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– Are we free?

Consciousness, freedom and moral responsibility

Answering the question ‘Are we free?’ at the level of society suggests that the big multi-nationals have assumed control over many aspects of our lives (see: “What is control?”). Answering the same question at the level of the individual is much more difficult. It raises some profound philosophical questions to do with consciousness, freewill and moral responsibility. In considering issues of moral responsibility it is worth first examining ideas about the nature of consciousness and freewill.

There are legal definitions of responsibility and culpability that can vary from one legislative system to another. There are definitions within moral philosophy (e.g. Kant’s Categorical Imperative). There are mental health definitions that aim to ascertain whether a person has ‘mental capacity’. However, it is generally accepted that to have moral responsibility people need to consciously exercise freewill over the choices they make. Moral responsibility entails having freewill, and for people, freewill entails a self-determined and deliberate conscious decision.


John Searle regards consciousness as an emergent property of biological processes. There are no contradictions between materialistic, mentalistic and spiritual accounts. They are just different levels of description of the same phenomena. Consciousness is to neuroscience as liquid is to the chemistry of H2O. There is no mind / body problem – mind and body are again just different levels of description. It’s linguistic usage that confuses us. Consciousness does confer meaning onto things but that does not imply that subjective reality cannot be studied using objective methods.

YouTube Video, John Searle: Our shared condition — consciousness, TED, July 2013, 14:59 minutes

David Chalmers addresses head on the question of why we have conscious subjective experience and how reductionist explanations fail to provide answers. He suggests that consciousness could be one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe like space, time, and mass. He suggests the possibility that all information processing systems, whether they are ‘alive’ or not may have some degree of consciousness.

TED Video, David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness?, Big Think, March 2014, 18:37 minutes

The view that degree of consciousness might correlate with how much a system is able to process information is set out in more detail in the following:

YouTube Video, Michio Kaku: Consciousness Can be Quantified, Big Think, March 2014, 4:45 minutes

Building on the idea that consciousness involves feedback, John Dunne from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, looks at self-reflexivity as practiced in many religions, and in mindfulness. Consciousness confers the capacity to report on the object of experience (Is ‘I think therefore I am’ a reported reflection on something we all take for granted?).

YouTube Video, WPT University Place: Consciousness, Reflexivity and Subjectivity, Wisconsin Public Television, March 2016, 40:17 minutes

The BBC have put together a short documentary on consciousness as part of its series called ‘The Story of Now’. Progress has been made in consciousness research over the last 20 years including in the measurement of consciousness and understanding some mental conditions s disorders of consciousness.

BBC, The Story of Now – Consciousness, February 2015, About 15 minutes

Susan Greenfield, addressing an audience of neuroscientists, says consciousness cannot be defined but suggests a working definition of consciousness as the ‘first person subjective world as it seems to you’. She distinguishes between consciousness, self-consciousness, unconsciousness and sub-consciousness. She considers boundaries such as ‘when does a baby become conscious?’, ‘are animals conscious?’, ‘what happens between being asleep or awake?’. Having ‘degrees of consciousness‘ seems to make sense and locates consciousness in transient (sub-second duration), variable ‘neural assemblies’ that have epicentres – like a stone creating ripples when thrown in a pond. The stone might be a strong stimulus (like an alarm clock) which interacts with learned connections in the brain formulated during your life experience, modulated by chemical ‘fountains’ that affect neural transmission. Depression involves a disruption to the chemical fountains and the experience of pain is dependent on the size of the active neuronal assembly. Consciousness is manifested when the activation of the neural assemblies is communicated to the rest of the brain and body. Sub-consiousness arises out of assemblies that are, in some sense, too small.

YouTube Video, The Neuroscience of Consciousness – Susan Greenfield, The University of Melbourne, November 2012, 1:34:17 hours

Some of the latest research on where in the brain consciousness seems to manifest can be found at:

Big Think Article, Harvard Researchers Have Found the Source of Human Consciousness, Phil Perry, January 2017

Prof. Raymond Tallis, however, has some issues with reductionists theories that seek to explain humankind in biological terms and attacks the trend towards what he calls neuromania. He also rejects mystical and theological explanations and, while not embracing dualism, argues that we have to use the language of mind and society if we are to further our understanding.

YouTube Video, Prof. Raymond Tallis – “Aping Mankind? Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity”, IanRamseyCentre, December 2012, 18:16 minutes


YouTube Video, David Eagleman: Brain over mind?, pop tech, April 2013, 22:25 minutes

Here is a radio introduction:

BBC Radio 4, Neuroscientist Pauls Broks on Freewill and the Brain, November 2014, 11 minutes

Pinker thinks that our freewill arises out of the complexity of the brain and that there is no reason to postulate any non-mechanical entity such as the soul. He distinguishes automatic responses (such as pupil dilation) from those that are based on mental models and can anticipate possible consequences which are sufficient to account for freewill.

