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"Consciousness, Self, and Free Will"

This is the recap by Don Porterfield, of a presentation by the Hon. Frank Robinson, at the January 13th, 2018 CDHS monthly meeting.


CDHS' January meeting featured a presentation by Frank Robinson, which was titled Consciousness, Self, and Free Will.  Mr. Robinson is a member of CDHS, a former Administrative Law Judge for the State of New York, and author of numerous books.  The presentation was partly based on Daniel Dennett’s recent book Freedom Evolves as well Mr. Robinson’s other readings on the topic of Consciousness, Self, and Free Will.  Mr. Robinson contends that although the question of whether we have free will has vexed philosophers for ages, we do indeed have free will. 

Mr. Robinson began his discussion by stating that he came to the meeting of his own free will, but then asked if he truly had a choice or whether his actions were predetermined.  This question lies at the nub of the issue of free will versus determinism.  Determinism contends that everything we do is controlled by previous actions, genes, the weather, etc. and thus our actions are out of our control because all is predetermined and we can’t chose to do otherwise.

Mr. Robinson stated that although we all know what having a “conscious self” feels like, it is very difficult to define “you,” “mind,” or “self.”  This difficulty of defining “self” is entwined with the concept of free will.  The “self” is the product of our mind processing sensory inputs into representations, which enable the “self” to experience what is happening to and in the body (e.g., eating a cookie, having sex, walking in the rain, etc.).  There are many levels of representations, including those that are related to whom “you” are, and they are continually updated by our complex and sophisticated minds, most of which is hidden from our conscious view.  This system seems to be engineered to produce a “you” that can and does make choices based on the circumstances.

Dennett contends that we live in an atmosphere of free will that is independent of whether determinism is true in some physical sense.  Because the decision maker is not always obvious to self, some think this support a determinism view of our existence.    Dennett states that it seems that decision bubbles up to consciousness from we know not where.  Even when the decision bubbles up, we don’t have to execute the action,  This veto decision is known as “free won’t” and reflects our ability to think about our thoughts and impulses.  “Free won’t” is a useful concept when thinking about how we deal with anti-social impulses that we all have.  “Free won’t” enables us stay home rather than kill a bunch of people.

Dennett contends that self and free will are products of evolution.  Consciousness was not needed for most organisms, but consciousness became useful as environment and choices became more complex.  Humans evolved big brains to handle these complexities as well as language to create the word pictures (metaphors) for representations of the world around us.

Dennett said that the common metaphor of consciousness as the “captain at the helm” is not correct, rather consciousness is more like a gaggle of sailors fighting over the wheel.  Thus our “you” is the product of what the gaggle does.  Dennett states that there is a “self” that takes charge of the “gaggle” and is responsible for our actions.  The gaggle of crewmen (all the neurons in our brains) is shaped by our history.

Mr. Robinson’s view is that although the struggle of the “gaggle” (all the neurons) is shaped by your history, your biology, and your genes, we can do things that defy prior actions – quitting smoking is an an example of free will.

In summary, Mr. Robinson stated that even if your prior actions could predict what your “self” will do – So What? It is still your “self” that acted as is did and you are responsible for your “self.”


Don Porterfield


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