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The emergence of consciousness
The Sense of Self

HelpLien :  Cheeseman and Merikle ExperimentLien :  Is consciousness socially constructed ?

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.

Merker’s starting 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 sensory information.

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 of consciousness.

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.

Lien : Why subjective consciousness?Lien : The liabilities of mobility: A selection pressure for the transition to consciousness in animal evolution

Where did consciousness come from, and what purpose does it serve? Some theorists argue that it evolved from our interactions with other people, as a tool for understanding them better. Others believe that it resulted from improved fluidity in the communications among specialized circuits in the brain, enabling them to share information more effectively. Still others argue that consciousness arose from the need to deceive ourselves so that we could deceive other people more effectively, or from the simple fact that humans have the power of locomotion, or are fairly large animals (see sidebars).

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.

Next 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.

Galatea de las Esferas, Salvador Dali (1952).

Various 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.

According 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.

According 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.

Francisco Varela uses the concept of emergence to describe consciousness, but mainly in 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.

For example, 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.

But 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 consciously.

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.

British 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.

Lastly, 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 responses. Antonio 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.

Nicholas 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 survival.

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.

After 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 consciousness developed.

Chercheur : Daniel PovinelliLien :  On the evolutionary aquisition of an internal 'body image' and 'consciousness' in our ancestorsLien : The Evolution of Self-ConceptionLien : Chimps or chumps?Lien : La conscience est le propre de l'homme


Lien :  The Psychology of ConsciousnessLien :  The mind's best trick : how we experience conscious willLien :  Conscious Will and Authorship ProcessingLien :  "The Illusion of Conscious Will", by DM Wegner
Lien :  Action, conscience et libre arbitreLien :  Retour sur les bases neurologiques du libre arbitre Lien :  Inné et acquis : les réponses d'Henri AtlanLien : The Mystery of Consciousness
Lien :  George Lakoff's blogLien : George Lakoff on Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives ThinkLien :  Evolution and the cognitive neuroscience of awareness, consciousness and languageLien :  Freedom Evolves, de Daniel Dennett: présentation et discussion par Jean-Paul Baquiast
Lien :  Le libre artibre expliqué?Lien :  Jackendoff's talk on "The Peculiar Logic of Value"Lien :    Stanislas Dehaene (CDF) , Vidéo L'imagerie cérébrale et la transition dynamique du non-conscient au conscient.Lien :  Ces Zombies qui nous gouvernent
Lien :  Retour sur les bases neurologiques du libre arbitreLien :  The Will to be Free, Part ILien :  The Will to be Free, Part IILien :  Agency, authorship, and illusion
Chercheur : Daniel M. WegnerChercheur : Eddy Nahmias

In the 1940s, Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder 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.

Chercheur :  Wilder Penfield

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.

Expérience: Ce que nous révèlent les cerveaux divisés sur le langage

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 in alien-hand 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”.

The Return of the Invisible Gorilla

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.

Two 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 atrocities.

Lien : Expérience de Milgram  (avec extrait vidéo du film " I comme Icare " de Costa Gavras)Lien : La soumission à l'autorité  (avec extrait vidéo de l'expérience originale de Milgram)Lien :  Expérience de Milgram
Lien :  Milgram experimentLien :  Another Look at the Milgram Obedience Studies

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.

What 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.

Whether 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.

But 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.

This 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 to it.

- Priority. 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 the action.

- 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.

The third condition, exclusivity, reminds us that we are constantly on the lookout for agents other than ourselves who might be responsible for the actions going on around us. For example, research done by Fritz Heider as far back as the mid-1940s showed that we are inclined to ascribe human intentions to the slightest moving object.

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 the action.

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.

Lastly, 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.

These 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.

The 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.

Wegner thinks 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.

Belonging to 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 a reward 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 neurochemical ones.


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?

But 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.

Scientific 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.”

Outil : Similitudes et différences entre le cerveau et l'ordinateur
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