Mr J Trinder on Free Will and Consciousness

Free to Act as I Must

Imagine feeling that you are completely in control of yourself. Completely, utterly, wholly in control. What you think, you actualise. You are the captain of your corporeal vessel. The immaterial part of you, the “real” you, is able to make decisions and the body can do nothing but heed the mind/soul/self’s commands. Now imagine the opposite – feeling completely out of control. Your body is in the driving seat and your consciousness is just a passenger along for the ride. You are aware of everything that your body is doing but unable to exert any influence on it. Which of these two scenarios most clearly resembles the human condition?

Our subjective experience of the world seems to cohere with the former, that we are the thinkers of our thoughts, the doer of our deeds, the CEO of the body. The self is the agent, the true locus of consciousness and the author of our individual stories. We feel that in any moment we could choose to follow one path or not. I could choose to write one word next or I could choose another. Fraudulent. I chose fraudulent in that moment, but I could have chosen another. Phlegmatic.

However, despite the above being our felt experience of the world, increasing scientific and philosophical evidence is pointing to the contrary. What we call “I”, the self, is manifestly not the originator of thoughts.

To explain simply the difference between these two perspectives, ask yourself one question; do I have a brain or am I a brain?

The first is an inherently dualistic position, implying that our conception of our selves consists of a self AND a body, where the non-physical self is in ownership of the physical body. The second on the other hand is a monist (specifically materialist) view of reality, where the mind, by the extension conception of the self, is an emergent property of the brain. But why does any of this matter? We feel like we are choosing what we do, so what difference does it make if this is an illusion or not?

The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, relgion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment – most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend on what our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice.


If we are not free to act as we do, if we are in fact unable to do anything other than what we actually do, then where does that leave our justice system? Our intuitions about right and wrong, good and evil, reward and punishment? Why would we ever feel proud of achieving something we were always going to achieve and why would we feel guilty about performing an action that we could not have avoided?

Philosophically-speaking, the notion that the self is an illusion has quite some pedigree. The Buddha taught that “you” are not an integral, autonomous entity, that there is no never-changing ‘you’ inside your head. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume agreed, arguing that there is no permanent “self” that continues through time. He even wrote about the experience of searching inwardly for the subject of experience and being unable to locate it.

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself”, he wrote in his A Treatise of Human Nature, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.


Attempting to convince someone that freedom of the will is an illusion however is problematic. If there is no free will, then you either will or will not be convinced by my arguments. And sadly you are not free to choose to be swayed by the (undeniable) logic either as your propensity to be swayed by logic is a factor outside of your control, much like your natural hair colour and the language you were brought up to speak. Hair colour and the ability to acquire language are both controlled by genetic makeup whilst the language one is brought up to speak is controlled by environmental influences, but both, as we will see, rest outside of the sphere of agent-influence. Simply put, a person does not, in fact cannot, choose their genes or their environment and so cannot be deemed to be the cause of them. A person is an amalgamation of their nature and their nurture but both are external forces acting on a brain to create “the self” and so it follows that a person cannot be ultimately responsible for the self that they become. They cannot choose what they do but nor can they choose what they choose. If all “choices” are the result of activity in the brain and the brain is created through the interplay of nature and nurture, where is there room for free will? Even if we are to posit the existence of a soul, an immaterial third part of the whole, gifted by God or gods and acting as the essential part of our beings, how can I take credit for not being given the soul of a psychopath or a sadist?

Whichever way we look at it, the self is created through a combination of inputs, none of which we can choose. In principle then, free will is incoherent. However, there is almost no compelling experimental evidence to support it either. In the 1980’s, the scientist and physiologist Benjamin Libet ran a series of experiments that seemed to demonstrate that the brain was sending electrical signals to muscles some 300 milliseconds before the subject was consciously aware of having “chosen” to move. The experiments have been criticised on a variety of grounds, but there has been a great deal of evidence coming from the field of neuroscience supporting deterministic conclusions, particularly split-brain experiments.

