Saturday, October 8, 2011

To Be Aware

What is the difference between the experience of consciousness, and the awareness of consciousness?

For instance, a blue jay can be said to be conscious in the sense that it feels hunger, analyses its environment, becomes excited as it sees a worm, chooses what it feels is its best path, becomes excited as it sees a worm, and then experiences the pleasure of having its desire satiated. (Of course, no one has spoken with a bluejay, but I see no reason to think that through behavioral observations and knowledge of brain function, we can't reasonably assume that these feelings are occurring).

However, the blue jay is doubtless unaware of its consciousness - that it is experiencing hunger, excitement, pleasure, etc. In this way, it can maybe be said to be unconscious, just as we are when we go about our daily business by habit, simply responding to the environment and making choices that we are unaware we are making. These habitual decisions are certainly more complex, but are they not just as unconscious as the bluejay? For instance, driving a car, parking it, locking the doors, etc. The spiritual tradition of "mindfulness" is explicitly about raising just this sort of consciousness, so that even in these smaller actions, there is a sort of memory we learn to engage that adds an extra layer of consciousness to simple daily activity. There is certainly an argument to be made for this, given the human tendency to allow our unconscious behaviors - and thoughts, even - to get the better of us, leading us into what are ultimately poor decisions. So, the lesson learned is to be more mindful, to develop a sort of leverage point – some trigger – in our daily experiences by which we can shift one level out in our perspective, towards some broader context.

A key detail in the debate over free will, I think, is the degree to which this leveraging actually defines what we mean by free will. What is it to be conscious? I once checked a book out from the library on lucid dreaming. The idea was to take advantage of the cyclical nature of sleep, where we spend ever longer periods of time in deep, REM sleep, yet then wake briefly between cycles. The instructions were to begin a dream journal, and to develop a habit of jotting down our most recent dreams immediately upon these awakenings. By beginning to become more aware of our dreams just after having had them, this habit would help trigger lucidity in the dream state.

The book also recommended the mindfulness I spoke of previously. Throughout the day, if one developed the habit of mindfulness – a higher level of awareness of one’s own consciousness – this would translate into the habit activating in dreams, leveraging lucidity. I spent a little over a week practicing these techniques, and low and behold – I had my first lucid dream. Unfortunately, not only did I become aware that I was dreaming within the dream, but I became aware too that I was aware that I was aware! This seemed to stumble me right awake. By this point, I wasn’t sleeping very well – what with all the waking and writing. And I decided to give up on the whole project.

So, this concept of lucidity in dreaming seems a strong parallel to, shall we say, meta-consciousness in waking. Can this delineation give us any traction in the free will debate? Can we argue that of these two forms of consciousness, the mindful, meta-consciousness presents more freedom? This is certainly the form of consciousness that we all try to imagine when questioning whether we make conscious choices: we are conscious that we are choosing. This, as opposed to the choice we make when putting sugar into our coffee.

In fact, it may also be of importance to place any given state of consciousness on a spectrum of meta-consciousness. At one end, we are almost blindly reacting to the world – when dodging a flying object, say. And at the other, a state of super consciousness in which we are greatly aware both of our external and internal stimuli, but also of our awareness of our awareness. Maybe we could place all other mammals below some maximum level of meta-consciousness, and below that all other creatures capable of thought, ending who knows where – in single-celled creatures little more advanced than any of our individual cells, “thoughts” consisting literally of groups of molecules creating chemical reactions.

What does all of this mean for the term choice? A choice can be as simple as a series of binary responses to stimulus (i.e. too hot = pain, move hand). But it can also be an infinitely complex calculation of multiple competing values, involving in no small part the “gut”, as well as the brain’s calculations. At what point do we describe choice as conscious? At what point do we describe it as free? Can part of choice be not-free, while part of it free? Anyone who has endured suffering in order to receive reward would seem to have made such a choice.

And yet, is it possible to make a choice in which the risk outweighs the reward, yet it is still made? Surely such a choice would be stupid. In fact, is that not the definition of stupidity? No matter what choice we make, there is always something that occurs to us as – that we are conscious of as being – more rewarding than the alternative. The reward may not be to our person, but to another, for whom we have great compassion, and wish to help because it pleases us to do so. It seems that when it does not please us, we are seen as somehow corrupt – if not biologically so.


  1. Hi,

    I wanted to share this link with you, but I didn't have an email address to send it to.

  2. Thanks, looks quite interesting! The Times had an interesting piece today in the Stone -

  3. Vidoqo,

    Thanks... Not sure whether this guy has thought this through to the full extent that he a capable of, or whether he was working to arrive at a conclusion to which he has emotional attachment. He sure seems hellbent to defend the notion of a free will. I am guessing you were no more moved to change you conclusion about the freedom of will from his essay that I was.

    He writes, "But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way. Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them." Well this is nice, but that is not really what people are claiming exists when they make the claim for libertarian free will. (Or contra-causal free will, or plain old free will.) He might as well said free will means making choices. And then from there made the claim that since we make choices free will must be. As it is there is nothing in his proposed definition that necessitates freedom because of its use.

  4. Right. I think that's dead on.