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If free will does not exist, then consciousness has no reason to exist either

 
Burleigh
 
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Burleigh
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18 July 2017 12:02
 

Dr. Harris argues that all perception is the result of neural activity, and that free will is impossible because we are controlled by our neurochemistry and how it relates to the outside world. We therefore are merely perceiving thoughts rather than thinking them, and we do not make decisions- rather, we have the perception of decisions being made. This is what Dr. Harris means by “free will is an illusion.”

However, society’s common belief about consciousness is that it is a means of cognitively processing stimuli for the purpose of organizing and enacting behavior. This clearly contradicts the logical outcome of the argument above. Following Sam’s reasoning, consciousness is just a perceptive device that cannot have an impact on the outside world.

The question I ask, then, is if consciousness has any purpose at all. If it cannot influence the outside world, there seems to be no explanation as to its function. Did evolution select for the existence of consciousness? Impossible, if consciousness has no influence on brain function.

This raises another issue. If the brain *causes* consciousness, then we would expect physical resources to be expended on the maintenance of consciousness. Apart from the conundrum of physical matter causing something non-physical, we should be suspicious of this claim. If evolution does not select for consciousness and physical resources/energy are spent on its maintenance, then we should expect evolution to select *against* the existence of consciousness. Basically, evolution always selects for the least energy-expensive mechanisms for the survival of the species. Not only does consciousness seem to not have a purpose, it also should be specifically selected against (if the brain creates consciousness).

One final issue: we are faced with an odd fact regarding the specific content of consciousness. Why are we only conscious of the events that relate our body to the outside world? This is puzzling when you think about it. I am currently sitting and aware of sensory stimuli from the outside world. I am also aware of certain specific stimuli that originate in my body. What is interesting is that the stimuli I am aware of inside my body seems to directly relate to the outside world. Consider this: I am aware of when I have a stomach ache, but I am not aware of when my stomach contracts to digest food. Why do I perceive the stomach ache? Because it may be informing me that I ate some spoiled food. Another example: I am aware of when someone thrusts a knife into my liver, but I am not aware of when my liver releases bile into the bile duct. My sensory experiences of internal events seem to only select those that are caused by the outside world. Any internal event that is caused by a routine internal process I am blissfully unaware of.

So my perceptive experiences seem to all revolve around the outside environment. In an uncanny way, my conscious experiences seem to witness to the role of consciousness in modulating responses to the outside world. But, as expressed earlier, consciousness can have no role whatsoever in deciding how my body reacts to any exterior events. The illusion that consciousness can influence body’s reactions to the outside world is very strong.

Thank you,
Burleigh

 
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19 July 2017 01:14
 

Conscious being is an open system with inherent self-regulatory processes. The issue of free will arises only due to the sentiment of a self which as such is an instance or manifestation of these self-regulatory processes. The conscious system is an ‘intelligent’ feedback control system.

 
Kalessin
 
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19 July 2017 15:32
 

free will is impossible because we are controlled by our neurochemistry and how it relates to the outside world.

I think this is may be part of, but perhaps not the essence, of the Sam Harris position as I understand it from a number of podcasts where this comes up.  I think he makes a compelling case based more on logical reasoning and the rules of causality.  The neuroscience element - for example evidence that our ‘conscious’ awareness of thought or will actually follows synaptic activity rather than generating it - isn’t critical to that argument, and I am not sure if that bit of the science is definitive or comprehensive enough at this stage.  In fact you could probably model an intelligent fully self-determining system that simply had some asynchronicity in converting will into action for whatever unknown reason.

For that reason, I think all your caveats and questions about the impact of external stimuli and the apparent inconsistency of experience based on the neuroscientific assumption are valid, and actually quite compelling.  But they don’t necessarily address the causal chain argument.

...an instance or manifestation of these self-regulatory processes

I also think the by-product, coincident or autonomic argument is not definitive (yet) and in fact neither afffirms nor undermines the logical basis for free will as illusion.  I think, somewhat tentatively as I need to read more, that it rests on models of how intelligent systems work which are themselves still subject to scrutiny and discussion.  You possibly risk a circularity in philosophical terms since the only way to test the manifestation argument as a basis for consciousness is through some manifestation of consciousness. 

