Many possible functions have been
attributed to consciousness. Bernard
Baars summarizes them as follows: prioritizing certain alternatives,
solving problems, making decisions, recruiting the processing capacity of certain
areas in the brain by making relevant information accessible (the “global
workspace” theory ), controlling actions, detecting errors, planning,
learning, adapting, creating a context, and providing access to information.
In 2005, Bjorn
Merker proposed what he considered a vital function for subjective
consciousness, a function that would have enabled selective pressure to select
it in the course of evolution.
point was the clear distinction that he saw between the types of information that
are processed consciously and unconsciously
in the brain. While consciousness presents us with a stable world that is an appropriate
target for our actions, it excludes the many sensory and motor
transformations that are necessary for these actions, the transformations by which
this stable image of the world is extracted from ambiguous
One reason for this
ambiguity is that our sensory receptors are located on various moving parts of
a body that is itself in motion. Our brains thus readily distinguish the actual
movement of an object from the apparent motion of this object created by our own
movement through space. In the same way, the complex orchestration of the thousands
of movements involved in performing our daily actions is excluded from the realm
This leads Merker
to suggest that consciousness may have emerged as a solution to the logistical
problems involved in decisionmaking in animals that were capable of locomotion
and had a brain that centralizes information. In other words, he suggests that
our subjective consciousness evolved: a) to present us with a simplified, unified
image of the world on the basis of complex, fragmented, sensory information, and
b) to enable us to use this stable image to quickly choose appropriate behaviours
for carrying out our goals and intentions without needing to worry about the complex
motor commands that have to be issued for this purpose. In short, Merker proposes
that consciousness emerged to simplify our lives, a hypothesis that certainly
fits with the fact that we can have only one conscious state at a time.
THE FUNCTION AND EVOLUTIONARY ORIGINS OF
One thing is certain:
there is still no consensus on the function and origins of consciousness. All
we can say is that the two are closely linked, and that any theory we might offer
about the function or functions of consciousness would have implications for its
possible origins. And the spectrum of such theories is very broad, ranging from
the idea that consciousness simply has no function to the idea that it has many
(see the first sidebar).
At the former end of the
spectrum are the philosopher
Patricia Churchland and the eliminative
materialists, who say that once we understand enough about how the brain functions
and how each of our cognitive abilities may have evolved, we will simply discard
the concept of “consciousness”, because it will no longer provide
a suitable account of human nature as it has then been revealed to us.
along the spectrum come the champions of a certain radical form of behaviourism,
who believe that consciousness in general, and subjective consciousness in particular,
is nothing but an epiphenomenon
resulting from our various cognitive functions, or that it is only weakly related
to these functions.
de las Esferas, Salvador Dali (1952).
forms of functionalism
also tend toward this view. Many functionalists believe that functionalism cannot
account for human subjectivity and therefore cannot tell us anything about how
it evolved. But other functionalists take a different stance, associating subjective
consciousness with more specific functions such as social interaction, language,
or problem-solving. Even so, these authors do not think that consciousness itself
has any function as such (which explains, among other things, why the term “functionalism”
can be confusing). Instead, they regard consciousness as being the same thing
as these more specific functions, or as necessarily accompanying them.
to this view, consciousness does exist, but is indissociable from certain cognitive
abilities, and it is on these abilities, rather than on consciousness, that natural
selection has operated in the course of evolution. The result has been what we
call human beings who are endowed with consciousness, even if for these functionalists,
this consciousness is only an illusion or something that might simply be equated
with the state of being alive.
to this functionalist perspective, natural selection shaped our cognitive abilities,
but because consciousness has no special status, it is not considered a new emergent
property on which natural selection might act.
Varela uses the concept of emergence to describe consciousness, but mainly
the dynamic sense, and not so much in the evolutionary sense. For Varela,
our cognitive abilities display themselves in various forms that must, at any
given time, be “stitched together” for consciousness to emerge. And
this combining of cognitive processes, which is compatible both with Mithen’s
ideas on the origins of consciousness and with Baars’s
ideas about the global workspace, manifests itself in various ways in various
species. Cats, bats, fishes, and insects all have their own type of “conscious
experience”, thus defined.
