Do we have control over our thoughts?

If the answer is “yes,” when and how do we choose what we’re going to think next? And does that mean it’s possible to know what my next thought is going to be before I think it? (I don’t think so) And if we can choose what we are going to think, can we choose to think nothing for the next 30 seconds?

I’ve been reading up on this for a good while now and I’ve concluded it only feels like I’m thinking my thoughts. In fact, the thoughts are thinking me. I’m that little kid in the toy car on the front of the grocery cart. I’m turning the steering wheel left and right and — occasionally — the car turns in the direction I steered. And before you ask, no, I have no fucking idea who’s pushing the cart… I just know it ain’t me.

Homo Deus: Free Will and Consciousness

This is the second of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on the concepts of free will and consciousness.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.

Free will exists only in the imaginary stores we humans have invented. […] (The question is not whether humans) can act upon their inner desires — the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. […] I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

Once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ […] There is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires.

If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?

(There are) at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. The narrating self is forever busy spinning yarns about the past and making plans for the future. […] It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story using only peak moments and end results. […] Most of us identify with our narrating self. When we say ‘I’, we mean the story in our head not the onrushing stream of experiences we undergo. […] We always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond).

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.

Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with sbits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. […] But in the end, they are all just stories.

Every moment the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back

From Bacteria to Back and Back. The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett. The book’s cover teased me with “How did we come to have minds?” The author dragged me through 300 pages of “groundwork” before providing anything I could recognize as an answer. But I took notes (below), if underlining counts as taking notes. And here’s a review by Thomas Nagel.

The immaterial mind, the conscious thinking thing that we know intimately through introspection, is somehow in communication with the material brain, which provides all the input but not of the understanding or experience. 

Can there be reasons without a reasoner, designs without a designer? (Dennett says yes)

A central feature of human interaction, and one of the features unique to our species, is the activity of asking others to explain themselves, to justify their choices and actions, and then judging, endorsing, rebutting their answers, in recursive rounds of the “why?”

Natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons. […] For instance, there are reasons why termite colonies have the features they do, but the termites do not have or represent reasons, and their excellent designs are not products of an intelligent designer.

Turing showed that it was possible to design mindless machines that were Absolutely Ignorant, but that could do arithmetic perfectly. […] He foresaw that there was a traversable path from Absolute Ignorance to Artificial Intelligence. […] Both Darwin and Turing claim to have discovered something truly unsettling to a human mind — competence without comprehension.

Why and how did human-style comprehension arrive on the scene?

Ontology – the set of “things” a person believes to exist.

Comprehension is an emergent effect of systems of uncomprehending competence.

What is consciousness for (if anything)? If unconscious processes are fully competent to perform all the cognitive operations of perception and control.

Information is always relative to what the receiver already knows.

If DNA can convey information about how to build a nest without any terms for “build” and “nest,” why couldn’t a nervous system do something equally inscrutable?

Intentional mind-clearing, jettisoning information or habits that endanger one’s welfare, is not an unusual phenomenon, sometimes called unlearning. […] The brain’s job in perception is to filter out, discard, and ignore all but the noteworthy features of the flux of energy striking one’s sensory organs.

One of Darwin’s most important contributions to thought was his denial of  essentialism, the ancient philosophical doctrine that claimed for each type of thing, each natural kind, there is an essence, a set of necessary and sufficient properties for being that kind of thing.

Children learn about seven words a day, on average, from birth to age six.

Understanding a word is not the same as having acquired a definition of it.

Words don’t exist,  strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition.

Memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically.

Words are memes that can be pronounced.

“In terms of the brain, we know that concepts are somehow stored there, but we have little idea of exactly how.”

The acquisition of a language — and of memes more generally — is very much like the installation of a predesigned software app of considerable power, like Adobe Photoshop, a tool for professionals with many layers that most amateur users never encounter.

We may “know things” in one part of our brain that cannot be accessed by other parts of the brain when needed. The practice of talking to yourself creates new channels for communication that may, on occasion, tease the hidden knowledge into the open.

Nature makes heavy use of the Need to Know principle, and designs highly successful, adept, even cunning creatures who have no idea what they are doing or why.

Our thinking is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made of virtual machines.

We learn about others from hearing or reading what they say to us, and that’s how we learn about ourselves as well.

“We speak not only to tell others what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think.” — John Hughlings Jackson

Bare meanings, with no words yet attached, (can) occupy our attention in consciousness.

Evolution has given us a gift (the mind?) that sacrifices literal truth for utility.

(The mind is) that thinking thing with which you are so intimately acquainted that is hardly distinguishable from you, yourself. No wonder we are reluctant to see it as illusory; if it is illusory, so are we!

If free will is an illusion then so are (we).

