The following is an attempt to reconcile some philosophical “mind”-worms in a landscape of ideas that can seem to either reference seemingly unfounded mysticism, ignore common experience, or paralyze with nihilism.
You are the universe and the universe is you.
- Really? It don’t quite feel the same. Am I missing something?
There is a spirit within your body that endows you with free will and leaves your body when you die.
- That seems anachronistic
Free will is an illusion.
- Maybe true but if so then is everyday life an annoying meaningless existence?
Everything is conscious
- Again, maybe its true, but doesn’t stating this so broadly seems to diminish consciousness to meaninglessness
Everything that we perceive, recognize, think, and do are abstractions. There is an objective reality; that is, there is something that is beyond our senses. But it has no intrinsic perforated dots; Every abstraction involves a partitioning of that all-encompassing reality, and every partition is in a sense arbitrary and subjective. There are different levels of abstraction. As humans, we have certain inescapable partitioning tendencies which are linked to the core of our biological machinery. Because we have these common biological tendencies, we have a ground consensus of abstraction which is the basis of our languages. It is by these abstractions that we can build a system with truth and falseness, to evaluate abstractions with a lens of internal consistency. From here on, we will assume this base level of human internal consistency that while we would be hard-pressed to define in completeness, we innately can recognize.
With this base level of abstraction, there is a “self” that we carve out of the universe. Again this carving-out is arbitrary, and what is carved out is not self-sufficient. There can be no “self” that persists without its surrounding and there is no “correct” separation of the two. Every concept including “correctness” is subjective at a deeper sense; however, this is not to say that we cannot make any separation. For we do at nearly every moment. There is a subset of the universe that we have the ability to sense within the limits of our consciousness, and there is a subset of the universe that we have the ability to affect. The union of these two perceived sets is what we generally call our “self”. That is, if we cannot conceive of perceiving and changing something then it is outside of our general concept of “self”. This definition becomes nebulous with the concept of the subconscious which we generally attribute to the self; but we can account for this with the idea that we can conceive the possibility of a mechanism (one that albeit is not currently known) by which we could bring the unconscious into conscious purview and control. Again, these limits are arbitrary, but mandated by our biological sensing hardware. While our current understanding seems to indicate that the universe could be completely continuous, our human perception does seem to have bounds and make distinctions.
Now that we have established the “self” as a subset of reality, we can try to establish what we generally mean by “true” and “false”. When we say something is “true”, we generally mean that the abstraction that we have created in our minds represents something that exists or has existed outside of our minds, such that in the right place or time we could look upon it and activate that respective concept in our mind’s eye without having to squint it into perception. When we say something is “false” we mean that the abstraction we have conjured up is suggested to exist only as a symbol and not represent something that exists outside of conceptualization. “True” and “false” are in this way subjective. There is no objective truth because if reality is partitioned in a different way, it would be possible that our own mechanisms of perception might deem what we currently regard as “false” to be “true” and vice-versa. At this point we have definitions of “self”, “true”, and “false”. One can note that the partition of “self” necessitates the concept of “non-self” and the concept of “true” necessitates the concept of “false”.
From here on, we can hypothesize an unfounded premise that we are machines that sense a portion of the universe, partition this information into a variety of hierarchies of abstraction, attend to a subset of this processed information, and produce actions. Let’s use this premise to see if we can answer some philosophical questions to some level of satisfaction. The subset of this information partitioning that we are aware of while it is occurring forms a rough estimate of what we commonly refer to as “consciousness”. By these definitions and the aforementioned hypothesis that we are a special kind of machine, it would not be an oxymoron to say that we are both “mechanical” and “conscious”. But here comes a bigger question: do we have “free will”?