For Varela, what
makes us uniquely and specifically human is that we have added the reflexive cognitive
ability to all the rest. This is indeed an example of emergence in evolutionary
terms. But evolutionary emergence does not necessarily imply evolutionary advantage,
says Varela, who is wary of excessively adaptationist
ideas. He points out that for there to be an evolutionary advantage, some parameter
has to have been optimized. In other words, what trait has been improved so that
it has been selected for?
As far as Varela is concerned,
genes are so interdependent that one cannot speak in terms of an adaptive peak
(an optimal expression) for any one gene on its own. For Varela, if consciousness
did emerge, it was simply because, given all the possibilities of all the brains
of all the species, there was the possibility that consciousness would emerge
from one of them. It could have happened, or it could have not happened. It is
a contingent or “situational” effect, a very random phenomenon related
to Varela and Maturana’s idea
of soft evolution or genetic drift.
On the other
hand, there are many other scientists and philosophers who think that
consciousness really plays a functional role in our mental processes
and was selected for this purpose. For these thinkers, consciousness did not simply
develop in correlation with other structures that were selected for the adaptive
value of their functions. In other words, these thinkers refuse to apply Gould
and Lewontin’s concept
of “spandrels” to subjective consciousness, because they believe
that consciousness is too central and too energy-intensive to have evolved if
it did not serve some vital function.
many authors have discussed the possibility that the function of consciousness
may be to monitor the self and the environment, our thoughts and our behaviours.
In other words, consciousness may be a system that constantly informs itself about
the activity of a multitude
of unconscious sub-systems operating in parallel, so that it can co-ordinate
and control all their activity.
According to these
authors, consciousness controls this activity either by initiating actions itself
or by authorizing or inhibiting actions that have already been initiated automatically.
The mechanism of consciousness would thus be only a thin command layer added onto
a set of non-conscious mechanisms that account for the vast majority of our mental
processes. Such automated, unconscious mechanisms provide the benefits of high
efficiency and high processing capacity, but at the cost of a certain rigidity.
Conscious mechanisms, on the other hand, provide flexible control over behaviour;
the associated cost is their limited, serial processing capacity.
some authors say that the slowness of conscious serial processing ensures accuracy
in our actions, and that a mental process that was faster and more complex might
result in costly errors. Various tasks that require consciousness compete with
one another, but only one can be selected at a time if it is to be performed properly.
Consciousness might also have the function of a “trigger”
for unconscious processes. It would thus give us access, on demand, to
a wide range of unconscious knowledge. For example, when we are reading silently,
we access our inner discourse consciously; when we are making judgments in a social
situation, we consciously trigger the automatic inferences by which we do so;
and when we are deciphering the letters that form the words in a sentence, we
consciously initiate the series of automatic transformations required for this
process. None of these automated processes is conscious, but all of them are initiated
Another common idea is based on the observation
that if most of our behaviours occur
automatically without making any demands on consciousness, it is often when
things don’t go as expected, when we face a new challenge or a
threatening situation, that consciousness comes into play. It then becomes a valuable
tool for allocating more cognitive resources to solving the problem.
psychologist and educator Guy Claxton offers a theory of the origins of consciousness
that is consistent with this premise. He suggests that consciousness originally
emerged as a rare phenomenon associated with the state of hypervigilance
that arises in emergencies
when the individual’s survival is threatened. Claxton theorizes that
the brain may have developed the ability to make this state permanent, whereas
originally it was only a secondary effect with no more functional significance
than the colour of the liver, or the fact that when the sea is agitated, its colour
can change from blue to white. And so, according to Claxton, it is humanity’s
great misfortune that this state, which was originally a rare, ephemeral phenomenon
much like a sneeze or an orgasm, has now become our baseline mental state, causing
us to constantly
construct stories of questionable accuracy about ourselves and others so as
to lend coherence to our subjective sense of being ourselves.
many other evolutionary
psychologists regard consciousness as part of an organism’s “survival
kit” that enables it to plan its actions instead of simply making stereotyped
Damasio, for example, notes that consciousness of self could be adaptive in
a general sense, by causing us to be more concerned about our own survival. The
impression that consciousness gives us of having a mind
detached from our body, even if this impression is false, might be adaptive
inasmuch as it increases the value that we place on our own lives, as well as
on other people’s.
