that can be produced in a living organism, where we know that memories can be made and referenced, as well as sense data from specialized organs (like an eye), and a sense of self can occur.
I suppose I should try to make a few points clear about these “primal qualia” that the vast majority of particle interactions would experience, and how they differ from our animal experiences. (1) Are these the experiences of a conscious being? It seems that “no” is the answer. A conscious being has memories and a sense of self, and these experiences are more like an experience that is entirely novel to you, that you cannot compare with anything before that you have ever had. However, you can’t even put this expereince into context, because you have just lost all your memories. Plus you die in the next instant after having this completely novel, uncomparable experience. I hope that makes it clear that these axperiences are not like ours.
(2) Are these subjective experiences? Is there a “self” and “I” involved with them? Honestly, I don’t know. I would guess that there is some small element of subjectiveness to these experiences, whatever that means. However without a sense of self or memories to reference, such “subjectiveness” is limited.
Hope that cairifes a few things.
Thus, in this theory, the picture of particles in ordinary matter is of particles interacting, changing state, and as they change state, they (or nature, or something) have to produce a qualia and make a decision as to what new state to end up in. The qualia produced in these interactions seems to be “unexciting” compared to the qualia we are used to, due to a lack of memories and sense of self and sense data.
However, though we know that memories and sense data and a sense of self somehow occur in living organisms such as ourselves, and the details of how this occurs must be worked out in the context of this theory.
In living cells, there are groups of bound atoms called molecules. Once bound together, these tend to act as a unit, they interact with each other and bond together in a similar way that atoms interact with other atoms in different sorts of bonding. Protein molecules can be so large that they “fold” into different shapes in different environments. Though molecules occur outside of living cells, living cells have larger molecules, a greater variety, and more complex molecules, and of course these molecules work together to keep the organism alive.
Since this theory entails that conscious experiences occur when particles change state, and since presumably one needs a more complex system than just two atoms interacting to encode memories, a sense of self, and sense data; the only path forward for this theory seems to be to say that conscious experiences for living beings occur when two “largish” molecules interact. I can’t see another way this idea could work. A few things need explaining at this point.
An immediate question for this theory is whether or not a single qualia is produced for a molecule when it changes state, or if there is a multitude of qualia produced for each of its constituent particles as a molecule changes state. The same question applies to an atom. An atom is made up of electrons, protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons are made up of quarks. When an atom changes state, is there a qualia produced for the whole atom, or does each constituent particle have its own qualia?
Since we are identifying qualia with wavefunction interference, the answer seems to lie in the wavefunction. From what I can gather, molecules and atoms can be regarded as having their own, single, wavefunction. If one particle of a molecule changes state, the wavefunction for the entire molecule changes as well (it collapses). Hence it seems reasonable that one quale for the molecular wavefunction is produced each time a molecule, or a part of a molecule changes state. The same would go for an atom.
This also constitutes a natural starting and stopping point for qualia. This is a very important question, and I think, one that is not addressed in traditional panpsychism. One must assign the start and end of a quale in this theory. It seems to me the only plausible way to do this is to assign it to a single particle interaction, with wavefunction collapse. Hence a qualia starts and stops with a single wavefunction collapse.
Another thing that needs explaining is that another, less likely possibility for this theory is that a succession of particle interactions could account for a qualia. A related idea to the one being espoused here is that, instead of one change of state equals one qualia, a succession of changes of state over time equals one qualia. However, this alternative seems far less likely, as it runs into the problem of how one might assign the start and stop of a qualia. Knowledge of future events would be necessary in such a scheme, to assign the start and stop of a qualia. Hence this alternative seems very unlikely.
However, a similar alternative seems fine, which will be talked about in a bit, where it seems reasonable to assign a “thought” to a succession of particle interactions, as long as they all have the same sense of self encoded in them.
Another thing to note is that each conscious experience of each bit of matter must be “on its own” so to speak. Since we do not detect the experience of an Iron atom in a fork, each qualia produced in each change of state must be independent of each other. It is like some sort of “souls” are popping into existence for the countless interactions happening everywhere. A qualia is experienced and a decision is made for each “soul” and then each “soul” immediately dies, and never exists again.
However, even though each conscious experience must be independent of each other, things seem different for the rare qualia that access past memories and a sense of self. These are connected to past conscious experiences through the very fact that they access memories and a sense of self as they occur. This would seem to be the source our continuity of experience that we living organisms have, the source of our “minds”. My picture of a conscious experience here is that a conscious experience of an organism is one where sense data, memories and a sense of self are all accessed simultaneously. An animal thinks about food, and mixed in that thought are sense data, memories, and possibly a sense of self. Perhaps a sense of self is limited to higher animals, I don’t know. The point is that it all seems to be accessed simultaneously.
If all that is true, then one needs to find a molecule in a cell that somehow encodes memories and a sense of self and sense data for an organism. When this molecule interacts, an organism experiences a thought. The idea would be that a molecule forms whilst being passed this information, it then interacts with some other molecule, which contributes to the change of state for the cell overall, making a “decision” for the cell. While it interacts, a qualia is produced that accesses memories, a sense of self, and sense data for the organism (all of which was previously encoded). This would constitute a “thought” for the organism, the sort of conscious experience we living creatures have. This would contrast the sorts of conscious experiences that occur in non-living matter.
Let us look at a single celled organism, like a paramecium, in the context of this theory. So, in this theory, the many, many, qualia that occur every second in a living cell would mostly be like those that occur in a rock, rather “unexciting”. Most of the interactions would reference no memories, no sense data, and no sense of self. However, sometimes a paramecium must make a decision. If it detects food or a change in temperature, it must react to stay alive in the way that it is accustomed. The paramecium must change state. In order to do this, a complicated series of molecular interactions occurs, where molecules, mostly proteins, bond, fold, ions diffuse, and so on. The hypothesis is that somewhere along this complicated chain of events, there is a “key interaction” between two molecules in whose structure there are encoded memories, a sense of self, and the sense data that is making the paramecium change and react to its new situation. This “key interaction” is the one that the paramecium experiences as a “thought,” insofar as paramecia have “thoughts”.