In these, the membrane (known as the corpus callosum) connecting the two hemispheres of the brain is cut for medical reasons, often due to severe epilepsy. The corpus callosum allows electrical signals to be sent between the two hemispheres and, when cut, can lead to symptoms that make no sense in the light of the standard model of human free will. Each hemisphere of the brain will have its own perception (as each is linked to a separate sense organ), concepts and impulses. To all intents and purposes, there now exist two brains in the same body. The question that must be answered then is this; in which of these two brains “is” the self? If these two brains are different in temperament (which they sometimes are) which can be said to represent the real self? Is the split-brain patient now free to choose which of the hemispheres controls the body?

Free will is an illusion as it is subjective experience that is not what it seems. We feel in every moment like we are the progenitors of our thoughts and that we could have acted other than we did. This is not so. The majority of brain and body activities, like respiration, growth and blood circulation, are unconscious processes, carrying on without the input of the “self” as the causal agent. Although conscious thought is different in that we are aware of it, there is no compelling reason to think that it is fundamentally different, as all thought, conscious or unconscious, arises in the brain. In relation to the two scenarios in the opening paragraph, we are the latter. What I call “I”, my subjective sense of self, my feeling that I am a causal agent effecting change on the external world through my will, is actually an illusion. To quote the great philosopher Iggy Pop, I am a passenger, and I ride and I ride. I ride through my existence as a mere conscious observer of the actions of the body of which I am more or less aware.

Does any of this convince you? Do you feel yourself rejecting my conclusion because the thought of a world without agency fills you with existential dread? Do you reject it because the universe stripped of true intention removes any possibility of true success or failure off the sweat of one’s brow?

Or do you reject it because you cannot help yourself? There is a part of you that just cannot accept it, isn’t there? You will tell yourself that you do not accept the reasoning, that the evidence is flawed or the writer is one-sided, ill-informed or incompetent. All of the above may well be true, but don’t blame me. I can’t help it.

J Trinder, Teacher of RE & Philosophy


How can a person ever hope to fully convey to anyone else the exact feeling of feeling what they are feeling? By definition, subjective experience cannot be either replicated or shared; it is unique to the subject. It is also a large part of what we refer to as consciousness; the notion that there is something that it is like to be a particular being. Flowers, as far as we know, are not conscious because there is nothing that it is like to be a flower. Humans on the other hand, experience the world around them and feel what it is like to be themselves in any given moment.

It is problematic to talk of one’s own experience of consciousness as if it is universal, but there are good reasons to think that it more or less is. This does not even seem to depend on whether one subscribes to the dualist position; that the human person is made up of both a material body and an immaterial ‘soul’. If, as physicalists argue, consciousness is an emergent property, a necessary by-product of sufficiently complex systems, it seems logical that other, similarly complex, biological systems will also produce the phenomenon with similar fidelity. But if consciousness comes as a result of an immaterial soul provided for us, by a God or other as-yet-undetermined agent or process, there is still every reason to think that other humans are endowed with this same faculty.

One thing of which we can be sure though, thanks to Descartes, is that the phenomenon of consciousness necessitates the existence of a medium through which consciousness itself can be experienced. The great French philosopher decided that, if everything he knew about the external world was experienced through his senses, and his senses could be tricked, he could not trust that anything at all was real. But in doubting his own existence, Descartes realised that the act of doubting itself was thinking and thus he concluded that there must exist an agent, a doubter, to doubt his own existence. “Dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum. I doubt therefore I think, I think therefore I am”.

Descartes however made an assumption in his cogito; that existence of a self is proved by the existence of conscious thought. “I think therefore I am” does not follow logically from the insight that the only thing that can be proved objectively true is subjective experience. Rather, as Kierkegaard realised, the cogito itself ‘merely’ proves the existence of an experiencer, not that the “I” is that experiencer. “Thinking exists, therefore there is a thinker” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

To recap; consciousness, regardless of its origin, is both evidence of the existence of an objective reality and, as far as we can tell, a property common to all humans. The existence of philosophical zombies or conscious non-human entities aside, humans are uniquely conscious but universally so. Our subjective experiences however, although unique, are likely to be broadly similar to other peoples’. Finally, the existence of a subjective “I” that we call the self has not been demonstrated to be objectively true in the same way that consciousness itself has.

