Here is a thought experiment for you: What if there aren’t really any moral rules? What if moral rules, unlike physical objects and events, do not actually exist independently of us?
What if God (however you conceive that entity) does not exist and hence can give us no commands? (This is the view of the atheists.) Or, if God does exist, what if God does not command us to do (or not do) anything? (This is the view of many deists.) Or what if there is in principle no way of knowing whether God exists and hence no way of knowing what the divine commands might be? (This is the view of the agnostics.)
Furthermore, what if there is no unseen realm of moral rules, obligations, rights and responsibilities existing independently of us? (This is the view called “moral anti-realism.”) What if morality is only constructed socially; and, being socially constructed, can be socially deconstructed if we like?
How then should we figure out how to live our lives? Or, since “should” often refers to a moral rule or obligation, what would be the best way or even a pretty good way to figure out how to live our lives?
In the absence of moral rules we would have to use a form of reasoning I call ethical inference to argue from factual premises to recommendations. For example:
- People who eat a balanced, nutritious diet are healthier than people who don’t.
- Sarah wants to be healthy.
- Therefore, Sarah should eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
That “should” is a recommendation of prudence, not a moral command. It is in what I call the “goodness paradigm” of language instead of the “rightness paradigm.”(1) The goodness paradigm makes recommendations instead of giving commmands; and it does so on the basis of the observable effects of our actions, rather than an appeal to moral rules. Such recommendations do not follow with deductive certainty, but are the result of practical reasoning. If the premises are true, reasonable and appropriate, then the conclusion follows with enough practical credence to warrant acting on it.
The first premise of the ethical inference is factual. We can assess its truth by making observations, administering surveys, performing scientific experiments and so forth. That is one of the advantages of the goodness paradigm, that its claims can be objectively verified.
The second premise is also factual, but it pertains to a person’s desires or intentions. If Sarah has no desire to be healthy, then she has no reason to follow the advice.
So the philosophical question becomes, what should we desire? Or, if we don’t like the term “should,” what is the best thing (or even a pretty good thing) to desire with sufficient intensity that we are moved actually to strive to achieve it?
The ancient Greeks had an answer: eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing,” “happiness” or “fulfillment.” What we all by nature want and try to achieve is to survive, thrive and feel happy and fulfilled. Thinkers as diverse as Kant and Socrates agree that this desire is fundamental and essential to all humans as rational beings that have needs.(2) And if you disagree and think something else is more to be desired, then consider that in order to fulfill that desire, you would have to survive and thrive at least enough to be able to attain it. (And once you attained it, you would, I presume, feel happy and fulfilled.) So functioning well enough to survive and thrive is the fundamental aim of all of us.
Given that premise, the philosophical question becomes an empirical one: what enables us to flourish? How are we constituted, how do we function, what is good for us and what are we good for and good at? In short: What is human nature?
We can answer the question about human nature in two ways, idiosyncratically and generically. By “idiosyncratically” I mean that each of us has certain talents and abilities, and it makes sense for us to pursue and nurture the talents we have, and not the ones we don’t. If someone has a talent for music but not much athletic ability, that person will be more successful in life and happier by practicing music than by practicing basketball. The opposite would be true for a musically inept athlete.
By “generically” I mean that there are certain functions and abilities we all have by virtue of being human. Hence, it makes sense for us to nurture and expand those functions and abilities. And what are they? Well, I have written a whole book about the subject; it’s a bit much to summarize here. But one thing is common to both the idiosyncratic and generic approaches: self-knowledge.
Inscribed on the temple to Apollo at Delphi were the words “Know Thyself.”(3) That’s not a moral command; it’s just good advice. And it is probably the best advice any of us will ever receive.
(1) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”
(2) Versenyi, “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?”
(3) Wikipedia, “Delphi.”
Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.
Versenyi, Laszlo. “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?” Ethics, Vol. 80, No. 3 (April, 1970), pp. 240-242. Online publication http://www.jstor.org/stable/2380274 as of 12 October 2010.
Wikipedia. “Delphi.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi as of 10 May 2013.
Most philosophers, going back to David Hume, assert that you cannot derive normative statements (saying that you ought or ought not to do something) from descriptive statements (saying that something is or is not the case). I disagree. I have written about the topic before, and recently gave a talk to the Philosophy Club about it. I have posted a video on YouTube, and you can download the presentation itself here: http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/PDF/OughtFromIs1a.pdf. Here is the video:
Your comments are welcome, as always.
The other day we had an interesting discussion in the philosophy club (not an unusual occurrence) about which is more fundamental, matter or mind. The pro-matter folks were saying that consciousness is based on physical events in the brain and that without the complicated network of neurons found there we would not be conscious. Hence, matter is fundamental. The pro-mind folks were saying (I am paraphrasing) that without consciousness the question would not, indeed could not, even arise. The only thing we know with certainty, they said, is our own consciousness; everything else is secondary. Hence, mind is fundamental.
This sort of question is metaphysical. It is not something that can be settled by experiment; it is a question of how we frame the conceptual schema within which we conduct experiments and interpret their results. Distasteful as it is to those who want all their knowledge grounded in rigorous empirical inquiry, metaphysics is unavoidable.
Take the findings of quantum physics, often cited by the pro-mind camp. Depending on how we set up our experiments, we can demonstrate that light is composed of discrete particles or that it is not discrete at all but a widely spread-out wave.(1) These two ideas are contradictory: how can something be both individually distinct and continuous at the same time? And yet the experimental results are unequivocal and have been replicated time and again. If you set up your experiment to detect particles, you find that light is composed of particles. If you set up your experiment to detect waves (see, for instance, the famous double-slit experiment, you find that light is a wave. “You can choose which of these two contradictory features to demonstrate. The physical reality of an object depends on how you choose to look at it.”(2)
Before any observation is made, the object of your observation is said to be in a superposition of possible states, or in a state of indeterminacy. Only when it is observed does its physical state become definite (particle or wave). And, as I have pointed out elsewhere, you cannot predict in advance the precise description of that state (such as where a specific particle will be detected); you can predict in statistical terms the configuration of a great number of observed states, but that’s all.
The pro-mind camp takes all this as evidence of the primacy of consciousness, that our conscious choices somehow determine what physical reality is. Others object that there are other interpretations of quantum physics that make no such ridiculous assertion.
The most established of the many interpretations of quantum physics is the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, formulated by Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen in the 1920s. There are several versions, but they all assert that an observation produces the property observed. The “observation” does not have to be conscious. An observation takes place whenever a microscopic atomic-scale object interacts with a macroscopic large-scale object. When a piece of film records the location of a photon or a Geiger counter emits a click upon detection of an electron, this version of the Copenhagen interpretation says that an observation takes place.(3) Hence, say the pro-matter folks, mind is not so primary after all.
The least speculative Copenhagen interpretation does not commit to an ontology (an assertion about what really exists) at all. It says merely that “quantum mechanics … deals only with probabilities of observing, or measuring, various aspects of energy quanta, entities that fit neither the classical idea of particles nor the classical idea of waves.” In this restricted view, quantum mechanics does not actually describe reality independent of human observers, but merely describes the probability of certain observations taking place. Regarding ontological speculation as useless, this view is summarized by the slogan “Shut up and calculate!”(4)
In a less restricted form, the Copenhagen interpretation does describe what really exists, but asserts that only observed objects or events exist. Werner Heisenberg says that experimental results are things and facts just as real as any other phenomena in daily life. “But the atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” John Wheeler says “No microscopic property is a property until it is an observed property.”(5) Again, in this account “observation” refers to the interaction of an atomic-scale object with a large-scale object.
But we can’t get rid of the conscious observer so easily, say others. John von Neumann showed mathematically that a Geiger counter isolated from the rest of the world would also be in a state of indeterminacy. If another instrument that detected the state of the Geiger counter were placed next to it but also isolated from the rest of the world, it too would be in an indetermined state. Von Neumann showed that no physical system could collapse a superposition to yield a particular result. And yet whenever we look we see a particular result, not a superposition. Only a conscious observer, concluded von Neumann, can cause an indetermined state of superposed probabilities to become a single, determined, actuality. Only a conscious observer, not merely a macroscopic large-scale object, can actually make an observation.(6)
The Copenhagen interpretation has at least these three variants, and there are other interpretations as well. The Many Worlds interpretation says that every time a quantum-indeterminate event could go either of two ways it in fact goes both ways, each one producing a separate universe. On this view there are countless worlds, each causally isolated from the others, and countless more are being created at every instant.(7) David Bohm proposed that there really are discrete particles that exist independently of human observation, and a “quantum force” or “quantum potential” guides each particle to its destination. The quantum force on an object instantaneously reflects the state of the entire universe. Where the particle is detected looks random to us only because we cannot know its original position and velocity.(8) There are numerous other, less well-known interpretations of quantum physics.
I am not going to judge which of them is correct, or more correct than the others. I just want to point out that all of them conform to the observed facts. There is no experiment we can perform to determine which one is correct, because they all predict the same phenomena. They are not so much scientific explanations as metaphysical speculation.
And so is the debate about which is more fundamental, matter or mind. The answer can only be metaphysical.
David Chalmers refers to the “hard problem” of consciousness: Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?(9) The pro-mind camp takes the difficulty of answering that question to be evidence for the primacy of mind, but the question could equally well be turned around: Why should something purely mental give rise to anything physical at all?
I’d like to offer a third alternative, which I have written about before: Panpsychism, the idea that everything has an aspect of psyche or mind to it as well as its material aspect. That is not to say that mind is somehow more fundamental than matter; it’s called Panpsychism only because we already assume everything is physical. I suppose it should really be called “Panphysicopsychism,” because it asserts everything is composed of both matter and mind, that everything has both an objective (physical) and subjective (psychical), or mental, aspect.