A little while later the paramecium has another “thought”, as it needs to make another decision about what to do about its environment. This next “thought” corresponds to another “key interaction” in the body of the paramecium. This one references the same sense of self (insofar as a paramecium has a sense of self), different sense data, some memories, and possibly a memory of its last “thought”. Thus we see how the paramecium has a continuity of experience out of the countless conscious experiences going on in its cell body that it does not experience. Though each experience is on its own, the structure of the molecules responsible for the “key interaction”, the electromagnetic field they produce, the complicated wavefunction associated with it, allows it to reference past states, and a sense of self, creating its continuity of experience.
I am far from an expert on cell biology, and cell biology is, of course, very complicated. Further, from what I can gather, there is no one thing that can be said to control the actions of a cell. Rather there are many interactions which happen, which depend on other interactions occurring. The chain of interactions is called a “molecular pathway”. There is no one interaction that controls what the cell does, rather, there are many along a chain of interactions. If this theory is true, it seems like there should be many candidates, such as proteins that change due to their new environment along a “metabolic pathway” that changes how the cell metabolizes energy.
The reaction that corresponds to the qualia an organism experiences does not always have to be a particular enzyme changing, the next time it could be another enzyme, or not an enzyme. As long as the molecule is complex enough and actually has the requisite memories and sense of self encoded in it, as well as sense data, then its interaction can be the one that corresponds to our conscious experience.
An intriguing possibility is that a qualia for an organism might be identifiable with a succession of chemical interactions that happen rapidly over time. This would require, I think, that a molecule which encodes the sense of self for an organism go through a few rapid changes over time. As it changes, sense data and memories are added or perhaps subtracted, corresponding to the molecule becoming bigger or smaller, or even just folding. The idea is that, instead of a conscious experience of an organism happening in an instant, it might happen over an extended period of time. If so, then it would be identified with a molecule evolving over a few milliseconds, bonding to various other molecules, then coming to rest, ending the experience. As long as memories and a sense of self is accessed during each successive interaction, this seems as though this succession can be looked at as the “key interaction”, rather than a single interaction. Perhaps this scenario is closer to what we actually experience? A problem with this whole idea is the question of what happens to the molecule that encodes memories and sense data and sense of self after the key interaction? Is it destroyed? Reused?
Of course, for this theory to work, a way must be found to identify memories and a sense of self with the structure of a molecule. It must be known how such things can be encoded, and what is encoded must be somehow mapped to qualia. This is a major challenge for this theory, and I don’t personally know how to solve it, being beyond my expertise, if I can be said to have any expertise.
The next question for this theory, if true, is how animal and human consciousness would work. The answer would be fairly similar to how consciousness is proposed to work in a paramecium, except the “key interactions” would probably occur in neurons, and not in any other cells in the animal body.
In the context of this theory, neurons would serve the purpose of passing sense data and memories to other neurons. The signals would not be conscious events, but would set up conscious events. The conscious events, where memories, sense data, and a sense of self would be referenced, would occur in neurons much like they do in single celled organisms. Two molecules would interact which encode these memories, sense data and sense of self in their structure, and the resulting change in wavefunction for the interacting molecules would create a quale that is part of the continued experience of the organism.
The next conscious event for the animal does not have to occur in the same neuron as the last event, it can occur in an entirely different neuron. As long as it has the same sense of self, and references proper memories, it does not matter where it occurs, it will be part of the continued experience of an animal. It might be the case that a “sense of self” is generated by the unique electromagnetic field that would be different for every brain. Every animal brain would be unique, and the field generated by all the neurons in the brain might serve as the backdrop for chemical interactions in a brain, creating our “sense of self”. Though such a field might not be a significant factor in the “key interaction”, as matter tends to shield from electromagnetic fields.
Humans, being animals, would have their consciousness generated in a similar manner as animals in this theory. The only difference would be our ability to observe our own thoughts and model them as belonging to some other creature. Our apparent ability to watch ourselves think to a far greater extent than other animals seems to set us apart from other animals. We are self aware to a larger extent, it seems. We get mad at ourselves, can wish to be a different person, be happy we are not like other men, and so on. These are not the sort of thoughts that we think even intelligent creatures like dolphins or chimpanzees have. However, in this theory, our ability to do this would not mean that our neurons work differently than they do in other animals. We would still have “key interactions” like they do.
Therefore, in this theory, humans have “unconscious” thoughts, that are actually conscious experiences, but are not accessed or are not remembered by our self awareness. There are many thoughts going on in our heads, but only a few are accessible to our self awareness, and thus can be remembered by our self awareness. In this theory, these would correspond to molecular interactions with information encoded corresponding to our self awareness. Only those interactions properly encoded would become part of “our” thoughts in the self awareness sense. So when we catch a ball that is suddenly thrown at us “without thinking”, there are thoughts (corresponding to a sort of “key interaction” but without our main sense of self, our human self awareness) that led to the ball being caught, but they did not have our sense of self awareness encoded in them, so “we” (our self awareness) does not experience these thoughts. Just as I do not experience your thoughts.
It should be noted that I think the theory of “key interactions” presented here and how consciousness works within cell biology should be taken with a grain of salt, so to speak. I am far from an expert on cell biology, and I am simply trying to come up with a story about how consciousness might work within the confines of this theory. One confine is that each particle interaction has to correspond to some conscious experience. Another confine is that the only way (it seems to me at least) to assign the start and the stop of a quale is to make it correspond to a single particle interaction. Another confine is that memories and self awareness have to be part of the particle interaction somehow. One also has to come up with a way to cram alot in information inato a single particle interaction. Given these confines, the story above is the best I could come up with. How good of a story it is remains to be seen, and can probably be improved upon. I hope it is somewhat plausible, but I accept that it is quite likely it is not true, even if the central hypotheses of this essay are true.
