Are We Deluded?

Commuting days until retirement: 19

My last post searched, somewhat uncertainly, for a reason to believe that we are in a meaningful sense free to make decisions – to act spontaneously in some way that is not wholly and inevitably determined by the state of the world before we act: the question of free will, in other words. In a comment, bloggingisaresponsibility referred me to the work of Sam Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist who argues cogently for the opposite position.

Sam Harris

Sam Harris (Wikimedia/Steve Jurvetson)

Harris points to examples of cases where someone can be mistaken about how they came to a certain decision: it’s well known that under hypnosis a subject can be told to take an action in response to a prompt, after having been woken from the hypnotic trance. ‘When I clap my hands you will open the window.’ When the subject duly carries out the command, and is asked about why she took the action, she may say that the room was feeling stuffy or some such, and give every sign of genuinely believing that this was the motive.

And I can think of some slightly unnerving examples from my own personal life where it has become clear over a period of time that all the behaviour of someone I know is aimed towards a certain outcome, while the intentions that they will own up to – quite honestly, it appears – are quite different.

So I’d accept it as undeniable that we can believe ourselves to be making a free choice, when the real forces driving our actions are unknown to us. But it’s one thing to claim that we can be mistaken about what is driving us towards this or that action, and quite another to maintain that we are systematically deluded about what it is to make choices in general. So what do I mean by choices?

I argued in the last post that genuine choices are not to be identified with the sort of random, meaningless bodily movements that a scientist might be able to study and analyse in a laboratory. When we truly exercise what we might call our will, we are typically weighing up a number of alternatives and deciding what might seem to us the ‘best’ one. Typically we may be trying to arbitrate between conflicting desires: do I stick to my diet and feel healthy, or give in and be seduced by the jumbo gourmet burger and chips?  Or you can read in any newspaper about men or women who have sacrificed a lifetime of domestic happiness for the promise of the short-lived affair that satisfies their cravings. (You don’t of course read about those who made the other choice.)

I hope that gives a flavour of what it really is to exercise choice: it’s all about subjective feelings – about uncertainly picking our way through an incredibly varied mental landscape of desires, emotions, pain, pleasure, knowledge and learnt experience – and of course making conscious decisions about where to place our steps. It seems to me that the arguments of determinists such as Harris would be irrefutable if only we were insentient robots, which we are not.

How deluded are we?

But Harris has an answer to that argument. We are not just deluded about the spontaneity of our actions:

It is not that free will is simply an illusion – our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality. Rather, we are mistaken about our experience. Not only are we not as free as we think we are – we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion. The problem is not merely that free will makes no sense objectively (i.e., when our thoughts and actions are viewed from a third-person point of view); it makes no sense subjectively either. (From Free Will – Harris’s italics)

‘Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind.’ Do they? Well, we have to admit that they do, all the time. We don’t generally decide what we are going to dream about – as one example – and Harris gives many other instances of actions taken in response to thoughts that ‘just arise’. But does this cover every willed, considered decision? I don’t think it does, although Harris argues otherwise.

But the key sentence here for, me is: ‘The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.’ – and the italics indicate that it is for Harris too. We may think we have the impression that we are exercising our wills, but we don’t. The impression is an illusion too.* Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. But it’s very much in the spirit of a growing movement which espouses a particular way of dealing with our subjective nature. I think Daniel Dennett must be one of the pioneers: in a post two years ago I contested his arguments that qualia, the elements that comprise our conscious experience, do not exist.

Here’s another writer, Susan Blackmore, in a compilation from the Edge website where the contributors nominate ideas which they think should become extinct. Blackmore is a psychologist and former psychic researcher turned sceptic, and her choice for the dustbin is ‘The Neural Correlates of Consciousness’. She argues that, while much cutting edge research effort is going into the search for the biological processes that are the neural counterpart of consciousness, this is a wild goose chase – they’ll never be found. Well, so far I agree, but I suspect for very different reasons.

Consciousness is not some weird and wonderful product of some brain processes but not others. Rather, it’s an illusion constructed by a clever brain and body in a complex social world. We can speak, think, refer to ourselves as agents, and so build up the false idea of a persisting self that has consciousness and free will.

There can’t be any neural correlates of consciousness, says Blackmore, because there’s nothing for the neural processes to be correlated with. So here we have it again, this strange conclusion that flies against common sense. Well of course if a philosophical or scientific idea is incompatible with common sense that doesn’t necessarily disqualify it from being worth serious consideration. But in this case I believe it goes much, much further than that.

