Friday, 18 January 2008

A logical proof that we all have free will

I want to present what I consider to be a proof that ones consciousness in and of itself causes at least some of our thoughts and some of our behaviour (1). In other words I want to present what I consider to be a proof that we have what many people would term “free will" (2).

We tend to think of our behaviour as being a result of our desires and intentions. Thus, for example, in waking up in the morning I might have the choice of having either porridge, or eggs and bacon for breakfast. I am immediately aware of having the power to choose which to have. I might choose eggs and bacon because I prefer the taste. Or I might choose porridge,maybe not because I prefer the taste, but because I am concerned with my weight or health. But whatever I choose it seems for all the world that it is my choice, and it is ultimately my choice even though I might be heavily influenced in making one choice or the other. Thus I may have no problems with my health and weight, have no ethical problems with eating meat, and vastly prefer the taste of eggs and bacon. Therefore it would seem I have no reason to choose to eat porridge for breakfast and every reason to eat eggs and bacon instead. Yet, notwithstanding all of this, I nevertheless still appear to have the power to choose to eat porridge. This power to choose between alternatives is what most of us tend to refer to as free will.

However, on the face of it, there is a difficulty here. An implicit assumption of science is that all physical processes and events follow physical laws. By physical laws we are simply referring to the regularities that we observe in nature. A boulder rolling down a hill; the Earth moving around the Sun; the various interactions of subatomic particles – all these processes follow physical laws and these laws can be described using the language of mathematics. Likewise it is implicitly supposed that the physical processes in our own bodies, including our brains, follow physical laws too. But this means that the entirety of our mental lives, plus everything we ever do, is simply a result of physical laws playing out. Thus, assuming that the neuronal processes underlying consciousness are distinct from consciousness itself, then the seemingly inevitable conclusion is that it is these physical processes rather than consciousness per se which is responsible for our thoughts and behaviour.

I want now to present my proof that, contrary to the above, consciousness in and of itself must play at least some role in our thoughts and behaviour. It is a Reductio ad absurdem (Latin: "reduction to the absurd"). In other words I will assume that science is correct in its supposition that all physical events follow physical laws, including those physical events occurring in our brains. I will then show that an absurd consequence is entailed.

So to reiterate: the implicit assumption of science is that all physical processes and events follow physical laws. If this assumption of science is correct then all the physical processes occurring in my brain follow physical laws too. It follows then that, according to science, everything that a person ever does, and indeed everything a person ever thinks, is wholly caused by determined events in the brain which form links in a chain of physical cause and effect.

So all the thoughts I have ever entertained have their immediate cause in particular physical events occurring in the brain. This also includes the thought and conviction that I am in fact conscious!

Now the following is the crucial contention. I maintain that each and every one of us has incorrigible certainty of their own consciousness. I would further maintain that we cannot possibly be in error in this conviction. After all it requires consciousness to believe anything at all. So when I believe that I am conscious it is not something I could possibly be in error about (3). Or, to put it another way, if I am not in fact conscious, I cannot possibly believe I am, because, not being conscious, I cannot believe in anything whatsoever!

However, since according to science it is not consciousness in and of itself which is responsible for the complete certainty of our own consciousness, but rather particular physical events in the brain, then it is at least logical possible that someone might think that they are conscious, and yet not be! But, as I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, this is an absurdity. So we have our refutation. In other words science is in error in its supposition that it is not consciousness in and of itself which is responsible for the complete certainty of our own consciousness.

Moreover, if it is consciousness per se which plays a direct role in our conviction of our own consciousness, then presumably consciousness also plays a direct role in many, if not all, of our beliefs and hence behaviour.

(1) I have presented the essence of my proof on various discussion boards. Not one person appears to understand it! Possibly this might have something to do with the fact that the discussion boards I participate in are predominantly peopled by philosophical materialists. Or it could just be the case that my argument is hopelessly flawed! However, I don’t think it is :-)

(2) I am aware that many people would regard “free will” as amounting to more than the notion that our consciousness is causally efficacious in its own right. But, for the sake of this discussion, I shall be using the term “free will” in this minimalist sense.

(3) When I say I cannot possibly be in error in my belief in my own consciousness I mean it is logically impossible I could be in error – I do not mean it is merely naturally impossible. In other words it is conceptually incoherent to think I am conscious when I am not. This can be contrasted with natural impossibility such as not eating any food whatsoever yet not losing weight. Clearly this is impossible. But the impossibility here is due to physical laws – that is it is a natural impossibility. It is not conceptually incoherent to suppose I could fail to lose any weight even though I do not eat food. For example it would merely require that the physical laws describing the Universe had of turned out differently. But no matter how different the Universe might have turned out to be, I still could not think I am conscious and yet not be.


  1. Ian has indeed presented this proof many times. Each time with a different conclusion tacked on to the end. Perhaps that is why nobody understands it.

    I should point out that major scientists and philosophers of science have explicitly rejected the assumption that everything follows physical laws for at least 170 years now.