YouTube Video, Steven Pinker: On Free Will, Big Think, June 2011, 2:17 minutes

Alfred Mele speculates on their being different grades of freewill and throws doubt on experiments which claim to show that decisions are made prior to our becoming consciously aware of them.

YouTube Video, Does Free Will Exist – Alfred Mele, Big Think, April 2012, 15:10 minutes

Is consciousness necessary for freewill? Do we make decisions while we are not consciously aware of them? If we do, then does that mean that we are not exercising freewill? If we are not exercising freewill then does that mean we have no moral responsibility for our decisions?

According to Denett, consciousness is nothing special. We only think its special because we associate it with freewill. However, the only freewill that matters is the responsibility for our actions that biology has given us through mental competence. The competence to reflect on our own thoughts and those of others, to anticipate consequences of our actions, and to see and evaluate the consequences, gives us both freewill and a responsibility for our actions.

YouTube Video, Daniel Dennett Explains Consciousness and Free Will, Big Think, April 2012, 6:33 minutes

Freewill and moral responsibility

Where do we draw the line between behaviour that we explain as driven by neurological/ neuro-chemical factors and those we explain in psychological, disease and demonic terms? Professor Robert Sapolsky shows how behaviours that were once explained as demonic are now explained neurologically. This parallels a shift from believing that the locus of control of peoples’ (unusual and other) behaviour has moved from demons and gods, to people, to disease, to brain structures and chemistry. What does this say about our sense of autonomy, individuality and ability to create moral positions?

Youtube video, 25. Individual Differences, Stanford, February 2011, 53:53 minutes

Assuming that we do have choice then this brings with it moral responsibility for our actions. But moral responsibility according to which system of values? Sam Harris argues that we take an odd stance when considering moral questions. In general we are willing to accept that different people are entitled to take different stands on moral questions and that there are no right or wrong answers. We tend to leave moral judgements to religions and are prepared to accept that in principle any moral value system could be right and therefore we cannot criticise any. However, Sam Harris points out that we do not do this in other domains. In health, for example, we are prepared to say that good health is better than bad health and than certain things lead to good health and should be encouraged while other don’t and should be discouraged. By the same token, if we accept that certain moral choices lead towards enhanced wellbeing (in others and ourselves) while other choices lead to pain and suffering then the normal application of scientific method can inform us about moral decisions (and we can abandon religious dogma).

TED Video, Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions, TED, March 2010, 23:34 minutes

Peter Millican discusses the relationship between freewill, determinism and moral responsibility. He describes Hume’s notion of responsibility, how ideas of right and wrong arise out of our feelings, and how this is independent of whether an act was determined or not. However, our feelings can often be in conflict with lower order feelings (the desire to smoke) constraining higher order feelings (wanting to give up smoking) and that our higher order freewill can therefore be constrained, giving us ‘degrees of freewill’ in relation to particular circumstances.

YouTube Video, 7.4 Making Sense of Free Will and Moral Responsibility – Peter Millican, Oxford, April 2011, 9:48 minutes

Corey Anton sets out a philosophical position – there is ‘motion without motivation’ and ‘motion with motivation’. We call ‘motion with motivation’ ‘action’. Some motivations result from being pushed along by the past (x did y because of some past event or experience) and some motivations are driven by the future (x did y in order to). Freewill is more typically associated with actions motivated by the intention to bring about future states.

YouTube Video, The Motives of Questioning Free Will, Corey Anton, 8:12 minutes

Intentionality and Theory of Mind

If it is our ability to reflect on our own perceptions and thoughts that gives us the capacity to make decisions, then, in the social world, we must also consider our capacity to reflect on other people’s perceptions and thoughts. This creates a whole new order of complexity and opportunity for misunderstanding and feeling misunderstood (whether we are or not). Watch the video below or get the full paper.

YouTube Video, Comprehending Orders of Intentionality (for R. D. Laing), Corey Anton, September 2014, 31:31 minutes

How do our ideas about other people’s intentions affect our moral judgements about them, and what is going on in the brain when we make moral judgements? Liane Young highlights the extent to which our view about a person’s intentions influences our judgements with respect to the outcomes of their actions, and goes on to described the brain area in which these moral evaluations appear to be taking place.

TED Video, TEDxHogeschoolUtrecht – Liane Young – The Brain on Intention, TEDx Talks, January 2012, 14:34 minutes


Even though we may not have a definitive answer to the question ‘Are we free?’, we can say some things about it that may affect the way we think.