This seems like a counter-intuitive claim to make; that the self might not be real. Surprisingly though, not just is there good philosophical reason to conclude that our sense of ourselves as an agent is an illusion, but there is also a growing body of scientific evidence telling a similar story.

Philosophically-speaking, the notion that the self is an illusion has quite some pedigree. The Buddha taught that “you” are not an integral, autonomous entity, that there is no never-changing ‘you’ inside your head. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume agreed, arguing that there is no permanent “self” that continues through time. He even wrote about the experience of searching inwardly for the subject of experience and being unable to locate it.

“When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote in his A Treatise of Human Nature, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”

We all feel that there is a “me”, an “I”, an agent, a thinker of thoughts and experiencer of experiences, located somewhere inside our bodies that is the ultimate cause of “our” actions and the locus of our cognition. In short, we experience the world as if we are directing our bodies, moving them through space as if whatever is truly “me” is located behind the eyes, peering out at our surroundings and causing the body to go about its daily life by the power of the will. As the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris explains:

The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. (Sam Harris, Free Will)

As we will see, both of the above are false.

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

To see why the first assumption is incorrect, let us consider the case of Charles Whitman. On 1 August 1966, he murdered his mother and his wife and then proceeded to the top of the tower at the University of Texas with his rifle and, in a 90-minute shooting spree, shot and killed thirteen people and wounded a further thirty two, one of whom died many years later. Many will no doubt attempt to discern the root of Whitman’s behaviour in the concept of evil, seeing him as a vehicle for the devil or for his own immoral impulses. Others might attempt to use the language of science, (mis)labelling him a psycho- or sociopath whilst still considering him the author of his misdeeds. Others still will look for evidence of abuse in his upbringing.

Whitman himself had become concerned with his own behaviour in the run up to that fateful day, the night before he committed his awful crimes writing:

I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

He further wrote that:

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationa[l]ly pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …

Whitman appeared to have no history of violent behaviour and had given no indication of being anything other than a pillar of his community. He was so concerned about his recent change of temperament that he requested for the medical examiner to perform an autopsy upon his inevitable death.

I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.

As requested, after his death a post mortem examination was carried out. The medical examiner removed his brain to discover a tumour about 2cm in diameter, that had been pressing against Whitman’s amygdala, the part of the brain strongly associated with emotional regulation and in particular fear and aggression.

The issue of whether it was the tumour “causing” the aggressive behaviour that led to Whitman’s murderous spree is open to debate, but the principle it highlights is clear. We have known for a long time that behaviour is dependent upon a multitude of factors, including upbringing, education, religious and other beliefs, chemical and even food intake. But at root what we know is that behaviour is inseparable from the brain and that both are the product of the interplay between nature and nurture. As both are causes external to the self there seems no way in which behaviour could conceivably be caused by the self, and thus all behaviour can, in principle at least, be explained by the interplay of functionally-infinite prior causes, all of which are themselves also caused by prior causes ad infinitum. It’s tumours all the way down.

In the case of Whitman, the tumour is just a special case of a cause that we can isolate. ALL thought, conscious and unconscious, arises in the brain; in a physical system built by physical processes as a result of informational causes (genes and sense information from one’s environment). A person is not in control of the information that happens to be filtered into their particular biological computer and thus how can they said to be in control of the choices that arise from said computer? To extend the analogy too far, it would be like considering a robot morally culpable for faithfully carrying out a programmed task.

The acclaimed neuroscientist Bruce Hood explains it well;

For me, an illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems.

J Trinder, Teacher of RE & Philosophy

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