Humphrey supports this view of consciousness as producing a sense of self
that motivates us to try to preserve this “self”. If human beings
are, to use the expression coined by Richard
Dawkins, “survival machines”, this motivation to preserve the
self would provide an additional evolutionary advantage in pursuing the task of
The complexity of body movements
(see the second sidebar on this page) has inspired other models of the origins
of human conscious, such as the model proposed by primatologist Daniel Povinelli.
Povinelli notes that certain species of baboons have a form of social organization
even more complex than that of chimpanzees or orangutans, but still cannot recognize
themselves as individuals in a mirror. He sees here a flaw in the social
theories of the origins of consciousness, according to which the complexity
of social life was what drove the emergence of consciousness and of a theory
of mind. If these theories were true, then why wouldn’t baboons’
sophisticated social lives enable them to reach the stage of recognizing themselves
in a mirror, the way the great apes can? Is there some common factor other than
social complexity that characterizes the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans,
and gorillas)? Yes, says Povinelli: their great size.
carefully observing how several species of monkeys and apes travelled through
the trees, Povinelli and his team arrived at an important distinction. Whereas
the smaller monkeys used stereotyped movements to go from branch to branch, the
chimpanzees and orangutans had a very different way of moving. Because of their
large size, they had to be careful not to break the branches, and so they travelled
by means of very creative, non-stereotyped movements that varied from one tree
to the next.
Povinelli hypothesized that this difference
might be related to the emergence of a concept of self. These great apes, their
ancestors, and our own ancestors may have thus been led to develop an internal
conception of their bodies for the first time in order to better negotiate their
movements in the fragile branches of the trees. And Povinelli proposes that it
may have been from this early bodily consciousness of self that human subjective
In the 1940s, Canadian neurosurgeon
Penfield began directly stimulating areas of the motor cortex in epileptic
patients to identify those areas that he should leave untouched when surgically
removing the focus of their epilepsy. By thus stimulating the motor cortex, he
triggered movements in the patients—not simple reflex movements, but complex,
apparently voluntary gestures. Most of the time, however, the patients reported
having had the impression not that they had made these gestures voluntarily, but
rather that Penfield had been responsible for them. These reports become more
understandable if we regard conscious decisions as adjuncts to voluntary actions,
not their causes.
Some inferences similar to Wegner’s
can be drawn from Michael
Gazzaniga’s research on split-brain patients (patients in whom
the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres, had been severed, as
a treatment for epilepsy). Gazzaniga conducted several experiments in which he
asked these subjects to perform a given action, but he submitted the request only
to their right hemisphere, whereas their speech centres were located in the left.
The left hemisphere, because it had no connection with the right, remained unconscious
of the causes of the actions that the subjects had taken. When asked the reasons
for their actions, these subjects invented verbal interpretations of their intentions
out of whole cloth, apparently to satisfy the typically human belief that their
actions reflected their conscious will.
Certain clinical observations support
the hypothesis that the brain has a mechanism that manufactures an apparent sense
of free will. For example, individuals suffering from brain damage that results
syndrome have the impression that one of their hands has a will of its
own and often makes elaborate, seemingly voluntary gestures without any conscious
volition on their part.
The auditory hallucinations
that sometimes accompany schizophrenia can also produce anomalies in conscious
will. In such cases, the individuals attribute their own thoughts and inner voice
to someone else and complain that they are “hearing voices”.
