Annaka Harris on the Mystery of Consciousness

The argument is familiar. It begins with an honest account of the mystery of consciousness and how there is, as of yet, no adequate or complete scientific explanation for how subjective experience of the material world can arise from the material world. The subjective experience of seeing the color red, for example, is very different from the scientific accounts of wavelengths of light or electrochemical activity in the brain.

It is then pointed out that there is no direct external evidence of consciousness, and that only one’s own consciousness can be known with any degree of certainty. The problem of the “philosophical zombie,” however improbable, is nevertheless unnerving as there is no way to definitively prove that consciousness is driving the behavior of others. Consciousness is therefore one of the deepest mysteries in the universe.

Then, inevitably and out of nowhere, the assertion is made—after reviewing a few obligatory neuroscientific case studies mapping neural activity to behavior—that free will and choice is an illusion, not noticing that free will, being inextricably tied to consciousness, must remain a mystery as long as consciousness remains a mystery.

Scientists have not solved the problem of consciousness, nor have philosophers, nor has anyone else. And that means, by extension, that the problem of free will has not been conclusively solved either, despite the confident proclamations of the author and other hard determinists.

In Conscious, it is not long before the discussion takes a turn for the worse. After categorically declaring free will an illusion, Annaka Harris writes:

“Many people, however, object on ethical grounds to the assertion that conscious will is an illusion, holding that people should be held responsible for their choices and behavior. But people can (and should) be held responsible for their actions, for a variety of reasons; the two beliefs are not necessarily contradictory. We can still acknowledge the difference between premeditated, lucid actions and the sort that are caused by mental illness or other disorders of the mind/brain….A distinction between the brain’s intentional behaviors and behaviors that are caused by brain damage or other outside forces (‘against one’s will’) is valid and necessary, especially when structuring a society’s laws and criminal justice system.”

These arguments drive me insane. Notice the action verbs I’ve highlighted in bold. To “acknowledge” the difference and “structure” a society are both actions, or choices, which contradicts the claim that we all lack free will. If the perpetrators of a crime could not have acted otherwise, then the adjudicators of that crime also could not have acted otherwise, and so the structure of society could not be otherwise, and quickly the entire conversation descends into absurdity.

What Harris wants to say is that all matter, including mind and consciousness, adheres to the physical laws of causation, and that therefore everything is determined ahead of time because nothing can interfere with or escape predetermined physical laws. But if that’s the case, then consciousness can serve no purpose.

The determinist makes the claim that mind and consciousness arises out of the activity of the brain, but that the brain, at the most fundamental level, is simply an arrangement of atoms, and atoms must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, blind to and un-influenced by things like emotion or awareness. The state of the universe at any particular time is the result of preceding causal forces, and therefore that particular state could not have been otherwise. Since the brain, which is composed of atoms, and consciousness, which arises from it, are also part of the universe, any particular conscious state could also not have been otherwise. Any thoughts or emotions or actions you’re taking at this moment could not have been otherwise, therefore free will is an illusion.

But if this is true, then consciousness loses its evolutionary rationale. The purpose of conscious awareness, evolutionarily speaking, is the processing of information for the purposes of making choices among alternatives. If choice is an illusion, and the universe can only be one way, based on the preceding chain of causal events, then consciousness now has no function. If it now comes down to the decision to either believe in free will or deny the underlying rationale for all evolutionary theory, I think I’ll stick with free will.

The fallacy is clear: Harris is stating that there is no explanation for how consciousness or subjective experience arises out of matter, yet insists that consciousness must be subject to the same causal dynamics as matter. This is an assumption with no backing, scientific or otherwise. Ignorance of the characteristics of consciousness cannot be used as justification for the idea that consciousness must conform entirely to the known physical laws.

There’s simply no reason for me to accept these assumptions, and as long as consciousness remains a mystery, and every waking moment of my experience tells me I have some level of choice, it’s more reasonable for me to assume that I do in fact have some degree of choice, especially since I cannot really convince myself otherwise.

Harris then moves on to discuss panpsychism, or the belief that consciousness in some sense pervades all matter. Harris explains that panpsychism is in fact based on science and rationality, but then writes, “In actuality, if a version of panpsychism is correct, everything will still appear to us and behave as it already does.” Well, if that’s the case, then panpsychism is not falsifiable, and therefore not scientific. We have a name for non-falsifiable claims that can never be tested: they are called pseudoscientific.

And so Harris is simultaneously telling us it is a delusion to believe that we may have free will but it is perfectly reasonable to believe that a thermostat or electron may have consciousness.

Harris also fails to adequately address the nuances of the philosophical debate, including the various positions of determinism, compatibilism, and metaphysical libertarianism, opting instead to review of few case studies in neuroscience and promote the idea of hard determinism and the benefits of meditation. What could have been a fascinating intellectual history or philosophical analysis turned out to be a superficial account of a questionable view. And how can you write a book on consciousness and leave out Daniel Dennett? It’s either a sign of ignorance or apprehension to include an alternative view.

Where I do agree with Harris is when she writes, at the end of the book, “From our current vantage point, it seems unlikely that we will ever arrive at a true understanding of consciousness.” I agree, and that’s why we shouldn’t be making categorical statements about free will, which is a component of consciousness. There are still too many unknowns about the universe and the mind, including the mysteries of the quantum world and the presence of dark matter and energy, not to mention the fact that we only have sensory access to an infinitesimally small sliver of reality. The determinist is forming their conclusions under the assumption that we have all the relevant information we need, but I think this is wrong.

My suspicion is that we’re missing something, some kind of natural explanation yet undiscovered that would provide some degree of free will. I of course do not know this, but my ignorance is on par with everyone else. And I wouldn’t write a book about it.