Before getting to “free will” lets define the terms “power” and “choice”. “Power” is our ability to affect a change in the universe. The flip side of “power” is that there are things that we can be conscious of that we cannot change. Furthermore “power” can be divided into “internal power” which is an ability to make a change in the subset of the universe delineated as “self”, and “external power” which is an ability to make a change in the subset of the universe delineated as “non-self”. When we make a “choice” we have conceptualized multiple exclusive potential future states of the universe and we consciously try to use our “power” to realize one over another. If we have not conceptualized multiple potential states, then we are not making a “choice”. If we affect a change but we are unconscious of our own “power”, then we are not making a “choice”. If we are not using our “power” to realize one of the conceived potential states over another, then we are not making a “choice”. Once we have made a “choice” that is our “will”. Note that the “power” need not be “true”; as long as we think that we have the ability to affect change we can make a “choice”
What is “freedom”? “Freedom” can be thought of as the fraction of our “will” that we have “true” “power” to realize (into reality). In this way “freedom” entails “free will” and we can define a concept of “non-freedom” as the fraction of our “will” that we do not have “true” “power” to realize. I would make a claim that some amount of “suffering” that we experience as an agent is the amount of “non-freedom” we experience, and that by experiencing less of this we can induce more “happiness”. This makes room for several corollaries: If there is no perceived “choice”, then there is no “will”, and there is less “non-freedom” / “suffering” (via decreasing the denominator in aforementioned fraction). If we make no attempt to use our “power” to realize a conceptualized potential “state”, then we too have not made “choice” and there is no “non-freedom” / “suffering”. Another method to increase “freedom” is to gain more “power” (increasing the numerator in aforementioned fraction); This the traditionally understood method for attaining more freedom. I believe this is one of the wisdoms of “enlightened” humans. they have conditioned their mental machinery to reduce “will” and induce a state with very low “non-freedom” / “suffering” and in doing so can use their more available “consciousness” to enjoy the universe. Most agents have the faulty tendency to prioritize “external power” over “internal power”, while there is likely more latent amount of the latter that can be procured to alleviate “suffering” / produce “happiness”
When we query the existence of “free will” we are actually expecting a satisfying response to answer other questions too. These include: Is everything predetermined? Do I have any true choices to make? The latter question has mostly been answered already. In our framework of “self”/“non-self” there is “power” and there are “choices”, and even choosing not to make a choice is a “choice” in itself. So in this system there are consequential choices to be made. I think the idea of “predetermination” is false. I think that the “past” does exist, albeit as an abstraction, but I think the mistake is believing that the “past” affects the “present” without an agent converting the “past” into “present” actions. In this system of thought, the “past” is simply the expression of representations of portions previous states of the universe, and while there may be correlations to be made with abstractions of the “present” there is no causation (outside of the mechanism of an agent). If the “past” is the tail of a comet shooting across the night sky, few would believe that it is driving the direction of the comet. In this way nothing is “predetermined”. Furthermore the idea is that if the universe is “predetermined”, then one could conceive of an agent that can predict without a doubt the future state of the universe and use this information to inform its actions; however, if an agent somehow had this ability to foresee the future then it would be unable to make a “choice” unless it broke the very nature of predetermination by conceiving of alternative potential future states. I would further push that an entity that cannot make a “choice” is not an “agent”
Another interesting question that arises from the premise that a human is a special type of machine is: For what purpose do i have consciousness if I am a machine? Why am I not a mindless zombie? This is further out of the territory that this current framework can answer but we can make some guesses. I think that the use of “consciousness” in this context is “self-consciousness” rather than “consciousness” in the broader sense defined above. “Consciousness” in the broader sense used above would be an implication of information-processing or perception involved in any information-processing machine, and the degree of “consciousness” is in some ways linked to the breadth of perception, level of abstraction, and flexibility with which the data can interact with itself. “Self-consciousness” is the idea that there is conceptualization of a “self” and “choices”. It may be that to survive as the type of machines that we are, we needed to make sufficiently abstracted “choices” that necessitated development of a concept for “self” and a mechanism of attention to process our internal abstractions.
Yet another question that comes to mind is where dose “qualia” fit into all of this? (that part of perception that exists independent of “choice” and seemingly abstraction itself). I feel the sensation of “qualia” is most evident in mental states achieved through meditation, when attention is shifted from the processes operating within the “self” to that of “non-self”. In this case, “qualia” is attention along a less abstracted (more grounded) layer of data, maybe only with the vaguest suggestion of associations. Perhaps “qualia” is a term that we use to contrast attention on highly abstracted concepts that is far removed from “non-self”, and “qualia” would not be applicable to machinery without ability to make higher abstractions. This is sculpted as I try to fit my current intuitions: does a fellow mammal like a dog experience “qualia”? probably; how about a plant? less likely; how about a rock? even less likely.
I am sympathetic to some of your concerns. I think it’s important to acknowledge those writers and thinkers who have employed the concept of illusion with proper context and background and give them credit for doing so. When someone with a neuroscience background says that consciousness is an illusion (from my limited reading) they normally qualify the statement carefully. It’s not illusory in the sense of being imaginary or fake or duplicitous. It’s illusory in the sense that the total narrative is constructed. Illusory in the sense that the intelligibility of our perceptions is knitted together certain evolved facets of cognition.
At the same time in pop culture variations of the same conversation the word illusion IS used in this former sense as a way of hand waving. It’s enfolded in the larger slide toward euphemism that is a detriment to language in general.
Hopefully this is a helpful distinction.