As a final note for this section, note that this theory gives a solid definition of life, a way to distinguish life from non life. Simply stated, life incorporates reactions between molecules that reference past states, a sense of self, and sense data from outside or inside the body of an organism. No referencing of past states occurs in rocks, salt water, plasma in stars, gas clouds in space, and so on. Hence this seems to define life as a collection of bound together atoms that uses energy in order to maintain certain other energy states, and can reference past states, a sense of self, and sense data from outside the body of an organism during certain interactions in the body in order to obtain these certain energy states over time.
Such a solid definition of life (that does not depend on evolutionary considerations like replication capabilities of organisms and perhaps captures the essence of life more completely than evolutionary considerations) has never been offered before, to my limited knowledge. It also firmly denies that computers (as they are built today) are conscious, no matter how the computer behaves, simply because computers have no “key interactions” happening in them. More on this later.
To start towards a theory by which we can predict what qualia a person will experience, I imagine this first thing to do is to find a way to assign qualia to particle interactions.
One would simply generate the equations, and then assign a “uniqueness” tag to them. Similar situations get similar “uniqueness” tags. The equations do not need to be solved to see how the interaction comes out, I would guess.
Then one would have to identify a “key interaction” in a neuron or some similar concept. Hopefully those with a better grasp of cell biology can do this. Hopefully it is possible to do this, given how cell biology works. Then a qualia is assigned to such a “key interaction”. For instance, when we see “red”, we assume that the key interaction in a particular cell is generating a “red” qualia. Other qualia can be assigned to other “key interactions”, and the information content (what qualia is being represented) of such interactions will have to be understood. Then the “uniqueness” tags can be converted into predictions of qualia for all interactions. This seems like a tall order, for some sort of mathematics would have to relate an equation to a qualia, there should be some way of generating a proper quale from what an equation looks like, which sounds quite difficult. I would assume that the equation does not have to be solved, but a scheme is needed to assign a quale to an equation. If we can then, with knowledge of cell biology and how the brain works, predict what qualia will occur through this theory, then that would seem a test for this theory. This is all a tall order, of course.
If this works, we could then predict the qualia of other creatures, like bats, horses and paramecia, and rougly figure out what life is like for them. We could predict their qualia, but we would only be able to roughly compare it to our qualia. We could also predict the qualia of a atom of Silicon in a rock, but again, comparing it to our qulaia would be problematic.
What also needs to be done is to see if this key interaction scenario is plausible. I don’t know enough about cell biology to say either way. It doesn’t have to happen with a chemical reaction along a chain of chemical reactions, it could occur in microtubules or something else for all I know.
The other piece of evidence is if the theory works well as a model for the mind. If a model works in a way that is reminiscent of how we see our thoughts working, then this should count as evidence as well. What I mean here is that we have an idea of how our minds work, we witness a “world of thoughts” and so on. This all seems to happen in a particular way, and we evaluate what to do in a particular way. This should be replicated by whatever theory of consciousness we come up with. If the theory does not produce the correct mechanics of the mind, then it is suspect.
If the predictions of this theory bear out, should it be accepted? This is a good question. One expects that a brute force computing approach to modeling the brain with neurons should be capable of predicting our thoughts. Why not accept it as an explanation? A brute force approach seemingly explains nothing. If a simulation of a brain predicts what a brain will do, and predicts that someone will think about puppies in a field, (through matching previous verbal reports that people have reported when that brain state was achieved before) this prediction does not explain why it is happening, just predicts that it will happen. Whereas in this theory, the prediction comes with an explanation about consciousness and its place in nature.
Further, this theory (as I have naively developed it) would seem to be predicting conscious states based on specific internal states of individual neurons (which might be the right way to go about developing this theory or not), which is different than predicting what conscious state will be achieved through looking at a bunch of neurons at once. If it is the case that prediction can occur only through looking at a bunch of neurons at once, then this “nature has to calculate” theory is suspect.
Is this theory falsifiable? If it is not, then it is not a scientific theory, and not worth anything. The last paragraph shows one way in which it might be falsifiable.
Another way this theory could be falsified is if there is no “key” chemical reaction in a chain of chemical reactions in a cell. If there is no chemical reaction that could possibly encode the requisite information, then it seems like this theory is suspect. One might fall back on other structures in the cell, such as microtubules, but these might be ruled out too. Hence this theory seems falsifiable in terms of needing proper physical mechanisms in a cell to make it work.
The other way to falsify this theory is that, after finding a plausible mechanism, the qualia that one predicts from this mechanism do not occur, do not agree with verbal reports. Being able to test this seems a long way off, but it might be doable someday. Hence the theory seems falsifiable in its predictions.
As above, a central idea of this essay is that the information available to particles determines what they will do. This seems to be an idea intrinsic to fields. When an electron encounters a magnetic field, it starts to spiral. Without the field, the theory goes, the electron would not spiral. The field has to “tell” the particle about the particles around it, otherwise the particle would not “know” about them.
When physics was first developed, Newton and others found it ridiculous that a planet should orbit the sun with no means of the sun “informing” the planet of its presence. Nevertheless, the gravitational equation seemed to call for this. It seemed common sense that something must “tell” the planet that the star is nearby, so that it can properly orbit.
This problem of “action at a distance” was only solved almost two centuries later by Faraday and his ideas about magnetic fields. Today, the “action at a distance” problem seems solved by the idea of gravitational fields, electromagnetic fields, quantum field theory, and what have you. The modern conception of fundamental physics seems to have seemingly empty space filled with various quantum fields, and particles like electrons and quarks are ongoing, travelling, vibrations of these fields. It seems that particles are informed of the presence and nature of other particles by passing particles between each other. For instance, photons (particles of light) pass between electrons, telling the electrons what to do, the photons mediate the electromagnetic force.