In the absence of experimental verification, how shall we judge the adequacy of these three metaphysical theories? There are several factors that determine whether it is reasonable to regard a theory or an explanation of events as true.(10) Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Congruence. A true theory is congruent with our experience. It fits the facts. I would say that what is true corresponds to reality, but we don’t have contact with reality other than through our experience, so I use the term “congruence” instead. In the case of the three metaphysical assertions, they all fit the facts, so this factor doesn’t help.
Consistency. A true theory is internally consistent. It has no contradictions within itself, and it all hangs together elegantly. Here I think Panpsychism has an advantage. If you take matter to be primary then it is indeed a conundrum how subjectivity, or mind, arises from it. If you take mind as primary then it is a conundrum the other way. But if you assume that mind and matter are equally fundamental, then the “hard problem” goes away. Of course physical processing gives rise to a rich inner life, because everything physical has an internal, subjective, or mental side as well as its objectively observable side.
Coherence. A true theory is coherent with everything else we consider true. It confirms, or at least fails to contradict, the rest of our knowledge, where “knowledge” means beliefs for which we can give rigorous reasons for considering them true. Panpsychism appears at first glance to fail this criterion, but that appearance is false.
The principal objection to Panpsychism is that it is not coherent with what we know because it does not give a reasonable account of obviously non-living things. In our everyday world we find rocks, asphalt, silverware, tables, chairs and all sorts of other things that show no evidence of being alive or having any sort of awareness of their surroundings. If we take our everyday experience as veridical, then Panpsychism certainly does not cohere with it. But modern science tells us that our everyday experience is not the ultimate truth of things. Seemingly solid and inert objects are composed of atoms and subatomic objects that have lots of space around them and are constantly in motion. Their solidity is held in place by the interplay of a variety of forces. At the subatomic level reality is teeming with activity. And, as we discover from quantum physics, it is plausible to say that subatomic reality is fully real only when observed. The panpsychist view is that observation can be taken as a fundamental feature of reality.
I refer to the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, which considers the ultimate constituents of reality to be events, not inert substances. He calls them “occasions of experience.”(11) Each occasion has an experiential aspect and an objective aspect, the former being its experience of its surroundings, and the latter being its appearance to other occasions. The fundamental units of reality, which occur at the sub-microscopic scale of quantum events, are what observe other events and thus bring actuality out of potentiality.
I know that’s awfully cryptic. See my blog post “Dead or Alive?” for more details. The point is that this metaphysical interpretation of reality, which places both experience and physicality at the root of everything, is quite coherent with the findings of quantum physics.
Usefulness. A true theory is useful. It allows us to gain control of the world and to make accurate choices about it. When we act on the basis of the theory or explanation, our actions are successful. This is the Pragmatist view of truth, and it is much more than a crude rationale for the ideology of the prevailing social class. By “world” I mean both the world of physical things and the world of ideas, of theory. What is true is what works to organize both our practice and our thought, so that we are able to handle reality effectively and to reason with logical rigor to true conclusions. In this regard, Panpsychism succeeds pretty well. Its usefulness consists, not in its application to mastery of the physical world, but in its ability to bring together everything we know into an overarching conceptual framework. It provides a coherent story that unifies all the elements of our experience and knowledge, leaving nothing out.
The materialist view has a hard time including experience. The idealist view (so-called because it gives primacy to ideas in the mind) has a hard time including physical stuff. Panpsychism includes both.
Whitehead says that the aim of metaphysics is to frame a system of general ideas that can be used to interpret every element of our experience. By “interpret” he means that “everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme.”(12) It is undeniable that things in our experience are material. And it is undeniable that we experience them. Both matter and mind are equally fundamental; and Panpsychism, which embraces both, is the best metaphysical framework within which to understand them.
(1) Rosenblum and Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, pp. 59-61.
(2) Ibid., p. 67.
(3) Ibid., p. 100.
(4) Wikipedia, “Copenhagen interpretation.”
(5) Rosenblum and Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, p. 104.
(6) Ibid., p. 184.
(7) Ibid., pp. 161-163.
(8) Ibid., pp. 163-165.
(9) Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” pp. 10-11.
(10) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 243-248, “Truth.”
(11) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 176.
(12) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 4.
Chalmers, David J. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” In Jonathan Shear, ed. Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem. Cambridge: MIT Press (A Bradford Book), 1997. Online publication http://consc.net/papers/facing.html as of 9 April 2013.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Appendix D, “Truth,” is available online at http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Truth.html.
Rosenblum, Bruce, and Fred Kuttner. Quantum Enigma. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. 1933. Reprint. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbooks, 1957.
Wikipedia. “Copenhagen interpretation.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_School_(quantum_physics) as of 6 April 2013.
I hope I’ll be forgiven for bringing up the topic of free will yet again, because in a sense it is a ridiculous question. The most cogent statement I have found on free will is this:
We need not enter into a philosophical debate between free will and determinism in order to decide how to act. Either we have free will or it is determined that we behave as if we do. In either case we make choices.(1)
The point of a philosophy for real life is to figure out how to make those choices, not whether we have the ability to do so. The fact is, we all act as if we have free will, regardless of what we say we believe about it.
In another sense, however, it is not ridiculous. In a recent psychology experiment subjects were found to be more prone to cheating after having been exposed to arguments denying that we have free will.(2) Neuroscientists debate how findings that much of our behavior is determined should affect judicial concepts of blame, responsibility and punishment: if we can’t help what we do, we don’t deserve blame, so what role should punishment play? (The answer is to go for rehabilitation to modify future behavior instead of punishing past behavior.)(3) Whether or not we believe we have free will does have consequences; hence, we need to try to resolve the issue.
The debate about free will is whether we have it and how it works if we do. It is a conundrum because we appear to live in a deterministic universe. Ever since antiquity or earlier people have noticed that some aspects of their world recur with great regularity. Apply fire to something, and it invariably gets hotter. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. Through the application of the scientific method of discovery we have found laws of nature that consistently operate in the same way, so much so that we say that physical nature is determined by those laws. By “determined,” I mean that given a configuration of physical elements and the invariant laws of nature, we can confidently predict precisely what will happen next. The argument against free will says that if all of nature is determined, and if we are part of nature, then we are determined. We think we have the ability to choose freely what we do, but that ability is an illusion.(4)
To assess this argument we need definitions of the concepts of determinism and free will.
The definition of determinism is easy. Determinism, according to philosopher Daniel Dennett, quoting Peter Van Inwagen, “is the thesis that ‘there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future.’”(5) On this view, events succeed each other according to rigid, predetermined laws; and if we knew enough about the facts of the universe at any given time and the laws of nature, we would know with certainty what would happen next.
The definition of free will is a little more complex. First let’s take “will.” Philosopher Robert Kane, who has made a career of studying the issue, lists three meanings of the term:(6)
- What we want, desire or prefer to do. This is called appetitive will, because it has to do with our appetites.
- What we choose, decide or intend to do. This is called rational will, because it has to do with reasoning and deciding.
- What we try, endeavor or make an effort to do. This is called striving will.
All three are teleological, oriented to an end or purpose (telos in Greek). In using our will we desire, intend or try to make something happen that is not happening yet, or to make something that is already happening continue to happen. They are all oriented to the future. Clearly we human beings have will in all three senses.
(Parenthetically we might ask whether animals have will. Certainly even the most primitive of animals seem to have desires and to make efforts to approach or avoid things in their environment. Whether they have any rationality depends on how complex they are. It is hard to imagine a single-celled amoeba envisioning possible courses of action and choosing among them. It is not so hard to imagine an elephant or an ape or a whale doing so. I suspect that, like most of reality, the ability to think and choose ranges on a continuum from minimal to maximal; and humans are on the maximal end of the scale.)
The question is whether the will we have is free. I adopt Kane’s definition of free will:
Free will … is the power of agents to be the ultimate creators (or originators) and sustainers of their own ends or purposes. … To will freely … is to be the ultimate creator (prime mover, so to speak) of your own purposes.(7)
Will has to do with wanting, choosing and striving to attain ends or purposes. We humans are very good at achieving goals, at accomplishing our ends and purposes. But who or what gets to set the goals? To say that our will is free is to say that at least in some cases we ourselves, not something other than or external to us, choose what ends or purposes we strive for.
We can list the philosophical positions regarding free will by combinations of assertions about determinism and about free will. Let’s represent the proposition that the world is entirely determined as D and the proposition that it is possible to have free will as F. To make sure we have all our bases covered we can put them together systematically and label each combination. Then we can decide which combination most accurately describes reality. Here are the combinations:(8)
|D true||F true||Compatibilism|
|D true||F false||Hard Determinism|
|D false||F true||Libertarianism (a philosophical, not a political, term)|
|D false||F false||Hard Incompatibilism|
We can immediately rule out the first two. It is not the case that all of nature is determined. Quantum physics has demonstrated as well as anything can be demonstrated in science that at the tiniest level of reality events are indeterminate. By this I mean that the outcomes of events cannot be predicted in advance, except in statistical terms. An initial configuration of things and forces does not determine a specific subsequent configuration. Instead it has the possibility of evolving into more than one configuration. In the world that we experience, only one of those possible configurations will actually be observed to happen, and we cannot predict in advance which one it will be. Mathematics can describe the probability of a range of outcomes, but cannot predict a single outcome. Please see my blog post “Entangled!” for more details. The thesis that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future is simply false.
So now we have to decide, in a world that is not fully determined in advance, whether and in what way free will is possible. I have hinted at an answer in another blog post, “Beyond the Causal Veil,” in which I describe how quantum indeterminacy operates inside the brain.
