Exchanging free will for consciousness

4th September 2008 – 7.26 am

I have given up on free will. Okay, that is misleading, as I haven't given up on the concept of free will but instead the book Free Will that is a collection of essays edited by Gary Watson, and only temporarily. After having read Contemporary Political Philosophy by Will Kymlicka earlier in the year, and thoroughly enjoying its discussions and arguments detailing current thought in most areas of political philosophy, I wanted to continue my reading and the notion of whether we have free will or not is fascinating. Free Will seemed like the natural choice from its description, and I hoped it would be as informative and engaging as my previous read.

For me, the strength of Contemporary Political Philosopy was its single author explaining in his own words all areas of contemporary thought on the subject and exploring the various arguments both for and against the theories, creating a cohesive whole that is just as easy to read from the first page to the last. This is not the case with Free Will, which doesn't so much pull together various theories to be phrased in the author's own words as simply collate various related journal articles in to a collected work with a connecting theme. The single style that is the former book's strength is lost in favour of direct works from, one imagines, expert theorists. Whilst this allows for a greater potential range of concepts and ideas explained in great detail it also leads to a different writing style for each section.

Some of the writing styles are easy enough to read, others are dense and laden with jargon. It is hardly unexpected that journal articles are written in such a style, but the balance can be awkward at times with one article apparently assuming plenty of prior knowledge and another deciding to explain every concept before five sections later finally making the critical point. In this format, the book as a whole loses the free-flowing nature gained from having a single author, who can more easily control the flow of information from chapter to chapter and doesn't need to assume the level of prior knowledge. However, the benefit of the collected nature of the book is that I can put it down between chapters to read a different book and return with no disadvantage to my overall comprehension of the work.

So it was that I took a break from the heavy Free Will and picked up Paul Churchland's Matter and Consciousness instead, dealing with another incredibly fascinating subject. I was happy to find that the book is written in a similar style to the political philosophy book, with Churchland presenting an introduction to most of the contemporary thoughts on consciousness. The split between duality and materialism is explored, with arguments for and against each of the major theories that fall in to either camp, with the perhaps surprising conclusion that neither can be entirely discounted yet. It is interesting to read why dualism has some serious flaws yet can explain better some of the concepts of consciousness that we deal with every day that materialism so far cannot explain.

As is expected for a book on consciousness, the discussion turns to the subject of artificial intelligence, or AI, and asks whether it is possible to create consciousness within a machine. Here is where the book gets a little less interesting philosophically. The book was written in the mid-1980s and the detailed explanation of how RAM and CPUs work suffers from the great advances made in computing and the ubiquity of modern compters. The explanations are not irrelevant, but seem filled with more wonder than perhaps would be used in a modern, more functional description. There is a further digression, and just as how a computer works is described the same is done for neuroscience of the human brain. Whilst both sections are interesting in themselves they offer little philosophically apart from setting up the discussion of whether AI is possible, and this discussion seems to be quite minor compared to all the build up.

Overall, Matter and Consciousness is an excellent read, offering a lot of insight in to contemporary thought on the subject and offering arguments for all the current major theories. The latter half of the book may not be as compelling a read because of the pages of description needed to advance a more compact notion but it still has plenty to offer in facts alone, as there can't be too many people with in-depth knowledge of both computers and neuroscience.

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