From 1960 to 1963, the U.S. psychologist
Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to see to what extent
people may comply with orders from an authority whom they consider legitimate,
even when doing so conflicts with their own personal ethics. More specifically,
Milgram wanted to know how far people would go in inflicting pain on someone else
simply because a researcher had given them the order to do so in the context of
a scientific experiment.
Here is how the experiment
worked. When each subject arrived, he was paired with another individual who supposedly
was also a subject but was actually an accomplice of Milgram’s. Through
a rigged drawing of lots, the real subject was then assigned the role of teacher,
and the accomplice was assigned the role of learner. The “teacher”
was then required to read out loud a list of 50 pairs of words that the “learner”
was supposed to memorize. Then the teacher read selected words from this list
to the learner, and the learner had to recall the word with which it had been
paired. If the learner did not answer correctly, the teacher was required to operate
a machine that he was told would give the learner a mild electric shock. (In fact,
the machine administered no shock at all.) The subjects were told that the purpose
of the experiment was to study the effects of punishment on memory.
details that will be important for the rest of this discussion: the subjects were
also told to increase the voltage of the shock each time the learner made another
error, and the learner (accomplice) was an actor who acted out reactions of growing
pain as the intensity of the shocks supposedly increased. The fake shock generator
had 30 switches that were labelled with voltages in 15-volt increments, along
with verbal labels such as Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong
Shock, and Danger: Severe Shock. (The two switches after this last label were
simply marked XXX.)
The experimenter who gave the instructions
was dressed in a laboratory coat to symbolize scientific authority, and he asked
the subject/teacher to administer the punishments to the learner whenever he made
a mistake. Fairly quickly, as the learner/accomplice made more and more mistakes,
and the voltage of the shocks that the subject was supposedly administering became
higher and higher, the accomplice cried out in simulated pain. Pretty soon he
began begging the “teacher” to stop the experiment, but the experimenter
ordered him to continue. The results, which Milgram himself described as unexpected
and disturbing at the time, were puzzling to say the least. Out of 40 subjects
tested, from all occupational backgrounds combined, nearly 2/3 continued administering
shocks until the “learner” stopped responding and might have been
feared dead. The other “teachers” gave up the experiment at 300 volts,
when they could hear the learner begin pounding on the walls of the room in which
he was enclosed! Milgram’s findings have since been confirmed by other experiments
conducted throughout the world.
Every one of Milgram’s
subjects had stopped at some time or other to question the experimenter, and many
of them showed obvious signs of extreme nervousness and reluctance to continue
in the last stages. But that didn’t keep them from continuing. And when
these subjects were asked to explain their sadistic behaviour, they invariably
cast the blame on the scientific authority figure, stating that they had only
been following orders.
Thus all the evidence
suggests that in this particular authoritarian context, the subjects’ conscious
will and their sense of being responsible for their own actions were reduced considerably.
Many psychologists believe that these stunning results provide greater insight
into what happened in Nazi Germany or what is still seen today in certain totalitarian
countries where a sizable fringe element of the population collaborates in
THE QUESTION OF FREE WILL
The results of Libet’s
experiment have been the
source of a huge debate on the temporal sequence of the events that accompany
a voluntary physical movement. In this experiment, the subjects were asked to
make a voluntary flexion of their wrist whenever they felt like it, and to report
the time at which they consciously decided to make this movement. Libet’s
measurements showed that this movement began approximately 200 ms after the conscious
decision. But Libet also observed the start of a neuronal activity called the
“readiness potential” on the subject’s EEG
about 350 ms before (and not at the same time as or after) the
start of the conscious decision reported by the subject.
is controversial about these findings, of course, is that the conscious decision
seems to have been only a psychological manifestation, after the fact, of a preceding,
unconscious brain activity that actually decided the movement. Many authors believe
that this finding calls the very notion of free will into question.
or not this experiment has any implications for free will, it still raises the
question whether our familiar impression that our conscious decisions are the
source of our actions may be only an illusion. Is it possible that our brains
are playing tricks on us in this regard? If
so, it would not be the first time!