Let’s just stop and examine what is being claimed. We believe we have a private world of subjective conscious impressions; but that belief is based on an illusion – we don’t have such a world. But an illusion is itself a subjective experience. How can the broad class of things of which illusions are one subclass be itself an illusion? The notion is simply nonsense. You could only rescue it from incoherence by saying that illusions could be described as data in a processing machine (like a brain) which embody false accounts of what they are supposed to represent.

Imagine one of those systems which reads car number plates and measures average speeds over a stretch of road. Suppose we somehow got into the works and caused the numbers to be altered before they were logged, so that no speeding tickets were issued. Could we then say that the system was suffering an illusion? It would be a very odd way of speaking – because illusions are experiences, not scrambled data. Having an illusion implies consciousness (which involves something I have written about before – intentionality).  Just as Descartes famously concluded that he couldn’t doubt the existence of his doubting, we can’t be deluded about the experience of being deluded.

History repeats

The Aristotelian Universe

The universe according to Aristotle (

Here’s an example of how we can have illusions about the nature of the world: it was once an unquestioned belief that our planet was stationary and the sun orbited around it. Through objective measurement and logical analysis we now know that is wrong. But people thought this because it felt like it – our beliefs start with subjective experience (which we don’t have, according to the view I’m criticising). But of course a whole established world-view was based around this illusion. We are told that when one of the proponents of the new conception – Galileo – discovered corroborating evidence through his telescope, in the form of satellites orbiting Jupiter, supporters of the status quo refused to look into the telescope. (It’s an account of which the facts may be a little different.) But it nevertheless illustrates the extremity of the measures which the believers in an established order may take in order to protect it.

So now we have a 21st century version of that phenomenon. Our objective knowledge of the brain as an electrochemical machine can’t, even in principle, explain the existence of subjective experiences. If we are not to admit that our account of the world is seriously incomplete, a quick fix is simply to deny that this messy subjectivity is anything real, and conveniently ignore whether we are making any sense in doing so.

A Princeton psychologist, Michael Graziano, who researches into consciousness was quoted in a recent issue of New Scientist magazine, referring to what philosopher David Chalmers called ‘the hard problem’ – how and why the brain should give rise to conscious awareness at all:

“There is no hard problem,” says Graziano. “There is only the question of how the brain, an information-processing device, concludes and insists it has consciousness. And that is a problem of information processing. To understand that process fully will require [scientific experiments]”**.

So this wholly incoherent notion – of conscious experience as an illusion – is taken as the premise for a scientific investigation. And look at the language: it’s not you or I who are insisting we are conscious, but ‘the brain’. In this very defensive objectivisation of the terms used lies the modern equivalent of the 17th century churchmen who supposedly turned away from the telescope. If we only take care to avoid any mention of the subjective, we can reassure ourselves that none of this inconvenient consciousness stuff really exists – only in the ravings of a heretic would such an idea be entertained. And the scientific hegemony is spared the embarrassment of a province it doesn’t look like being able to conquer.

But free will? Even If I have convinced you that our subjective nature is real, that question may still be open. But as I mentioned before, I think the determinism arguments would only have irresistible force if we were insentient creatures, and I have tried to underline the fact that we are not. Our subjective world is the most immediate and undeniable reality of our experience – indeed it is our experience. It’s there, in that world, that we seem to be free,  and in which libertarians like myself believe we are free. Not surprisingly, it’s that world whose reality Harris is determined to deny. My contention is that, in doing so, he joins others in the fraternity of uncompromising physicalists and, like them, fatally undermines his own position.

*I haven’t explicitly distinguished between what I mean by illusion and delusion. Just to be clear: an illusion is experiencing something that appears other than it is. A delusion would be when we believe it to be as it appears. So while, for example, Harris would admit to experiencing what he believes to be the illusion of freewill, he would not admit to being deluded by it. But he would of course claim that I and many others are deluded.

**A stable mind is a conscious mind, in New Scientist 11 April 2015, p10. I did find an article for the New York Times by Graziano in which he addresses more directly some of the objections I have raised. But for the sake of brevity I’ll just mention that in that article I believe he simply falls into the same conceptual errors that I have already described.

6 thoughts on “Are We Deluded?

  1. Congratulations – less than 3 weeks. As an uncompromising physicalist, I would like to point out that explanatory reduction is not elimination. Big difference. I would also ask: do you really think we make decisions which are inexplicable? That strikes me as an incoherent statement – so much so that I don’t see how anyone could really claim it. If I chose a cappuccino at the coffee shop, it is true that I chose a cappuccino and it could not have turned out any other way (because transparently, I did choose cappuccino). How would one would describe another state of affairs, or even claim to conceive of it?
    Even Nietzsche’s unbidden thoughts have structure, reference, derived contents – determinants. The will is from something, toward something, and not a thing in itself (what would that even mean – we couldn’t call such a thing ‘our’ will). I don’t see how that is at all controversial. Things get confused when people forget that all our analysis is necessarily static and retrospective. If it is the case that our decisions have a reductive explanation – to whatever level – then the dispute comes down to intrinsic vs. extrinsic determinants. There is a debate to be had there still, but it is much less overwrought than the one which you very nicely outline above.

