Assuming the problems of consciousness and free will are separate but related problems – then how are they related? Here are some possible links between consciousness and free will that strike me as plausible in light of current evidence.
By way of definition, most theorists seem to distinguish two levels of consciousness, one in which humans resemble most other animals, and one that is more uniquely human. Agency may also have two levels. My (very rough) operative understanding is that the simpler, earlier level of consciousness (sometimes called phenomenal awareness) enables the animal to deal with its physical environment, and then later in evolution the more advanced one (conscious thought) enables the human to deal with its social and cultural environment. In this blog my focus is on the advanced, mainly just human kind, namely conscious thought.
For this blog I am going to skip over the details of how free will operates. (It would be the more advanced form of agency mentioned above, obviously.) My own current thinking about it would encompass self-control processes, rational choice, planning, and initiative. Those are the set of real behavior patterns that goes by the name of free will. Whether it deserves that name can be debated at great length and will likely depend on which definition of free will one uses. The question is, what does advanced conscious thought contribute to enabling self-control, rational choice, planning, and initiative to happen?
One thing consciousness could do to help free will, even if the executive is mainly unconscious, is provide informational input to complement sensory and memory input. Much of conscious thought is away from the here and now, instead simulating past, future, and otherwise distant events (or also simulating another’s mental state). When a decision is faced, conscious thought can mentally simulate how various action sequences might unfold and what their long-term consequences might be. This seems highly adaptive. It is actually often helpful to think before you act.
Whatever free will is, whether it be conscious or unconscious, it could benefit by having the mind prepare for a decision by consciously simulating each possible action and its consequences.
The Skinnerian animal in the simple maze just goes left or right because it has a better feeling about one or the other, based on past reinforcement. It can’t really envision what’s around the turn, in the maze. But humans consciously simulate what they would find there, and what would happen then, and perhaps later too. Simulating sequences of actions and consequences can enable the person to make a better decision. Obviously, the closer the mental simulations are to what would actually happen, the greater the benefit to the animal’s adaptive decision making.
CONNECTS ABSTRACT INTENTION TO SPECIFIC ACT, INCREASES PROBABILITY
These thoughts emerged from our Annual Review of Psychology article (2011), which is called “Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?” and was intended as a response to Libet. Without really knowing what we would find, my colleagues and I just set out collecting any sort of relevant information on experimental studies designed to show causal effects of conscious thoughts on behavior. We sent out a big call on the listserve that elicited a deluge of information, some of which was relevant and therefore provided much of the evidence reviewed in the paper. For Annual Review, you’re supposed to just cover the waterfront, without theoretical commitments, which was fine with us.
So when done, I thought, why not just read through all the descriptions of the assorted evidence (close to a dozen different subsections) and look for any themes or patterns? This looked to me like the fun part, but in practice this time I found it exhausting. Still, some things did show up across quite different lines of evidence. Here are three.
Consciousness connects behavior across time. It guides present or imminent behavior based on past and future, and it processes present or recent to prepare for the future.
Consciousness connects broad, abstract principles (values, rules, goals) to specific actions.
For at least some broad categories of noncontroversial things, thinking about possible actions makes them more likely to happen.
I have no grand theory about these things , they are just among the patterns that popped out (separately ) from a lit review. But they have substantial empirical basis so there is probably some thing real there. And they sure seem like they could assist free will, or whatever the real phenomenon is that goes by that name.
Putting them together, consciousness could assist free will be connecting general principles, especially as might come in from the social environment in the form of moral or legal rules, to specific here-and-now behaviors. Present choices are linked not only to abstract principles but also to past and future events, and those connections also require some high level of abstraction. The conscious mind takes in information about broad principles (perhaps imported from the social and cultural environment) and brings in relevant cognitions about past and future, all done to lend meaning and context to the options for behavior in the immediate situation -- and then, thinking about something, preferably the optimal conclusion from those calculations in terms of past, future, and general principles, focuses on what is best to do, and by mentally rehearsing that optimal course of action and outcome makes it more likely to actually happen. That would certainly be a fairly adaptive form of free will, in the sense of a newly evolved capacity for action control.
GLOBAL WORKSPACE AND AFFECTIVE INPUTS
Lately I’ve been thinking that we have completely misunderstood what emotion is for. First, in order to understand what emotion is, it’s necessary to distinguish full-blown emotional states (such as when someone is really upset or overflowing with joy) from what a fair amount of research actually studies, namely tiny little emotional associations that mostly give a little twinge of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when confronted with some idea or event.
We assume the strong, full-blown emotion is the main phenomenon and should be given precedence. But more and more, I think it is those little automatic emotional associations that are the important and operative thing. In fact, maybe the purpose of those full-blown emotions is to create those associations, for future use. (That’s akin to Damasio’s theorizing about the somatic markers.)
What happens when a decision actually has to be made? The person considers what to do. This consideration predicts and probably causes the outcome. Hence the process of considering is relevant.
Considering means focusing conscious awareness at least briefly on each of the options. One holds the option in mind. Baars says a crucial function of consciousness is to broadcast ideas to all the scattered, independent sites across brain and mind, so one’s with relevant information can provide associative reaction. This would often come in the form of a good or bad feeling.
Notice this system of deciding would work fairly easily, without requiring any sort of logical thought or analysis. The person holds each option in mind briefly, gets a good or bad feeling about it, and the compares it with the affective yields of the other options. The option that felt the best is the one that is enacted.
DOES CONSCIOUS THOUGHT MAKE THE ACTUAL DECISION?
Decisions may be recognized consciously but that does not prove that conscious thought makes the decision. There is the subjective impression that decisions are made consciously, but most of the thoughts that occur in the conscious mind are put there by dint of many unconscious processes. So how would we know if the decision occurred in consciousness or instead were made at an unconscious level and then “announced” to the entire mind by being displayed in consciousness? The latter seems more in keeping with what we know about how things work in general. Plus of course work by Wegner, by Patrick Haggard, and others suggests that the conscious experience of doing is itself constructed. All conscious experience is thus a construction, a simulation, an educated guess about reality.
Hence free will could involve an unconscious process actually making and implementing the choice, but it would probably benefit from having consciously pondered the options. Without conscious thought, there might not be enough of some decision inputs (things only conscious thought can contribute) to qualify as free will – again, even if the decisive step in the decision process is unconscious.
Would love to hear a few additional ideas on this. Assume for a moment that free will and consciousness are real, important things. How do they work together, other than what I’ve suggested?