What is consciousness?

Consciousness is a philosophical and scientific axiom. It requires a brain. It is real but not material. It is our means of knowing reality (though existence is the primary axiom). The conceptual (rational) faculty builds on the material provided by the senses. Consciousness as a faculty includes the conscious mind and material stored in the subconscious, which can become conscious. Both aspects work together, with the conscious mind being active and the subconscious relatively passive. Reason is fallible and requires an epistemology and the choice to expend effort. Consciousness is our main means of survival and of human progress.

Edwin A. Locke, The Illusion of Determinism

This is a nice little summary of the objectivist view of consciousness and free will. I share this view, but I have to say that I still think that the term “free will” is misleading and redundant.

First: People tend to understand the word “free” in an anarchist kind of sense (just as the free-market economy is often understood as anarchism), as if the will was completely detached from existence, i.e. context-free. That this is not the case, and that this circumstance is no proof of determinism, is what Edwin Locke explains in the book quoted above.

Second: It is simply unnecessary to put the adjective “free” before the term “will.” Through our capacity for conceptual thinking, we are able to make choices, so, unlike animals, we can consciously choose between alternative actions. This constitutes our freedom, because we are not completely determined by causality.

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum

But we have to consciously set and pursue goals based on a moral code. That’s our will. In other words: The will is free by definition, otherwise it would not be will.

This also raises the exciting question of whether AI can ever develop a consciousness without (free) will (if it is even possible to produce a consciousness or an awareness process with algorithms).

4 thoughts on “What is consciousness?

  1. Marvin Edwards

    To be meaningful, the words “free” and “freedom” must reference some explicit or implied constraint. In the case of “free will”, the operation that defines the concept is “choosing what we will do”. Free will is literally a freely chosen “I will”.

    In practical matters of moral and legal responsibility, free will refers to a choice that is free from coercion (for example, a guy holding a gun to our head) and undue influence (for example, hypnosis or mental illness).

    The notion that free will must be “free of causal necessity” is an irrational concept. Causal necessity is nothing more than the ordinary cause and effect that we observe and put to use every day. It is not a meaningful constraint because it is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. It is not a relevant constraint because it always applies to every event and there is nothing one can (or needs to) do about it.

    So, the solution to the determinism “versus” free will riddle is that our choices are reliably caused (deterministic) and they are reliably caused by us (free will), except in cases where we are subject to coercion or some other undue influence.

    As to consciousness, it appears to be one of the many processes running upon the neural infrastructure of our brains. It is not a material object, but rather a running process. When the process stops, we’re dead. The brain still exists, but only as inert matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oliver_Schlueter

      “When the process stops, we’re dead. The brain still exists, but only as inert matter.“

      It seems that way, though it’d be hard to accept that you die each time you fell asleep, because I think it’s the aspect of continuity that makes you you.


      • Marvin Edwards

        Right, but the brain continues to function even while we’re asleep. We may lose conscious awareness but we don’t lose memory. On the other hand, many people suffer from injury or illness that affects specific areas of the brain, altering or impairing specific functions. (See Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”).

        A good book for a theory of consciousness is Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Brain”.

        Liked by 1 person

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