GABlog

June 27, 2014

Further Reflections, Consciousness & Free Will

Filed under: GA — Q @ 8:57 pm

On one hand, nothing is more familiar to us that our own consciousness, which can we safely assume is essentially similar to that of other humans. It seems equally obvious that we have free will. I make decisions constantly, and I change my mind just as frequently. And I can see that others are not able to predict, reliably, what I will do or say next; nor can I predict what others will do. Furthermore, we can observe very clearly that animals share many if not all of the same characteristics of human consciousness. We may never know what it’s like to be a bat, but more familiar animals like deer or cats are obviously aware of their environment in basically the same way that I am aware of my environment. Humans are aware of different things than other animals (notably, right and wrong), but animals may be aware of things that I can’t perceive, like the cat who refused to board the ship destined to sink (as I learned about at the Victoria Maritime museum).

In any case, we are surrounded by living organisms capable of more or less degrees of consciousness. Life is almost omnipresent on this earth, even in places that might seem very inhospitable. So consciousness is the plainest empirical fact in the world, perhaps, as Descartes observed, the only indubitable fact, the one thing we can’t doubt. There is nothing we know better. And we see conscious beings being born, growing, developing, reproducing, and eventually dying all around us. From this perspective, there is no mystery of consciousness, nor of freewill. Consciousness is simply the nature of my existence. Arguably, then, “the burden of proof,” so to speak, should be on those who wish to question the possibility of consciousness. It’s an artificial question without any pragmatic consequences. If the sciences can’t explain the physical basis of consciousness, then so much the worse for them. They either aren’t posing the right question, or their methodology is inadequate.

On the other hand, consciousness and free will are completely anomalous in our universe. The physical sciences tell us beyond any reasonable doubt that our planet is 4.5 billion years old, while humans have only been around for about 2.5 million. And for at least a billion years, earth harbored no forms of life at all. Multicellular forms appeared only in the last billion years. Furthermore, there is no evidence of life on other planets, within or without our solar system. Given the vast size and age of our universe, it is more economical to assume that we are not unique; but the fact remains that as far as we can see or recover, life on earth is anomalous, and human life even more so. From this perspective, the existence of life on earth appears nothing less than miraculous. That, by some completely random process, some mud should get up and start walking around appears highly unlikely, even impossible. We can only wonder, with Blake,

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

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