To summarize: The brain does its work by means of transmitting electrochemical impulses through neurons. A neuron receives many incoming impulses from other neurons and sends out impulses to many other neurons. Some of the incoming impulses are excitatory, tending to make the neuron “fire,” or send out an impulse; some of them are inhibitory, tending to make the neuron fail to fire. (A neuron either fires or it does not; there is no in-between state.) When a neuron fires, neurotransmitter chemicals travel from one neuron to another across the synapse between them. What causes the neurotransmitters to be released into the synapse is the entry of calcium ions into nerve terminals. If enough calcium ions hit their receptor sites within a nerve terminal, the terminal releases the neurotransmitters; otherwise it doesn’t. Calcium ions and the channels through which they travel are small enough that quantum indeterminacy is in play. Calcium ions might or might not hit their triggering sites; hence, a given neurotransmitter might or might not be released; hence the receiving neuron might or might not get excited (or inhibited).(9)
Since brain functioning is the physical aspect of how we perceive, move, react and make decisions, this means that our decisions and actions are not fully determined by what has happened in the past.
So if we are not fully determined, then we have free will, right? Well, maybe not. There are some objections from those who say than that even in an indeterministic world we still have no free will. (This is Hard Incompatibilism in the matrix above.)
The most common objection is that if our actions are caused by randomness then we are just as unfree as if they were caused by determinism.
The sort of indeterminism afforded by modern physics is not the sort the libertarian needs or desires. If it turns out that your ordering soup is completely determined by the laws of physics, the state of the universe … and the outcomes of myriad subatomic coin flips, your appetizer is no more freely chosen than before. Indeed, it is randomly chosen, which is no help to the libertarian.(10)
My response is this: what matters is not the outcome of a single quantum event, but the overall pattern of many of them. What appears to be random when you look only at individual events reveals patterns when you look at them in aggregate. Micro-units of quantum indeterminacy cohere into larger arrangements that are not random. We can see this on the physical level in the interference pattern, the stripes of lightness and darkness, in the double-slit experiment.(11) When we are considering human agency and will, we find patterns as well, patterns that are best described in agential terms, as I said in the first of this little series. The patterns of beliefs, desires, aversions and intentions that we ascribe to ourselves and others are at a higher level than the individual neural events which underly them, and obey different laws.
Patterns of calcium-ion events within a nerve terminal are inputs to patterns of nerve terminals releasing neurotransmitters, which are in turn inputs to the firing of adjacent neurons. Activities of individual neurons are, as Ray Kurzweil has described, inputs to yet higher-level assemblies of pattern recognizers composed of multiple neurons.(12) The nesting of patterns within patterns continues up to higher and higher levels of complexity, at the apex of which we recognize ourselves and others as agents motivated by beliefs, desires, intentions and plans.
Another claim is that my account of neural functioning is misleading, that quantum indeterminacy does not propagate upwards to observable behavior.
Given the high concentration of calcium ions in the terminal, it’s extremely likely that the net effect is zero—for every ion pushed away by a quantum event, another is pushed toward. If this were not the case, we would be dying of heart attacks before reaching puberty, since neurons that drive the heart muscle must be subject to the same quantum effects.
It’s an example of biological fault tolerance. Critical systems like neurons—cells in general—are resilient to error through physical redundancy (multiple vesicles, multiple binding sites per vesicle, multiple calcium channels, thousands of available calcium ions per neuron).(13)
Good point. If quantum uncertainty underlies all brain functioning, why does most of that functioning happen in foreseeable, regular ways? Why do some patterns of neural firings—those that govern our heartbeat, for instance—happen quite predictably, while others, such as those that correspond to our making a free choice, do not?
There is a saying in brain science, “cells that fire together wire together.” When the firing of neuron A is, repeatedly and persistently, input to neuron B’s firing as well, a metabolic change takes place such that neuron A becomes more likely to be effective in causing B to fire.(14) The brain, composed of living cells, changes (a process called brain plasticity)(15) to make the repeated pattern more likely. In such a case the probabilities involved in neural firing are adjusted to make it extremely likely that the regularity will persist. That’s how come our heartbeat is not interrupted by quantum fluctuations.
But this does not happen in cases of free choice because there are conflicting patterns of cells firing together. Here is a common example: suppose you are hurrying to a very important meeting with a client and your boss, a meeting that will have a big impact on your career. You pass a person lying by the road injured and bleeding. You want to be compassionate and stop and help the bleeding person, but you also want to be on time for your meeting. In such a case your goals, ends and purposes are in conflict. There is no routine pattern of neural firing that is so highly probable as to be determined and certain.
In this case, where there is no future outcome that is far more highly probable than any other, the effect of the quantum indeterminacy at the lowest level is magnified rather than damped out. When you must make a choice, the choice is not determined in advance. Nor is it merely random. Conflicting emotions and thought process go through your mind. You have good reasons for hurrying to your appointment, and you have good reasons for stopping to help. You have to choose, and it is not just a matter of flipping a coin.
Kane lists three criteria by which we recognize that a choice is made freely, on our own:(16)
- We have good reasons for our choice.
- We choose as we do for those reasons.
- In choosing we define ourselves as a being who wants to act for those reasons more than for any others.
These three conditions are satisfied in either case, whether you hurry on or stop to help. Whichever choice you make, afterwards you can legitimately say that you, not your brain cells, made the choice, because you had good reasons for your choice and you acted for those reasons. And that is true even though you did not know and could not possibly know ahead of time which choice you would make.
That’s how free will works in an indeterminate universe, not by magically flouting physical laws, but by conforming to them.
Note carefully the third condition. When you choose one way or another, you are making it more likely that you will choose the same way if a similar issue comes up again. You reinforce certain neural patterns, making them more likely to fire together in the future. You help create your future self.
What kind of choices do you want to make? What kind of person do you want to be?
(1) Fisher and Ury, Getting To Yes, p. 53.
(2) Tierney, “Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice.”
(3) Greene and Cohen, “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.”
(4) Historically determinism has also been associated with the idea of a supernaturally powerful God who makes things happen, but I am ignoring that question for now.
(5) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 25.
(6) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, pp. 26-27.
(7) Ibid., p. 4.
(8) Wikipedia, “Free will.”
(9) See Meacham, “The Quantum Level of Reality,” for a more complete exposition of the quantum aspects of neural functioning.
(10) Greene and Cohen, p. 1777.
(11) Meacham, “The Quantum Level of Reality.”
(12) Kurzweil, Ray, How To Create a Mind, p. 80.
(13) Bjerke, Gary, “A Response To ‘Beyond the Causal Veil.’”
(14) Kurzweil, Ray, How To Create a Mind, pp. 79-80.
(15) Chudler, Eric H. “Brain Plasticity: What Is It?”
(16) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, p. 137.
Bjerke, Gary. “A Response To ‘Beyond the Causal Veil.’” Online publication http://files.meetup.com/119694/MDG_FREE_WILL_03_11_13.pdf as of 5 March 2013.
Chudler, Eric H. “Brain Plasticity: What Is It?” Online publication http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html as of 11 March 2013.
Dennett, Daniel C. Freedom Evolves. New York, Penguin Books, 2003.
Fisher, Roger, and William Ury. Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. NY: Penguin Books, 1991.
Greene, Joshua and Jonathan Cohen. “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B (Biological Sciences), Vol. 359 No. 1451, pp. 1775-1785. Online publication http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/359/1451/1775.full.pdf as of 7 March 2013 and http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/GreeneCohenPhilTrans-04.pdf as of 08 October 2010.
Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Kurzweil, Ray. How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. New York, Viking: 2012.
Meacham, Bill. “The Quantum Level of Reality.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Quantum.html.
Tierney, John. “Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice.” New York Times, March 21, 2011. Online publication http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/science/22tier.html as of 23 March 2011.
Wikipedia. “Free will.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will as of 4 March 2013.
Last time I asserted that, contrary to some interpretations of certain neurological experiments, we do have free will. But in fact lots of times it seems that we don’t. Most of our choices are not the results of careful deliberation; so when we make them are we doing so freely? When I walk past the plate of cupcakes and impulsively grab one, am I acting freely? You could say that I am not, that I am moved by my impulse.
There are lots of ways our behavior is determined by forces that seem alien to us. I do not mean physical coercion; I mean a spectrum of neurological conditions, at one end of which are disorders such as cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s Disease, Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive compulsions. At the other end are impulses such as the craving for a cupcake.
Take Tourette’s syndrome. People with this condition exhibit facial tics and verbal outbursts over which they have no control. They twitch or say things, sometimes rude and obscene things, but they do not have any sense that they are doing so voluntarily. Nor, for the most part, can they stop them from happening.(1) We do not call such activities freely chosen. Researcher David Eagleman says,
We immediately learn two things from the Tourette’s patient. First, actions can occur in the absence of free will. Second, the Tourette’s patient has no free won’t. He cannot use free will to override or control what subconscious parts of his brain have decided to do. What the lack of free will and the lack of free won’t have in common is the lack of “free.” Tourette’s syndrome provides a case in which the underlying neural machinery does its thing, and we all agree that the person is not responsible.(2)
If somehow the twitches or outbursts of such a person caused some calamity, we would not hold that person accountable.
Sleepwalking is another such syndrome. There is a recorded case of a person who killed someone else while sleepwalking. The killer was acquitted of murder charges on the grounds that he did not do the killing voluntarily.(3)
In each of these cases and many more we lack a sense of agency, the implicit sense that it is we ourselves who are initiating, executing and controlling our actions.(4)
On the other end of the spectrum, when we do things in our daily life without thinking we also lack a sense of agency, but more because the issue simply does not arise than because we feel the force of something alien to us. By far the majority of our perceptions and actions happen automatically, without conscious thought. If someone (a philosopher, perhaps) asked you if you tie your shoes of your own free will, you would say “Yes, of course,” but you have that sense only because there is nothing to oppose your action.
Suppose you are trying to lose weight, however, and you have resolved to cut sweets out of your diet. When you impulsively grab the cupcake, you are clearly not acting of your own free will; you are, as it were, enslaved by your craving. If you think about it you get the distinct sense that your will is not free.