One thing is
certain: the brain generates a strong feeling that the individual is an agent
and that it is this agent who accomplishes all of the individual’s behaviours.
You think about moving your finger on your computer keyboard, and then your finger
moves. You think about going to the store to buy some milk, and then you go and
buy some. You think about looking somewhere else on this page, and then you go
and look there. Thus your conscious will seems to be an active, decisive force
in your behaviours.
But this impression can be manipulated,
if not completely deconstructed—or at least that is what psychologist Daniel
Wegner thinks. He argues that our impression of free will does not reflect
the underlying causes of our behaviours, and he has conducted a series of experiments
showing that our feeling of being the agent responsible for our actions can be
induced or manipulated.
In one of these experiments,
each subject was placed in front of mirrors positioned so that what appeared to
be the subject’s arm was actually someone else’s. The subject was
then invited to perform certain arm movements, and immediately afterward, the
arm that the subject saw in the mirrors performed each of these movements. Wegner’s
subjects reported having had the impression that they themselves had been the
source of the movements that they saw in the mirrors. Thus Wegner showed that
the impression of having acted freely was not a highly reliable indicator of the
cause of an action.
To explore the variables that
might influence this impression, Wegner designed another, slightly more complicated
experiment in which there were two participants. One was the experimental subject;
the other, unbeknownst to the subject, was the experimenter’s confederate.
To begin the experiment, both participants placed their fingers on a small board
mounted on a computer mouse. In front of them was a computer screen, displaying
images of numerous small objects.
The subject and
the confederate were then told that they must move the board with their fingers
so that the mouse cursor travelled around among the objects on the screen. They
were told that they should continue moving the mouse for an interval of 30 seconds,
after which they would hear some music in their headphones, and that they should
then stop the cursor on one of these objects. Each of them would then be asked
to report how much influence they felt they had had in deciding which object to
stop at, compared with the other person’s influence.
The key element in this experiment was that the subjects also occasionally heard
words in their headphones, and that some of these words matched objects on the
screen, while others did not. The subjects were told that the purpose of these
words was to distract them, but the experimental results showed that the time
at which the subjects heard these words had a very important effect on the subjects’
subsequent rating of their subjective impression of their influence over where
the cursor stopped.
For example, in some of the trials,
the subjects heard the word “swan” 30 seconds before the cursor stopped
on or near the swan on the screen, but the subjects did not know that the confederates
had received instructions over their headphones to force the mouse movement slightly
so that the cursor did in fact stop on the swan. In these trials, the subjects
tended to report that they had not had much to do with where the cursor had ultimately
stopped. But if the subjects heard the word 5 seconds before the cursor stopped,
and even more so if they heard it 1 second before, they were generally convinced
that they had been responsible for stopping it, even though the confederate was
actually the one responsible. However, if they heard the word 1 second after
the cursor had stopped, they did not get the impression that it was they
who had decided to stop it at the object in question. Thus this experiment showed
that the time when the thought occurs relative to the action seems to be decisive
for the impression that one has authorship of that action. The box to the right
gives another example of this phenomenon.
We all know that it
is impossible to tickle yourself. Experiments have shown that your brain can predict
exactly where you are going to run your finger down the sole of your foot, for
example, which considerably reduces the sensation of being tickled. But if someone
else decides to tickle you, your brain can’t predict where their finger
is going to go, and the sensation of being tickled is then very intense.
what happens when the distinction between someone else and yourself doing the
tickling is more ambiguous? To answer this question, researchers developed an
ingenious device that let experimental subjects tickle themselves, but indirectly:
a robot arm did the tickling, but the subject controlled the robot arm. When the
robot was set to respond to the controls immediately, the subjects could not produce
any more sensation of tickling than if they were tickling themselves directly
with their hands. But if the robot was set so that there was a lag of as little
as 0.2 seconds between the time that the subject operated the control and the
time that the robot arm moved, the subject experienced a tickling sensation, and
the greater the lag, the more intense this sensation felt.
experiment seems to indicate that we are so used to having our actions conform
immediately to our voluntary decisions that even a slight time lag suffices to
give us the impression that we are no longer the authors of these actions.