Of course I may be misrepresenting Sam Harris’ position, so for convenience assume this is my position rather than undertaking an autopsy on all his writing.  The argument is this -

It’s not that you can’t or don’t make choices; but the idea that those choices are not utterly pre-determined and arise from free will is an illusion.  Even if it feels like you were torn between polar opposites and starting from a neutral, undecided position midway between the two,  the final outcome was actually always going to be the same and no amount of intensely applied rationality, Cartesian demons or Ockham’s razor on your part actually changes that.

The paradox is that decisions still require the act of making them and any associated conscious thought processes.  There is no possibility for abdicating responsibility (that in itself is a predetermined decision) and indeed we must be active participants in the cycle.  There is no-one who is not aware of having changed their mind, or learned new things, so we have a relationship with external stimuli at any moment in real time which necessarily feeds in to all subsequent moments.  And neither Sam Harris or I have slumped indulgently into passive disinterest on the basis that we are self-drive cars with pre-programmed satnavs.

The causal chain position is that all the genetic, neuroscientific, environmental and historical variables leading up to any one moment in your life are utterly present as decisive deterministic factors in that moment; you can’t switch them off and start with a clean slate.  If it was possible to compute this (it sounds like a non-P option to me!) then you could feed in any decision scenario and with all the preceding variables predict the outcome with 100% certainty.  You could perhaps frame this as a purely statistical model, but I smell classical logic in there also as a way of removing all possibility of alternate outcomes.  So, if you have values representing all the variables (n+n+n+n+n ... etc.) the outcome is necessarily determined. 

That’s where I’m at with my thinking.  For some crazy reason it doesn’t stop me feeling like I am going to do some unexpected stuff tomorrow smile
Kalessin

 
Brick Bungalow
 
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20 July 2017 09:19
 

Science only ever asks how. Why is relegated to ethics and social narrative. (and religion) Science reduces experience in the same way it reduces photosynthesis. I feel like we are all responsible for how we justify subjectivity. Its only a strictly scientific question if you need it to be.

 
ImaginaryNumber
 
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20 July 2017 14:29
 

Please forgive me if I’m misunderstanding the OP, but you seem to be saying that in order for consciousness to be causal, it must also be free. As Brick Bungalow mentioned upthread, this really only applies if you assume that causality must, by definition, have a teleological purpose. Otherwise, there are many examples of phenomenon, such as the laws of physics, that influence the causal chain without any apparent ‘reason’. Is there a ‘reason’ for gravity to exist? Not in the colloquial sense, no.  And yet exist it does.


I think your intuition - and again, I may be misunderstanding here - is that determinism means that our bodies would go about doing exactly what they do whether human minds were conscious or not. This is certainly a controversial topic, and it’s my understanding that there are people who are firmly in either camp and many who are undecided. Perhaps consciousness is an evolutionary spandrel, perhaps it served a vital purpose in our survival, or perhaps complex self-consciousness was beneficial but a much later evolving trait, such as the ability for language.


However it arrived on the scene, it does seem to me that consciousness is very likely causal, however. Consider planning one of two scenarios: going on vacation to an exotic locale; or taking a series of harmless over the counter medications such as Alka-seltzer. Neither one is directly important to your survival one way or the other. Both will cause some changes in the sensory and physiological inputs your body receives, but the vacation will be geared far more heavily to the former; the Tylenol and Rolaids to the latter. On the vacation you will see, hear, smell, touch, and taste many new things, and these may have a marginal impact on your physiological state (as compared to an average day,) but not by much. Taking the decongestant et al will provide a very brief sensory experience (getting a cup of water and swallowing a pill,) but will create a multitude of physiological changes in one’s body. Why then do people plan vacations and not holidays to the drug store wherein they stock up on Pepto Bismal just for the fun of it, when the latter has a far more extreme physical effect? Because, I would say, OTC medications engage physiological processes that are outside of consciousness (unless you are using them to relieve a given malady.) Vacations, while they bring about little physiological change, bring a great deal of new information into conscious awareness - and so these are what we tend to plan. To my mind, this is an argument in favor of the idea that consciousness is indeed causal.

 
toddjnsn
 
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25 July 2017 22:45
 

Dr. Harris argues that all perception is the result of neural activity, and that free will is impossible because we are controlled by our neurochemistry and how it relates to the outside world.

