During the exchange concerning my recent post in support of libertarian views, an idea occurred to me that I would like to follow up, namely the analogy of a joker among the cards that are dealt us.
John Fischer has written that 'our behaviour may well be "in the cards" in the sense that we simply have to play the cards that are dealt us.' (Fischer, J. 'The cards that are dealt you' (2005), Journal of Ethics 10, 107 at 129.) This drew the apt comment from Kip Werking that it misleadingly suggests there is a player of the cards distinct from the hand that is dealt, whereas in truth human beings simply are the cards that are dealt them by genes and environment.
My view can be understood as accepting this, but as suggesting that each of us includes, in the hand of cards that is dealt us and that constitutes us, along with particular cards like aces, tens, jacks and so on, one powerful and flexible general-purpose card, like a joker. The particular cards engage with circumstances and laws of nature to limit our conduct to a spectrum of possibilities, while the joker, our capacity for conscious choice, can combine with our other cards to steer a course within this spectrum of possibilities.
I am not suggesting this joker is a self or soul that itself makes decisions, or that it corresponds with any particular region of the brain. Rather, it is a capacity that operates only in conjunction with our other cards. It is however powerful and flexible: so long as our other cards are not seriously deficient, for example because of mental abnormality or senility, the joker enable us to make reasonable albeit fallible decisions about what to believe (including what to believe about right and wrong) and about what to do, for good or ill. And these decisions can in turn affect what particular cards we come to hold for the future, for better or worse. Since we all have this joker, we all have some ultimate responsibility for our conduct, again at least so long as our other cards are not seriously deficient.
Why then do I think our cards include this joker, this capacity to decide? In brief, I say there are very strong reasons to accept that conscious experiences make a substantial positive contribution to our decision-making, and that this contribution is not one wholly constituted by rule-determined processes: if it were, as Alan Turing's arguments show, consciousness would be a superfluity. There is however a plausible account of how conscious experiences can make a contribution that is not rule-determined, namely by providing feature-rich gestalt experiences that cannot engage as wholes with laws or rules of any kind but to which, as wholes, we can respond reasonably. On this view, the role of consciousness is to contribute this response to our decision-making, giving us a capacity to make decisions that are not wholly determined by the engagement of pre-existing circumstances (including our characters) with laws of nature. That is, it gives us our joker.
I guess Tom Clark would say this is gratuitously introducing a non-natural and contra-causal black box into our decision-making, whereas other views hold the promise of transparency. But I say there are good positive arguments in support of my position, that it takes a wider view of what is natural, that we should not assume in advance that mechanistic explanations can be sufficient, and that we can understand non-conclusive plausible explanations pretty well (for most things, they are the best we can do).