Quantum field theory works very well for the energy realm that we live in, which is not at all like the extreme environment of a black hole. However, what ultimately lies behind reality (whether or not the quantum field picture is right) is unknown.
Nevertheless, while it must be accepted that that the information available to particles partially determines what they will do, it is not clear that the information completely determines what a particle will do. An electron encountering a magnetic field will become “spin up” or “spin down” and be deflected accordingly. Which state it will “choose” cannot be determined beforehand, and a 50% probability can only be assigned to either state. While the 50% probablity part might be undetermined by the information available to the particle, the requirement that the particle become either spin up or spin down surely is determined by the information available to the particle. The question here is, though it must be accepted that we cannot determine beforehand what the electron will choose, is it completely determined by the information available to the particle? Or is it only partially determined, and some of it simply, mysteriously, undetermined. This question seems unresolved by modern quantum theory.
The assumption for the rest of this essay will be that a particle’s behavior is completely determined by the information avalaible to the particle. Basically, it does not seem credible for this theory, which postulates that particles must “calculate” (process information) via qualia in order to change state, that this only partially determines what a particle will do. Our own experience definitely suggest that our decisions completely determine our actions. Hence this theory (I think) is in accordance with both the Everett interpretation (which seems to postulate many parallel universes and a deterministic universe) of quantum mechanics, and the Bohmian interpretation (which seems to postulate faster than light information transfer, but not “true information”, and a deterministic universe). Interested readers are invited to look at these interpretations for themselves. Both of these interpretations seem to favour a deterministic worldview, despite the inherent unpredictability of quantum mechanics. That is, what is going on is determined, but not determinable. If the Everett interpretation is correct, then perhaps this calculation via qualia mechanism informs the particle what is going on in parallel universes, so it can make its “proper” choice. If the Bohmian interpretation is correct, then perhaps this calculation mechanism informs the particle of what very distant particles are doing, so it can make its “proper choice”.
In entanglement, the principle that the information available to particles determines what they do seemingly still holds. Entangled particles are affected instantaneously, even across light years, if their entangled partner is affected. One can argue that there is no field informing the particles of anything, nevertheless, the particles share the same wavefunction. Hence it still holds that the information available to particles determines what they do. One can also look at entanglement as if entangled particles are part of the same particle and affecting one affects the other. The principle that the information available to particles determines what they do seems to still hold in this interpretation as well.
That the information available to particles determines what they will do does not necessarily mean that particles actually “sense” their surroundings and then “decide” what to do, however it seems to imply it. Indeed, it seems to me that all accounts of quantum mechanics are rife with language that anthropomorphizes particles. There is talk of particles “deciding”, and “knowing” all over descriptions of quantum physics. It is assumed in these accounts, of course, that this is just a matter of language, and is an analogy. However, what if it is not? We are conditioned by education to assume that particle interactions are “automatic” processes between “dead” things, but what if this is not quite true? I hope its worth exploring this possibility, to see if it works.
If it is true that particles “sense” and “decide” in a manner consistent with physical laws, then this in turn implies that these are “conscious” decisions. It implies that they involve a quale, a moment of consciousness, an experience of something. Again, this is not definite, but it is suggestive.
Now, assuming this scenario (i.e. the central hypotheses of this essay) to be true, it seems it might be consistent with a perplexing part of quantum mechanics, namely the unpredictable, random nature of particle interactions. Assuming every particle “decides” what to do based on the information it can “sense”, then we can ask if any particle can “sense” what another particle can sense?
If the wavefunction of particles extends very far from the locus (or center) of the wavefunction, then very distant particles can influence the wavefunction of a particle. If so, then it would seem to follow (given the basically random distribution of matter in the universe) that the picture of the universe that one particle can “sense” is not the same as what another particle can “sense”.
Hence it would seem that the information available to a particle is not available to any other particle.
This would seem to follow from relativity as well. Each particle has its own “light cone”. It cannot access information from outside of its light cone. Hence, any particle not in the same position as particle A cannot and will never have the same information as particle A accessible to it. Further, any given particle is in a different location from every other particle. Hence it will “sense” a unique configuration of particles around it. No configuration will ever be the exactly the same for any given particle. If what the particle will “decide” to do depends sensitively on its distant environment, then, it seems, there should be no way to predict what it will do, as we cannot sense its environment. Considering that particles access “nonlocal” information about other particles, there is reason to suppose that each particle cannot “sense” the same thing that another particle can sense, if distant particles can affect significant changes to other particles.
Now, when we make a measurement of a particle interaction, it therefore follows that the instrument we use does not have access to the information that the particles we are detecting has. Hence there is no way to know what it will do, as we cannot “sense” what it can “sense”. We cannot detect what its wavefunction detects. The information of any instrument will necessarily be incomplete. Hence what the particle will do will be necessarily unpredictable. This assumes that the information the particle can “sense” determines what it will do. Hence what the particle will do is determined by the sum of information it can gather through its interactions with other wavefunctions, but it cannot be determined by us, as we will never be able to “sense” what it can “sense”. Though what the particle will do is determined, it is not determinable.
Therefore, the hypothesis of this essay appears to be consistent with one of the central features of quantum mechanics : the unpredictability of fundamental particle interactions. Also, the random nature of wave function collapse is explained if there are certain features of a particle that depend sensitively on the information available to the particle. Since every particle cannot detect what another particle can, and the value (like spin up or down) depends sensitively on the distant environment it can sense, random values seem reasonable. There are, of course, other features that it does not explain, such as why there are wavefunctions in the first place, superposition, and the like. Here it is simply assumed that a wavefunction is how nature allows particles to detect what is around it. Why a wavefunction exists in the first place in this worldview, I can’t say. It would be just the way nature does its “detecting”. That is all I can fathom.
I would note here that another way to understand this whole idea is that particles are always trying to behave as they “should”. Given their surroundings, they can sense what they “should” be doing, and compare this to what they are doing. Or perhaps a better way to phrase this is that they can sense how things “should” be going, and compare this to how things are actually going, then they adjust accordingly.