I don’t know if that’s his basis—which I’m trying to figure out.  But to be fair, I haven’t read / listened to everything, so that’s my fault.  Or is it? wink  I’ve heard some of his arguments which I’m absorbing, and some that I have issue with.  Basically, what is the “we”/“i” part, and what is “free will”—should always be checked when analyzing this. It makes for easy miscommunication when one doesn’t. But I think your synopsis there seems close to head-on to what he’s saying, underneath it all.

I think your intuition - and again, I may be misunderstanding here - is that determinism means that our bodies would go about doing exactly what they do whether human minds were conscious or not.

I don’t think it necessarily means that (not that you were referring to me).  I think it’d be silly to say that our bodies would go about doing Exactly the Same thing, whether we were conscious or not.  Like other parts of the brain, you turn off one part, it’s going to have an effect on the overall system.  Looking at determinism that way would mean there is no consciousness—that consciousness plays no role in thoughts/thought-generation/thought-modification, thus no role in Action.  Who the hell would think that? smile

The basic intuitive way of looking at Determinism, in the regard you refer to:  One’s actions can be Determined just the same by external sources, whether they’re a conscious being or not (one’s “free will” or lack thereof doesn’t get in the way to be able to pre-determine their actions)

I think Sam’s POV (which again, I have not fully absorbed yet) brings to light that it’s an illusion that we have such great Amounts of free-will.  That we have Much less control over what we think & do.  But what’s “we”?  Our conscious self.  Our conscious self plays a Very Small role in our brain, comparatively speaking—including complex analyses and processing on thinking and the like.

I won’t go on and on about my issues with it (I will want to read his stuff further), is that the conscious brain can be in “cruise control” mode, but it’s not purely that.  It certainly, like other parts of the brain have an effect on others—and vice versa.  Our conscious self, “us”, is where “will” comes into play.  We have less FREE will… less “room to run” than we Feel.  But it’s there.  It’s just not that free.  Our conscious self plays a role into things… and plays a role into the cause-and-effects through life.  And things out of our control affect it as well (Think of a Big Red Van.  See?  Made ya think)—but that doesn’t mean we have ZERO say/control/affect.  And the experiment to predict one choosing left or right (which isn’t perfect either)—I have issue on that, but I’ve rambled on too much as it is.

 

 
TechieGuy
 
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23 August 2017 20:05
 
Burleigh - 18 July 2017 12:02 PM

<snip>
One final issue: we are faced with an odd fact regarding the specific content of consciousness. Why are we only conscious of the events that relate our body to the outside world? This is puzzling when you think about it.
<snip>
Thank you,
Burleigh

There is nothing puzzling about it. This “feature” is common in many artificially developed systems as well. It’s an obvious way of handling information input without causing overload of the system handing it. E.g. In an electronic system, you design a system to handle over/under voltage, over heat, out of memory etc. triggers. These are out of the ordinary events that need attention. You don’t have to deal with “normal” systems events. In fact, a system that evolved to deal with normal events, would be wasteful and not efficient from a resource standpoint.

It’s no surprise that evolutionary processes evolved something similar. Our neural network evolved to handle sensory input and does not handle “normal” life processes of your body, else it’ll get overloaded. However, a stomach ache is abnormal, hence your evolved neural network alerts you about it.

Simply explained IMHO.

 
MyOpenLetters
 
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02 September 2017 15:43
 

In my view (and I think in Sam’s view) consciousness doesn’t influence anything, it doesn’t cost anything and it is not selected for. Complicated information processing was selected for in humans. It does cost something, but it also has it’s benefits of course. A side effect of complicated information processing (at least if it happens in a brain) is consciousness. This just may be how our Universe works: Information processing can lead to the side effect of consciousness and a first person experience. Maybe the information processing has to happen in a complex system, maybe it has to be able to process information about itself, maybe it has to work distributed and can not be a single processor working off lines of source code. The idea that consciousness and emotions and decision making processes are just side effects, sounds weird but I tried to think through every other possibility that might make some sense and in the end I think they are even weirder and less logical.
When your liver is working fine, the information that is processed about it, might not be complex enough to arise in consciousness (or it arises in a lower level of consciousness but not in “your” consciousness). If there is trouble in your liver so many signals are send, that a much bigger part of your brain gets activated and starts to process the information. The system processes the information that there is an injury and the side effect in consciousness is for example pain.
In case my view is not clear, maybe my open letter to Daniel Dennett makes it clear:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGurPMiKsqA

