Humans are essentially conscious minds, bound to material brains and bodies, exploring a material world. The mystery of consciousness has remained a mystery despite all the best efforts of philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, neurophysicists and neurophysiologists. There are many theories of consciousness but no consensus.
Because we are self-aware and conscious of our choices, people usually assume we have freewill: that is, until they study the subject. At that point, they are faced with a seemingly inescapable scientific axiom known as causality (cause and effect). Causality is a foundation of physics and the rest of the natural sciences and convincingly supports the proposition that everything in the universe is predetermined: including us, our acts and our thoughts. Those who believe this proposition are called “hard determinists” or “absolute determinists”.
I’m a compatibilist. I believe that freewill is compatible with determinism. I don’t deny determinism but I do assert that humans have free agency and that this gives us a limited and subtle freedom from causality. Thus, determinism is not absolute (which we already know, because of the random, probabilistic, nature of quantum theory). Below, I will explain why I believe humans are different than the rest of the material universe in regard to causality and, thus, determinism.
Taking our modern understanding of the universe and man, 3 important stages, since the Big Bang, can be readily identified: I call them the inanimate stage, the animate stage and the human stage. It's interesting to note that the durations of these stages have, in succession, decreased dramatically.
About 12 to 15 billion years ago, the Big Bang sparked the birth of our expanding universe. The universe coalesced into stars and galaxies. Absolutely everything was physical (material or energy) and entirely inanimate. Everything that occurred happened according to the universal laws of physics and nothing moved or happened of its own accord. Causality ruled. This was the inanimate stage.
Then, about 3.5 billion years ago, life arose on Earth. Whether or not this was the first or only life to arise in the universe is still a mystery: all we know for sure is that Earth is the only place we know of with life. Even though early life forms were merely single-celled creatures, they were new and unique because they had a feature new and unique in the universe: motility. Life is animate. For the first time, after many billions of years, material was alive and moved of its own accord, without external cause.
It was almost another 3 billion years before primates evolved. Homo sapiens didn’t arise until 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. That’s just a blink in cosmological time. We are on the cusp of an evolution that’s accelerating at breakneck speed. At the top of the evolutionary ladder, we possess a feature that facilitates ever-increasing change: self-aware intelligence. We’ve left all other life forms literally choking in our dust. The animate and human stages represent paradigm shifts in the ontology of the cosmos. Just as life introduced motility, humans introduced abstractions such as: data, creativity, invention, art, government, culture, mathematics and science. Causality is at the root of human change: not because we exert, or react to, physical properties but because we adapt to, anticipate and use causality to make change possible.
As (debatably) the only self-aware intelligent life forms, we are the only creatures capable of abstractions. Existence itself can be seen as an abstraction, projected by our brains, and perceived as mind.
To the extent that humans can level mountains, change the skyline, probe the solar system and uncover nature’s secrets, we are masters of causality. Our understanding of causality allows us to power our cities or, in an instant, destroy them.
This ability to use causality must come from somewhere. If all we can do is react – to only be an effect instead of a cause – then we wouldn’t have advanced as far or as fast as we have: we’d be just another lice-infested primate living by instinct. But we do have a cause; a purpose that drives us.
The mystery of human consciousness centers around freewill versus determinism. It’s one of the most fundamental and profound questions of human existence. How is it that, if the universe operates on inexorable principles of causality, we operate as if we have freewill? I believe the answer is: we don’t know yet . . . but, despite our rational surrender to 21st century physics, there’s a legitimate explanation for this apparent contradiction . . .
. . . Free Agency . . .
. . . We are free agents. But how? Our best understanding of physics says that the universe is a cascading chain-reaction of cause and effect. We are part of the universe, so we must be part of that chain-reaction, right?
Not absolutely. People tend to favor absolutes: good and evil, right and wrong, yin and yang, because they’re simple. But many, if not most, things are complex. There’s lots of territory between the extremes. Inescapable ignorance seeds and feeds our assumptions. We acquiesce to what we think we know and deny what we think we don’t know. Controversies arise because we don’t know enough.
Our solar system is captive to the sun. Gravity holds everything in elliptical orbits. Doesn't free will explain why our spacecraft (Pioneer 10, Voyager 1 and 2) have probed our solar system, using planets as slingshots, then continued out beyond the Oort cloud and away from the gravitational pull of the sun? Think about it. Causality forces natural celestial objects in our solar system to orbit the sun on predictable, "obedient", schedules, yet our probes use gravity like a slingshot to propel themselves out of the solar system. Even in space, millions of miles away, we still use causality to suit our purposes. If we were subject to causality in the same way that the rest of the universe is, then why is it that the only “disobedient” objects in the universe come from us?
Recall, above, how motility is a new feature found only in living things. The motility of space probes is a direct consequence of human intelligence: they move the way we tell them to. They aren’t alive but the humans who control them are: and we’re using causality to give machines, billions of mile away, motility.
There can be only one explanation: our probes are directed by free agents – not universal causality. It is fair, here, to question if intelligence is bound by causality or if intelligence rises above causality (no matter how meagerly).
We don’t usually give thinking much thought. There’s almost always external stimuli being processed by the brain, resulting in our attention being directed to one stimulus or another (or perhaps multiple stimuli simultaneously). But by the same token one can choose to ignore the stimuli or let one’s subconscious mind handle them automatically while focusing, instead, on a specific task. It seems we can decide when and how we use our minds and respond to the external world. Determinists would say that’s an illusion. I say that’s just their opinion. I believe they can’t see the forest for the trees.
I think the reason free agency is so often overlooked is because it’s so subtle and sublime. We’re so inured to the mental feedback involved in thought, we don’t recognize the awesome power this process enables: free agency.
What power, says the determinist. What mental feedback?
Well, just what do you think self-aware intelligence is? If you think about it, “self-aware intelligence” is a paraphrase of “mental feedback”. Human intelligence is a complex phenomenon. It’s difficult to isolate something as intrinsic and integrated to thought as is mental feedback. Nonetheless, it’s been isolated by a device known as the bio-feedback machine. With a few readouts from live physiological data, you are able to control brainwave patterns and unconscious autonomous functions. Of course, bio-feedback is mental feedback. It’s demonstrable proof of a mind/brain feedback mechanism. It’s also proof of mind over matter (body and brain).
Emergent properties make complex systems more than the sum of their parts. They contradict the reductionistic physicalism that attempts to explain everything in terms of their most basic components. The human brain is the most complex system we know of. The phenomena of consciousness, free will and intelligence are the emergent properties that make the brain more than a mere collection of neurons. Recent theories in neuroscience suggest that mental feedback is the mechanism that enables these phenomena. There are still plenty of questions left to answer but it's beginning to appear plausible that we might one day understand how consciousness works and whether or not we really do have free will.