Following his experiments,
Wegner identified three conditions that tend to make us believe that we are the
authors of an action: when a thought appears in consciousness just before the
action (priority), when it is consistent with the action (consistency), and when
it is not accompanied by any conspicuous alternative causes of the action (exclusivity).
Let us now consider a very common example—when you flip a switch to turn
on an electric light bulb in a room—and let us apply these three conditions
If you decide to flip the switch, and the light comes on immediately afterward,
you will have the strong impression that you were responsible for turning on the
light in the room. But if the light comes on a few seconds before you decide to
flip the switch, or 30 seconds afterward, you will not have this impression.
- Consistency. If you are not thinking about turning on the light, and
you find yourself flipping the switch inadvertently, the lack of consistency between
your thoughts and your action will weaken any feeling of having consciously willed
- Exclusivity. If you see someone
else’s hand on another switch close to the other door at the other end of
the room, you will very likely have more doubt about being the author of the action,
even if you had thought about flipping the switch just before the movement of
your hand that enable the room to be lit up.
Together, the three conditions identified by Wegner—priority, consistency,
and exclusivity— form what he calls the “theory of apparent mental
causation”. This theory, whose premises can already be seen in the writings
of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, suggests that we experience conscious
will whenever we infer that our thoughts have caused our actions, regardless of
whether this inference is correct.
And such inferences
are far from always being correct, to say the least. For example, in Wegner’s
experiment described above, he was manipulating the condition of priority.
Even when the thought about the action comes from an external source (in this
case, the subjects’ headphones in which they heard the words), its appearance
just before the action leads to an increased experience of being the author of
Another source of error is simply that
we generally expect our actions to succeed. In this case, the principle of consistency
suggests that people will experience a stronger impression of being
voluntarily responsible for an action if it succeeds than if it fails. And that
is indeed what researchers have observed: subjects will have the feeling that
they control otherwise random events if the experiment has been rigged so that
these events have a higher chance of succeeding. The fact that people
who suffer from depression, and are therefore less inclined to think about
success, are also less likely to be fooled in this way is highly revealing.
incorrect inferences related to the condition of exclusivity can also be
observed. When under hypnosis, the most suggestible subjects’ experience
of performing the actions that the experimenters suggest to them gives them a
strong impression of not being the authors of these actions, despite their obvious
involvement in them.
Stanley Milgram also interpreted
the results of his famous experiment (see sidebar) in similar terms. He said that
the subjects who obeyed orders to administer a powerful electrical shock to another
person were experiencing a displacement of their feeling of authorship of their
actions and a reduction of their conscious will when they took these actions at
the request of a third person who represented authority.
observations show just how ready we are to regard our conscious thoughts as the
cause of our behaviours, and all the more so when the conditions (priority, consistency,
and exclusivity) are favourable. But in reality, Wegner believes, both thought
and action might very well be caused by unconscious mental events, which might
or might not be related to one another. It follows, according to Wegner, that
the relationship between thought and action is not real, but only apparent.
diagram to the left attempts to illustrate this situation. First, your brain unconsciously
decides on an action and sets in motion the mechanisms that will cause its execution.
Second, while remaining unaware of these underlying
unconscious mechanisms, you become aware of a thought about this action; this
thought is called an intention. Third, the action occurs immediately after the
intention, and you make the error of concluding that it was this intention that
caused this action.
that the only role that our consciousness might play in our free will is that
of discovering what decisions are in the process of being executed, after they
have been initiated. Thus, according to Wegner, when we decide to do something,
we are actually only becoming aware of an unconscious decision that has already
been made without our knowing. But why should it be thus? Why would our brain
maintain this illusion of conscious will if that is not the way it really operates?