 
dhave
 
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18 September 2017 12:32
 

Free will is a feeling.  Feelings come and go in consciousness.  Feelings exist but not in the sense of a thing with a shape and color and weight.

I’m feeling creative.  Let me know if this definition works:  Consciousness is what your brain looks like from a first-person perspective.

Regards,
Dave.

 
 
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18 September 2017 21:35
 
Burleigh - 18 July 2017 12:02 PM

Dr. Harris argues that all perception is the result of neural activity, and that free will is impossible because we are controlled by our neurochemistry and how it relates to the outside world. We therefore are merely perceiving thoughts rather than thinking them, and we do not make decisions- rather, we have the perception of decisions being made. This is what Dr. Harris means by “free will is an illusion.”

If this is what he means then he is totally wrong. Why? Because there is no central executive ‘I’ beyond neural activity perceiving neural activity’s thoughts or decisions. The central executive ‘I’ is itself neural activity. The issue if ‘free will’ actually is only an issue due to this illusion-like central executive ‘I’.

 
Speakpigeon
 
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05 October 2017 01:11
 
Burleigh - 18 July 2017 12:02 PM

The question I ask, then, is if consciousness has any purpose at all. If it cannot influence the outside world, there seems to be no explanation as to its function. Did evolution select for the existence of consciousness? Impossible, if consciousness has no influence on brain function.

I think you are mixing up two very different things, namely, what I call objective consciousness and subjective consciousness.
‘Objective consciousness’ refers to something we believe exists based on our interpretation of our (assumed) perceptions of the material world. We observe what we think of as other people and infer the cognitive capabilities we assume as necessary to navigate (what we think of as) the world. If there is indeed such a thing, then it must be highly selectable by evolution. But then, the question of its purpose doesn’t make sense. It’s just a fact of the world and it works, which has to be good enough as a justification for its observed existence.
But there’s a second sense of consciousness which is subjective consciousness, often called ‘subjective experience’, if only to emphasise the distinction with objective consciousness. Subjective consciousness is the brute fact that I am subjectively aware of something. The ‘I’ here doesn’t even refer to me as a person, a human being. Rather, it’s the thing that is aware. This species of consciousness can be freely considered independently of any notion of its origin, cause, reason. It’s just a brut fact. In my case, and I will guess that of many people, it includes something that the ‘I’ takes to be its self, its mind, its memories etc. We could speculate why that is, but that question properly belongs to the problem of objective consciousness in the sense that any answer would require going beyond subjective consciousness into the metaphysical realm of some theory of the human mind and of the physical world.

The question of free will does not even make sense in the context of subjective consciousness. And then it only makes sense in the context of objective consciousness if you interpret it away from the usual way it is done. Thus, if free will is defined as just the degree of autonomy of any objectively conscious being that can be regarded as a reasonably well-defined part of reality, then it’s really obvious that human beings have free will, just as any ordinary car has it’s own impetus relatively to the rest of the universe and each material body has its own weight relative to the Earth. You can try it, it works and it saves time.

Of course, you need to be reasonable. Free will in this sense belongs to the problem of objective consciousness and as such can only be something we believe exists rather than something we know exists.
EB

 
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05 October 2017 10:38
 
Speakpigeon - 05 October 2017 01:11 AM
Burleigh - 18 July 2017 12:02 PM

The question I ask, then, is if consciousness has any purpose at all. If it cannot influence the outside world, there seems to be no explanation as to its function. Did evolution select for the existence of consciousness? Impossible, if consciousness has no influence on brain function.