Human consciousness is unlike all other varieties of animal consciousness in that it is a product in large part of cultural evolution, which installs a bounty of words and many other thinking tools in our brains, creating thereby a cognitive architecture unlike the “bottom-up” minds of animals. By supplying our minds with systems of representations, this architecture furnishes each of us with a perspective—a user-illusion—from which we have a limited, biased access to the workings of our brains, which we involuntarily misinterpret as a rendering of both the world’s external properties (colors, aromas, sounds,. . . ) and many of our own internal responses (expectations satisfied, desires identified, etc.).

Deep learning will not give us — in the next fifty years — anything like the “superhuman intelligence” that has attracted so much alarmed attention recently. […] I have always affirmed that “strong AI” is “possible in principle” — but I viewed it as a negligible practical possibility, because it would cost too much and not give us anything we really needed.

The real danger, I think, is not that machines more intelligent than we are will usurp our roles as captains of our destinies, but that we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence.

When you are interacting with a computer, you should know you are interacting with a computer. Systems that deliberately conceal their shortcuts and gaps of incompetence should be deemed  fraudulent, and their creators should go to jail for committing the crime of creating or using an artificial intelligence that impersonates a human being.


I watched the movie Morgan tonight. You know the story. Remote research lab where Big Corporation is creating weaponized AI in the form of a young girl. Wash, rinse, repeat. Nothing as interesting as Blade Runner or Ex Machina. But there’s a scene (don’t worry, it’s not possible to spoil a plot this well worn) where the scientists are supposed to “terminate the project” and it struck me that it might be harder (emotionally) to “kill” an AI than to create one.

This little movie also reminded me that to be less than — or more than — human, and know it, might be the worst thing ever. Roy Batty made us feel that pain in the final scene of Blade Runner but I got a pretty good jolt of it watching this film.

What is Reality?

“Emergence theory is a new physics model currently being developed by a Los Angeles based team of scientists. Emergence theory intricately – yet simply – weaves together quantum mechanics, general and special relativity, the standard model and other mainstream physics theories into a complete, fundamental picture of a discretized, self-actualizing universe.”

“Physics allows the possibility that all the energy of the universe can be converted into a single, conscious system that itself is a network of conscious systems. Given enough time, what can happen will eventually happen. By this axiom, universal emergent consciousness has emerged via self-organization somewhere ahead of us in 4D spacetime. And because it is possible, it is inevitable. In fact, according to the evidence of retro-causality time loops, that inevitable future is co-creating us right now just as we are co-creating it.”

You are where your attention is

Excerpts from an article in New York Magazine by Andrew Sullivan:

“Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. […] The engagement never ends. Not long ago, surfing the web, however addictive, was a stationary activity. At your desk at work, or at home on your laptop, you disappeared down a rabbit hole of links and resurfaced minutes (or hours) later to reencounter the world. But the smartphone then went and made the rabbit hole portable, inviting us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we might be doing. Information soon penetrated every waking moment of our lives.”

“A small but detailed 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times.”

“You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.”

The Mind-Body Problem

“The scientific and philosophical consensus is that there is no nonphysical soul or ego, or at least no evidence for that.” — Philosopher David Chalmers

From Consciousness: The Mind Messing With the Mind (NYT)

“Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, suggested to the audience that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself — a crude approximation of its own neurological processes. The result is an illusion. Instead of neurons and synapses, we sense a ghostly presence — a self — inside the head. But it’s all just data processing. “The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it,” Dr. Graziano said. And it calls the magic consciousness.”

I think this is what is commonly referred to as “the hard problem.” How minds are generated by brains.

“Some philosophers and scientists have been driven back to the centuries-old doctrine of panpsychism — the idea that consciousness is universal, existing as some kind of mind stuff inside molecules and atoms. Consciousness doesn’t have to emerge. It’s built into matter, perhaps as some kind of quantum mechanical effect.”

I like the idea of universal consciousness. Until there’s solid, scientific consensus on how the brain creates consciousness… this is as good an explanation as any.

How LSD affects consciousness

Researchers have published the first images showing the effects of LSD on the human brain, as part of a series of studies that are examining how the drug causes its characteristic hallucinogenic effects. (More at Nature)

“Within some important brain networks, such as the neuronal networks that normally fire together when the brain is at rest, which is sometimes called the ‘default mode’ network, we saw reduced blood flow — something we’ve also seen with psilocybin — and that neurons that normally fire together lost synchronization. That correlated with our volunteers reporting a disintegration of their sense of self, or ego. This known effect is called ‘ego dissolution’: the sense that you are less a singular entity, and more melded with people and things around you.”

The Big Picture

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. By Sean Carroll

Life is a process, not a substance, and it is necessarily temporary.

For a long time, there has been a shared view that there is some meaning, out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered and acknowledged. There is a point to all this; things happen for a reason. […] Gradually, our confidence in this view has begun to erode.