Because, Wegner answers, the brain thereby creates
a kind of emotion that gives us the impression that the author of our actions
is indeed ourselves and not someone else. And this answer is consistent with many
other data from the cognitive sciences that highlight the necessity, from a functional
standpoint, of having a robust representation of oneself. For example, this emotion
would enable us always to clearly distinguish who (I or someone else) is doing
what. And this knowledge in turn would be tremendously helpful for managing social
relationships properly, for example.
a human group requires a certain sense of responsibility. To feel responsible,
you need to recognize yourself as the agent who originates your actions, and you
can’t do that successfully unless you do indeed firmly believe that you
are in fact the author of your actions. If you habitually try to evade responsibility
for your actions with remarks like “I was beside myself” or“I
was emotional, I wasn’t myself”, you are not going to create very
good social ties. For a social species like ours, believing that the person in
front of you is answerable for his or her actions and obeys the rules that govern
relationships would facilitate the development of these essential ties.
Another explanation offered for this impression of being the causal agent of our
own actions is that this impression facilitates the establishment of a feedback
loop while also conveying a useful cognitive meaning: when people receive
or a punishment for a given voluntary action, they can learn and memorize
the consequences of this action that they believe has resulted from their conscious
will, and hence better devise a winning strategy in future.
Wegner also points out that the possibility that our conscious will is something
like an illusion in no way constitutes the basis for an explanatory system that
lies outside the material
pathways of causal determinism. He also notes that in everyday life, mental
causality is highly useful and is no more threatened by the presence of underlying
unconscious processes than these processes are threatened by the presence of underlying
Does the possibility that voluntary
consciousness is a sort of illusion undermine the notion of free will or the basis
for our moral
practices? There is always the fear that if we reject free will, we thereby
render all existence absurd and meaningless. Why, we may ask, should we care about
anything if everything has already been determined for us long ago?
many biologists think that we will always continue to care about ourselves and
others, simply because we are human beings, and that is what human beings do.
For example, even if you have concluded that you have no free will, and that everything
is absurd and pointless, and that you are therefore going to go sit in a chair
and do nothing, eventually you are going to get hungry, get up, and go make a
sandwich to fulfil that human need.
That, in a nutshell,
is the position of those who say that we need not be overly worried even if free
will turns out to be nothing but an illusion and all human behaviours—even
those that we perceive as the most voluntary—turn out to be nothing more
than the sum of countless determinants. One such thinker is biologist and philosopher
Henri Atlan, who believes that, on the contrary, it is even possible that
by penetrating the details of this illusion of our conscious will, we may become
more enlightened agents.
Atlan says that very
often, we believe that we are freely deciding our own behaviour simply because
we do not know the causes of our decisions. In addition to the genetic determinants
that receive so much attention, there are many other kinds. These include including
non-genetic biological determinants; historical, geographical, social, and psychological
determinants; and environmental determinants (in the broad sense). All of these
influence our behaviours.
Atlan also believes that quite often, when we
think that we are satisfying our own desires—an act that would presumably
be the ultimate expression of our free will—we are actually trying to gratify
alienated desires attributable to unconscious determinants, such as those generated
by advertising, or by the mass
media, or by the social class to which we belong, or the part of the world
where we grew up, and so on.
But Atlan goes on to say
that we can still enjoy another form of free will, or rather a gradual liberation—the
one that can come from knowing these determinants. Knowing these determinants
can enable us to control those behaviours that depend on ourselves, as the Stoics
would put it, or to partially exercise what Spinoza calls “free necessity”.
This freedom then consists in acquiescing as joyously as possible to what nature
produces in us, outside us, and through us.
and philosophical inquiry can contribute to this liberation which, in this sense,
cannot be reduced to mere passive, fatalistic acceptance. Instead, such inquiry
forces us to exercise what we still perceive as opportunities for free choices,
to operate “as if” we were free, so long as we do not know the ultimate
causes of the choices we make. Atlan reminds us that when we are faced with choices
in our everyday lives, we have no other option but to play the role of an agent
who has free will. Perhaps it is in this sense that we can understand philosopher
Jean-Paul Sartre’s statement that we are “condemned to be free.”