I think you are mixing up two very different things, namely, what I call objective consciousness and subjective consciousness.
‘Objective consciousness’ refers to something we believe exists based on our interpretation of our (assumed) perceptions of the material world. We observe what we think of as other people and infer the cognitive capabilities we assume as necessary to navigate (what we think of as) the world. If there is indeed such a thing, then it must be highly selectable by evolution. But then, the question of its purpose doesn’t make sense. It’s just a fact of the world and it works, which has to be good enough as a justification for its observed existence.
But there’s a second sense of consciousness which is subjective consciousness, often called ‘subjective experience’, if only to emphasise the distinction with objective consciousness. Subjective consciousness is the brute fact that I am subjectively aware of something. The ‘I’ here doesn’t even refer to me as a person, a human being. Rather, it’s the thing that is aware. This species of consciousness can be freely considered independently of any notion of its origin, cause, reason. It’s just a brut fact. In my case, and I will guess that of many people, it includes something that the ‘I’ takes to be its self, its mind, its memories etc. We could speculate why that is, but that question properly belongs to the problem of objective consciousness in the sense that any answer would require going beyond subjective consciousness into the metaphysical realm of some theory of the human mind and of the physical world.

The question of free will does not even make sense in the context of subjective consciousness. And then it only makes sense in the context of objective consciousness if you interpret it away from the usual way it is done. Thus, if free will is defined as just the degree of autonomy of any objectively conscious being that can be regarded as a reasonably well-defined part of reality, then it’s really obvious that human beings have free will, just as any ordinary car has it’s own impetus relatively to the rest of the universe and each material body has its own weight relative to the Earth. You can try it, it works and it saves time.

Of course, you need to be reasonable. Free will in this sense belongs to the problem of objective consciousness and as such can only be something we believe exists rather than something we know exists.
EB

This is an interesting distinction. The idea of ‘objective consciousness’ feels a little strange to me since one working synonym for consciousness is subjectivity. Now, I can run out the string here because I don’t consider objective and subjective to be strict antonyms. Still, can objective consciousness be anything more than the general, collective of subjective consciousness?

 
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06 October 2017 08:20
 
Brick Bungalow - 05 October 2017 10:38 AM
Speakpigeon - 05 October 2017 01:11 AM
Burleigh - 18 July 2017 12:02 PM

The question I ask, then, is if consciousness has any purpose at all. If it cannot influence the outside world, there seems to be no explanation as to its function. Did evolution select for the existence of consciousness? Impossible, if consciousness has no influence on brain function.

I think you are mixing up two very different things, namely, what I call objective consciousness and subjective consciousness.
‘Objective consciousness’ refers to something we believe exists based on our interpretation of our (assumed) perceptions of the material world. We observe what we think of as other people and infer the cognitive capabilities we assume as necessary to navigate (what we think of as) the world. If there is indeed such a thing, then it must be highly selectable by evolution. But then, the question of its purpose doesn’t make sense. It’s just a fact of the world and it works, which has to be good enough as a justification for its observed existence.
But there’s a second sense of consciousness which is subjective consciousness, often called ‘subjective experience’, if only to emphasise the distinction with objective consciousness. Subjective consciousness is the brute fact that I am subjectively aware of something. The ‘I’ here doesn’t even refer to me as a person, a human being. Rather, it’s the thing that is aware. This species of consciousness can be freely considered independently of any notion of its origin, cause, reason. It’s just a brut fact. In my case, and I will guess that of many people, it includes something that the ‘I’ takes to be its self, its mind, its memories etc. We could speculate why that is, but that question properly belongs to the problem of objective consciousness in the sense that any answer would require going beyond subjective consciousness into the metaphysical realm of some theory of the human mind and of the physical world.

The question of free will does not even make sense in the context of subjective consciousness. And then it only makes sense in the context of objective consciousness if you interpret it away from the usual way it is done. Thus, if free will is defined as just the degree of autonomy of any objectively conscious being that can be regarded as a reasonably well-defined part of reality, then it’s really obvious that human beings have free will, just as any ordinary car has it’s own impetus relatively to the rest of the universe and each material body has its own weight relative to the Earth. You can try it, it works and it saves time.

