The Nature of Conscious Experience


Consciousness As Causal Relay Race

The intuitive view is that our conscious thoughts cause our actions. Benjamin Libet conducted some experiments that seemed to some to challenge this. He found evidence for decisions being made in brains before the owner was aware of them. Electrical events that appeared to indicate a decision to raise a finger had been made occurred before the owner judged they had made that decision.

What I think Libet’s experiments show is that a naïve idea of ‘conscious decisions’ causing actions that could never have been true, is indeed not true. The naïve idea is that in a conscious decision the consciousness of the decision is part of the same decision. However, if a decision is the generation of an output from an input, as seems the only reasonable causal explanation, and being conscious of something is having an input that signifies that something then we can only be conscious of a decision once the output part of the decision has led to a further input indicating what it was.

In other words, we could only ever expect conscious decisions to be decisions of which we are subsequently conscious. This means that our consciousness of having decided to raise a finger is not what raises the finger. The decision has been made. However, this in no way reduces the role of consciousness in causation of behaviour because the decision to raise the finger was caused by a whole series of previous conscious episodes, each pushing the agenda forward a little. Libet’s example is rather unhelpful in a sense because the subject is asked to decide to raise a finger at any point in time for no particular reason. In real decision making we gradually gather evidence and opinions based on considering that evidence and juggle them around until we make a decision, based on a series of relevant conscious thoughts, and end up being conscious of having made the final decision. That is what we mean by making a conscious decision.

This analysis in no way suggests that consciousness has casual power over and above the physical dynamic events that go on in the nerve cells involved. What it does indicate is that consciousness is a description we apply to certain types of series of nerve cell events that end up causing the sort of deliberate behaviour we associate with conscious experience along the way. Libet's experiments are exactly what we should expect from consciousness as such a baton-passing causal relay race. If he had found what the naive view expected we would have a causal contradiction to sort out.

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