The craving for a cupcake is a first-order desire, a desire simply to do or to have something. Most of our desires are first-order, and most of our actions and activities as we unreflectively go through life are aimed at satisfying them. So in most of our life we are determined, not free.
But we humans also have the capacity for second-order thinking, thinking about ourselves, and that enables us to have second-order desires, desires to have certain desires. Wanting the cupcake is a first-order desire. So is wanting to lose weight, but it is in conflict with wanting the cupcake. When you reflect on the situation and decide that what you really want is to stick to your diet and lose weight, you are wanting to want self-control more than the cupcake. That is a second-order desire. The second-order aspect of yourself wants the first-order aspect to want something, typically something different from what the first-order aspect actually wants.
Even stronger is second-order volition, where you want a certain desire to be your will, i.e. what actually impels you to action. Not only do you want to want to eat something healthy and want not to want the cupcake, but you also want the desire to eat healthily to overrule the craving, to be the desire that actually results in action so that you end up eating the healthy food. As I have written before, second-order volition is an aspect of the second-order thinking that is uniquely human. Freedom of the will consists in being able to make second-order volitions effective; that is, to have the second-order volition actually govern the first-order volition such that the preferred first-order desire is what results in action. When that happens, we judge that our will is free. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt says “It is in securing the conformity of his will to his second-order volitions … that a person exercises freedom of the will. … The unwilling addict’s will is not free.”(5)
Robert Kane, who has written extensively on the subject, defines free will in a similar way:
Free will … is the power of agents to be the ultimate creators (or originators) and sustainers of their own ends or purposes. … To will freely … is to be the ultimate creator (prime mover, so to speak) of your own purposes.(6)
To be the prime mover of our own purposes is to exert second-order control over our desires and volitions. First-order desires are, by and large, determined by our genetic heritage and our upbringing. Only when we notice them and think about whether we really want them do we exert free will and exercise our second-order volition.
In order to do that, to exert second-order volition, we have to use our second-order thinking to figure out what is actually going on in the first-order desires. That’s where brain research helps a lot. Here is an account of some recent research on patience and impulse control:
When people waited for a reward, patient people were seen—through the lens of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine—imagining the future. In more patient people, the researchers observed increased activity in the region of the brain that helps you think about the future (the anterior prefrontal cortex). The patient individuals, it seems, devoted more energy to imagining receiving their reward later.(7)
The more vivid our imagination of the future reward, the less likely we are to be tempted by an immediate, but lesser, reward. Once you know that fact about how your brain works, you can put it to use. You can decide ahead of time, before you get near the cupcake, to envision yourself clearly as a slim, healthy person and to imagine vividly how good it will feel to be that way. You can take other actions as well, such as not going past the bakery that sells the darn things. The trick is to take actions in advance of temptation to strengthen your ability to withstand it, actions motivated by your second-order thinking.
David Eagleman proposes something similar to rehabilitate criminals who suffer from poor impulse control. We know that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is where the ability to control impulses is rooted. “The frontal lobes are sometimes called the organ of socialization, because becoming socialized largely involves developing the circuitry to squelch our first impulses,” he says.(8) That’s why teenagers are so impulsive; their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. Eagleman has a plan for what he calls “the prefrontal workout.”
The basic idea is to give the frontal lobes practice in squelching the short-term brain circuits. To this end, my colleagues Stephen LaConte and Pearl Chiu have begun providing real-time feedback to people during brain scanning. Imagine that you’d like to quit smoking cigarettes. In this experiment, you look at pictures of cigarettes during brain imaging, and the experimenters measure which regions of your brain are involved in the craving. Then they show you the activity in those networks, represented by a vertical bar on a computer screen, while you look at more cigarette pictures. The bar acts as a thermometer for your craving: if your craving networks are revving high, the bar is high; if you’re suppressing your craving, the bar is low. Your job is to make the bar go down. Perhaps you have insight into what you’re doing to resist the craving; perhaps the mechanism is inaccessible. In any case, you try out different mental avenues until the bar begins to slowly sink. … The goal is for the long term to trump the short term. Still looking at pictures of cigarettes, you practice making the bar go down over and over, until you’ve strengthened those frontal circuits.
After training at the prefrontal gym, a person might still crave a cigarette, but he’ll know how to beat the craving instead of letting it win. It’s not that we don’t want to enjoy our impulsive thoughts (Mmm, cake), it’s merely that we want to endow the frontal cortex with some control over whether we act upon them (I’ll pass).(9)
This approach is still experimental, but it is clear that it is a way of training the will, of strengthening the ability of our second-order thinking—which we identify as being more from who we truly are than our first-order thinking is—to govern our first-order desires.
Philosophers have long known the importance of strengthening the will. Plato, in The Republic, speaks of the soul (psyche) as having three parts, the part that just wants pleasure, the part that likes to make things happen, and the rational part, which can think and reflect. “Does it not belong,” he says, “to the rational part to rule, being wise and exercising forethought in behalf of the entire soul …?”(10) Exercising forethought about yourself is exactly second-order thinking.
Much more recently William James had the same idea. He advocates doing something every day that you (your first-order self) would rather not do, just for the purpose of strengthening the “faculty of effort,” by which he means what I call the second-order will. With typical Jamesian floridity, he says “The man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things … will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”(11)
The point of philosophy is to learn how to master your life. Knowing what you have to work with is essential to that effort; and certainly knowing how your brain works to influence what you feel, think and do is an important part of that knowledge.
You are free. What will do with your knowledge of how you are determined?
(1) Wikipedia, “Tourette syndrome.” Motherless Brooklyn, quite a good novel by Jonathan Lethem, depicts the syndrome from a first-person point of view.
(2) Eagleman, “The Brain on Trial.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Sense of agency.”
(5) Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About, pp. 20–21. Robert Kane notes that there is still an issue regarding how second-order volitions are formed, but that is a topic for another time. See Kane, The Significance of Free Will, pp. 61-67.
(6) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, p. 4.
(7) Bauer, “How to Avoid the Temptations of Immediate Gratification.”
(8) Eagleman, “The Brain on Trial.”
(10) Plato, The Republic, 441e.
(11) James, “The Laws of Habit.”
Bauer, Melanie. “How to Avoid the Temptations of Immediate Gratification.” Online publication http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-to-avoid-the-temptations-of-immediate-gratification as of 28 January 2013.
Eagleman, David. “The Brain on Trial.” Atlantic Monthly, July-August 2011. Online publication http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/the-brain-on-trial/308520/ as of 28 June 2011.
Frankfurt, Harry. The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
James, William. “The Laws of Habit.” Chapter 8 of Talks To Teachers On Psychology; and To Students On Some of Life’s Ideals. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. Online publication http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/tt8.html as of 15 February 2012.
Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Plato. The Republic. Tr. Paul Shorey. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.
Wikipedia. “Sense of agency.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense_of_agency as of 5 February 2013.
Wikipedia. “Tourette syndrome.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourette_syndrome as of 4 February 2013.
A book I have been working on for many years is now published and available. Its title is How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. It is my take on a question that goes back to the ancient Greeks: how can we live the most fulfilling life? To answer it I consider what goodness is all about, the ultimate metaphysical nature of the universe and our place in it, what our unique gifts and abilities are in light of evolutionary psychology, and many other topics. I have tried to write it all down in a way that is accessible to an interested person who is not trained in philosophy but also rigorous enough that professional philosophers will find merit in it, or at least something worth arguing with.
Click here to learn more and place an order.
I’ve heard a number of people say that a well-known experiment performed by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet proves that human beings do not have free will. It doesn’t. As is often the case with such research the experimental results are replicable, but the theoretical implications are subject to interpretation. Interpretations differ, and the one given by free-will deniers is, I believe, shortsighted.
Benjamin Libet was a researcher in the physiology department of the University of California, San Francisco who was intrigued by the difficulty of investigating human consciousness.(1) The difficulty is this: unlike most of what science investigates, consciousness, or subjective experience, is not available for public inspection. Scientific advance depends on researchers’ being able to replicate experiments, to observe the same things that others observe. The public, or objective, world is out there for anybody (or anybody with suitable training) to see. But subjective experiences are, in Libet’s words, “available only to the individual subject who is experiencing them.”(2) We can observe brain activity through the means of electroencephalography (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the like. We have reason to believe that brain activity is correlated with subjective experience. But we have no way of observing subjective experience publicly. It is private, detectable only by the person whose experience it is. So how can we correlate the two?
Libet’s answer was to observe what people report about their experience. He would wire a subject up in order to observe brain activity and then apply a stimulus and ask the subject to report on what he or she experienced. In this way he could tell how strong the stimulus needed to be and how long it had to applied in order to produce a conscious experience of it. He could distinguish between how long it took for someone to detect an event, as evidenced by their involuntary reaction to it, and how long it took for someone to become conscious of it, as evidenced by their report. As it turns out, we take about a half a second to become conscious of something after it happens, but we can react to it without being conscious of it much more rapidly (for example, blinking our eye when something flies toward it).(3) That finding raises interesting questions about our knowledge of the world—Are we always a half-second behind what really happens? If so, how is it that we get around in the world successfully?—but they are not my topic in this essay.
The experiment that has gotten the most attention was an attempt to find out something about voluntary acts, acts in which the subject consciously and deliberately does something. Are voluntary acts similarly delayed?
Prior research had established that shortly before a voluntary act is done, such as flexing one’s wrist at a time of one’s own choosing, electrical activity in the brain arises, an event termed “readiness potential” (RP). The RP occurs in the brain up to 800 milliseconds before the physical act.(4) Libet wanted to find out when the subject becomes conscious of the will to act, when consciously wanting or wishing or willing to act occurs, an event he termed “W.” W certainly happens before the physical act, but does it occur before or after the RP?
