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.

The illusion of free will

Years of reading (and introspection) has led me to believe “free will” is an illusion. Scott Adams makes the most compelling case for free-will-is-an-illusion that I’ve come across:

“I could ignore any advice coming from my technology, but why would I? My human-made plans work out great about 75% of the time. But a computer-made plan that knows all of my preferences, and everyone else’s too, could make decisions that pay off for me more like 90% of the time.”

“As the trend toward machine-made decisions accelerates, your sensation of free will is going to erode to zero. You will have no sense of making decisions in your life. All you will be doing is agreeing with the excellent decisions made by machines. A baby born today will probably never drive a car or make navigation decisions because cars will handle that on their own. We will come to trust the machines more than we trust our friends or our own bad judgement.”

The idea that we are not completely “in control” of our lives is very frightening to most people. As I’ve grown more comfortable with the notion I’ve found it liberating.

When we’re not the smartest ones in the room

Views on Artificial Intelligence (AI or, more common these days, AGI) seem to fall into one of three camps:

  • Never happen. Machines will never be smarter than we are, in any way that really matters
  • It will happen and it’ll be game over for humans. This is is the SkyNet scenario. When our machines no longer need us, they’ll destroy us.
  • The next evolutionary leap. A merging of human and artificial intelligence that will — for the most part — benefit man. Think Bishop (Artificial Person) from Aliens, not Ash from Alien.

There’s countless other takes on this but let’s stop with three.

I think one of the reasons many people tremble at the thought of  really smart machines (although I doubt we, or they, will think of themselves that way) is a subconscious fear of Big Time Payback.

What if these superior entities treat us no better than we have dolphins, mountain gorillas or other non-human intelligent creatures? One might argue they have less reason to do so, not being mammals and all.

But let’s talk about why I’m looking forward to a world controlled (managed?) by AGI’s. And note that I’m assuming they’ll keep humans around for as long as a) they need us for something or b) they find us amusing/lovable/interesting/etc.

If they’re really smart, they’re gonna shit-can a few institutions that threaten the entire planet. Religion, politics, Monsanto, Fox News, carbon emissions, suicide vests, Congress, Power Ball and gun shows. (you can make your own list)

We just won’t be able to do some of the stupid shit our species now insists on doing. Like good parents, they won’t let us. Yes, I see a massive Free Will movement spring up, demanding the right to make our own choices, even if they’re harmful to us. The AGI’s will be too smart to bother explaining that free will is an illusion but will, instead, let natural selection take its course. (Stupid will be a virus for which they quickly create a vaccine)

Cro-Magnon eventually became Homo Sapiens (did I get that right?) but it took a long time. This next evolutionary leap will be like that Red Bull guy that jumped back to earth from the edge of space. Much bigger deal. And it will happen — relatively — so much faster that we’ll sort of see it happening and that will be really scary. The future us will arrive while we’re still here.

For my money (except we probably won’t have money) artificial intelligence will be better than no intelligence at all.

Consciousness and the Social Brain

consciousnessAmazon: “What is consciousness and how can a brain, a mere collection of neurons, create it? In Consciousness and the Social Brain, Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano lays out an audacious new theory to account for the deepest mystery of them all. The human brain has evolved a complex circuitry that allows it to be socially intelligent. This social machinery has only just begun to be studied in detail. One function of this circuitry is to attribute awareness to others: to compute that person Y is aware of thing X. In Graziano’s theory, the machinery that attributes awareness to others also attributes it to oneself. Damage that machinery and you disrupt your own awareness. Graziano discusses the science, the evidence, the philosophy, and the surprising implications of this new theory.”

The (attention schema) theory explains why a brain attributes the property of consciousness to itself, and why we humans are so prone to attribute consciousness to the people and objects around us.

Consciousness is the window through which we understand.

Attention is a data-handling trick for deeply processing some information at the expense of most information. Awareness is the brain’s simplified, schematic model of the complicated, data-handling process of attention.

People have personal, quirky definitions of the term consciousness, whereas everyone more or less agrees on the meaning of the term awareness.

Not all information in the brain has awareness attached to it.

Consciousness refers both to the information about which I am aware and the process of being aware of it. Consciousness encompasses the whole of personal experience at any moment, whereas awareness applies only to one part, the act of experiencing.

Self-knowledge is merely another category of knowledge. How knowledge can be encoded in the brain is not fundamentally mysterious, but how we become aware of the information is. The awareness itself if the mystery.

Whatever awareness is, it musts be able to physically impact neuronal signals. Otherwise we would be unable to say that we have it.

Awareness is a description of attention. […] Attention is not data encoded in the brain; it is a data-handling method. It is an act. It is something the brain does, a procedure, an emergent process. […] In addition to doing attention, the brain also constructs a description of attention and awareness is that description. […] Awareness allows the brain to understand attention, its dynamics, and its consequences.

Awareness is the brain’s cartoon of attention.

The same machinery used to model another person’s attentional state in a social situation is also used to model one’s own attentional state. The benefit is the same: understanding and prediction one’s own behavior.

Attention is an active process, a data-handling style that boosts this or that chunk of information in the brain. In contrast, awareness is a description, a chunk of information, a reflection of the ongoing state of attention.