Perhaps the way to explain this is that particles are like a device that is a frequency comparator. It compares the frequency of what is going on versus the frequency the way it should be, and then adjusts itself accordingly to attain the right frequency. This is the action of consciousness, to compare “frequency” as it is with frequency as it “should” be, to become harmonious instead of discordant. Hopefully this is a comprehensive analogy.
Being no great physicist, I humbly hope that all this is not too far “off the rails” so to speak.
It seems quite interesting that, if you view particles this way: as some sort of primal “agents” that detect the world around them and “decide” what to do based on the information at hand; then this whole random uncertainty business of quantum mechanics seems understandable.
What does this theory, if true, say about the nature of consciousness? What is consciousness in this theory?
Consciousness is the means by which particles determine what to do next.
Consciousness is a necessary part of nature in this theory, associated with each particle, or rather its wavefunction. Nature cannot proceed until a qualia is produced and a decision is made based on this qualia. Thus, consciousness is part of how the laws of nature work. Thus, consciousness is a determining thing in this theory. It helps determine what will happen.
As in the introduction, though the role of consciousness in nature is clear in this theory, it is not exactly clear what consciousness is in comparison to other things in nature, like mass and charge, though as in the introduction, this calculation mechanism is not a physical thing, since it acts upon all physical things. In this theory, consciousness would be visualized as something “immaterial” that permeates all space, that is activated whenever a particle changes state. Though whether or not this is the best way to picture it is not clear.
It is probably best to say this process happens instantaneously, since particles seem to change state instantaneously. However, perhaps qualia can be looked at as part of the build up from one change of state to the next (making it take up more time)? Since consciousness is the means by which particles calculate what to do next, and we detect no energy loss from state to state, this process of calculation via qualia appears to use no energy. This all seems reasonable in the context of this theory, and seems to give more a of picture of what consciousness is in comparison to other things. Hopefully, if this theory is true, all this can be cleared up.
It should be clear by now that though it would seem that the automatic hypothesis (that particles change state automatically, with no need to calculate what to do next) seems simpler on the face of it, it is by no means guaranteed that this is the case. It seems possible that there could be a calculation each and every time. Further, the automatic hypothesis only seems simpler if you ignore consciousness entirely.
If one postulates that all particles are “dead” and change state automatically, it is hard to see how one can then expect to explain the phenomenon of consciousness. Indeed, science seems to miss consciousness entirely, and seems to have no need for consciousness to explain anything. One can make the case that science, as it is approached today, ignores consciousness entirely (by assuming that all interactions are automatic between “dead” things) then people wonder why science has such trouble explaining consciousness.
Incorporating consciousness into reality as I have suggested might be the only way of fitting it in with what we know of science. If it is the only way to incorporate it into science, then this hypothesis must be true. If there is no way for consciousness to exist if you assume that all particle interactions are interactions between dead things, then this seems like the way forward. In fact Occam’s razor might support this hypothesis over the automatic hypothesis.
If consciousness is a determining thing, what does this mean for our ideas of free will? What exactly the term “free will” means is far from clear. However, in this theory our decisions cause things to happen, even if our decisions are predictable and inevitable. We are a determining thing in this theory, insofar as “we” can be identified with our consciousness. In some sense, physical laws determine what we will do in this theory, but since we are physical laws (in some sense), it is not something else determining what we will do in theory, it is us. More specifically, since consciousness is the means by which particles determine what to do next, it is a causal factor in what happens as particles change state.
Just to clarify a bit, I should note that predictability does not mean “determined by something else”. Suppose you go to a car lot to buy a used car. You talk to and deal with one salesman, and are observed by another salesman. The salesman who observes you has no contact with you, you don’t even know he’s there. Nevertheless he takes note of what you say, what you dress like, and correctly predicts what car you will buy, and even what price you will settle on. He’s very experienced and smart. You end up doing exactly what he predicts. Does this mean he determined (caused) what you did? Obviously not.
What this means is that the ability to predict what will happen does not necessarily have anything to do with what determines things to happen. Thus, even though what particles will “decide” what to do in a way that is predictable, that does not make it determined by something else. They are still self determined.
Most theories of consciousness seem to categorize consciousness as “causally inert”. In Emergentism, Functionalism, Materialsm, and even traditional Panpsychism, consciousness is a useless by-product of some brain process, or a useless add on to matter, with no causal powers. This is in contrast to our direct experience of consciousness determining what we action we take. This is of course a problem with most theories of consciousness, but it is not a problem for this theory, as consciousness has a role in nature in this theory. It is not causally inert in this theory.
Hence this theory seems to agree with our intuitive notion that we have “free will”, though I emphasize again that the “free will” question is highly ambiguous. If the “free will” question asks if we (our consciousness) are a determining thing, then the answer is “yes” in this theory.
The only other theory of consciousness that seems to give consciousness a causal role in nature would seem to be dualism. However, dualism has the “mental realm” affecting the “physical” in a way that is not in agreement with physical laws if consciousness is not causally inert, which cannot be true. If consciousness in dualism affects the physical world in a way consistent with physical laws, then either consciousness is causally inert again in dualism, or such a dualist theory is a very similar theory to the central theory of this essay.
Thus, it would seem that this theory is the only theory of consciousness yet come up with that gives consciousness a determining role in nature and is consistent with physics. If it is the only theory possible to do both these things, then this seems a very strong argument for this theory.
Is consciousness “immaterial” in this theory? It is hard to know what this question means. Certainly there seems to be an immaterial aspect to consciousness in this theory, as it is part of how the laws of nature work, and the laws of nature are immaterial, if anything is. At the same time, qualia is associated with the wavefunction of particles, so they seem to have a sort of physical existence as well. If it is true (as this theory proposes) that consciousness is part of the calcualtion mechanism by which particles figure out what to do next, that would imply a sort of immaterial calculation mechanism, as we simply don’t see one when we observe particles. All in all, perhaps the idea of material vs. immaterial is not a great distinction. It is hard to know what to say to this question, other than, “probably yes and no at the same time”.