    • Thanks for your remarks (and the congrats – it’s still 4 weeks – commuting days rather than calendar days).

      I’m always a little uncomfortable using the term ‘physicalist’, on the grounds that I don’t believe that we ultimately understand exactly what we mean by the ‘physical’, so I find the physicalist position unclear.

      However on reduction versus elimination: I think I understand what you’re saying. We can show that a rainbow is not a solid object ‘out there’, but we do this by explaining it in terms of light refraction and dispersion, and how it impinges on our eyes. And so it’s an illusion, but still a phenomenon – something we experience, something real. No problems with that.

      So I presume you want to say that the whole panoply of our conscious experience can in principle be explained in terms of neural functions; and so it’s an illusion, but nonetheless real, in the rainbow sense. But I would object that you are doing something very different here.

      Namely, proposing that our capacity to have illusions is itself an illusion. Does this even make sense? The notion of an illusion is of some impression in our experience having a different status from others, in that we have good reasons for believing the entity it appears to represent does not have the same ontological status as those represented by other impressions (rainbows as compared with trees, for example). If all of our experience is itself some sort of higher order illusion, then what is the ‘gold standard’ of reality, of which it falls short? What kind of experience would not be an illusion? – apparently none. So experience itself vanishes into some sort of conceptual black hole – we seem to have eliminated it, rather than reducing it. Or perhaps the only ‘experience’ that we can claim is real is the sort that the speed camera system in my example has – humans are just more complex processing systems with much richer content. But I’d dispute that this is what we mean by ‘experience’; a speed camera system just doesn’t have it. (I’ll bypass some crazy talk I have read in the past about thermostats being conscious, and the like.) I’m thrashing around here, in a rather confused way – and I’d argue that this is because the proposal I’m trying to analyse is itself nonsensical.

      On the freewill argument I accept that I am on shakier ground. Do I really think we make decisions which are inexplicable? Well no – but there are different sorts of explanation. I travelled to Inverness because my elderly dying aunt wanted to see me. That’s one sort of explanation. I raised my hand at just that moment because the experimenter who wired me up asked me to do so at some randomly chosen time, and it looks as if that action potential she detected in my brain an instant earlier was the cause of the action. That’s another sort.

      You’d be hard put to explain the first example using the second sort of explanation, but I don’t want to claim that it’s not in principle possible. I’m quite prepared to accept that the physical world is causally closed, to the extent that our scientific theories might imply. And I’m not claiming that free will is derivable from quantum uncertainty – I don’t buy that one. Neither am I putting forward the classic compatibilist case. I just have a strong intuition that that in the subjective world (which I believe to be as real as anything else) we are free to make rational decisions between the choices open to us – perhaps in some sort of Kantian sense.

      If that doesn’t make sense to you, I don’t blame you – but this reply is already long enough, and I guess I’ll have more time to develop these ideas in the years to come!

      • I think your statement about ontological status is key. What about the rainbow is illusory? It simply shares some phenomenology with the tree, but, as we come to find out later, not all. We are left with a situation where ontological distinctions are necessarily uncertain because our knowledge is necessarily self-referential. But that doesn’t just leave us with a choice between “woo-hoo nihilism!” or some kind of transcendent realism which is forced to, say, postulate conscious thermostats. We can be quiet about gold standards, and in fact, we must.

      • Yes – I think I see what you’re getting at. I agree that gold standards are problematic, but would insist that the view I’m criticising (consciousness as an illusion) can’t avoid entailing one, and that’s one reason it’s unsatisfactory. But thanks for your stimulating comments.

  2. Great article!

    I also think that claiming consciousness is an illusion is incoherent because to have an illusion, one must be conscious. Maybe those who hold this mean something different by consciousness — like self-consciousness?

    However, there is no problem in being conscious without free will. For me, the illusion of free will is the result of intention+act+analysis, where the latter is a judgment that the intention+act was logical and consistent with my values. This triple can easily arise in a deterministic framework, since intention is a sense like any other sense.

    There are also the Libet experiments, which I think are illustrative (, although there is some controversy as to the interpretation of the results.

    • Thanks – I’m glad you agree with me about one part of it anyway. I’m conscious of being out on an unfashionable limb in my approach to free will – but what the hell – it’s fun. I agree that there’s no contradiction in consciousness without free will though. And I set out my opinions about the Libet experiments in my last post. As I mentioned in my reply to Keithnoback, I need to develop my thinking on this topic.

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