The unconscious machinery of the brain is so vast that it is like an elephant. Perhaps consciousness is a little boy sitting on the elephant’s head. The boy naively imagines that he is in control of the elephant, but he merely watches what the elephant chooses to do.

Your decision machinery does not have direct access to the real object, only to the information about the object that is encoded in the visual system. A perceptual representation is always inaccurate because it is a simplification.

The brain does attention but knows awareness.

(There is a ) distinction between being aware of something and knowing that you are aware of it.

Awareness is a schematized, descriptive model of attention. […] The purpose of (the) model in the brain is to be useful in interacting with the world, not to be accurate.

My awareness is located inside me. In a sense it is me. It is my mind apprehending something.

Your own private awareness and your ability to attribute awareness to someone else are products of the same machinery in your brain. That machinery computes the property of awareness and can attribute it to others.

Is it necessary to be aware of any specific information in order to be aware? Can you be aware, simply aware, without any target of the awareness? Can I be aware of being?

Consciousness (is) essentially a tale that the brain tells itself to explain what it is doing and why it is doing it. Consciousness is after-the-fact. We know about our mental states using the same tricks and inferences that we use to reconstruct the mental states of other people. We tell ourselves a story about ourselves. As a consequence, we routinely and confidently make up incorrect reasons for our own behavior.

Awareness is a model of the act of attention. […] Attention is not itself information. It is something that happens to information.

The only objective, physically measurable truth we have about consciousness is that we can, at least sometimes, report that we have it.

Consciousness is information that describes the process of attending to something.

Awareness is not knowledge about yourself as a person, or knowledge about your emotions, or knowledge about your thoughts; it is not remembering your past, or introspecting about your mood, or any other part of self-reflection. Awareness is equally present whether you are reflecting on yourself or looking out at the external world. It is present whether you are focused on your innermost feelings or on the grass and sky in the park on a nice day.

(One view of consciousness) Consciousness does not directly cause most of our actions but instead rationalizes them. In (this) view, free will plays a minor role, if any.

All consciousness is a “mere” computed model attributed to an object. One’s brain can attribute it to oneself or to something else. Consciousness is an attribution. (Consciousness) is not something a person has, floating inside. It is an attribution. […] To say that I myself am conscious is to stay, “My own brain has constructed an informational model of awareness and attributed it to my body.”

The most reasonable approach to spirituality is to accept two simultaneous truths. One, literally and objectively, there is no spirit world. Minds do not float independently of bodies and brains. Two, perceptually, there is a spirit world. We live in a perceptual world, a world simulated by the brain, in which consciousness inhabits many things around us, including sometimes empty space.

We will build computers that can construct their own awareness in the same way that the human brain does.

If I spend enough time (with him) and my friend gets to know me well, then he will construct a model in his own brain, an informational model of a mind filled with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that reflect me. His model of my mind will be the same general type of data run in the same general manner on the same general hardware architecture as my own conscious mind. It will be a copy, at low resolution, of my consciousness. In effect, I will have been copied over from one computer to another. […] Fuzzy copies of our conscious minds exist in all the people who knew us.

I consider it a technological inevitability that information will, some day, be scannable directly from the brain and transferrable directly to computers. As embarrassingly sci-fi as that sounds, no theoretical reason stands against it. If the attention schema theory is correct, then human consciousness is information processed in a specific manner. Don’t want to die? Download your consciousness onto a central server and live in a simulated world with all the other downloaded souls. When your body dies, the copy of your mind will persist. You need not know the difference. If the simulation is good, you should feel as though you are in a realistic universe. You can possess what seems to be a human body and can walk and live and eat and sleep on the familiar Earth, all simulated, all in the form of information manipulated on computer hardware. At the rate technology is advancing, give it a few centuries.

It has been said that people invented God. People will invent the afterlife too.

Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. […] The critical question is whether consciousness lies behind the events of the universe. If so, then God exists. If not, then God does not exist. […] The universe is conscious in the same sense that it is beautiful. It is conscious because brains attribute consciousness to it, and that is the only way that anything is ever conscious.

Be As You Are

Excerpts from The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (Edited by David Godman)

There is a single immanent reality, directly experienced by everyone, which is simultaneously the source, the substance and the real nature of everything that exists.

The Self is not an experience of individuality but a non-personal, all-inclusive awareness.

Sri Ramana’s God is not a personal God, he is the formless being which ustains the universe. He is not the creator of the univers, the universe is merely a manifestation of his inherent power; he is inseparable from it.

The mind turned inward is the Self; turned outwards, it becomes the ego and all the world.

The thoughts are the content of the mind and they shape the universe.

Continue reading

Free Will

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape. Mr. Harris is a Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.

A lot of my reading over the last few years has touched on the idea of free will. Real or illusory? I’ll confess that it sure feels as though I have free will. But the more I read about the subject… and think about it… the less certain I am.

The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness — rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.

Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next — a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please — your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are are in the process of making it.

I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises.

You are not controlling the storm, and your are not lost in it. You are the storm.

Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions — and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.

The next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.

You are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefor do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

You can decide what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.

My choices matter — and there are paths toward making wiser ones — but I cannot choose what I choose.

What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery — one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).

Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime — by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this?

You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise.