Brief Thoughts on the Analogy with Vitalism

It is sometimes asserted that consciousness and many of its aspects are illusory. Some of this, I believe, may turn out to be true. For example, our naive conception of conscious will seems to be at least partially illusory (see here and here for my views on that). Some, however, claim that even such fundamental notions as our sense of self are illusory, finally claiming that consciousness as a whole will one day be explained away as an illusion. I, as you may have guessed, take serious issue with this claim.

A common line of argument taken to support the claim draws an analogy between the present situation and the endeavor to explain life some hundred years ago. There were, in those days, the vitalists. These were the theorists who could not imagine that dead matter and its interactions could account for all that there is to complex life—there had to be something extra, some elan vital, or life force, underlying all of this. Even if we explain heredity, reproduction, growth, etc., we will still be missing something—namely life itself. We now know that they were wrong, dead wrong, and that, in fact, there is simply dead matter interacting in specific ways that leads to the formation of complex, living organisms.

Now take the assertion made by many contemporary philosophers of mind: even if we explain vision, intelligence, emotion, etc. (i.e., the so-called “easy problems” of consciousness), then we will still be missing something—namely consciousness itself. If we explain all of those things that can be worked out computationally, then we will be missing the very thing that we sought to explain in the first place: subjective, conscious minds. But is this necessarily the case? Might consciousness simply fade away the more and more we know about these other processes? Maybe consciousness is simply the elan vital of philosophy of mind, say proponents of this analogy.

This could not be further from the truth. When it came to explaining life, a higher-level property such as the elan vital was postulated to account for something that we did not know the cause of: the difference between living and dead objects. When it comes to consciousness, we are not postulating something above and beyond what we already know. In the words of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” His dualism may have been misguided, but he was spot on in stating that there is nothing that we know with more certainty than that we are conscious, that we are our own self. In this way, the analogy is deeply flawed. Something can only be explained away if it was postulated to explain something that we know to be true. Consciousness, however, was never postulated. Instead, it was the very phenomenon that we set out to explain. We may be wrong about the details, and in all likelihood we are, but we are not, as a matter of fact, wrong when we state that we are conscious beings, that consciousness is a real, existing phenomenon that begs explanation in its own right.

On the time-scales of free will

In the past few decades, many empirically-bent workers in cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy have taken it upon themselves to correct our illusion that we have free, conscious will. The problem that many of these theorists overlook, however, is that the idea of free will can be separated into two relatively independent processes, differentiated by their respective time scales: short and long.

Short term physical activities are largely concerned with constructing the appropriate movements to match the current situation, like picking up and writing with your pencil, or walking down a street—both of which require incredibly complex movements from a basic systems level. The nature of our nervous system, however, allows such movements to be written into the system itself, such that the resulting structure of the system allows these movements to take place with little information processing needing to be done.

Correspondingly, in the realm of the brain, both empirical and theoretical viewpoints do, indeed, point to a remarkably diminished activity of free will—one need only think of split-second decisions as an example. A great many of these split-second decisions turn out differently than we would have preferred, given a chance to deliberate. This side of the issue makes sense from a biological/organismal standpoint: If we have incredibly complex brains that are capable of a great deal of things without conscious attention, why not take advantage of that when it comes to basic mental events? In this way, short term mental events and short term physical events are not so different. Such a method of functioning allows more resources to be devoted to other higher-order matters of cognition, such as planning and deliberation.

Planning ahead and considering possible alternatives is where the long term variety of conscious will starts to play a significant role. Planning and deliberation are not merely a system of inputs onto your nervous system with a more or less pre-set outcome, as is the case in many short-term scenarios. It involves assignment of value to certain outcomes, and a subsequent weighing of those values against one another. Note that I am not trying to say that long-term planning is not ultimately a result of physical actions in the brain, but rather that it is not so simple as its short-term counterpart. I am also not saying that these two time-scales are fully separate—if I were, then the long-term system could not influence the short-term system and people could not be help responsible for their actions. My view is instead that long-term systems work to influence and entrain the short-term systems towards a desired pattern of outputs. The details of this system need to be worked out, but the cursory description lines up more closely with experience than the one outlined at the top of the article.

The problem with those who use currently available empirical data to undermine free will, then, can be summed up quite simply. All of their data is built around short-term decisions. But even advocates of free, conscious will see reason to doubt short-term decisions as being fully controlled by consciousness. So, in effect, the present researchers are merely proving something true that most experts already thought true. The only objection to them, is this: short-term data do not reveal much of anything about long-term phenomenon. For a clearer example, the composition of a small pile of sand on a beach does not reveal much about the grander process of tidal erosion.

On the (Supposed) “Illusion of Conscious Will”


The image above (from Blackmore 2005) is designed to show that we are not truly in control of our actions, or at least not in the way that we intuitively believe we are. There are, however, a number of flaws, or at least oversights or shortcomings, associated with this position that I’d like to illuminate:

1) The schematic presented is based on only a handful of empirical results. At most, this can be used to explain those results. Of note is that the experiments that generated these data were designed with the express purpose of deceiving the subjects. This in mind, the model fits those phenomena almost perfectly. As for its generality to ordinary phenomena, the link is less than clear, at best. Either way, further research is needed.

2) If we accept that the model is intended to be a general principle, then we can still point out that it overlooks the possibility of downward causality, or at least an interaction between thought and action. This could be shown by an additional causal path between the processes that, respectively, generate conscious thought and behaviour, downstream of the initial breakpoint. If nothing else, this would allow for mutual reinforcement or modification between conscious thought and associated behavioural outcomes. This position lies somewhere between fully conscious control and fully illusory conscious control, and seems most plausible.

3) Further, defining conscious control as fully separate from non-conscious processes is to define it so that it is necessarily false, excepting an embrace of true substance dualism. It is generally accepted that consciousness arises from brains, again excepting substance dualism. Combined with the evolutionary fact that consciousness evolved closer to the present than did non-conscious processes, it stands to reason that all conscious processes depend in some way on non-conscious processes. This does not extinguish the role of conscious thought, it merely splits the role of control between non-conscious and conscious mechanisms, but says nothing as to the balance between the two. This might be seen as an attack on free will, but it actually fits everyday intuition better than either of the extreme views. For example, most people recognize the power of reflexes and internal biases–these represent part of the non-conscious aspect of control. Planning and deliberation, on the other hand, make up part of the conscious side, though parts of these could be arguably identified as non-conscious (and vice-versa for the non-conscious processes listed above, as conscious control can influence internal biases).

This last point is largely an objection to a specific piece of empirical data and its interpretation in some circles that is in many ways similar to Wegner’s above. The view goes like this: The physiological correlates of an intention precede conscious awareness of an intention. Therefore the intention is not consciously formed, it is entirely the result of non-conscious processing. As above, this approach seems misguided. To assume that a conscious thought could simply spring into existence before any underlying neurobiological activity can be recorded is nothing more than substance dualism–and is not the view that needs refuting. If conscious states arise from the brain, then it holds that some activity in the brain must occur before a thought can be known. Does this fully discount conscious thought as a causative agent? My response, as above, is a definite no, it simply shows that not all aspects of the causation for behaviour can be accounted for by conscious intentions. This is not the same as saying that none of it can be.