This theory is similar to panpsychism, but, as above, is also a little different. Nevertheless, the same problem that faces panpsychism, the “combination problem”, seems to apply to this theory. However, this theory solves the combination problem handily, as long as this theory is true.
The “combination problem” is simply the question: if every bit of matter has “mental properties”, then presumably simple bits of matter, like electrons, have “simple” experiences, and things like us humans have more “complex” experiences (complex is not a good word, all experiences are quite simple, but the chains of experiences of a human are not) and meaningful experiences, and somehow things like baseballs have simple experiences not like us humans? How is this possible? How do “simple” thoughts combine into “complex” thoughts? How do they add up?
This question seems addressable in this theory. As above, the solution presented here is that while ordinary particle interactions reference no memories or a sense of self, there are certain special interactions in living cells that can. This seems to solve the combination problem, as well as perhaps open up an area of research, where we can figure out how to assign qualia to certain particle interactions. If this is successful, we should be able to test the predictions of this theory.
It should be also noted that this theory also solves another pressing problem for panpsychism, namely : how do you determine the start and stop of qualia? I am not well versed in the volumes of philosophical writing that are produced every year, but I have not seen anyone ask this question. Nevertheless, it seems a good question for panpsychism, or any mental theory. Qualia do not last forever, they are fleeting. By what mechanism in matter do they start and stop?
If your theory of mind cannot answer this question, the theory should be regarded with skepticism. Happily, this theory has a natural stop and start point for qualia, it is simply identified with the start and stop of a change of state for a particle or a molecule. Thus this unrecognized (I think) problem is also solved.
It is interesting that this theory implies a sort of minimum subjectivity to each moment of qualia during each change of state of a particle. Though most particle interactions do not reference memories or a sense of self or sense data from outside an organism, there is nevertheless a sensing of something, and some sort of purpose in every particle interaction. The only way to interpret this, that I can see, is that each particle must sense out its own place in the grand scheme of things, and act accordingly, given its innate sense of the way things ought to be. That each particle has information about every other particle seems implied by Bohmian mechanics. So if each particle has information about what all the other particles in the universe are doing, and changes state to put itself in the proper state to be harmonious with everything. This raises the interesting question of whether or not the information it has is always correct, or often in error?
Given that this theory seems testable, whether or not it is true should be determined by testing it, and not philosophical arguments, which are far less reliable. Nevertheless, let us look at the philosophical arguments.
The nice thing about this theory is that it seems to work consistently and well as an explanation for consciousness. With some basic ideas, I am able to formulate a consistent story for what consciousness is, explain how our consciousness differs from that of non-living matter, give it a role in nature, and solve the combination problem. The theory gives us a form of free will, is immaterial and consistent with science, and might even explain some puzzling features of Quantum Mechanics. This seems to me like a success, at least we, or at least, I, know what a theory of consciousness might look like, even if all this is wrong.
I cannot find the reference, but I remember reading that some heavyweight philosopher once said “We don’t even know what a theory of consciousness might look like”. Well, we have that problem no longer, even if this theory is wrong.
Further, this theory seems to agree with many of our intuitions about consciousness, which should be a mark in its favor. Our intuition suggests consciousness is immaterial, and it is immaterial in this theory, whatever immaterial means. Our intuition suggests that matter has no consciousness, and while in this theory, matter has some sort of consciousness, it does not have a consciousness like ours, with memories and a sense of self. Our intuition suggests that our wants and needs cause our bodies to do certain things, this theory agrees.
Basically, the theory works well with our intuition, which should be a mark in its favor.
Another nice thing about this theory is that nothing new needs to be found. There is no need for new physics, no need for new discoveries to explain consciousness. It has been under our noses, so to speak, the whole time, we just haven’t recognized what it could be until now.
Other arguments for this idea include the following:
(I) There is no other way to give consciousness a causal role in nature and have it be consistent with physics.
There are good reasons to believe that science is not compatible with our knowledge that consciousness exists. If one just looks at neurons in a brain from a scientific perspective and what they do to process information, there is no reason to think that consciousness exists in this perspective. We only know consciousness exists from our personal knowledge, not from scientific investigation.
With such profound difficulties, this hypothesis, that nature must calculate via qualia, might be the only scheme by which we can incorporate consciousness into the scientific worldview. Whatever hypothesis we come up with, it must be consistent with what we know of science. This hypothesis does that. The correct theory of consciousness must be a part of nature, have some relationship to the rest of nature. It must have a causal role. This theory does that as well.
Is there any other way consciousness might exist in nature? There might not be.
We’ve got something that we know exists: consciousness. We know it seems to do things, it evaluates, it makes us do what we evaluate. There is an unending and perfect correlation between our thinking that we ought to do something, and our trying to do it. There seems to be overwhelming evidence from our personal experience that consciousness has some sort of causal role. It decides what we do, it causes action.
How firm is the fact that consciousness is a determining thing? It seems very solid, yet the only evidence comes from our minds, and there is no way to confirm it with measurement. The only way to doubt this is to say that the apparent causal role is all an illusion. However, this would be very weird. Why would consciousness exist, just to fool us? Why would nature appear to use something, just to have it all be an illusion? Nature can be strange, but it is not that strange. Hence, that consciousness is a determining thing seems a very strong fact. One could object by saying that we cannot scientifically back this up, but it is outside the realm of science, and it seems pretty well undoubtable.
So, we have one condition for a proper theory of mind:
(1) Consiousness must have a causal role in nature. It is not causally inert, it is a determining thing.
Another condition is:
(2) The action of consciousness must be consistent with what we know of physics.
At the energy levels of particles in the brain, we seem to have reliable knowledge of the relevant physics. We can now know the properties (strength, conductivity, etc) of new materials before they are made for the first time. We must be doing something right. Our theories are quite successful in this energy regime, and whatever consciousness does, its action must be consistent with these known laws.