  • We cannot say definitively whether the world is pre-determined in the sense that every state of the universe at any one time could not have been otherwise. This partly arises out of our ignorance about physics and whether in some sense there is an inherent lack of causality.
  • If the universe does obey causal laws then that does not mean that the state of the universe would be necessarily knowable.
  • Whether or not the universe is knowably pre-determined is independent of our subjective feelings of consciousness and freewill. We behave as if we have freewill, we assume others are conscious sentient beings with freewill and the moral responsibility that arises out of this.
  • However, within this framework there are acknowledged limitations on freewill, degrees of consciousness and consequently degrees of moral responsibility.
  • These limitations and degrees arise in numerous ways including our own resources, imagination and capacity for reflections (self-consciousness), cognitive biases and controlling factors (including our own genetics, families, cultures, organisations and governments) that either subconsciously or consciously constrain our options and freedom to make choices.
  • There could be a correlation between degree of consciousness and the integrated information processing capacity of a system, perhaps even regardless of whether that system is regarded as ‘alive’.
  • Wellbeing seems to be enhanced by the feeling that we have the freedom to control our own destiny whether or not this freedom is an illusion.
  • The more we find out about psychology, the mind and the brain, the more it looks as if we can explain and predict our actions and choices more accurately by an appeal to science than an appeal to our own intuitions.
  • Our intuitions seem largely based on the pragmatic need to survive and deal effectively with threat within our limited resources. They are not inherently geared to finding the ‘truth’ or accurately modelling reality unless it has payoff in terms of survival.
  • Some of our behaviour is ‘automatic’, either driven by physiology or by learning. Other behaviour is mediated by consulting internal states such as our interpretations and models of reality, and testing possible outcomes against these models as opposed to against reality itself.
  • Our internal models can include models of our own states (e.g. when we anticipate how we might feel given a future set of circumstances and thereby re-evaluate our options).
  • Our internal models can include speculations on the models and motivations of other people, organisations, other sentient beings and even inanimate objects (e.g. I’ll pretend I do not know that he is thinking that I will deceive him). Anything, in fact, can be the content of our models.
  • We associate freedom with our capacity to have higher levels of reflection, and we attribute greater moral responsibility to those who we perceive to have greater freedom.
  • We evaluate the moral culpability of others in terms of their intentions and have specialised areas in the brain where these evaluations are made.
  • We evaluate the morality of a choice against some value system. Science offers a value system that we are prepared to accept in other domains, such as health. As in health there are clearly some actions that enhance wellbeing and others that do not. If we accept science as a method to assess the effects on wellbeing of particular moral choices, rather than use our fallible intuitions or religious dogma, then we can move forward in the achievement of greater wellbeing.
  • Even if we could ascertain whether and how we are conscious and free, the ultimate question of ‘why?’ looks impossible to resolve.

Given the multitude of factors from physiology to society that control or at least constrain our decisions (and our speculations about them), it is no wonder that human behaviour appears so unpredictable. However, there are also many regularities, as will become apparent later.


Another take, by a physicist, on consciousness as an emergent property of the integrated processing of information.

YouTube Video, Consciousness is a mathematical pattern, June 2014, 16:36 minutes

Corey Anton illustrates how language contains within it, its own reflexivity. We can talk about how we talk about something as well as the thing itself.

YouTube Video, Talk-Reflexive Consciousness, Corey Anton, April 2010, 9:58 minutes

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How do we embed ethical self-regulation into artificial Autonomous, Intelligent Systems (A/ISs)? One answer is to design architectures for A/ISs that are based on ‘the Human Operating System’ (HOS).

Theory of Knowledge

A simple computer program will know very little about the world, and will have little or no capacity to reflect upon what its knows or the boundaries of its applicability.

Any sophisticated A/IS, if it is to apply ethical principles appropriately, will need to be based on a far more elaborate theory of knowledge (epistemology).

The epistemological view taken in this blog is eclectic, constructivist and pragmatic. As we interact with the world, we each individually experience patterns, receive feedback, make distinctions, learn to reflect, and make and test hypotheses. The distinctions we make, become the default constructs through which we interpret the world and the labels we use to analyse, describe, reason about and communicate. Our beliefs are propositions expressed in terms of these learned distinctions and are validated via a variety of mechanisms, that themselves develop over time and can change in response to circumstances.

We are confronted with a constant stream of contradictions between ‘evidence’ obtained from different sources – from our senses, from other people, our feelings, our reasoning and so on. These surprise us as they conflict with default interpretations. When the contradictions matter, (e.g. when they are glaringly obvious, interfere with our intent, or create dilemmas with respect to some decision), we are motivated to achieve consistency. This we call ‘making sense of the world’, ‘seeking meaning’ or ‘agreeing’ (in the case of establishing consistency with others). We use many different mechanisms for dealing with inconsistencies – including testing hypotheses, reasoning, intuition and emotion, ignoring and denying.

In our own reflections and in interactions with others, we are constantly constructing mini-belief systems (i.e. stories that help orientate, predict and explain to ourselves and others). These mini-belief systems are shaped and modulated by our values (i.e. beliefs about what is good and bad) and are generally constructed as mechanisms for achieving our current intentions and future intentions. These in turn affect how we act on the world.

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