Here is the experiment. The subject, who is wired up, sits before a clock-like device in which a dot of light sweeps around a circle quite rapidly, about two and half seconds per revolution instead of the usual 60 seconds. This device allows measurement of time differences in the hundreds of milliseconds. The subject is told to flex their wrist whenever they choose—a voluntary act—and to note the position of the dot of light when they decide to do it. The experimenter can detect and record when the RP happens and can detect and record when the physical movement happens. The experimenter also records the subject’s report of when W happens, so the experiment gathers three data points. The results are then averaged over many trials.(5) The findings are surprising:
What we found, in short, was that the brain exhibited an initiating process beginning 550 msec [milliseconds] before the freely voluntary act; but the awareness of the conscious will to perform the act appeared only 150-200 msec before the act. The voluntary process is therefore initiated unconsciously, some 400 msec before the subject becomes aware of her will or intention to perform the act.(6)
So how can we be said to have free will if our choice is actually initiated by brain activity before we even know it? Many people take these results as evidence that our will is not in fact free, but is determined by physical events in the brain.
Libet himself had his doubts. He devised another experiment in which the subject was told to prepare to act at a certain time on the clock-like device, but to veto that expected act when the device reached 100 to 200 milliseconds before the preset time. In this case the RP for the act developed, but then flattened just as the subject was vetoing the act. “This at least demonstrated that a person could veto an expected act within the 100-200 msec before the preset time … .”(7) Commentators have called this phenomenon “free won’t”;(8) and Libet thought it demonstrated that we do have free will, but it is limited to vetoing processes that are initiated unconsciously. He distinguishes between an initiation process and a control process, the former being unconscious and the latter conscious.(9) That distinction seems dubious to me, as the experiments are not directly comparable. In one case the subject is told to act when he (or she) chooses; and in the other case he is told to act, not whenever he wants, but at a certain time and to veto the act at a slightly earlier time.
On the face of it, it seems as if our will is indeed determined and not free, but there are numerous objections to this conclusion. The most obvious, perhaps, is that we have no warrant to generalize from the results of a simplified experiment to our experience of willing in general. Libet responds that it is common in science to study a simple system and then find similar behavior in more complicated systems, and the fact that other experimenters have found similar results in variants of the original experiment give us justification to believe that the findings apply to voluntary acts in general.(10)
OK, but there are other ways to challenge Libet’s conclusions says the author of the blog Conscious Entities:
We could … question whether RPs really have the significance attributed to them. We could question whether the unusual circumstances of the experiment, with subjects thinking in advance about making a decision, and then making one for no reason whatever, properly represent normal thought processes. We could take the view that the experiments involve at least two mental reporting processes, one to do with the occurrence of the decision, one to do with the state of the clock, which makes any judgement of simultaneity highly problematic.(11)
A stronger objection is this:
Libet often seems to take it for granted that every free act is preceded by a specific act of will, but that isn’t really the case. Often the conscious mind sets a general plan, on which we then act more or less automatically. A tennis player has thought in general terms about how to play the next stroke long before the need for actual action; drivers have a kind of running rule in the back of their mind to the effect that if something suddenly appears in front of them, they hit the brake. Free will operates at this higher level, with all our actions being managed in detail by unconscious processes. I don’t have to think about where I want to hit the ball at the very moment of decision in order to control my game of tennis any more than I have to think separately about each of the individual muscles I am implicitly proposing to contract.(12)
As this objection suggests, when we think that brain activity causes what we do, we are not looking in the right place for free will. It has to do with who is acting, who the agent is. When we say “I made the choice” and “I did not make the choice, my brain did it” we are using the term “I” to mean different things.
In the former case, when we say “I made the choice,” I means the whole constellation of elements that constitutes me. I, and not someone else, made the choice; and I am an ongoing pattern of decisions, reactions, thoughts, feelings, emotions and so forth, not to mention a physical body. But in the latter case, when we say “I did not make the choice; it was determined by brain activity,” I seems to mean some subset of the elements that constitute me. It’s as if we are thinking of ourselves as a tiny person who lives in the nooks and crannies of the brain and gets buffeted by electrical activity and forced to take action. But that’s not who we are. We are (each of us is) a whole person, and the ascription of agency and free will is properly made to the whole person, not a subset.
Libet has discovered one of the mechanisms by which choice operates in a specific, constrained situation. But you are not the mechanism, you are the agent who incorporates the mechanism; and the laws of agency operate at a higher level than the laws governing the mechanism. The laws that most usefully describe us as whole persons are agential, not mechanical, laws.
By “agential laws” I mean that human beings act on their desires and beliefs, and the way we predict what people will do is not by examining their brain waves but by understanding what they want and what they think is true. And, as I have written elsewhere,(13) the way we get them to do something, especially if we want their willing cooperation, is by influencing their desires and beliefs. We change their desires through enticement, persuasion, cajoling, bribery, offers of exchange, reward or punishment and so forth; or we provide evidence to convince them of certain facts; or we do both.
Artificial intelligence researcher Ray Kurzweil makes the point that it is important to model systems at the right (by which he means the most useful) level.
Although chemistry is theoretically based on physics and could be derived entirely from physics, this would be unwieldy and infeasible in practice, so chemistry has established its own rules and models. Similarly, we should be able to deduce the laws of thermodynamics from physics, but once we have a bunch of particles, solving equations for the physics of each particle interaction becomes hopeless, whereas the laws of thermodynamics work quite well. Biology likewise has its own rules and models. A single pancreatic islet cell is enormously complicated, especially if we model it at the level of molecules; modeling what a pancreas actually does in terms of regulating levels of insulin and digestive enzymes is considerably less complex.(14)
Similarly, it works much better to think of ourselves as agents with free will, the ability to decide for ourselves what to do, than to think of ourselves as the effects of neural mechanisms. And in fact even those who profess a belief in determinism act in actual practice as if they can make choices. We have found out a lot about the workings of the brain, and no doubt we will find out more. But knowing how the carburetor works is not the same as being able to drive the car skillfully.
That said, it is certainly useful to know how the mechanisms work so we can notice when they are operating and what they are doing and decide what to do about it. There are other mechanisms besides brain activity that influence our behavior, a topic to which I hope to return next time.
(1) Wikipedia, “Benjamin Libet.”
(2) Libet, Mind Time, p. 1.
(3) Ibid., chapter two.
(4) Ibid., p. 124.
(5) Ibid., pp. 126-129.
(6) Ibid., pp. 123-124.
(7) Ibid., pp. 138-139.
(8) Wikipedia, “Benjamin Libet.”
(9) Libet, Mind Time, pp. 143-147.
(10) Ibid., p. 148.
(11) Conscious Entities, “Astonishing Experiments.”
(12) Conscious Entities, “Libet’s short delay.”
(13) Meacham, “Do Humans Have Free Will?”
(14) Kurzweil, How To Create A Mind, p. 37.
Conscious Entities. “Astonishing Experiments.” Online publication http://www.consciousentities.com/experiments.htm as of 27 January 2013.
Conscious Entities. “Libet’s Short Delay.” Online publication http://www.consciousentities.com/libet.htm as of 27 January 2013.
Kurzweil, Ray. How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. New York: Viking, 2012.
Libet, Benjamin. “Do We Have Free Will?” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 8-9, 1999, pp. 47-57. Online publication http://www.centenary.edu/attachments/philosophy/aizawa/courses/intros2009/libetjcs1999.pdf as of 27 January 2013.
Libet, Benjamin. Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. The crucial fourth chapter appears in substantially the same form in Libet, “Do We Have Free Will?”
Meacham, Bill. “Do Humans Have Free Will?” Online publication, http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/FreeWill.html.
Wikipedia. “Benjamin Libet.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Libet as of 29 January 2013.
The philosophy club is currently studying Philosophy of Mind, a topic fraught with ambiguity. People use terms such as “mind,” “consciousness,” “awareness,” “experience” and so forth as if everyone knows what they mean. But they can mean very different things to different people; and the cardinal sin of philosophy, committed all too often, is to use terms that are ambiguous. You start out talking about one thing and end up talking about something else even though you are using the same word. That’s called equivocation, and it is bad because it promotes confusion rather than clarity.
One of the things philosophers claim to be good at is logical definition and clarification of terms, so in this essay I propose some definitions of salient terms. I do not claim that these are the only correct definitions. I merely claim that if we all agree to use words the same way, we’ll have a productive conversation rather than talking past each other, and that this is the way I recommend. Don’t expect any grand conclusions, just (I hope) some clarity.
Of all the concepts relating to mind, I propose that we use experience as the most inclusive. It means the subjective aspect of a person’s taking into account his or her world. By subjective I mean detectable or observable in principle by only one person, the one who is taking his or her world into account. This is in contrast to objective, by which I mean detectable or observable by more than one person.
This definition of “experience” is a bit circular, as “detect” and “observe” are, if not synonyms, perhaps subsets of “experience.” That’s unavoidable. I can’t give an ostensive definition of “experience” because our experience (the experience that each of us has) is private; it can’t be observed or pointed to by anyone else. At any rate, “experience” is the broadest category, including everything from being awake, focused and alertly paying attention (to something) down to hazily and dimly having a feeling (of something) in the background, so to speak, even so far in the background that it is not present to our attention at all. The latter is what some call “non-conscious experience.”
Consciousness is a subset of “experience.” I prefer to use the phrase being conscious, because “consciousness,” a noun, implies something fixed and substantial, but our experience is ever changing. Being conscious involves the following:
- The world is presented to you with vividness or intensity; in other words, you are paying attention to some aspect of the world; and
- At the same time at some level you notice, or think about, what you are paying attention to; and
- All this happens with sufficient intensity to leave a memory.