  2. “According to science it is not consciousness in and of itself which is responsible for the complete certainty of our own consciousness, but rather particular physical events in the brain, then it is at least logical possible that someone might think that they are conscious, and yet not be! But, as I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, this is an absurdity. So we have our refutation.“


    I cannot follow this logic.

    That’s how I understand the issue:

    Materialistic science maintains (a) the presence of consciousness depends on conditions, and (b) these conditions are exclusively physical events, and (c) physical events are identical with their descriptions, that is, not metaphorical but 'real' (= independent from consciousness).

    It follows that these conditions are either present or absent. If these conditions are present, we have consciousness, otherwise not. You are conscious because these conditions are present.

    That's all.

    It doesn’t matter for the sake of this argument whether the presence of a consciousness is an “incorrigible certainty” for this selfsame consciousness, that is, how consciousness feels / thinks / perceives itself.

    So far materialistic science; and that’s how I see it:

    The presence of ‘you’ is a product of consciousness but not identical with the presence of consciousness per se. It is not ‘you’ who has consciousness but consciousness has you / gives rise to ‘you’. Therefore it is not entirely correct to say: ‘I am conscious’, because the sense of ‘I am’ is not on equal footing with ‘consciousness’. Consciousness is the source of the presence of the ‘I’. It follows that consciousness can exist without being self-conscious, that is, consciousness can be present without the presence of an ‘I’. The absence of an ‘I’ or ‘self’ does not equate to the absence of consciousness.

    Materialistic science demonstrates that the presence of an ‘I’ or ‘self’ (a) depends on conditions and (b) that these conditions are physical events.

    Yet materialistic science neither knows the ontological status of physical events (are they real or metaphorical? are they indepedent from or dependent on something else that gives rise to them?), nor is materialistic science in a position to make any claims as to the presence or absence of consciousness per se, nor is it in a position to make any claims as to what consciousness is in itself!



  3. Ya know, you complain about other people's "disparaging comments." You need to practice what you preach. But anyway, you said:

    "Assuming physical events in the brain are distinct from the correlated conscious thoughts (i.e not one and the very same thing), then the feel of certainty or the thought of certainty of the existence of that very consciousness does not then have its genesis in the direct introspective apprehension of consciousness, but rather by the appropriate particular physical events in the brain."

    I think this is the core of your problem. Materialists think that "consciousness" and "physical processes in the brain" are one and the same. There is no distinction between the two. It might seem that there is, but this is (according to materialists) an illusion. I think that this is what they mean when they say that consciousness is an illusion. They don't mean that there aren't real life-forms that really are conscious, they just mean that any idea of consciousness that is separate and distinct from a physical "brain" (whether it be biological or some other physical mechanism) is illusory. I mean, they might be wrong, but I think that this whole essay very subtly (and perhaps unknowingly) misrepresents the materialist position of what consciousness is.

  4. Hi Ian
    membership ran out. But reading this i am way way out of your league

    founf it very interesting but must admit didnt understand it


  5. Hi, interesting... but I need to read it again as I got a little bit lost.

  6. Your reduction to the absurd doesn't prove that consciousness doesn't exist because it fails to consider the scientific principle of emergent properties.

    Large quantities of small items can have emergent properties that are not predictable at the item level.

    You can't predict the flow of water from any one molecule. Yet the emergent properties of hydrodynamics are well documented.

    You can't predict what will happen in the universe based on any single quanta. Yet gajillions of them result in the emergent physical laws of Einstein and Newton.

    The same is true of the neural network of the brain. You can't predict consciousness or free-will from the firing of an individual neuron. Yet both are emergent properties.

    Lastly... some things are only describable in the context of the a particular "level" of science. Consciousness not only can't be predicted... it has no meaning and in fact doesn't exist at the level of a single neuron. Emergent properties only exist and have meaning at the appropriate contextual level.

  7. Let me have a go -

    People have a problem with your approach because they are still trying to think of consciousness as in some way 'arising' from the physical processes. Whereas really what you are saying is that consciousness it "the thing before" - it is that which has the experience of the physical processes.

    The only fact that is undeniable to each of us is our own existence - that is what it means to be conscious: to sense our own presence. Everything else is content, stuff we are conscious of. The world we experience is secondary to, and contained within, our primary experience of consciousness.

    This gives us free will, because our experience of being is therefore free from the description of physical processes, at least to the extent of awareness. Whether we can control the content of our being is another matter.

    (The first step in non-dual approaches, etc, is that recognition of the primary existence. Recognising the difference between experiencing and thinking about.)

    Shorter version: They are thinking in terms of a 3rd Person viewpoint, whereas you are thinking in terms of a 1st Person viewpoint?

  8. It doesn't make any differences what our initial position is. Whether consciousness is produced by the brain or whatever. And no I'm not saying anything about consciousness apart from the fact that we can be incorrigibly certain of our own consciousness.

    1. I don't see how anyone can disagree with that.

    2. (But I think they disagree because they assume you are implying something more.)