How can (1) and (2) be reconciled? Obviously, the central theory of this essay reconciles (1) and (2). Logically, if it is the only way to reconcile these two facts, then this is a very strong argument for this theory. Conclusive even.
Thus we have:
(3) The “Nature has to Calculate” theory of consciosuness is the only way to reconcile (1) and (2).
And the conclusion:
(4) The “Nature has to Calculate” theory of consciousness is necessarily correct
As above, other contenders for a theory of consciousness, such as Functionalism, Materialism, traditional Panpsychism (not this theory), some versions of Dualism, Emergentism, etc. make consciousness causally inert. While there is a chance this is true, the theory should at least be able to say why it is not. Yet none of these theories can come close to even saying why it is not. There is no explanation in any of these as to why consciousness is causally inert, it is just assumed, contrary to our own experience.
So, at the least, none of these theories can reconcile (1) and (2). As above, the only other theory that might be able to is dualism, but it has to be a dualism that is consistent with physics, and if it is, then it is a dualism that is basically the central theory of this essay. This theory is hard to categorize into traditional theories of consciousness. It is close to panpsychism, but it also seems to have elements of Dualism, given its immaterial aspects, it also has an element of Emergentism, since our sort of consciousness emerges out of simpler experiences of qualia.
Hence, it seems this is the only theory that can reconcile (1) and (2). As long as consciousness is not causally inert, that makes this theory true. The only way is to find another theory that can reconcile (1) and (2) besides this theory, and options seem limited. At least I can see none.
(II) Science will never find consciousness.
A related argument to the above argument is the following, also based on the idea that consciousness has a causal role in nature, it is not causally inert.
In science, what sort of things can have a causal role? The basic model for physics is to find rules (physical laws) for the behavior of matter and to find the aspects of matter which obey these physical laws (rules).
The things which obey physical laws that we have discovered include mass, forces, length, time, charge, charm, etc. The rules we have discovered include conservation of momentum, energy, etc.
What seems to play a causal role in physics is the physical laws (rules). This is not exactly true. Rules do not cause things to happen, rather whatever is going on to make the rule true plays the causal role (the “something” I mentioned above. Thus, it is more correct to say that whatever is going on to make physical laws work the way they do is playing the causal role. What exactly this is, is not exactly clear.
Particles bounce off of each other, and the way in which they will bounce off is determinable by the conservation of momentum. So it seems that the conservation of momentum plays some sort of causal role, and physical laws play a causal role in general. However, it obviously more correct to say that the “something” in nature that makes it so momentum is conserved is the thing playing the causal role. But we don’t have much of an idea what this thing is.
Considering the way science is set up, with mathematical rules and things which obey the rules, is there any other thing that could possibly play a causal role in science? It appears not. To be certain, forces can be said to cause things to move, charge causes things to attract or repel, but as for the cause of the way in which events will unfold, physical laws (rather the thing behind them) are the cause of the manner in which events will unfold. Without them, events would be different.
Now, consciousness also plays a causal role in our actions, our movements. Consciousness has causal properties as well.
Thus we have two competing things which cause events to come out the way they do. Thus there will be an inevitable tension. This comes from the nature of physics itself, where we seek mathematical rules and things which follow the rules.
Thus it seems inevitable that a theory of consciousness that seeks to be compatible with science will relegate consciousness to be causally inert. The action of consciousness will be necessarily seen as a rule or the action of a bunch of rules when viewed through the lens of science. It is impossible to find something else which causes things using science, because science will necessarily “see” this other thing as a rule.
If this is true, science can never “find” consciousness, it will always “see” it as a rule. Thus there is a natural incompatibility with science and consciousness.
The only solution, then, is to say that some rules (physical laws) and consciousness are one and the same. This is roughly what this theory does.
By declaring that whenever a particle changes state, a moment of consciousness must occur, it seems I am taking the only possible path to reconcile the causal nature of consciousness and the causal nature of physical laws.
Hence this theory seems to be the only way forward.
(III) Consciousness ought to be everywhere.
For some reason our brains (and most likely the brains of other animals) have consciousness associated with them. Our brains are just collections of particles. They are composed of protons and neutrons with electrons in orbitals around them, bonded together in various ways through electron interactions. There is nothing special about them compared to particles outside the brain. If these particles have qualia associated with them, why not other particles? Even further, particles in our brains are interchangeable with others. We lose some carbon atoms out of our bodies, and they are replaced by others. Nothing in us changes. Hence there is nothing special about the particles in our brains.
So either all particles have consciousness associated with them, or something special occurs in brains and neurons that produces consciousness. If something special occurs in neurons and brains, then either there is a latent capacity for consciousness in all particles, that is “awoken” in the brain, or there is no such latent capacity intrinsic to matter, and consciousness is entirely produced in the brain and is absolutely nowhere else, even in a potential form.
The idea that consciousness is not even in a potential form outside of brains seems suspect. If there is no potential for it, how does it occur? So there must be a latent capacity for it everywhere, or it is occurring everywhere.
This is all related to discussions of whether or not consciousness is an “emergent” phenomenon or not. Many have written on the subject of emergence, and the argument being presented here is similar to that put forth by Nagel (1979) for panpsychism. I do not see the point of going into a lengthy discussion here, but I will say the following:
First, it seems that any “emergent” phenomenon is derivable from fundamental matter, even if we canot figure out how to do it. “Wetness” or liquidity is derivable form the structure of, say, Hydrogen and Oxygen, and how they should combine to form a molecule. Even if we cannot figure out how to do it (we actually can, but suppose we cannot), that does not mean it magically appears and is not in some potential form in the structure of its atoms. Our lack of capacity to figure this out does not mean it appears out of nowhere. There is no “emergent” phenomenon that is not in potential form in fundamental matter. Acidity, liquidity, etc. are all derivable from the basic structure of matter. Thus consciousness must also be in “potential” form in basic matter.