Being conscious entails some degree of complexity of interiority, both paying attention to the world and thinking about it or at least having some mental representation of what you are paying attention to. What we call conscious experience has some element of thinking about what we are paying attention to. Consciousness happens when attention is focused on something—that is, something is present vividly—and at the same time there is some thinking about that same thing. Without the thinking, there is experience, but it is not memorable enough to be called conscious experience.
Being acutely conscious is one end of a spectrum of kinds of experience. I use the terms awareness or being aware for the entire spectrum, particularly the less vivid and acute end.
To point out what I mean: until I called it to your attention, you were probably not conscious of the chair pressing against your seat and back. You were not conscious of it, i.e., you were not attending to it; but nevertheless you were aware of it, it was present in your experience.
Consider the so-called consciousness of animals. We cannot know for sure, but we can imagine that the world is presented quite vividly to a dog, but we doubt that the dog thinks about it much. The dog’s attention seems to shift quite rapidly as it sniffs at one thing and then barks at another with no behavioral evidence of there being any connection between the two.
Consider highway hypnosis, times when the driver is unable to recall specific moments or events during extended periods of driving. Certainly the driver is aware of—in the sense of being responsive to—his or her surroundings, the other cars on the road, the turns and intersections and so forth; but he or she drives automatically or habitually, without thinking about it.
In both cases I would rather say that the dog or person is aware, rather than conscious, of its or his or her surroundings. Others may use the term “awareness” differently. This is how I recommend using it. Because “being conscious” ordinarily connotes clarity and distinctness of perception, I would like to use “being aware” to denote the broad spectrum of ways we experience and take into account our environment, from clear and distinct perception of publicly-observable things or our private ideas to vague and obscure presentations of moods, bodily sensations, the not-fully-attended-to physical environment, etc. Let’s reserve “being conscious” for wakingly and explicitly being aware.
My point is that clear and distinct perception is not the only form of being aware; in fact is it only one end of a continuum, at the other end of which are vague and indistinct presentations, emotional and physical feelings, and finally subliminally or subconsciously presented objects of which we can only with the greatest of difficulty become explicitly conscious.
That’s how I would like to use these terms. But there are other uses, and it is useful to take a look at them so you can recognize them when you come across them. Particularly slippery is the term “consciousness.”
Other Uses: “Conscious” and “Consciousness”
The literature on consciousness contains many different meanings of the term. A very good list is found in Consciousness, A User’s Guide, by Adam Zeman. Zeman says that the origin of the term is the Latin scio, meaning “I know” and cum, “with”. This implies that consciousness is “knowledge with,” shared knowledge, knowledge shared with another person or knowledge shared with yourself (as when you talk to yourself). The Latin conscientia means a witness to the facts, whether external or in the workings of the mind.(1)
The first sense of the term “conscious” is simply being awake. When you are awake you are capable of making a well-integrated response to your environment. Humorously we can say that consciousness is that annoying interlude between naps.
The second sense of “conscious” is being aware. To be conscious is to be aware of something. In this sense, “consciousness” is ordinary experience, which is always experience of something, such as people, trees, books, food—all the things around us—or of subjective things such as bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc., the contents of consciousness. Zeman says “The interplay of sensation, memory, emotion and action is the foundation of ordinary experience.”(2) He quotes William James in Principles of Psychology, as saying that consciousness is “the current content of perceptual experience.”
However—and here is where the definition of the term gets slippery—sometimes the term “consciousness” means not the content but the container, that which holds or includes the content. Consider phrases such as “It was not in my consciousness” and “expanding your consciousness.” Clearly the metaphor is that consciousness contains something else, and if consciousness is expanded it can contain more things or perhaps the same things more vividly.
As quoted in Zeman, James lists several characteristics of consciousness.(3) In the following list, substitute for “consciousness” “the content of perceptual experience”. If the sentence does not make sense, substitute “the container of perceptual experience”.
- Consciousness is stable for short periods of time, up to a few seconds. [Content]
- Consciousness is changeful over time. [Content]
- Consciousness is selective, with a foreground and a background, and a limited capacity. [Container, that which has capacity. But also content, in that foreground and background are contents.]
- Attention can be directed, one can shift the focus of consciousness [Container. The container focuses on some of the contents to the exclusion of others.]
- Consciousness ranges over innumerable contents. [Container]
- Consciousness is continuous over time, in the sense that memory allows one to connect what one is conscious of in the present with what one was conscious of in the past. [Container. Certainly the contents vary over time.]
- Consciousness is “intentional,” in that it is of something, directed at something. [Container]
- Consciousness is aspectual, with a limited point of view, conditioned by the perspective of your viewpoint. [Container]
- Consciousness is personal, involving a subject. [This is the most problematic of these assertions. Is the container the subject? Or are some of the contents the subject?]
Yet another meaning of the term “consciousness” is mind or the subjective, interior aspect of the human being. Zeman says”…’conscious’ in this third sense can be used to report our acquaintance with any state of affairs whatsoever ….”(4), whether public or private. In this sense you are conscious of anything that passes through your mind, and the term “conscious” means “knowing”. Consciousness in this sense (the state of knowing) is related to intentions and purposes, as in “a conscious attempt to influence the proceedings”(5). There is a link between consciousness and volition, the act of willing, or its outcome, deliberate action. This sense of “consciousness” bridges perception and action. You do something deliberately when you know that you are doing it and plan and intend to do it.
Another meaning is the way you interpret your world in a more global sense, particularly politically. Marxists talk about “bourgeois consciousness” or “proletarian consciousness,” meaning the categories people in those economic classes use to think about economic or political events or their place in the social order, particularly if those categories are not examined but instead are used uncritically. In this sense “consciousness” refers to characteristics of the container. The container is like a filter or colored lens, such that you pay more attention to certain contents than to others without realizing that you are doing so.
Finally, the term may be used to refer to a conscious being such as a person or even a deity: “He could sense a consciousness somewhere in the distance” or “a vast consciousness watching over us.” Such figurative speech—technically called synecdoche, using a part to represent the whole—is not at all how discussions of mind would use the term, however.
“Self-conscious” and “Self-consciousness”
The relationship between consciousness and self-consciousness is as confused as the meaning of “consciousness”. Some say that self-consciousness is an essential component of consciousness and other say it is not. They are using the terms “consciousness” and “self-consciousness” in different senses.
Zeman helpfully lists several common meanings of the term “self-conscious.”(6) The first is awkward or prone to embarrassment. Self-consciousness is excessive sensitivity to the attention of others when it is directed towards us. An essential element of self-consciousness in this sense is knowing that others are conscious of us.
Another sense of ”self-conscious” is self-detecting. We can detect things that are happening to us or are caused by us, as opposed to happening to or caused by someone else. We ascribe this knowledge in greater and greater degree to children as they grow out of infancy. The infant, we surmise, has little self-consciousness in the sense of being able to detect what happens as a result of its own activity as opposed to someone else’s. As children grow older they acquire self-consciousness in this sense.
An elaboration of this sense of self-consciousness is self-recognizing. When you are self-conscious, the contents of your experience include a concept or idea of yourself, a self-representation. This gives rise, says Zeman, to second-order evaluative emotions such as envy, pride, guilt and shame, which require a sense (concept) of yourself as the object of others’ attentions. First-order emotions, such as joy, anger, sadness, interest, disgust and fear, do not presuppose any self-representation.
Having an idea of yourself, you can then pay attention to your experience in a different way, knowing that it is subjective. This is another meaning of “self-conscious”: knowing that you are conscious and paying attention, not just to the contents of consciousness, but to the fact of being conscious as well (which then becomes one of the contents of consciousness). You distinguish between things that are open to public inspection, such as physical things, and things that are private, such as dreams. You conceive of yourself as subject of experience, not just as a person being observed by others. You pay attention to the subjectivity of experience in addition to the other objects of experience.
Finally, you can speak of being self-conscious in a broader sense as having self-knowledge, your knowledge of the entire psychological and social context in which you come to know yourself.
Consciousness and Self-consciousness
Sometimes being conscious entails thinking about your subjective experience while experiencing something, rather than—or in addition to—thinking about the thing itself. You put some attention on the fact that attention is focused, i.e., that you are conscious of something, as well as on the thing itself. That this type of experience is always vivid and leaves memories leads some to believe that consciousness always entails some degree of self-consciousness.
However I think this is not the case. We need to be careful about the meaning of our words here. Certainly you do not have to have self-knowledge in order to be awake and responsive to your surroundings. The question is whether ordinary human experience always contains some element—sometimes more pronounced and sometimes less so—of knowledge that you are conscious. I think careful observation of experience will show that sometimes it does and sometimes it does not, but I am open to discussion about the matter.
What we call conscious experience often, but not always, has some element of knowing that you are conscious, of paying attention to what you are doing. What is always present in vivid experience that leaves memories is, in addition to the object being paid attention to, thinking that is vivid enough to be noticed and that bears some relation to the object of attention. The more such thinking is present, the more vivid is your ordinary experience and the stronger your memory. The thinking may be about the object or it may be about the subjectivity of your experience or both. But it is not necessary that it be about your subjectivity. It is enough that it be about the object.
Being conscious or being aware always entails being conscious or aware of something. This “ofness” is called “intentionality” in the philosophical literature, and the meaning of “intention” is different from its meaning in ordinary usage. “Intention” in the normal sense means your plan to make something happen. It is more than just desire; it entails some degree of determination to make it happen and thus some amount of thinking about how to accomplish it. The technical term means something else. Here are two explanations:
“Intentionality” is a technical term used by philosophers to refer to that capacity of the mind by which mental states refer to, or are about, or are of objects and states of affairs in the world other than themselves. … The English technical term comes not from the English ‘intention’ but from the German Intentionalität and that in turn from Latin.(7)
The standard philosophical term for aboutness is intentionality, and … it ‘comes by metaphor’ from the Latin intendere arcum in, which means to aim a bow and arrow at (something). This image of aiming or directedness is central in most philosophical discussions of intentionality.(8)
Well, that’s all folks. As I said, I have no profound insights to pass on, only recommendations for using language in a mutually agreeable way.