Of course, you need to be reasonable. Free will in this sense belongs to the problem of objective consciousness and as such can only be something we believe exists rather than something we know exists.
EB

This is an interesting distinction. The idea of ‘objective consciousness’ feels a little strange to me since one working synonym for consciousness is subjectivity.

It’s really a question of whose point of view you’re considering.

If A is considering B, all A has access to (as far as we know) in terms of B’s consciousness is what I will call here B’s objective consciousness. For example, A may be able to observe B negotiating his or her way between other people and obstacles in the street and infer from that that B must be conscious of his or her surroundings. C and D will also be able to observe B in the same way as A and will therefore have access to B’s objective consciousness in broadly the same way as A.
And then I can call what only B has access to in terms of B’s consciousness as B’s subjective consciousness. The relation between the two aspects is restricted, for all we know for now, to assuming from our observation that other people are objectively conscious that they must also be subjectively conscious, in the same way that we know we are ourselves subjectively conscious.

Brick Bungalow - 05 October 2017 10:38 AM

Now, I can run out the string here because I don’t consider objective and subjective to be strict antonyms. Still, can objective consciousness be anything more than the general, collective of subjective consciousness?

I don’t see how we would know that objective consciousness is the collective of subjective consciousness. It might well be but I certainly don’t know that myself and I would even question the usefulness of the concept of ‘collective of subjective consciousnesses’ itself.

One could always decide to call ‘objective consciousness’ something you’d want to describe as the collective of a group of interacting subjective consciousnesses, assuming you think such a thing would exist. I don’t. I don’t assume it exists. Maybe it does but I have really no serious indication that it does. It’s as plausible that such a thing exists as it is plausible that there is something which is the subjective consciousness of a car, or that of a pebble, or of anything whatever. We have no good reason to think such things exist, though they might.
So, all I could accept is that it would make sense to talk about collective (as opposed to simply the ‘set’) objective consciousness (of a group of people), by considering that the individual objective consciousness of people part of a group could enable them to interact with each other and coordinate their actions, so as to effectively endows the group of at least some of the same characteristics or properties as that of the objectively conscious individual. Companies, governments, football teams etc. could all be said to possess such a collective objective consciousness. Even ants in an ant colony could be said to collectively possess it.
What would be missing, then, would be precisely the subjective counterpart of this collective objective consciousness.
As I see it, individual subjective consciousness is the counterpart of individual objective consciousness. However, there would be no collective subjective counterpart to collective objective consciousness. And I think most people don’t routinely believe in the existence of such a thing though they probably routinely believe in the existence of individual subjective consciousness, and surely their own to begin with. Still, some people, probably, believe in such a thing, whatever the reason for that.
Now, I would likely get to agree with hardcore materialists, people who unlike me deny the existence of subjective consciousness, for everybody, including themselves, that collective objective consciousness could only come out of individual objective consciousness, and more accurately out of the interaction between multiple individual objective consciousnesses, or more simply, from the conscious interaction between different people.
My distinction between subjective and objective consciousness was meant to clarify the debate. One can accept both kinds of consciousness as real, or one can accept one and reject the other, so it’s easier the agree to disagree. But then, I don’t see what would be the usefulness of this concept of collective objective consciousness, since we would probably all agree anyway that it is real but also that it is trivially real, just as we think that a human body is trivially real as long as there are real atoms that are organised into a human body. I guess it’s called simply ‘collective consciousness’, inasmuch as it is understood as essentially an objective thing.
EB

 

 

 
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17 July 2018 23:24
 
Kalessin - 19 July 2017 03:32 PM

It’s not that you can’t or don’t make choices; but the idea that those choices are not utterly pre-determined and arise from free will is an illusion.

All due respect, in this sentence haven’t you simply co-opted the English word “choice”?

 
Alexmahone
 
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23 August 2018 18:05
 

So, what is the point of consciousness if one has no free will?

[ Edited: 23 August 2018 18:07 by Alexmahone]
 
GAD
 
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23 August 2018 18:27
 
Alexmahone - 23 August 2018 06:05 PM

So, what is the point of consciousness if one has no free will?

To understand that you have none. Like the Cyclops’s in Krull, they had the power to see the future, but only their own deaths.

 
 
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