“Life” and “consciousness” do not denote essences distinct from matter; they are ways of talking about phenomena that emerge from the interplay of extraordinarily complex systems.

At a fundamental level, there aren’t separate “living things” and “nonliving things,” “things here on Earth” and “thinks up in the sky,” “matter” and “spirit.” There is just the basic stuff of reality, appearing to us in many different forms. […] We will ultimately understand the world as a single, unified reality, not caused or sustained or influenced by anything outside itself. That’s a big deal.

The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.

(The) answer to the question “What determines what will happen next?” is “The state of the universe right now.” […] The entirety of both the past and the future history are utterly determined by the present.

The universe is something like a computer. You enter input (the state of the universe right now), it does a calculation (the laws of physics) and gives you an output (the state of the universe one moment later).

Conservation of Information – implies that each moment contains precisely the right amount of information to determine every other moment.

Realistically, there never will be and never can be an intelligence vast and knowledgeable enough to predict the future of the universe from its present state. […] To simulate the entire universe with good accuracy, you basically have to be the universe. […] The future may be determined by the present, but literally nobody knows what it will be.

We don’t know any way to predict what a person will do based on what we can readily observe about their current state.

The Principle of Sufficient Reason: For any true fact, there is a reason what it is so, and why something else is not so instead.

Just as there is no reference to “causes” in the fundamental laws of physics, there isn’t an arrow of time, either.
There are over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way and at least 100 billion galaxies. By coincidence, the number 100 billion is also a very rough count of the number of neurons in a human brain.

The Big Bang itself, as predicted by general relativity, is a moment in time, not a location in space. It would be the moment prior to which there were no moments: no space, no time.

Information about the precise state of the universe is conserved over time; there is no fundamental difference between the past and the future.

Different moments in time in the history of the universe follow each other, according to some pattern, but no one moment causes any other.

Belief (is) anything we think is true regardless of whether we have a good reason for it. […] The beliefs we choose to adopt are shaped as much, if not more, by the beliefs we already have than by correspondence with external reality.

The universe evolves by marching from one moment to the next in a way that depends only on its present state. It neither ames toward future goals nor relies on its previous history.

Most of the interesting things it is possible to know are not things we could ever hope to “prove,” in the strong sense. […] Math is all about proving things, but the things that math proves are not true facts about the external world.

Science has a simple goal: to figure out what the world actually is. Nat all the possible ways it could be, nor the particular way it should be. Just what it is.

All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life — objects, plants, animals, people — are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.

What we see when we look at the world is quite different from how we describe the world when we’re not looking at it. (the fundamental feature of quantum mechanics)

There seems to be no obstacle in principle to a universe like ours simply beginning to exist.

To a poetic naturalist, “mind” is simply a way of talking about the behavior of certain collections of physical matter, just as “heaviness” is.

To imagine that the soul pushes around the electrons and protons and neutrons in our bodies in a way that we haven’t yet detected is certainly conceivable, but it implies that modern physics is profoundly wrong in a way that has so far eluded every controlled experiment ever performed.

Life is a way of talking about a particular sequence of events taking place among atoms and molecules arranged in the right way. […] What is “life” anyway? Nobody knows. There is not a single agreed-upon definition that clearly separates things that are “alive” from those that are not.

Our brains construct models of their surroundings, with the goal of not being surprised very often by new information. Subconsciously, the brain carries with it a set of possible things that could happen next, and updates the likelihood of each of them as new data comes in.

We are all just complicated collections of matter moving in patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics in an environment with an arrow of time. Wants and purposes and desires are the kinds of things that naturally develop along the way.

What you can see has a dramatic effect on how you think.

Episodic memory and imagination engage the same neural machinery.

What we call a “thought” corresponds directly and unmistakably to the motion of certain charged particles inside my head.

The human brain contains roughly 85 billion neurons, each of which is connected to a thousand or more other neurons, so we’re talking about a hundred trillion or more connections in total.

Memories are physical things located in your brain.

Like “entropy” and “heat,” the concepts of “consciousness” and “understanding” are ones that we invent in order to give ourselves more useful and efficient descriptions of the world.

Who “you” are is defined by the pattern that your atoms form and the actions that they collectively take, not their specific identities as individual particles. It seems reasonable that consciousness would have the same property.

Our mental experiences or qualia are not actually separate things, but instead are useful parts of certain stories we tell about ordinary physical things.

If consciousness were something over and above the physical properties of matter, there would be a puzzle: what was it doing for all those billions of years before life came along? […] Some things just come into being as the universe evolves and entropy and complexity grow: galaxies, planets, organisms, consciousness.

(Meaning, morality, and purpose) aren’t built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human-scale environment.