But I will say this: If it is important to know ourselves, as Socrates and the Oracle at Delphi advised, then being able to speak without ambiguity about mind, experience, consciousness and so forth is not just a good intellectual exercise. It is important for self-understanding and hence for self-improvement as well.
(1) Zeman, p. 15.
(2) Ibid, p. 18.
(3) Ibid., pp. 18-19.
(4) Ibid., p. 20.
(5) Ibid., p. 21.
(7) Ibid., pp. 21-29.
(7) Searle, p. 28.
(8) Dennett, p. 333
Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Company Back Bay Books, 1991.
Searle, John R. Mind: A Brief Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Zeman, Adam. Consciousness, A User’s Guide. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
The solstice has come and gone, and with it the turn of the Mayan Long Count calendar. We’re still here. The world has not ended (the Maya did not think it would). The flying saucer people have not landed. A cosmic vortex of profound enlightenment has not swept over us; or if it has, its effects are not yet evident. So now what?
It is the traditional time for New Year’s resolutions. What if we made a resolution, not for a year but for 5,125 of them? That’s how long the full cycle of the Mayan calendar runs.
But why should we even care about the Maya and their calendar? After all, the calendar makers lived a long time ago; they were war-like and superstitious; they were unable to prevent the collapse of their civilization; and their astronomy, although impressive, was not as good as ours.
Here’s why: For all the flaws of its makers, the Long Count calendar is a magnificent achievement and it still captures the imagination of people world-wide. There is something glorious, something commanding and majestic, about the vision of a cycle of more than 50 centuries. There’s something organic about it as well. It’s not just multiples of 20. There is a cycle of 18 also, and a cycle of 13. (See my earlier blog post for the details.) It is not just a product of the intellect spinning out sterile recurrences; it has soul.
We can make use of that soul, if we choose to do so. We can tune in to it, so that what we initiate now will have lots of momentum behind it. It is like planting while the moon is waxing.(1) Why not make a resolution that will grow for centuries?
If we did, what resolution would we make? It would have to be intended for something beyond merely ourselves, and beyond our friends and families and descendants, perhaps beyond even our species. It would have to be for something beyond our neighborhoods, states and nations, perhaps beyond even our planet. Our resolution would have be for something lasting.
Here is the philosophical part: Only what is good lasts. What is evil, what is malicious, eventually becomes self-destructive. Sow hatred, and you will be consumed by it. Sow love, and you will be nourished. Sow pettiness, jealousy, revenge, greed, and you will never be satisfied. Sow generosity and beneficence, and you will be rewarded and fulfilled.
We are all connected with each other and with the natural world around us. We are part of interconnected, interdependent systems. In such systems the thriving of the individual parts is necessary for the thriving of the whole, and the thriving of the whole is necessary for the thriving of the parts. We are created, defined, and sustained by our relationships with each other and with the natural world.(2) So let’s resolve to nurture the whole of which we are a part and thereby nurture ourselves. The basic principle is simple: Figure out something good to do or start or create, something that will last a long time and keep producing goodness. Then make it happen.
But that is awfully abstract. What it will look like on the ground is up to each one of us.
What are your talents and skills? What can you put to use for the benefit of all?
What excites you and motivates you? What would keep you happily occupied for the long run?
What do you want to be in place for the 205th generation after yours?
(1) Gardeners for centuries have used this practice to increase their yields. Whether or not there is a measurable physical basis for it, there is certainly an effect on the gardener’s confidence and feeling of harmony with natural cycles; and those feelings affect how the gardener treats her plants. And there is some evidence that there is indeed a physical basis. See, for instance, http://aussieorganicgardening.com/?p=32, http://www.gardeningbythemoon.com/lunarfacts.html, and http://www.420magazine.com/forums/cultivation-scientific-data/167178-moon-phases-power-holds-planting.html.
(2) Kathleen Dean Moore in DeMocker, “If Your House Is On Fire.”
DeMocker, Mary. “If Your House Is On Fire: Kathleen Dean Moore On The Moral Urgency Of Climate Change.” Chapel Hill, NC: The Sun magazine, Issue 444, pp. 5-15. Online publication http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/444/if_your_house_is_on_fire as of 30 December 2012.
In about 500 BC astronomers in the Yucatan Peninsula predicted that a remarkable event would happen some 2,500 years in their future. They thought it so significant that they constructed a complex calendar full of cycles within cycles such that all the cycles would come to an end (and thus a new beginning) at once on that day. That day is December 21, 2012, the solstice, and it is almost upon us. If we have not done so already, it is time to make preparations. But not in the way many new-age pundits, with their penchant for sensationalism, would have us believe.
I am speaking, of course, of the Mayan calendar, and the fears that the world will end in some kind of apocalypse on the December 2012 solstice. In fact, experts agree, the Maya had no conception of such an apocalypse, which is a newer and European idea. Says one researcher, “We keep looking for endings…. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.”(1)
But if it is not the end of the world, then what will happen on the upcoming December solstice? And why were the Maya so interested in it that they constructed a calendar around it? To answer these questions we will have to delve into the Mayan calendar and astronomy. The details are complex, so here is a brief summary.
The Maya concocted a complicated calendar capable of identifying specific dates within a 5,125-year cycle composed of thirteen 394-year “baktuns,” which themselves are composed of cycles within cycles. On December 21 the 13th baktun will come to an end. Rather than starting a 14th baktun, the grand cycle will start over again. It’s like your car odometer rolling over from all nines to all zeroes.
The Mayan astronomers were quite proficient. They predicted that on the upcoming December solstice an unusual astronomical event would occur: the alignment (as seen from the earth) of the sun with the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic. Such an alignment happens every year, but usually not on a solstice. Because of the earth’s axial precession, it happens on a solstice only once every 12,900 years.(2) The Maya predicted the timing of this unusual event and constructed their calendar so that it would end at this occasion. Their calendar does not so much begin at an arbitrary date in the past but end at one in the future. They worked backwards from the astronomical event they believed would happen on the upcoming December solstice.
That’s the story in a nutshell; for those interested in the details I give a more comprehensive explanation below. But what does it mean? Will the arrangement of the stars on a certain day actually have any unusual effect on us?
In terms of physical effects, the answer is No, for two reasons. The first is that there is no physical evidence that any arrangement of stars and planets has anything other than physical effects. The rotation of the earth determines day and night; its progress through its yearly orbit and the inclination of its axis determine the seasons; the positions of the sun and moon determine the tides; and the gravitational forces among the various heavenly bodies determine their orbits and hence their position in the sky from our point of view. But there is no objective, third-party evidence that their positions and movements have any nonphysical influence on human affairs. (They might, as astrologers maintain; but the objective evidence for that influence is at best sketchy.)
The second reason is that the Maya got it wrong, by about fourteen years. There was indeed such a conjunction of the sun and the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic at a solstice, but it happened in 1998.(3) So even if the conjunction could cause an unusual effect, it would have already happened. Apart from the Mayan calendar, there is nothing special about the upcoming solstice.
And yet we have the Mayan calendar and it does have an effect on us. You might call that effect socially constructed, but it is real nonetheless. Had the Maya not made something of the December solstice of 2012, we would not be having this conversation. But they did, and millions of people worldwide, not just you and I, have heard of the upcoming event even if they don’t know precisely what it entails. We can, if we choose, make use of the psychic force of all that attention.
The image is striking: cycles within cycles within cycles, all ponderously but inexorably coming to an alignment, a zero point, after 50 centuries. I imagine a great wheel slowly turning once every 5,125 years and within it a smaller wheel turning once every 394 years and within that yet smaller ones, the least of which turns every 20 days, a spinning whirligig of clockwork that drives an immense and awesome epoch.
And the beginning of a new epoch is almost upon us.
To mark it, to make something useful of it, I suggest the following practice:
- Set an intention for the next epoch, something you would like to see happen or endure over the next 5,125 years.
- Do something now, before the solstice, that will contribute to your intention being realized and that will have a tangible effect after the solstice. Launch something, start something, plant something (figuratively or literally) that will begin to come to fruition after the solstice. Do something to advance your intention now, something that is irrevocable and that will have a tangible or visible effect in the physical world after the solstice.
- Do this, as much as you are able, with a pure heart.
We are very close to the axle of an immense wheel, an axle that has great gravitational attraction. Imagine that you are in the plane of that wheel and you launch something toward the axle. Your payload comes close to the axle and whips around it with tremendous speed and then flies off into the future.
What you launch now will have great power. It will take effect almost immediately; it will have great impetus; and it will last a long, long time.
* * *
For those interested in a more complete explanation of the Mayan calendar and its astronomical roots, I present a summary of my research on the subject. Let’s take the calendar first. In fact, the Maya had several calendars.(4) Like all calendars, theirs were both somewhat arbitrary and based on objective astronomical observation. The numbers 13 and 20 seem to have been particularly important, and a 260-day calendar (13 numbers combined with 20 day names) is still in use in the Guatemalan highlands. Another calendar, based on the solar year, had 18 months of 20 days each plus an extra five days for a total of 365. The calendar we are interested in is the Long Count. The problem with the 260-day and the 365-day calendars is that the years were not numbered, so there was no way to determine a specific date in the far past or the distant future. They could correlate a date in the 260-day cycle to a date in the 365-day cycle, but that would only work for 18,980 days, about 52 years. (The least common multiple of 260 and 365 is 18,980; 73 X 260 = 52 X 365 = 18,980.) The Long Count calendar solves this problem by assigning a numbering system to every day since an arbitrary beginning, much like our Gregorian calendar numbers the years from an arbitrary starting point 2,012 years ago.
