Save Our Selves
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Your “self”—isn’t that the last thing you’d think anyone could take from you? Yet I’m telling you it’s in great danger. Someone’s planning to take it from you. And they’ll take it without warning, without you even suspecting. They don’t stand out—they’re not Godzillas or little green men from Mars you can identify and run away from. They’re mild unassuming folk you’d pass in the street without a second thought. Scientists.
The problem doesn’t start with scientists. I trained as a scientist myself, and I regret not becoming one, I can’t imagine any career more worthwhile. The threat comes not from any fault of scientists themselves, but from the mission science inherited from its foundations, and the tools it built to accomplish that mission. That mission and those tools worked together to create a comprehensive understanding of the universe that—even when it denies the self—to insiders seems complete. The result, as I’ll show you, is a science that says the self doesn’t exist.
That belief threatens to accompany science into every culture in the world and infect all existing traditions of human nature. Should you care? Only if having a conscious self is important to you. It is? Then read on.
What you’ll find in these pages is a celebration of conscious experience. Sometimes I’ll be talking about history—the history of science for example—other times I’ll be talking about science itself. But always I’ll be warning you how today’s science threatens the self and its ability to make its own conscious decisions, and calling for a new kind of science in place of today’s science, a science based on the self.
The theory behind the threat: “Physicalism”
Science’s denial of consciousness has had many names: Materialism, Positivism, Reductionism. Then, when people objected to these, Emergence, and today Physicalism. Physicalism doesn’t say conscious selves don’t exist, all it talks about is the cause of things. The only processes that can make anything happen in the physical world, it claims, are physical processes. Because consciousness isn’t physical it can’t work through physical processes. It can’t change anything. It can’t, for example, start a war!
Accept that, and you’ve a stark choice: You can say, conscious decision-making isn’t physical, but then it can’t act on anything physical—it can’t make anything happen in the “real” world. Or you can say, conscious decision-making is physical, it’s just brain chemistry. Then it can make things happen in the physical world, but it’s just chemistry and isn’t “free” any more than any other kind of chemistry is “free.”
That second choice, that conscious decision-making is just something happening in brain chemistry, is what science preaches. “Brain chemistry is where your decisions really get made. So your conscious self isn’t free to make its ‘own’ decisions. It’s can’t be held responsible for the decisions you make.” And this is not only discussed by academics in universities, it’s starting to infiltrate the school classroom.
I believe exactly the opposite. I believe the conscious self is not just brain chemistry, it’s not just mindless robots. But I also believe it can make a difference in the world.
A little science about the self
Here’s another experiment. If your self, your conscious self, can’t drive physical processes, then it can’t make anything happen in the brain, and the brain can’t know anything about it. The brain can’t know what conscious decision-making feels like. Did you experience making a conscious decision to look at this book’s back cover? If so, move your foot. If you moved your foot, you made something happen in the real world because of something you experienced in consciousness. If you’re too lazy to move your foot, just say, “yes.” Or just think “yes.”
Did you think, “yes”? Then your consciousness can drive brain chemistry.
That’s how easy it is to do science. One thing this experiment tells us is, doing science involves conscious decision-making. If someone tells you something is science, don’t you assume someone somewhere made a conscious judgment about it, that it wasn’t just spun off from a series of chemical reactions? When scientists say, “There’s no such thing as conscious decision-making, it’s really an illusion,” you can reply, “That’s OK. All I need is whatever you scientists use to decide what’s true in science and what isn’t. I’ll settle for whatever that is.” They can’t have it both ways. Either they use conscious judgment to arrive at what’s true in science, or they don’t. And if they don’t, if they’re just robots, then what good is science? Why bother with it?
My mission—to save free will
My mission is, to save our selves from the wrong kind of science.
What I most want to defend is the actual experience of consciousness, and being able to change that experience “at will.” For example, sometimes when I catch myself rushing somewhere I’ll turn round and look back the way I’ve come. I do that just for the conscious experience of a less focused attention, to enjoy directing my attention anywhere I want. Being able to direct my attention like that is just one example of how I can “consciously” alter my conscious experience.
But usually, even though it’s conscious experience I care more about, it’s “conscious decision-making” you’ll find me defending. I’ll keep insisting our conscious decisions can make a difference in the physical world. I have to focus on that, on how consciousness can drive brain chemistry to make things happen in the real world, because if I don’t make that claim I can’t claim it can drive brain chemistry to alter our experience of consciousness itself.
Does all this talk about consciousness make any difference? Sure does. It’s the difference between saying:
“It doesn’t matter what I think, everything’s going to turn out just the same, thinking about things isn’t going to change them,”
“By making conscious decisions I can make things happen in the world that otherwise wouldn’t happen, so consciously thinking about things is a huge responsibility.”
It literally makes all the difference in the world.
Does this help you figure out where you stand? If you’re on my side in this issue, turn to Chapter 2 for how science got us into this situation. If you’re not ready, and you want to learn more about these threats to the self, see “Physicalism and brain chemistry” in the “Fine Print” Appendix at the back of this book.