Who’s in Charge? Consciousness and Control in the Waking Up App

In seven brief talks on free will in the Waking Up meditation app,  Sam Harris gets it importantly right about the consequences of giving up the myth of libertarian freedom. We are urged to accept causal determinism, plus any indeterminism that might exist, when it comes to understanding ourselves. Such acceptance undermines a common justification for retribution, shifts attitudes about praise and blame without affecting the basis for love, generates compassion without removing accountability, and supports effective action in light of understanding causation. Harris also notes that compatibilists such as Dan Dennett regrettably tend to ignore the morally salient aspects of how their determinism-friendly conception of free will differs from folk libertarianism, e.g., in delegitimizing retributive punishment. Were we all to become good, pragmatic determinists, many benefits would accrue, and the scope and importance of this can’t be overstated. These benefits are summed up in the catchphrase for worldview naturalism: connection, compassion, control.

Harris is concerned that we don’t mistake anything about being conscious as evidence for the existence of contra-causal, libertarian agency, and most of what he says is well-taken. But a worry might arise when we hear in part 7 that “The you that you take yourself to be isn’t in control of anything,” where the you at issue is “the conscious witness of your experience.” We might wonder: ok, but who or what is in control?  Obviously, our behavior is sufficiently controlled such that we usually survive and sometimes even prosper. From a physicalist perspective, the answer is that the brain is the (proximate) controller of the body: it instantiates all the motivational and deliberative processing that drives and manages goal-directed behavior, synthesizes the input from the body and environment needed for effective action, and uses stored memories and imagined scenarios for use in behavioral simulations. If we identify ourselves with our brains – you are your brain, brains-r-us – then there’s no worry about who or what’s in control of the body and its behavior. It may be, as Harris says, that “we feel and presume an authorship over our thoughts and actions that is illusory,” namely the authorship ascribed to the conscious witness. But as embodied brains we are authors of our thoughts since there’s no other place they could arise. And the same goes for actions.

But what about consciousness, in particular that feeling of being a conscious witness of your experience? We might take ourselves to be such witnesses (“the you that you take yourself to be”) but Harris argues in part 2 that we really aren’t, that in fact “You’re not on the riverbank watching the stream of consciousness…there is only the stream, and you are identical to it.” Similarly: “There is no subject in the middle of experience; everything, including thoughts and intentions, and counter-thoughts and counter-intentions, is arising all on its own.” The feeling of being a witness to, or subject of, conscious experience, what we might call the self-sensation, is thus simply part of – an aspect of – the stream of consciousness, and that feeling or sensation is not in a position to produce or manage experience. As the felt subjects of experience, we are not in an observational or control relation to consciousness, as  argued in Killing the observer. So, although Harris often says that you (as the witness) don’t control or originate your conscious thoughts or decisions, it would be simpler to say there is no conscious self-witness that stands apart from conscious thoughts that’s in a position to originate or control them. For example, he says in part 2 that “The thing to notice is that you as the conscious witness of your inner life are not making decisions; all you can do is witness decisions once they are made.” But if we agree that there really is no witness to experience that stands apart from it, then of course there is no threat posed to its control. This worry simply drops away. There is just experience arising in conjunction with brain-based decision-making and behavior control.

However, this simplified scenario suggests that consciousness, including the self-sensation, may not be the controller of behavior, which is pretty counterintuitive. As much as we commonsensically take consciousness to be in control, there are no good accounts of how conscious experience per se, as opposed to its neural correlates, could add to the behavior control already accomplished by those correlates – the problem of mental causation. If in response you say that experience, of say the feeling of pain, just is neural goings-on, then it obviously can’t add to what those goings-on are doing, so the feeling per se needn’t be appealed to in physicalist explanations of behavior. And indeed, feelings and sensations don’t appear as causal players in behavioral neuroscience. Nevertheless, it’s the neural processes accompanied by consciousness that get most of the complex and flexible behavior-controlling work done, and, as Harris points out, it’s our consciously expressed motives and intentions that most reveal our character and that most reliably predict our future behavior. Even if consciousness is not in control, it very reliably correlates with what most matters to us in terms of behavior, which means that experience is a good, reportable proxy for what’s actually doing the causal work.

The proxy of our experience gets reported to each other in terms of feelings, perceptions, beliefs, desires, hopes, and intentions, all of which are plausibly construed as contents of neurally-instantiated intentional states, that is, states that represent or model the world outside the brain, including the body. What might be the case is that experience is a reportable, content-based world model that runs in parallel with the neural vehicles that carry the content and that control behavior. The content itself, including sensory content like pain or sweetness, is not in direct causal control, but when reported is the essential currency of interpersonal communication. Such content of course ends up having a very influential sort of behavioral control – social control – once translated into the causally effective neural carriers of content. The brain effortlessly (from the subjective standpoint!) transduces conceptual and propositional information carried by light, sound, and other media into neurally-encoded conceptual and propositional content whose vehicles, among other neural carriers of content, are in causal control of the body.

The worry about consciousness not being in control can thus be put to rest once we see that its correlated neural vehicles in the brain – the ones carrying conscious content – are very reliably in control. What still needs explaining, of course, is why certain sorts of representational contents end up as qualitative and subjective, that is, as the conscious sensory contents out of which all our experience is constructed. The self-sensation may not be in control, but it’s still quite real (Dennett’s illusionism about consciousness notwithstanding). Although it can disappear in certain meditative or psychedelic experiences, it’s usually there in the stream of consciousness, along with the myriads of diverse qualitative contents that come and go when awake or dreaming. The explanation for why we physical beings host subjective experience, and the feeling of hosting it, awaits a settled theory of consciousness.

Even if we accept that the brain, with lots of help from social norms, can usually be trusted to keep our behavior in line, a worry about determinism might persist. If we don’t have contra-causal freedom, aren’t we deprived of an important sort of control, and thus responsibility? Not at all. As Harris and others over the centuries (e.g., David Hume) have pointed out, indeterminism can only attenuate the otherwise reliable connections between your desires, deliberations, intentions, and finally, actions. It’s therefore irrational to want to live outside of cause and effect; unless, as Dennett once observed, you’re playing rock-paper-scissors with God. As a compatibilist wanting to preserve desert-based punishment, Dennett doesn’t usually extol the virtues of determinism, but I’ll leave you with this nice quote from his 2012 Erasmus Prize essay, Sometimes a Spin Doctor is Right:

“When the ‘control’ by the environment runs through your well-working perceptual systems and your undeluded brain, it is nothing to dread; in fact, nothing is more desirable than being caused by the things and events around us to generate true beliefs about them that we can then use in modulating our behavior to our advantage!”

TWC,  January 2021

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