Second, consciousness must be fundamental to nature. It has unique qualities that are simply not found in the “physical” world. We don’t detect conscious experiences, and neither can we measure politics, ethics, meaning, etc. Yet these things exist, and exist, (at least partially) because of consciousness. With all these unique properties, consciousness must be fundamental to nature. It cannot be an emergent phenomenon, because it produces things utterly untouched by science.
Carrying on with this assumption that consciousness is associated with all particles everywhere – which is actually really quite reasonable, as there is nothing special about the particles in our brains – one then might ask: what is consciousness for? We know that our minds exist for evaluation. We evaluate in order to have a good life. We decide what to do. Qualia, sensations, consciousness, are here to aid in this evaluation. Why else have a mind except for evaluation? When we think, we consider information, and we decide what to do. For some reason qualia is a part of this process. It appears we wouldn’t work without it.
Thus if all particles must have consciousness associated with them, and consciousness exists as a part of our evaluation process, then it must be a part of every particle’s “evaluation process”.
(1) There is nothing special or unusual about the particles in our brains.
(2)Whatever properties the particles in our brains have must be shared with identical particles outside the brain.
(3) The particles in our brains have consciousness associated with them.
(4) All particles identical to the ones in our brains must have consciousness associated with them.
This is actually a strong argument. The conclusion follows from the premises, and the premises are true. One way around it is to deny that the particles in our brains are typical ones, which is false. One of the hallmarks of modern physics is that each fundamental particle is absolutely identical to other particles. All quarks are exactly alike, so are electrons, and so on.
The other way to deny this is to appeal to “complexity” or the unique “configuration” of the brain, something like that. Something “arises” out of the complexity of the brain. The particles have the potential for consciousness, but do not manifest it until they get “complex”. Note that even if this is true, Conclusion (4) is still correct, as consciousness is still associated with particles, just in a potential form. As before, the point of this essay is not to delve deeply into the issue or “emergence”, of which much has been written.
A better objection would be to say that “wetness” does not exist at the atomic level, but it emerges from the configuration of atoms, like Hydrogen and Oxygen. Therefore, it is not true that “whatever properties exist in the particles in our brains must exist outside our brains”. If “wetness” does not exist in particles at all, but only in the configuration of particles, we do not have to accept premise (2).
As a response, one could say (as above) that “wetness” does exist in atoms, at least in a potential form, since we can derive liquidity from the fundamental interaction of atoms. If so, (and this seems reasonable), then premise (2) is sound, at least for “potential” things.
However, if consciousness only exists in a potential form outside of brains, one might ask : how does being in a brain “unlock” the potential for consciousness that must be in every fundamental particle? Surely the environment of the brain is not that special that then and only then will particles manifest their potential for consciousness. It seems more likely that all particles everywhere must have some sort of consciousness.
(5) Consciousness exists to help evaluate what to do for an organism.
(6) Given (4), all particles must use consciousness to “evaluate” what they should do.
Again a strong argument. The premises are true, and the conclusions follow. As long as consciousness is not in a “dormant” form outside of brains, this seems like a good argument.
(IV) The infallibility of consciousness.
Of course people can be irrational and make mistakes, however, there seems to be an element of infallibility in our conscious processes. How else to explain this infallibility besides our consciousness being a part of the laws of nature, which are also infallible?
For instance, suppose a motorcyclist drives far too fast down a residential street. This is irrational behavior, she could get hurt or kill someone. However, the motorcyclist is young and probably thinks there is zero chance anything bad will happen, and riding fast is fun. If the world worked the way the motorcyclist thinks it does (it doesn’t, but suppose it did) then her decision would be rational. It seems that as long as the world works the way we think it does (which sometimes doesn’t happen) we always make rational decisions. We are infallible in this sense.
It seems you can do this with any irrational behavior. A schizophrenic man climbs a skyscraper because he thinks that aliens will destroy the earth if he doesn’t. If the world actually worked that way, he would be a hero.
This is probably the reason we can rely on humans who do mathematical proofs. If there was not this infallibility component to consciousness, we would not trust verified mathematical proofs. When we make a mathematical mistake, we forget a rule, or our brains temporarily think the wrong rule applies, or we can forget to write down a term. However, if we go over it carefully, we can always trust it. Hence there is some component of infallibility. As long as our minds are clearly going from one mathematical step to another, we trust the result. How else can we explain this infallibility except that our consciousness goes through an infallible process? Neuronal processes are not infallible (hence the source of our mistakes), but a process that decides what nature will do next is infallible.
Can a computer be conscious? In this theory, it would depend on how the computer works.
Though every particle interaction involves some sort of moment of consciousness, would there be the sort of consciousness we experience occurring in a computer?
If the “key interaction” scenario is true, it would seem that the answer is no. A computer works by shuffling electrons (and “electron holes”) around circuits. Currents go through various pathways, and, as a result, run programs. There is no one moment when an electron encounters a complex field that represents the memory of the computer and the situation it is in, and a sense of self and thus makes a calculation that involves qualia like we experience. It is just shuffling and more shuffling. Though the computer stores information, qualia would not occur against the backdrop of memories as it does in an organism. Thus the moments of consciousness within a computer are nothing to speak of, they are not like the ones that occur in cells, they are like the ones that occur in rocks. They are a “step by step” procedure, not an “all at once” evaluation that is made when a molecule changes state. They are probably like experiencing black, then grey, then black, over and over. This seems true even if a computer is used to calculate the actions and speech of a robot made to interact and fool humans into thinking the robot is alive. A computer that passes the Turing test is not conscious in this theory. The ability to fool people into thinking you are a moose by wearing a moose costume does not make you a moose. The ability of a computer to fool people into thinking the computer is a living, thinking, thing, does not make the computer a living, thinking, thing.
If computers were built differently, more like a cell, with molecules doing the calculations in an “all at once” fashion, then they would be conscious like us.
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