The Long Count system is a bit complicated but we will need an overview to understand why the upcoming solstice is significant. The Long Count is composed of cycles within cycles. The smallest unit is one day (a Kin). 20 days make one Winal. Eighteen Winals make one Tun, which is 360 days, close to a solar year. (That may be why there are only 18 Winals in a Tun instead of 20; everything else is in multiples of 20.) 20 Tuns make one Katun, so a Katun is about 20 years. And 20 Katuns make one Baktun, about 394 years.(5) A Long Count date is written with dots in between the units, like this: 126.96.36.199.17. This means 12 Baktuns, 19 Katuns, 19 Tuns, 16 Winals and 17 Kins, or days, from the arbitrary beginning.
We know how to correlate the Long Count calendar with our own Gregorian calendar because Spanish conquerors recorded when certain events happened in our calendar and noted the equivalent date in the Mayan calendar. Later researchers correlated new moons recorded in Mayan hieroglyphs with the known dates of the new moons in our calendar and came to the same conclusion.(6) Agreement is not universal, but by the reckoning accepted by most scholars, 188.8.131.52.17 is equivalent to November 23, 2012. There are numerous specific dates on various Mayan murals and carvings. Knowing the correlation between the Maya Long Count calendar and our own Gregorian calendar, we know quite precisely what those dates correspond to. Click here to see a fun interactive depiction of the Long Count calendar.
According to the Long Count calendar we are approaching the end of the 13th Baktun. On December 20 the Long Count calendar will be 184.108.40.206.19. Then, just like a car’s odometer rolling over, December 21 will be 220.127.116.11.0.
As I said, the number 13 seems to have been important for the Maya. There is some evidence that they thought that the beginning of the current cycle (0.0.0.0.0) was also the end of a previous cycle. “There are inscriptions at Palenque, Copan, and Quirigua that specifically date events occurring before the current era. All of them state that they occurred within the 12th baktun and lead up to 18.104.22.168.0…. For the ancient Maya, the 13th baktun [of the previous cycle] ended at the beginning of the world’s fourth creation, or era. The Popol Vuh describes…three previous creations.”(7) So 22.214.171.124.0 is not only the end of one cycle, it is the beginning of the next, the same as 0.0.0.0.0. No wonder the Maya thought it would be significant.
And the upcoming December solstice is just that time. But why will it happen then? The short answer is because the Mayan astronomers set it up so it would.
The current cycle started 1,872,000 days prior to December 21, 2012. That puts the arbitrary beginning at 11 August 3114 BC, according to our Gregorian calendar.(8) It is extremely unlikely that the Maya were around on that date and even less likely that whoever was around had enough cultural sophistication and mathematical knowledge to start counting the days in such a complex manner. Hence, the calendar creators must have had something else in mind. Researcher John Major Jenkins thinks they started the other way around, counting backward from the upcoming December solstice.(9) In other words, they started with the December solstice in the year we call 2012, and called that 126.96.36.199.0. The Maya, being consummate astronomers, made sure their Great Cycle would end on a solstice some 2,500 years in their future.
But why this particular solstice? To answer that we must understand some astronomy, specifically the galactic equator, the ecliptic, the solstices and axial precession.
As we look at the sky at night we see a great band of stars that are very close together, and we call it the Milky Way. The Milky Way is the galaxy our sun is in, and it is flattish, like a pancake. Imagine yourself in a diffuse pancake looking toward its center from some distance away; it would look like this:(10)
We can draw an imaginary line through this band of stars so that roughly half of them are on either side of it, and we call that line the galactic equator.
Looking at the sky, we can imagine that we are in the center of a great sphere. As the days and seasons go by, we see different portions of this celestial sphere at night. Against this sphere we can plot where the sun appears in relation to the stars on successive days and months. (We cannot see the stars behind the sun of course, because when we see the sun it is daytime. But knowing the position of the stars on the celestial sphere we can calculate where the sun is in relation to them.) Through the year the sun appears to move against the background of the stars along a flat line, which we call the ecliptic. The galactic equator and the ecliptic intersect at about 60 degrees:
The earth’s axis is tilted relative to the plane of the ecliptic. That’s what causes our seasons. A solstice is a time when one of the poles of the earth’s axis points directly toward the sun and the other pole points directly away. On December 21, the north pole will be pointed directly away so we call it winter solstice in the northern hemisphere; in the southern, it is summer solstice.
You would expect the sun’s position against the celestial sphere to be the same each year on a solstice, but it is not. Suppose you mark the position of the sun against the celestial sphere on a northern hemisphere summer solstice. “One full orbit later, when the Sun has returned to the same apparent position relative to the background stars, the Earth’s axial tilt is not now directly towards the Sun…. it is a little way ‘beyond’ this. In other words, the solstice occurred a little earlier in the orbit. Thus, the tropical year, measuring the cycle of seasons (for example, the time from solstice to solstice, or equinox to equinox), is about 20 minutes shorter than the sidereal year, which is measured by the Sun’s apparent position relative to the stars.”(11)
This effect is called axial precession, meaning that celestial sphere of background stars appears to go backward a bit from year to year relative to the sun. By “backward” I mean this: every day the sun and stars rise in the east and set in the west, so their motion is forward from east to west. Precession means the celestial sphere appears to have moved backward, from west to east, as measured on successive yearly solstices. To put it the other way around, on the solstice the sun’s position against the background stars has moved forward. This effect is caused by a slight wobble in the earth’s axis of rotation. The poles rotate in a circle, and over about 26,000 years they return to where they were before.
Now we are in a position to know why the upcoming December solstice was important to the Maya. They knew about precession, and knew that on this date the sun would line up with the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic.(12)
Twice a year the earth, the sun and that intersection point are lined up, once when the earth is in between the sun and the intersection, and once when the earth is on the other side of the sun so the sun is in between the earth and the intersection. For most of history, when that happened it was not on a solstice, and on the solstices the sun was not in alignment with the intersection. But on this solstice the sun will be in alignment, according to the Mayan calculations.
Because of precession, the sun steadily marches westward from solstice to solstice. It is easy to see this with pictures. This one shows the position of the sun at the December solstice in 12 AD and in 1012 AD:
As you can see, in 1012 AD the sun has moved to the right (westward), toward the intersection.
And here it is in 2012:
On December 21, 2012 the sun will be lined up with the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic, according to Mayan calculations. So we can surmise that this would be a highly suitable date to end the 13th Baktun. As Jenkins puts it, “For early Mesoamerican skywatchers, the slow approach of the winter solstice sun to the Sacred Tree [the Milky Way as it intersects the ecliptic] was seen as a critical process, the culmination of which was surely worthy of being called 188.8.131.52.0, the end of a World Age. The channel would then be open through the winter solstice doorway, up the Sacred Tree…to the center of the churning heavens, the Heart of Sky.”(13)
(1) Vance, “Unprecedented Maya Mural Found.”
(2) 2012Hoax, “Galactic Equator vs Plane.”
(3) Hunter, “Mayan Calendar – Long Count Accuracy.” 2012Hoax, “Galactic Equator vs Plane.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Maya calendar.”
(6) Barnhart, “The Correlation Debate.”
(7) Barnhart, “The Longcount and 2012 AD.”
(8) Wikipedia, “Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.”
(9) Jenkins, “The How and Why of the Mayan End Date.”
(10) All images are from Hunter, “2012 AD – Mayan Calendar Galactic Alignment.”
(11) Wikipedia, “Axial precession.”
(12) Jenkins, “The How and Why of the Mayan End Date.”
2012Hoax. “Galactic Equator vs Plane.” Online publication http://www.2012hoax.org/galactic-equator-vs-plane as of 28 November 2012.
Barhart, Ed. “The Correlation Debate.” Online publication http://mayan-calendar.com/ancient_correlation.html as of 28 November 2012.
Barnhart, Ed. “The Longcount and 2012 AD.” Online publication http://mayan-calendar.com/ancient_longcount.html as of 28 November 2012.
Hunter, Keith. “2012 AD – Mayan Calendar Galactic Alignment.” Online publication http://www.ancient-world-mysteries.com/2012.html as of 26 November 2012.
Hunter, Keith. “Mayan Calendar – Long Count Accuracy in Targeting the Galactic Alignment Configuration.” Online publication http://www.ancient-world-mysteries.com/long-count-mayan-calendar-accuracy.html as of 26 November 2012.
Hunter, Keith. “The Long Count Mayan Calendar System.” Online publication http://www.ancient-world-mysteries.com/long-count.html as of 26 November 2012.
Jenkins, John Major. “The How and Why of the Mayan End Date in 2012 A.D.” Online publication
http://www.levity.com/eschaton/Why2012.html as of 28 February 2003.
Licon, Adriana Gomex. “2012 and Maya prophecies: What were they thinking?” Online publication http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/49224135/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/maya-prophecies-what-were-they-thinking/ as of 26 November 2012.
New York Times. “The Long Count.” Online publication http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/16/science/20091116-maya.html as of 28 November 2012.
Vance, Erik. “Unprecedented Maya Mural Found, Contradicts 2012 ‘Doomsday’ Myth.” Online publication http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/05/120510-maya-2012-doomsday-calendar-end-of-world-science/ as of 28 November 2012.
Wikipedia. “2012 phenomenon.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_phenomenon as of 26 November 2012.
Wikipedia. “Axial precession.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axial_precession as of 28 November 2012.
Wikipedia. “Celestial sphere.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_sphere as of 28 November 2012.
Wikipedia. “Ecliptic.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecliptic as of 28 November 2012.
Wikipedia. “Maya calendar.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_calendar as of 26 November 2012.
Wikipedia. “Maya civilization.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_civilization as of 26 November 2012.
Wikipedia. “Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerican_Long_Count_calendar as of 28 November 2012.